The 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: a Global Treasure

Eight of the famed architect's sites are inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List. See why his work is worthy of this global recognition.

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If you were to walk into a crowded room and shout “Frank Lloyd Wright,” nine out of ten people would recognize the name, and the other ten percent probably just didn’t hear you. 

Wright is one of the most well-known figures of the 1900s and is synonymous with 20th century American architecture. That’s a fact, and one that’s recognized on the global stage. 

As of July 7, 2019, eight of the architect’s works are now inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Built in the first half of the 20th century, these works span the contiguous U.S. from Los Angeles to New York City with a concentration in the Midwest: Fallingwater, Hollyhock House, the Guggenheim Museum, the Jacobs House, the Robie House, Taliesin and Taliesin West, and Unity Temple. 

To be inscribed on the list, a site must meet one of ten criteria. Wright’s “organic architecture” meets selection criteria (ii):

to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design

The remarkable thing about Frank Lloyd Wright, and part of what makes his works worthy of global acclaim, is that despite the site-specific designs, each one is distinctively his.

The sites selected reflect Wright’s manipulation of materials to suit their environments and their uses. Outside and inside were concepts instead of defined regions. In his buildings, forms followed not only functions, but also the landscapes that housed them.

Learn more about these works to see why the 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a global treasure.

Several fellow travel writers graciously contributed their thoughts on these important works and are attributed below. Any sites without attributed contributors (say that five times fast) are written by moi.

Frank Lloyd Wright UNESCO Sites

Fallingwater – Mill Run, Pennsylvania

Fallingwater, also known as the Edgar J. Kaufmann Sr. Residence, is a house designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1934 in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, and is part of the Pittsburgh Metro Area. The house was built partly over a waterfall in Bear Run at Rural Route 1
Fallingwater, Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Contributed by Melissa Haak, Little Lake County

As a Chicagoan it’s hard not to have an appreciation for Frank Lloyd Wright; his architecture and style have influenced the design of the city and suburbs.

I have always been in love with his architecture and interested in the man, and I now have two children who are also inspired by him. On a recent road trip to the East Coast, we decided to stop at one of his most impressive commissions, Fallingwater.

I had been to Fallingwater some 20 years ago with a girlfriend and my children have grown up with a large sketch of the property in our living room. They often ask about the house with the waterfall and even my youngest was so excited to see it in person.

Fallingwater is located in Western Pennsylvania and was built as a vacation home for the Kaufmann Family of Pittsburgh. It’s located in the Laurel Highlands, a natural wonder of forest with rocky outcroppings and a waterfall that the Kauffmann family used for vacationing and wanted to be near.

Frank Lloyd Wright built Fallingwater directly over the waterfall, inviting nature into the house and creating one of the greatest architectural designs of the 20th century.

What you find when visiting Fallingwater is more than an amazing house and beautiful art, but an understanding of how it was a living, breathing part of the landscape.

The house is kept as the Kauffmanns lived in it, with all the furnishings and art being original. You can see, and feel, just what it was like to live in one of FLW’s designs and how he wanted to bring the outside views in and to move you through the house.

You can get a sense of how a real family used the space as you would, not just how Wright envisioned it would look and be used but how it was used by a family.

There is so much to take in and see, that even a second time through the house surprised and delighted. I learned new things and it was as awe-inspiring as ever. A visit to Fallingwater will leave you with a greater understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright and a true appreciation for his organic style and the natural wonder of the landscape.

A few things to keep in mind if you plan to visit: the terrain is forested, steep and involves a lot of walking and steps. The tour takes about 90 minutes and it’s recommended you purchase tickets in advance. Allow yourself time to take it all in, you can stroll the grounds before and after and there are nature trails to guide you.

Check reviews of hotels near Fallingwater

We took all four of our children on the tour (ages 6-14) and while the oldest ones enjoyed it, it was stressful ensuring they didn’t touch anything. Six is the youngest child allowed in the house as you are walking through a fully furnished house with narrow walkways. Note there are also no bags, or photography allowed inside the house. I look forward to going back again and taking one of the longer specialty tours.

Hollyhock House – Los Angeles, California

Hollyhock House in Los Angeles, California; a Frank Lloyd Wright home listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, photo by Constance, the Adventures of Panda Bear
Hollyhock House; photo by Constance, the Adventures of Panda Bear

Contributed by Constance, Adventures of Panda Bear

The Aline Barnsdall Hollyhock House in Los Angeles is one of the few Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in California. The best thing about its location is that the Hollyhock House is located smack dab in the middle of Hollywood! This makes it easily accessible for most visitors to Los Angeles and the United States. 

The Hollyhock House was built between 1919 and 1921. It was commissioned by Aline Barnsdall, a wealthy oil heiress who had intended to build an art complex on the land. Unfortunately, due to budget and creative differences, only the Hollyhock House and a couple of other smaller buildings were built.  

The home was part of Frank Lloyd Wright’s experimental phase when he first began to build houses in Southern California. Coming from the Midwest, this was definitely a little bit different for Wright and it was obvious in his post-Prairie period style and use of warmer weather to bring the outside in.

He did this by creating an outdoor fountain that would also draw water into the living room pooling into a moat within the house. This was one of the most memorable parts of the house because it was unique and extraordinary, especially for the time. 

The interior of the house is characteristic of Wright’s works where he centers the home around the hearth. He placed an interesting geometric relief above the fireplace and designed the moat to meander around it. Though I’d learned about it in school, it was nothing like seeing Wright’s unique works in real life. 

The Hollyhock House is also well known for its hollyhock floral motif which was used throughout the property since it was Barnsdall’s favorite flower. She had specifically requested that Wright use the flower in the design and it became a symbol of the house. 

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House is located within the Barnsdall Art Park on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles, CA. The interior of the house can only be visited by a self-guided or docent-led tour. 

Check reviews of hotels near Hollyhock House

The Guggenheim Museum – New York City, New York

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum interior, photo by James Ian of Travel Collecting
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum interior, photo by James Ian of Travel Collecting

Contributed by James Ian, Travel Collecting

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with its conical shape that gets larger at the top, clean lines and futuristic vibe, is one of the most iconic buildings in the world.  The building is classic late period Frank Lloyd Wright, finished in 1959, six months after his death. 

The Guggenheim, as it is most often called, sits along Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue, near 89th Street.  It is famous, so it’s easily identifiable from the outside, but I love the interior the most. 

It was one of the first places I visited on my first trip to NYC and now that I live in New York, I go every year. 

The cone that makes up most of the museum is a huge spiral that starts in the ground floor lobby and winds its way up to the skylight.  The artwork (mostly temporary exhibitions that change frequently, although the museum also has a permanent collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, early Modern and contemporary art) is displayed along the walls of the spiral. 

There is a multi-storied atrium in the center and sometimes exhibitions include site-specific installations that hang in the middle.  If not, a simple mobile centers the space. 

Exhibitions usually start at the bottom, so you see the art as you spiral gradually up and around until you eventually reach the top, where you can take an elevator down.  However, I prefer to start at the top and drift down, which is actually the way that Frank Lloyd Wright intended it to be used. 

Sometimes this means that I see the exhibition in the opposite direction from the way that it is supposed to be seen, so it’s worth checking when you arrive. 

I love to stop frequently and look over the edge and across the spiral at the simple white layers that make up the building.  It is graphic, simple, elegant, inspired…   

The spiral, with a cutout at one side, makes an unusual space that rooms need to fit around.  The restrooms are tiny, odd-shaped rooms that squeeze around the shape of the main space (worth visiting just to see them!).  There are also a couple of small, regular-shaped exhibition spaces off the main spiral.

Even if the current exhibition when you visit NYC doesn’t appeal to you, it is worth going to the Guggenheim just to experience the building.  Seeing it from the outside is incredible, but gliding down the ramp around the spiral is the way that FLW really intended the building to be experienced, and there is no substitute for it.

Get tickets to the Guggenheim Museum, and check reviews of nearby hotels.

Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House – Madison, Wisconsin

Exterior of the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House, commonly referred to as Jacobs I
First Jacobs House, photo by James Steakley (CC License)

Compared to the other buildings included in the UNESCO inscription, the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House is a modest affair.

A mere 1,500 square feet, the home is considered to be Wright’s first Usonian design. These were smaller, more affordable plans; the Jacobs House rang in at around $5,500, compared to the $7,500 price tag a Prairie-style home carried a decade earlier.

It was 1936, and Herbert and Katherine challenged the architect to design a home that real people could afford. Feeling flush after big commissions from Johnson Wax and the Kauffmans (Fallingwater), he accepted the challenge. Not only was this smack-dab in the middle of the Depression, it also fit in with Wright’s belief that every family should have a private home – and he wanted to be the one to design it.

The L-shaped residence has an open floor plan. This was a new concept and one of the reasons for its UNESCO inscription.

The Jacobs quickly outgrew that home, but they liked it so much they asked Wright to design another, larger residence. As a result, that first home is often called the Jacobs First House, or Usonia 1.

Stay in another historic building in Madison – the Edgewater Hotel

Frederick C. Robie House – Chicago, Illinois

Frederick C. Robie House, photo by Emily Hines, Em's on the Road
Frederick C. Robie House, photo by Emily Hines

Contributed by Emily Hines, Em’s on the Road

The Robie House in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago is the quintessential example of Prairie Architecture. The style took its cues from the expansive Midwestern landscape and Wright used long horizontal lines to mimic the region’s long horizon lines.

I took an abbreviated 30-minute tour during Open House Chicago in 2018 before the $11 million renovations were complete. Although shorter than the 50 minute guided tour, I found the tour extremely informative and interesting.

We were able to look through the main floor of the residence and get a feel for the horizontal planes and interior details that defined the Prairie Architecture style Wright made famous.

*Note The Frank Lloyd Wright foundation still offers a 30 minute audio tour.

I find it a stand out house museum because the style is and was so revolutionary for the time period. Most architectural styles in America before the 20th century derived from European styles like Gothic and Richardsonian Romanesque, both popular in Chicago.

But the Prairie style was distinctly American and unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

The footprint of the house itself is massive and the repeating horizontal lines echo those of the flat landscape around and enable the structure to blend into its surroundings.

The interior design also differed from previous periods because of its open floor plan, just like the Jacobs House. The inside details, like repeating windows along the length of the house, horizontal beams throughout, and long, horizontal bricks on the fireplace emphasize the house’s signature style.

That may not seem very modern by today’s standards but if you think about the time period of construction, Wright’s plan for this house was way before his time.

Taliesin – Spring Green, Wisconsin

Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin; a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin

If you want to get a true feel for Frank Lloyd Wright, the man, then you must visit Taliesin.

The short version is that Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin, was his home, studio, school, and 800-acre estate.

The long version is that Taliesin was Wright’s architectural playground and helped hone and define his organic architectural style. Much of that was because of his personal history; he grew up playing on the hill where he eventually built his home and studio.

His aunts hired him for his first independent commission, the Home Building for their Hillside Home School, when he was twenty. Ten years later, he completed his distinctive Romeo and Juliet Windmill. At the age of 44, Wright’s mom bought his favorite boyhood hill, and almost immediately he began construction on Taliesin I.

A fire in 1914 destroyed his living quarters, so he rebuilt, naming it Taliesin II. Another fire in 1925 burned that one. Taliesin III survived OK, except for the blaze in 1952 that destroyed a portion of the Hillside Home School.

Wright’s home and studio had almost as much drama as his personal life.

Taliesin is where Wright experimented, and where he departed from his Prairie School to what would be known as organic architecture. His belief was that a home should not be on a hill, but of the hill. He named his home after a Welsh poet, and the word literally means shining brow.

Wisconsin is a treasure trove of Wright sites, and the UNESCO designation will help foster tourism to the area.

“We’re elated that Taliesin has been inscribed to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This will be a huge driving force for Taliesin, Spring Green, the Driftless Area, and the greater Midwest with increased visitation and visibility to a global audience. The lasting impact of this inscription will drive economic development to our region, to the State of Wisconsin, and beyond.”

Carrie Rodamaker, Executive Director, Taliesin Preservation

Taliesin is located about an hour west of Madison, Wisconsin. There are several tours, but they’re conducted seasonally. The Estate, Highlights, and Hillside Studio and Theater Tours run daily May through October, and the House Tour also runs in April and November.

Taliesin West – Scottsdale, Arizona

Taliesin West
Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona

One downside to living in Wisconsin: the winters. Just ask Frank Lloyd Wright.

He and his third (and final) wife, Olgivanna, traveled to the southwest in 1928 to consult on the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Familiar with the dry desert climate, when Wright suffered a bout of pneumonia at the sprightly age of 69, the couple brushed off the snow and traded it for arid heat.

In 1937, Taliesin West became the winter home and studio, and it’s as different from the Wisconsin version as their landscapes dictate.

While horizontal lines and corners made of glass can be found in both, he and his students/apprentices erected the western version from the desert itself. They constructed walls of “desert masonry,” putting rocks inside wooden forms and pouring concrete around them. Students, given 10’x10’ tents, constructed their own shelters on the estate’s 600 acres, and that practice continues today.

This was Wright’s western laboratory, and when he returned every fall, he’d bring a hammer and get rid of sections that he wanted to change. He edited existing rooms and designed more. He drafted furniture, which the students built. He tweaked and refined, leaving an everlasting imprint on the Sonoran desert.

We were thrilled to learn of Taliesin West’s UNESCO World Heritage Site designation, as Frank Lloyd Wright’s work is essential to Scottsdale’s art and culture, and its design scene.

Not only did Wright build from our Sonoran Desert, but he inspired so many local architects to follow, leaving behind a legacy that can be seen and felt throughout our city today. We have always been proud to be home to Taliesin West and share its story with our visitors, and this gives us one more reason to cherish this important site.

Caroline Stoeckel, Vice President of Marketing at Experience Scottsdale

Taliesin West is open for tours year-round, although it’s closed mid-week during the summer. Tours range from one to two-and-a-half hours. Be sure to bring sunscreen!

Unity Temple – Oak Park, Illinois

Unity Temple could be considered a shoe-in for UNESCO inclusion. It’s the oldest Frank Lloyd Wright building of the collection and one of his most important works. Completed in 1908 and made of concrete and straight lines, it was unlike any church anyone had ever seen.

Wright used concrete because the church had a budget of $45,000, and even by early-1900s standards, that was slim pickings. In true Wright fashion, by the time the church was completed the costs had doubled that amount, but the Universalist congregation was still pretty pleased.

As they should have been. More than a century later, Unity Temple stands as a testament to FLW’s genius. There are no street level windows because the church sits on busy Lake Street in Oak Park, so the architect installed stained glass windows that would replicate sunlight. The balconies in the temple space ensure no congregant is more than forty feet from the pulpit.

The building is considered Wright’s greatest public edifice from his Prairie era. Unity Temple is still an active Unitarian Universalist church, with services every Sunday. Other days of the week, you can take self-guided and guided tours.

Other Prominent Frank Lloyd Wright Buildings

Bachman-Wilson House – Bentonville, Arkansas

Bachman-Wilson House at Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas; photo by Michelle Marine, Travel Inspired Living
Bachman-Wilson House; photo by Michelle Marine, Simplify, Live, Love

Contributed by Michelle Marine, Simplify Live Love

The Bachman-Wilson House is a must-visit destination for any Frank Lloyd Wright enthusiast. Originally built in 1956 along the Millstone River in New Jersey, the Bachman-Wilson House is an example of FLW’s Usonian (United States of North American) architecture.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art acquired the home and had it taken apart and moved piece by piece to Bentonville, Arkansas in 2013 after repeated river flooding threatened its survival.

It’s a small, long house with narrow walkways and beautiful woodwork. Self-guided audio tours are free, but tickets are required. Guided tours are reasonably priced at $10 per person.

The location of Bentonville, Arkansas is actually a surprisingly good fit for a FLW home. Progressive, beautiful, with an amazing culinary and art scene, and I highly recommend a trip to Bentonville to see the Bachman-Wilson House and so much more.

Learn more about Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Dana Thomas House – Springfield, Illinois

Dana Thomas House - Springfield, Illinois; photo by Cindy Ladage, Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl
Dana Thomas House – Springfield, Illinois; photo by Cindy Ladage

Contributed by Cindy Ladage, Traveling Adventures of a Farm Girl

The Dana Thomas House is the 72nd building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I love this property because the house contains the largest collection of site-specific, original Wright art glass and furniture!

The Dana Thomas House is one of the most celebrated Frank Lloyd Wright homes. Susan Dana Thomas was a forward-thinking socialite and heiress to a substantial fortune. Her father had left her silver mines and more. Widowed in 1900, she remodeled her family’s Italianate mansion located in the state capital’s “Aristocracy Hill” neighborhood.

Wright built the house around the mansion using his Prairie Style aesthetic. Except for a small sitting room, little’s left of the original mansion.

Designed with display and entertainment in mind, the house is quite large. Susan Dana Thomas allowed Frank Lloyd Wright to complete it with a “blank check” commission in mind.

The home has 35 rooms and 12,000 square feet of living space, including three main levels with 16 varying levels in all.

This house has approximately 450 art glass windows, skylights, door panels, scones, and light fixtures, most of which survive today. Susan Dana Thomas lived in the home from 1904 until 1928. Marrying again, she tragically lost her husband at a very young age. With no surviving children, over time she became reclusive and turned her attention to spiritual matters and the occult.

When the cost of the upkeep of the house became too much, she moved around 1928 to a small cottage on the grounds. Later in the 1940s, with health and finances an issue, her home and its contents were sold.

The home was purchased by Charles C. Thomas, a successful medical publisher. Eventually the State of Illinois purchased the building with the furnishings for $1 million. For more information log onto https://dana-thomas.org/tours/.

Darwin Martin House – Buffalo, New York

Darwin Martin House - Buffalo, New York; photo by Lisa Lubin; Slow Travel, Eat Local
Darwin Martin House – Buffalo, New York; photo by Lisa Lubin; Slow Travel, Eat Local

Contributed by Lisa Lubin; Slow Travel, Eat Local

Did you know that Buffalo, New York has seven Frank Lloyd Wright masterworks?

For a little over two decades—from 1927 to 1949—a critical mass of Wright-designed structures stood in and around Buffalo. This concentration of his buildings was the second largest in the nation, after the Chicago area.

During a summer weekend in Buffalo, I was lucky to visit the Darwin Martin House complex, just as it had re-opened to the public after a massive, $50 Million renovation. 

Now a national historic landmark, the Martin House was designed by Wright between 1902 and 1905. Located within Buffalo’s Parkside East Historic District, which was laid out by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in 1876, the large complex also consists of a carriage house, the Barton house, the garden’s cottage, a conservatory and a 100-foot long pergola.

It’s said to be one of FLW’s most important works, along with the Guggenheim Museum and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania. Known for its large size and more open floor plan, it’s a prime example of his Prairie-style ethic, with those strong horizontal lines, deep, overhanging eaves and a cantilevered roof. 

The home was owned by Darwin Martin, who co-owned a Chicago company with his brother, William. William had commissioned Wright to build him a house in Oak Park, IL. Once Darwin saw his brother’s home, he had to have his own Wright creation! He persuaded Wright to come to Buffalo and the result was not only the spectacular Darwin Martin home, but also six other properties.

There are several tours available today of the complex, from an hour long to an all-day Wright tour around the Buffalo area.

Historic Park Inn – Mason City, Iowa

Historic Park Inn - Mason City, Iowa, photo by Kylie Neuhaus, Between England and Iowa
Historic Park Inn – Mason City, Iowa; photo by Kylie Neuhaus

Contributed by Kylie Neuhaus, Between England and Iowa

The Historic Park Inn, located in Mason City, Iowa, is the only remaining Frank Lloyd Wright designed hotel in the world!  The hotel first opened in the early 1900’s, and in 2011 it reopened its doors after a major renovation. 

There are 27 guest bedrooms in total, conference room space, a ‘Lounge’ bar, the 1910 Grille restaurant and a fitness room. 

Visitors can take a guided tour of the hotel for $10 and learn about the history and the renovation process.  The design is consistent throughout the whole hotel, there are so many small details and finishing touches that make a stay at the Historic Park Inn an amazing experience!

Read reviews of the Historic Park Inn, and click here if you’re ready to book a room.

SAMARA – West Lafayette, Indiana

SAMARA in West Lafayette, Indiana
SAMARA in West Lafayette, Indiana

It was the 1950’s, and Dr. John and Catherine Christian, who both worked at Purdue University, wanted a home where they could entertain students, faculty, and staff.

Who better to design it than Frank Lloyd Wright?

Somehow they convinced the famed architect to not only work with them on their budget, but to also allow them to see – and approve of – the designs along the way.

The home is a nearly perfectly preserved example of Wright’s Usonian architecture, and there are more than forty innovations on the property. It’s a stunning representation of his whole-cloth method of designing homes.

Tours can be reserved April through November, and they’re only $10 for adults, $3 for college students, and free for those 17 and under.

Find more things to do in Lafayette, Indiana

Westcott House – Springfield, Ohio

Westcott House, a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Springfield, Ohio; photo by Tonya Prater, Travel Inspired Living
Westcott House; photo by Tonya Prater, Travel Inspired Living

Contributed by Tonya Prater, Travel Inspired Living

I’ve always admired the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, but it wasn’t until I had the opportunity to visit the Westcott House in Springfield, Ohio that I fully understood how talented he was.

The property was built in 1908 by a prominent family who sadly enjoyed the home for less than twenty years before dying an untimely death. After the passing of Mr. And Mrs. Westcott, the home was sold and over the years, remodeled until it was eventually turned into several apartments. The restoration process took four years and several million dollars.  

I toured the home, located in John Legend’s hometown, last summer and fell in love as soon as I stepped inside. The warm wood flooring, light-filtering skylight, and furnishings that perfectly complemented the home – all designed by Frank Lloyd Wright – fascinated me. This was my first time touring a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece and I was enthralled. My docent was an excellent storyteller and drew me into the tragic lives of the Westcotts while sharing about the architect and the home itself.

Touring this home not only offered a fascinating look at the architect and the Westcotts but also provided a glimpse into the perseverance and generosity of a community eager to restore a lost treasure.

Interested in Springfield, Ohio? Tonya’s also got tips on visiting the Hartman Rock Garden.

Map of Frank Lloyd Wright UNESCO and other sites

1 thought on “The 20th Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: a Global Treasure”

  1. The first home I ever owned was around the block from the Little House, in Peoria, the only authenticated FLW Prairie house in the city. It was, and still is, a beautiful residence, but also one that we walked past every day, taking for granted as just another part of the neighborhood. Now, being a bit more educated and a bit wiser, I understand how uniquely American he was, and what a genius he was. And, that not everyone has a FLW home in the neighborhood! Very pleased to see some of his iconic works being recognized by Unesco. Thank you for this article, and for giving us a few more stops for our American travels!

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