In the 1800s, most homes in America were Victorians. Often resembling miniature castles, they featured high-pitched roofs and elaborate ornamental details. But as the 20th century dawned, a young Midwestern architect, inspired by the simple beauty of the Great Plains, created a new architectural style that would forever shape America’s landscape.
Known as the father of organic architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright designed buildings that blended the structure with its environment using natural construction materials, walls of windows, open floor plans, and long horizontal lines. Over a seven-decade career, he designed hundreds of properties, including some of the most iconic buildings in the world.
Regardless of the order in which you visit Wright’s most notable sites, I’m presenting them chronologically, first by his personal living spaces and then by his most famous accomplishments. With the exception of Wright’s first home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, everything on this list was designated a UNESCO World Heritage property in July of 2019.
1. Wright’s Home And Studio, Oak Park, Illinois
As a young newlywed, Wright borrowed $5,000 and designed a home for his wife, Kitty, in this Chicago suburb. Over the next 20 years, he expanded the home to accommodate the family’s six children and to create a studio for the architect. Visitors can take a guided tour of Wright’s home and studio, explore the grounds, and take an audio walking tour of the neighborhood.
Pro Tip: Home to the highest concentration of Prairie-style buildings in the United States, Oak Park is full of Wright’s creations.
2. Taliesin, Spring Green, Wisconsin
Relationships are hard, and Wright experienced his fair share of heartbreak. After 20 years of marriage, he abandoned his family in Oak Park and headed to Europe with his mistress. When he returned to the U.S., he moved to his grandparents’ homestead in rural Wisconsin and built a new home and studio. As a nod to his ancestry, he named the 800-acre estate Taliesin after a sixth-century Welsh poet.
With thickets of trees, a large lake, and native wildflowers, Taliesin is a serene spot in southwestern Wisconsin, about 3 hours from Chicago. But in 1914, seven people were murdered when a servant attacked Wright’s mistress and her two young children with a hatchet, poured gasoline on the floor, and set the building ablaze. A heartbroken Wright rebuilt Taliesin only to have an electrical fire burn it down again about 10 years later.
Now in its third incarnation, there are a variety of ways to explore Taliesin, from a self-guided exterior tour to a 4-hour, all-encompassing estate tour.
3. Taliesin West, Scottsdale, Arizona
In his 70s, Wright built Taliesin West in the Sonoran Desert foothills of the McDowell Mountains, about 30 minutes northeast of Phoenix. True to Wright’s desire to incorporate natural surroundings into his designs, Taliesin West features low-profile sand and stone structures accented with redwood beams and capped by canvas roofs. Although it’s much more pleasant to visit in the fall, winter, or spring, Taliesin West is open for tours year round (with the exception of a few holidays).
Pro Tip: Although the historic architectural design of Wright’s buildings can challenge accessibility, each site works hard to accommodate all visitors.
4. Unity Temple, Oak Park, Illinois
Like most churches in America in the early 1900s, the original Unity Temple in Oak Park had a tall steeple. And when Mother Nature used it as a lightning rod, its wooden frame served as a wick that ignited the building. Although he was still primarily designing and building Prairie houses at the time, congregation member Wright was commissioned to design a new church. In his first major public building project, Wright kicked conventional religious architecture to the curb and crafted the cubed concrete structure that still stands on Lake Street.
The smooth concrete walls of the Unity Temple give it the appearance of a modern-day Greek temple or modern art museum. Inside, the building is neatly divided into two distinct spaces, one for worship and one for social gatherings. At four stories tall, the cube-shaped sanctuary is filled with natural light that pours in from above.
5. Frederick C. Robie House, Chicago, Illinois
On the edge of the University of Chicago campus, the Robie House is often cited as one of the best examples of Prairie-style architectural design. The exterior features long, plain brick walls with ivy and other vines cascading over the sides. Inside the three-story house, the long, angular lines continue with wood trim on the walls and ceilings, floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows, and high-backed, rectangular furniture.
Guided interior and self-guided exterior tours are offered throughout the week, but give yourself plenty of time to find parking on campus if you visit the Robie House in a private vehicle.
6. Hollyhock House, Los Angeles, California
An ardent feminist with a bohemian spirit, Aline Barnsdall was a trendsetter. The wealthy oil heiress was intentionally a single mother at a time when women could not vote and society expected mothers to be wed. And it was Barnsdall who lured Wright westward to California after the devastating murders at Taliesin, commissioning him to build a home on Olive Hill, about 3 miles south of the Griffith Observatory.
Embracing the comfortable climate of Southern California, this Wright-designed residence is half house and half garden. The Hollyhock House looks like a larger-than-life sand castle with walls of windows and a phenomenal rooftop terrace offering panoramic views. It’s surrounded by a lush lawn, colorful flowers, and calming water features. Throughout the Hollyhock House, you’ll find Barnsdall’s favorite flower incorporated in a variety of ways.
Pro Tip: You can explore the Hollyhock House from anywhere in the world with this virtual tour.
7. Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania
Built atop a waterfall in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania as a weekend retreat for department store magnate Edgar Kaufmann, Fallingwater is one of Wright’s most notable works. In fact, the members of the American Institute of Architects voted it “the best all-time work of American architecture.”
Designing a 5,300-square-foot residence that straddles a waterfall should take a few attempts to get right. But according to several of Wright’s apprentices, the architect crafted the structure in one sitting just hours before Kaufmann was scheduled to arrive at Taliesin to review the plans.
As expected from Wright, Fallingwater embraces the natural beauty of its surroundings, using stone and wood (along with steel and concrete) to create a structure that appears to defy gravity as it floats above Bear Run. The home’s square footage is nearly evenly split between interior living space and stone-colored patios that crisscross their way toward the sky. And Wright’s signature walls of windows bring the surrounding woods and calming water views inside the home.
Fallingwater is the only major Wright-designed house open to the public with its original furnishings and artwork. You can experience Fallingwater or Polymath Park with a variety of tour options -- or get a glimpse of Fallingwater at any time via the Fallingwater Cam.
8. Herbert And Katherine Jacobs House, Madison, Wisconsin
In the midst of the Great Depression, Frank Lloyd Wright recognized a significant change in the U.S. housing market. Not wanting to sacrifice style for smaller spaces and more modest living, he focused on simpler home designs for middle-class Americans called Usonian homes.
Like Wright’s Prairie homes, Usonian homes feature open main-floor living areas, abundant natural light, and long horizontal lines. However, Usonian homes were typically one-story structures built on concrete slabs that often featured open carports instead of enclosed garages.
When a young Madison journalist challenged Wright to create a decent home for his family with a budget of $5,000 (about $100,000 today), Wright seized the opportunity. Within an L-shaped floor plan, he designed a highly functional 1,550-square-foot home with plenty of natural light and several pieces of built-in furniture, including a writing table, a wall of shelves, and a dining bench.
Because Wright’s first Usonian home is a private residence, tours are not offered. However, the current owner does encourage Wright fans to drive by the UNESCO World Heritage site at 441 Toepfer Avenue.
9. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, New York
Just across the street from New York’s Central Park, the Guggenheim always reminds me of an exclamation point with four smooth horizontal rings tapering into Fifth Avenue. While Wright allegedly sketched Fallingwater in one sitting, the architect drafted hundreds of sketches and drawings over 15 years for this art museum. And, tragically, Wright passed away six months before the Guggenheim opened to the public.
While there are many ways to explore the Guggenheim, Wright wanted visitors to experience the museum -- both the building and its art -- by taking the elevator to the top of the large rotunda. After peering up through the large, round, cobweb-like skylight, enjoy the art as you slowly stroll down the circular ramp.
With his revolutionary approach, Wright redefined the rules of architectural design in the U.S. Visit these eight UNESCO World Heritage sites and his original home and studio in Oak Park to appreciate his design talent and architectural genius.