It has long been speculated that the Vanderkloot-McElwain House in Lake Bluff, Illinois, is an example of an American System-Built Home, or ASBH, by Frank Lloyd Wright. The speculation begins with the front elevation, which has an overall similarity in massing to the ASBH Model C3. This has led some to surmise it to be that model. Recent investigation, including interior visits, measurements, and a comparison of the floor plan of the house to a Model C3, confirms the house is not a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed, American System-Built Homes Model C3. There are several similarities that raise the suggestion that the house may have begun as a kit of materials for an American System-Built Home – possibly a Model C3, but it cannot be considered an example of that model. Our research provided an opportunity to learn more about both the Vanderkloot-McElwain House itself as well as the Model C3.

Recent investigation, including interior visits, measurements, and a comparison of the floor plan of the Vanderkloot-McElwain House and a Model C3, confirms the Lake Bluff house is not a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed American System-Built Homes Model C3.

While it would seem it should be easy to identify a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, who is likely the most-researched of American architects, records relating to the ASBH program are limited. The exact number of ASBHs built is undocumented. In fact, in just the last few years, scholars have identified two additional ASBH houses: one in Madison, Wisconsin, and one in Shorewood, Wisconsin. There are several reasons for the limited research material. One reason is that Wright’s relationship with each house was indirect. Real estate developer Arthur Richards handled the business end of the enterprise, including sale transactions made through ASBH representatives. Richards’ office records were not retained after his death, creating a major impediment to identifying ASBH structures. Consequently, it has been necessary to verify ASBHs through research into the limited documentation that survives, an examination of a potential ASBH’s design as carried out, and an investigation into the building’s construction materials and methods.

What follows is an analysis of the Vanderkloot-McElwain House from these three perspectives.

Documentation

No documentation has yet been found relating to the Vanderkloot-McElwain House’s original commission and construction. A search of the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive has not located any information relating directly to this house. The house has been included in catalogs of Wright’s works by both William Allin Storrer and Thomas A. Heinz. However, both Storrer and Heinz indicate that research on the house is not complete.

Storrer assigned the house the catalog number S203.0 in “The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, A Complete Catalog” (Second Edition, 1974). The entry includes a note that documentation is “not yet sufficient” to determine if the house is “pirated” or deserving of inclusion in his listing. Storrer’s “FLLW Update” #42 (October 2018) includes two exterior photographs of the house with captions that note the house has “…an addition not by Wright.” Thomas A. Heinz noted in his 2005 “Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide” that the house has “…never been well researched.”

Aside from Storrer’s work, the earliest known documentation relating to the house are Sanborn Maps from 1928 and 1937. Both of these maps show the house with its current (2024) configuration. Additional documentation is found in the Vliet Center for Lake Bluff History at the Lake Bluff History Museum. The Vliet Center holds an extensive file relating to the Vanderkloot-McElwain’s history. The earliest documents in this file date to the late 1970s. These documents indicate that the house was originally built by William Vanderkloot as an income property to be rented to summer vacationers. It was later bought and lived in for many years by Ida and Grace McElwain. Original documentation for this information has not been identified, but the specificity of these statements implies a familiarity with earlier records. In 2016, a draft nomination of the house to the National Register was completed. The draft relies heavily on documents from the Vliet Center, as well as previously published work on Wright and the ASBH program. Review of the draft after recent research indicates that its assumptions about the design of the house need extensive revision.

Design

Front elevations, ASBH Model C3 (shown here) and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House. Drawings of the Model C3 were created from drawings in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive at the Avery Library at Columbia University. Drawings for the Vanderkloot-McElwain House were created from on-site investigations and photos. Both sets of drawings should be considered diagrammatic.

Front elevations, ASBH Model C3 and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House (shown here). Drawings of the Model C3 were created from drawings in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive at the Avery Library at Columbia University. Drawings for the Vanderkloot-McElwain House were created from on-site investigations and photos. Both sets of drawings should be considered diagrammatic.

Direct comparison of the design of ASBH Model C3 with the constructed Vanderkloot-McElwain House as built allows for an in-depth understanding of both.

The front elevations of the Model C3 and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House bear a striking similarity of massing. The placement of the porch to the left on each, as well as the location of the chimney, adjacent to the porch, are also similar.

Closer examination shows that the placement and sizes of the windows are quite different. The Model C3 window placement is strongly asymmetrical, reinforced by the asymmetrical window sizes and placements. The projecting bay on the Vanderkloot-McElwain House emphasizes the main mass of the house as opposed to the side entrance porch. The rationale behind the window placement in each can be found in an examination of their respective plans.

Plans, ASBH Model C3 (left) and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House (right) The plans illustrate notable variations between the Model C3 and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House. Immediately after going through the entry door off the porch (indicated by the red arrow on the plans) differences can be appreciated.

The Model C3 is compact and efficient. Circulation space is minimized by Wright’s placing the entry midway along the side elevation. In the Model C3, a corridor created by built-in cabinets separates the dining nook wall and the living room.  The corridor ultimately leads to the bedroom/bath area of the house. All rooms are within a few steps of each other, but privacy between them is maintained through the use of built-ins and partial walls.

Circulation in the ASBH Model C3 (top) and in the Vanderkloot-McElwain House (bottom)

Conversely, the Vanderkloot-McElwain House is spacious and rambling. The large living room spans the entire front of the house, and the dining room to the rear is completely open to the living room. Beyond the dining room is the kitchen. While the living room, dining room and kitchen are related in an orderly fashion, the bedrooms and bathrooms are less logically located. Each bedroom is located off a separate hallway from the dining room. Both bathrooms are located toward the front of the house, convenient for one bedroom, but inconvenient for the other, whose occupant must go either through the other bedroom or through the dining room to reach a bathroom.

The varying degree of compactness of the houses is borne out in their relative overall sizes (not including porches):

  • Model C3: approximately 1069 square feet
  • Vanderkloot-McElwain House: approximately 1700 square feet

 

Perspective views from the rear right, ASBH Model C3 (shown here) and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House

Perspective views from the rear right, ASBH Model C3 and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House (shown here)

Perspective views from the rear left, ASBH Model C3 (shown here) and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House (right)

Perspective views from the rear left, ASBH Model C3 and the Vanderkloot-McElwain House (shown here)

From the rear, the relative compactness of the Model C3 can be seen, in contrast to the elongated Vanderkloot-McElwain House. Also, the use of several types of windows in the Vanderkloot-McElwain House, including double-hung windows and 30” wide windows, contrasts with the Model C3’s consistent use of casement windows set within a 24” unit. The use of this width of windows on the Model C3 was not an arbitrary choice, but was coordinated with the placement of wall studs at 24” on-center intervals. Furthermore, marketing collateral for the ASBH touted the benefits of fresh air circulation using open-out casement windows. The marketing materials appear to preclude the use of the double-hung windows found on three elevations of the Vanderkloot-McElwain House.

The common standard to authenticate a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed structure is to locate a matching drawing in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive at the Avery Library at Columbia University. The ASBH file has the distinction of having the most drawings of any project – just shy of 1,000 drawings.  The Vanderkloot-McElwain House does not match any drawing in the Frank Lloyd Wright Archive.  

As a side note, the art-glass windows on the front of the house are unlikely to be connected with Wright, since they include curvilinear elements. Wright’s art-glass work in this period was exclusively linear.

Construction

Wright’s lectures, writings, and the marketing for ASBH houses made clear that they would be built consistently, following his designs precisely and without deviation. Plans for the ASBH were stamped “Patent Pending” although Wright and Richards never followed through with formal patent registration. It is clear that deviations from Wright’s designs or materials would be a serious breach of the integrity and quality of the house that Wright would not approve.  

Mike Lilek, the curator of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Burnham Block, has compiled a list common elements of an American System-Built Home. Included among the common elements are several construction methods and materials that are unique enough to the ASBH project that, when found together, comprise a distinctive “fingerprint” that can identify an ASBH.

For example, Wright devised a novel system of construction for the ASBH that he did not use in other contemporaneous houses. Standard framing uses sixteen-inch on center wall, floor and ceiling joists. Wright’s framing design for the ASBH featured a non-standard twenty-four inch on center spacing for wall, floor and ceiling joists. Wright intended this framing design to simplify construction and reduce the need for on-site labor to construct the houses. Wright’s novel system allowed for the use of standard 24-inch wide casement window units that were readily available at the time. The window units could be purchased – not fabricated – and simply fastened between the studs.  Double-hung windows of the dimensions found in the Vanderkloot-McElwain House are not compatible with Wright’s framing design for a Model C3.

The ASBH also used a novel sheathing and stucco system. Wright specified Byrkit’s Patent Sheathing Lath system. Byrkit is a combined sheathing and lath system that was to be applied to the interior and exterior walls. For the Vanderkloot-McElwain House, Byrkit sheathing appears on all exterior surfaces – including those sections suggested to be an addition. However, Byrkit does not appear to have been used for interior walls. Large sections of plaster are missing from the living room ceiling and other areas revealing a traditional lath system.

ASBH marketing collateral touted the use of “Beautiful Elastica stucco on all exterior finish, fifty colors to select from.”  Elastica stucco appears on at least twelve of the known ASBH houses – and may have been used on all of them. Elastica stucco is found on all exterior surfaces of the Vanderkloot-McElwain House.

Having the Elastica stucco over the Byrkit Sheathing on all exterior surfaces – but apparently not the interior of the house – supports a theory that the house might have started as an ASBH kit of materials. For example, a Model C3 kit would have included enough Byrkit sheathing to complete the exterior and interior walls of the original design, but not sufficient for all surfaces of the larger 1,700 sq. ft. Vanderkloot-McElwain House.

An examination of the brick and concrete foundation of the house, both inside and out, gives no indication that the house was added on to in order to create the approximately 1,700 sq. ft. house we see today. The basement ceilings are finished throughout the house making some exploration impossible without invasive methods. The current owner states that the interior or the house underwent some remodeling in the 1950s. However, all indications point to a house that was built all at the same time – not a house with one or more additions.  The floor plan, the inclusion of double-hung windows, the art glass pattern, unexpected application of the novel stucco and sheathing systems – all add up to a conclusion that, from a construction standpoint, the house is clearly not an ASBH Model C3.

Conclusion

In sum, it is clear that if the Vanderkloot-McElwain House was built from ASBH components, the structure, as originally built, deviated substantially from any known Wright plan. In a 1916 lecture, Wright said the following about the ASBH concept:

These buildings are not in any sense the ready cut buildings we have all heard of where a little package of material is sold to be stuck together in any fashion. The American System-Built House is not a ready cut house, but a house built by an organization, systematized in such a way that the result is guaranteed the fellow that buys the house. I want to deliver beautiful houses to people at a certain price, key in packet. If I have made progress in the art of architecture, I want to be able to offer this to the people intact. [The Western Architect, September 1916, vol. 24 p 121-123]

Reflecting on the ASBH experience in August 8, 1929, Wright wrote to Louis Webb of The East Bay Builder:

Finding that project was an exploitation of design rather than any faithful execution of design, I severed my connection with the enterprise and it soon came to an end. Had that effort the intelligent management and backing necessary to such an enterprise, it had every prospect of success. [Quoted in Journal of Organic Architecture and Design, vol. 3, no. 2, p. 20]

From this, it seems clear that, from Wright’s perspective, the ASBH structures were not intended to deviate from the designs he created for the system. At this point, the significance of the Vanderkloot-McElwain House is only as evidence of the influence that Wright’s architecture had on other builders in Lake Bluff, and what it tells us about Wright’s work, through its differences from the Model C3 as much as its similarities.

Posted November 2, 2023