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Frank Lloyd Wright's Willey House: Small, Affordable and Green

3/28/2011 4:19:43 PM

Tags: Frank Lloyd Wright, Malcolm Willey House, Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century, organic architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright restoration, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailTo celebrate the 100th anniversary of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Art Museum is featuring more than 150 objects designed by the legendary architect in “Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century,” through May 15. Whether or not you can make it to Milwaukee, you can learn a lot about the iconic architect from the houses he built. One of my favorites is the Malcolm Willey House in Minneapolis, built by Nancy Willey in 1934 and restored to perfection by Steve Sikora and Lynette Erickson-Sikora.

The 1,350-square-foot house was abandoned and dilapidated when Lynette and Steve bought it in 2002. Previous remodels had left scars, including a kitchen filled with pumpkin-colored plastic laminate and coppertone appliances. The couple spent nearly six years painstakingly rebuilding the home—the first small, affordable home that Wright designed, which became a prototype for his later Usonian houses, unornamented, distinctly American houses that were affordable for the masses. In the process, Steve and Lynette came to deeply understand Wright’s genius, including his use of natural, indigenous materials.

Wright constructed the home using red tidewater cypress, which is not local but was durable enough to sustain the house through its years of abandonment. “If it hadn’t been built of cypress, it wouldn’t be standing now,” Steve says.

willey exterior 

Built in 1934 for Malcolm and Nancy WIlley, this Minneapolis home was restored in 2007 using cypress, plaster and regional brick. The shade provided by four mature burr oaks cools the house. Photo by Terrence Moore 

 willey homeowners 

Homeowners Steve Sikora and Lynette Erickson-Sikora listen to granddaughter Paige Norris on guitar. Photo by Terrence Moore 

 willey office 

The study with built-in desk, shelving and sleeping couch opens to the south side of the yard. Photo by Terrence Moore 

willey kitchen 

The fully functional vintage appliances demonstrate the relative simplicity of 1930s life. Photo by Terrence Moore 

 willey dining 

A plate-glass window separates the kitchen from the living/dining room. The moveable dining table integrates with the built-in cabinetry; its placement defines the dining area. Photo by Terrence Moore 

 willey living 

A wall of French doors—a pioneering feature in 1934--opens to join the living room to the garden, creating an airy, parklike pavilion. Photo by Terrence Moore 

 willey fireplace 

The uncontained fireplace feels like an indoor bonfire. Photo by Terrence Moore 

 willey bath 

The restored bathroom features plaster walls and a built-in vanity. Photo by Terrence Moore 

 willey bedroom 

The master bedroom's corner windows swing out, spacially expanding the room. Photo by Terrence Moore

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12/23/2013 5:08:31 AM
Robyn, thanks for the article and beautiful photos. The owners have done a spectacular job restoring the Willey House to its original form. It's a pleasure to see that certain things, such as the kitchen, have not been "updated", but rather restored to its original simple plan. One of the commenters below asked about plans. The plans for many of Wright's buildings can be found with a bit of online snooping. So many have been well documented. I have a plan website of my own, with plans for historic houses from all over the USA, all periods. I hope it's alright if I include a link to it here. I have several Wright houses. Unfortunately not the Willey House.

Robyn Griggs Lawrence
4/4/2011 6:25:42 PM
Also, you can read more about the house and see a floorplan at

Robyn Griggs Lawrence
4/4/2011 5:22:35 PM
Thanks, everyone, for these comments. The blog format's brevity didn't give me opportunity to go into detail about the home's many green features. Frank Lloyd Wright's "organic architecture" philosophy calls for respecting materials' intrinsic nature and designing homes that are integral to their site, their environment and the life of their inhabitants (which I consider very green). The Willey house embodied this. A few of its environmentally friendly features: passive solar design; reclaimed old-growth and red tidewater cypress; salvaged bricks; natural shellac and wax finishes; natural linoleum; rainwater collection; vintage fixtures and native, drought-tolerant landscaping. Steve and Lynette updated the historic home to make it more energy-efficient, spraying in Icynene expandable foam insulation and installing a Burnham 84 percent-efficiency hot water boiler and a Marathon electric superinsulated hot water heater.

Barbara S.
4/3/2011 11:23:59 AM
1350 ft. is not considered small to some of us. RE: to comment of $300,000 cost is so out of reach to majority of people today!Most in my area can't afford $85,000!More pictures and a floor plan would have been helpful to see orientation of rooms. Was furniture design Mr. Wrights also? I love the idea of built ins, Would like to see how they were used in all rooms, what about closets,kitchen cabinets,etc? Just what are the green factors besides local brick and cypress. Cypress takes a while to grow although it is resistant to rot and insects, is it really green? Not everyone is educated on What makes something green, more of this type of answers would be helpful.

4/1/2011 3:10:59 PM
I was interested to know about its "green" credentials but there is no mention about this at all. Why exactly is it considered green? or does everything 'small' get labelled green these days? Of course small is not necessarily green, but it's a start.

R Trussell
4/1/2011 12:17:32 PM
There is no mention of the cost to build this home in original OR in current dollars which would be nice to know. And what did it cost to restore it? Am looking for green home designs that are affordable for a green subdivision I have in NH. Bottom line is that these green homes,--at least those on the smaller lots should cost no more than around $300,000 including lot preparation, septic system, well, driveway installation and lot cost and still be as sustainable/green as possible. The least expensive lot is $60,000 (low in an effort to attract more interest). You can see more about this property here:

Karen Cripe
3/29/2011 10:23:38 AM
This is fantastic!!!! I love the whole feel of the place. This just shows that it is possible to build small but have a big feel to the house. Cozy and spacious! Maybe we should have a nationwide tour of green homes that are small, green yet normal!!!!

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