Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Famed architect drew plans for Pittsfield neighborhood never built

Over the years I have grown to appreciate the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, famed architect. I have visited several of his masterpiece creations throughout the United States.

Wright developed an unique style that he called Usonian Architecture that blended homes with nature, e.g., a visual connection between the indoors and outdoors. Usonian homes were mostly single-story, had carports, flat roofs, cantilevered overhangs for passive solar heating and natural cooling, radiant floor heating and windows maximizing natural light.

Wright began these designs in the mid-1930s and was most prolific in the 1950s. What I did not know was his most ambitious and creative project was designed to be in Pittsfield.

When I was learning about the history of World War II housing in Pittsfield, I noted a short piece about Frank Lloyd Wright being contracted by the government in 1941 for a unique housing complex to be located in the city. Wright was invited to design 100 defense homes for Pittsfield. These were to be economic buildings costing less than $3,500 each and available to families working in service-related industries.

The government had passed the Lanham Act to provide for such housing, and after the war the houses were to be razed. With GE having defense contracts, the need for such housing was important for people moving to the community. The new houses were to be built in an area named Victory Hill off of Benedict Road. The Pittsfield leadership and citizens were enthusiastic about the project.

Wright called his designs Suntop Homes, Cloverleaf, Quadruple Housing. The design was based on a unit he built in 1939 in Ardmore, Pa. Pittsfield was to have 25 buildings, each with four housing units; the houses separated from each other by shared walls.

The houses were to be built out of brick, concrete, glass and cedar in each of four quadrants with the walls forming a cross. The yards around each unit would be rounded.

The total structure of four homes looked like a four-leaf clover with no house having a view of another in the basic unit. Each house would have its own driveway and plot of land.

Unlike other Usonian homes, the structures were to be three floors. One would enter on the first floor through a small hallway into a large living room with fireplace and stairs to a mezzanine on the second floor. Utilities were on the first floor. The second level had a master bedroom, a second bedroom, bathroom, a dining room, kitchen and a sun deck for a child play area. The third level, called the penthouse, would have two more bedrooms and, bathroom and storage. Penthouse would be considered today for an unusual term to describe public housing features.

The unusual design of these flat-roofed multi-story functional homes was very different than the typical box-like wooden structures commonly built during and after the war for defense workers and service families. Despite the design of 100 homes, Wright made each unique with variations in orientation, windows and other features, reflecting his disdain for boilerplate standardization.

Unfortunately the project never got off the ground, as jealous architects in Boston lobbied with legislators to enforce a law in Massachusetts prohibiting such projects to be done by out-of-state architects.

Wright completed the plans to the government's satisfaction, but the intervention by politicians deep-sixed the development. It was no wonder that Frank Lloyd Wright had a disdain for politicians.

The Pittsfield design eventually made it to an exhibit in the Guggenheim for its 50th anniversary in 2009, and also into books about Wright's projects that were never completed. Victory Hill ended up with temporary houses built by Boston firms. The homes were condemned after 20 years and replaced by what is now Morningside Heights. Just think what a price this complex would bring today if Wright's homes had been built!

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the founder of the Berkshire Carousel and author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.

Baby Boomer Memories: Frank Lloyd Wright's Plans for Pittsfield.


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