Original Owner: Malcolm E. Willey Address: 255 Bedford St., SE, Minneapolis Year Built 1934
Mrs. Willey had read Frank Lloyd Wright's autobiography and wrote to him in 1932, explaining that she was interested in building a small house in Minneapolis. Not expecting that Wright would be interested in a small commission far from Taliesin, she just asked him to recommend an architect in Minneapolis. But Wright's career was at a low point; he hadn't had a built commission since the crash of 1929. He kept himself busy by writing his autobiography and starting up the Taliesin Fellowship, a school for young architects. So Wright was quite happy to design a house for the Willeys.
Malcolm Willey was a college administrator and he had a limited budget for his new house $8,000. Wright's first design was therefore not accepted as it would have cost considerably more than that amount. But he soon produced a second design that met the Willey's needs, and construction soon began.
While the Herbert Jacobs house in Madison, Wisconsin is usually considered Wright's first Usonian house, the Willey house can lay a stong claim to at least being the prototype for these later houses virtually all the elements of the later Usonian houses are present. The house is in-line in plan, with the kitchen (known here, as in the Usonian houses, as the workspace) adjoining the living room. This arrangement allows the wife to oversee and participate in activites in the living room while she is occupied in the kitchen. Beyond the living room is a narrow hallway, lined with bookshelves, leading to a study, small bedroom, bath and master bedroom. Outside the floor length glass doors of the south wall of the living room is a brick terrace in the shape of an acute triangle. A trellis above it eases the transition from inside to the out of doors. The house originally overlooked the Mississippi River in the distance, but the construction of I-94 in the 1960s eliminated that view, and came close to eliminating the house as well.
As you can see by the pictures below, the house is currently undergoing a complete restoration. When we visited, the owner was on the premises overseeing the work, and he generously invited us up to view the house and take some pictures. While much work remains to do, it is already apparent that this is a very important house in Wright's career, pointing the way to the style he would refine over the rest of his life. It's very heartening to me to see this house get the attention it needs to return it to its original beauty.
The owner of the house has also created a wonderful website, full of historical information and pictures on the house, the owners, and the restoration plan. It's at www.thewilleyhouse.com, and well worth an extended visit.