By John H. Waters, AIA, Preservation Programs Manager
The Husser House, designed by Wright in 1899, was one of his largest residential commissions of the 1890s. The house’s design has significant connections to his earlier houses, some of which were clearly influenced by the work of Louis Sullivan, and to his mature Prairie-period work, which began in 1900, only a year after the Husser House.
The house is one of the least-known of Wright’s large residences, having the dubious honor of being among the earliest of his works to be demolished. Because of the limited photo or other documentation of the house, its study highlights the void created when a building is lost.
The distinctive forms of the Husser House, particularly its boldly-projecting stair wing, have long intrigued me. When I realized that the house stood only a block away from where I live in Chicago’s Buena Park neighborhood, and that I had walked by its site hundreds of time, my fascination with the house only increased. In May 2020 I narrated a Wright Virtual Visit that gave an overview of Wright’s lost houses on the North Side of Chicago, which included a discussion of the Husser House.
There are only two known photographs of the interior and just a few more of the exterior. It was common for Wright to make alterations to his designs during the course of construction. We will never fully know to what extent construction followed the few surviving plans and details. This is particularly true in the third-floor bedroom spaces and the service spaces on all floors.
So, in order to better understand the Husser House (with the caution that our knowledge is limited), I did what I usually do: I created a digital model. That model is illustrated below.
The house was originally a half-block west of the Lake Michigan shore on Buena Avenue. It was not on the lakeshore as photos sometime make it appear. The Hussers sold the house in 1923, and the house was demolished shortly after that. In the next year or so, where the east-facing windows of the house looked out on a spacious yard, the courtyard apartment block that now stands on the site was constructed. Lake Michigan has even moved away from the site. DuSable Lake Shore Drive and a golf course sit on landfill that has shifted the shore over a thousand feet east of where it was when the Husser House was built.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, large houses were being built on Buena and neighboring streets. Immediately to the north of Buena on Kenesaw Terrace, now Hutchinson Street, Wright’s contemporary George W. Maher designed several houses. While Hutchinson Street survives today intact, and is a Chicago landmark district, Buena Avenue, and many of the other streets in the area, including Gordon Terrace immediately to the south, were redeveloped with three- and four-story apartment buildings. Only one house on Gordon Terrace survives from 1905.
There are several elements at the Husser House that link it both to Wright’s past work and his future work.
The decoration on capitals of the entry colonnade and of the second-floor porch are directly influenced by Wright’s mentor, Louis Sullivan. The frieze that surrounds the third floor of the house closely resemble similar friezes at the Winslow House (1893) in River Forest, Illinois, and the Heller House (1896) in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. In just one more year, Wright would shed this literal representation of plant life and other organic sources for the abstracted, angular interpretations that are found in his Prairie-period work.
Elements of the house that point to his Prairie work can also be found. Just over two years after the Husser House, Wright would take its overall cruciform plan, including the stairway wing that juts out to the west, and integrate them in a much more sophisticated manner at his 1901 Willits House in Highland Park, Illinois. Similarly, the octagonal, second-story porch of the Husser House can be seen as a precursor to the west porch of the Robie House (1908). Both porches terminate long, narrow houses, providing private outdoor spaces for their second-floor living rooms. But the dynamism of the cantilevered roof of the Robie House porch is a world away from the column-supported Husser House porch roof.
One could argue that the Husser House has neither the refinement of the Heller or Winslow Houses, or the masterful brilliance of the Willits or Robie Houses. But the fact that in the Husser House we can see Wright working out certain design ideas that will contribute to the brilliance of those later works makes the house just as fascinating as the masterpieces that follow it.
One noteworthy detail of the Husser House was a checkerboard pattern incised in the trim on the second floor, and, according to the drawings, in the first-floor entry. This was of particular interest because a similar pattern had been pointed out to me by the owners of the Jessie and William Adams House (1900) in Chicago. The relationship between the Adams and the Husser House is a direct one: William Adams was the contractor for the Husser House and for the Heller House!
The pattern also appears on the Husser House dining table. This table and eight dining chairs are the only know items from the house to survive. They are now in the collection of the Huntington Museum in San Marino, California.
My model is based on drawings from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive and the few photos that survive of the house. Most of these photos are brought together in this comprehensive article on the Husser House in The Wright Library. The 1905 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map shown above was used to recreate the demolished neighboring houses in the model. These sources give only limited information about the house. While the two photos confirm many aspects of the construction of the main rooms of the second floor, information for the third floor is limited to one plan and a few details. Similarly, plans and details for the service spaces of the house are limited and do not always agree. Information on the first floor, outside of the entry hall, and all three floors of the coach house was too limited or contradictory to attempt even a hypothetical arrangement. The plans above are included to show the layout I settled on – which may not be the last word on that layout.
The loss of any Wright-designed building is profound. We are no longer able to study, experience, or enjoy the art he created. The limited documentation of the Husser House only accentuates that sense of loss. By creating this model, I’ve tried to mitigate some of that sense, while bearing in mind that it can never be fully remedied.
Posted February 3, 2023