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Fake or Frank?
The debate over new suburban homes that claim to take design cues from the late architect.

photo by Tom Hignite, courtesy of Miracle Home Builders

Last fall, Miracle Home Builders in Richfield unveiled three new model homes that represented a major new initiative for the development firm. Located in a Germantown subdivision, the houses were said to be “a tribute to Wright,” meaning Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect born in Richland Center, Wis., who went on to become the most famous architect of all time. There are a number of Wright-designed houses in Milwaukee, and a nucleus in Oak Park, Ill., and the Miracle tributes mimic idiosyncrasies of the master’s Prairie School style: large exterior overhangs; low-ceilinged hallways that open up into high-ceilinged rooms; tall, narrow windows.

Miracle has driven the connection home in newspaper ads. Wright’s headshot appears alongside one of the houses, which are priced at just under $500,000. Company founder Tom Hignite says prospective buyers submitted numerous offers in December, but none were accepted. The company stokes such interest with a documentary about Wright that it screens in one of the house’s private theaters and with colorful books fanned out across tabletops.

Hignite admits that intricate woodwork or stained-glass windows, hallmarks of famous Wright designs like Fallingwater and Taliesin, would be too expensive, even for this line of “step-up” homes. There are other, subtler touches, however. Fireplaces echo Wright’s love of a good hearth, and geometric flourishes make the houses stand out from blander structures in the surrounding neighborhood.

Not all Wright fans have received these love letters warmly. “There’s an abyss between the intent and where they actually arose,” says Mark Keane, an architecture professor at University of Wisconsin-
Milwaukee and co-owner of architecture firm Studio 1032. “There’s nothing Wright-inspired” about the designs, he says. “A third of it is cars being parked, and those roof pitches are really Arts and Crafts,” a broader movement in architecture than Wright’s Prairie School style.

He shudders at another practice, a habit among real estate agents to inject terms such as “Wright-ian” into listings. “That’s quasi-illegal,” he says.

Keane speaks more positively of Ken Dahlin, the architect who owns Genesis Architecture in Racine and plans Wright-esque houses for the firm. Dahlin’s pride and joy is a 2,350-square-foot Bayside ranch, completed in 1999, that adopted some of Wright’s hallmarks, such as horizontal wood-banding, all on what he describes as a “tight budget” of about $450,000. The mission: to fulfill “a much lighter expression of [Wright’s] style.”

Instead of oak and cherry, he turned to maple and drywall. Corner windows draw light into an entryway that’s “very low-key and humble,” he says, and the house’s tallest point is just 12 feet.

The first owners sold the home a couple years ago. “Ken’s really at the top of his game and much closer to Wright’s language than anyone at Taliesin,” Keane says, referring to Wright’s former home in Spring Green.

Dahlin says suburban builders who claim to practice Wright’s style are misguided. “You don’t just throw space at something,” he says. “It’s the McMansion effect. You alienate the human person.”

Hignite notes that Miracle built one of its three Wright-style houses into a hillside, a decision prompted in part by Wright’s emphasis on layouts that better connect their inhabitants with nature. “[Wright] would never fight nature,” Hignite says. “He would never put [a house] on top of the hill but inside, perched on the side of the hill.”

Is there a future in Wright-alikes? “I’m not sure you want a whole village of Robie houses,” Keane says, referring to Wright’s family home in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. “It’s a little bit imposing when you see them all in one development.”

This article appears in the May 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine. 
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