National Register of Historic Places, 1978
Operation as city public museum, 2002
In 1936, Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Usonian house – the Jacobs House – was completed outside Madison, Wisconsin. The Jacobs House would later serve as the basis of the Rosenbaum plan, with its 2’ x 4’ planning module, L shape, and private areas pushed to the ends of the plan. Additionally, with a construction cost of only $5,500 the house would become a model for affordable designer houses.
In 1939, Stanley Rosenbaum, a professor at the University of Northern Alabama, and his wife Mildred, contracted Cooper Union architecture student Aaron Green to design a residence in Florence, Alabama. When Green delivered the plans in April of that same year, the estimated cost was well over the desired $7,500 maximum price, so Green (who greatly admired the design and low cost of the Jacobs House), recommended Wright as an alternative architect.
By August 1939, the Rosenbaums had contacted Wright asking for a house with 3 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a large kitchen with service entrance and pantry, a study, and a living room large enough for many books, piano, organ, and radio-phonograph. Wright's plans were soon accepted and construction began in January 1940, to be completed by August.
The original plan called for a single story home that met the Rosenbaums' desired layout and cost, at 1540 square feet and $7,500 projected. By its completion, the Rosenbaum House would cost a total of $12,777.84.
The Rosenbaum House is a one story, L-shaped residence that follows Wright's principle of organic material and design. The service core of the house composed of the living area and kitchen is a mass of masonry, creating a central weight to the structure and providing an anchoring point for large cantilevering roofs. The walls and facade of the house are tidewater red cypress, reflecting Wright's love for this material and its relationship to the natural environment of the surrounding Alabama landscape. This connection between structural language and natural world is reinforced by the use of mitered glass corners (made possible by the cantilevers) that eliminate anticipated frames around windows and doors. With less visual obstruction between the indoor and outdoor spaces, the division seems to dissolve in certain areas, most notably the central living area. In addition, the attention paid to all aspects of the wood detailing (from the signature Wright-style mitered corners to recessed lighting) show a specific care for the qualities of cypress and the bounds of craftsmanship during the era of the Usonian home. With the addition of a second L-shaped wing came the enclosure of a lanai garden, yet another effort to preserve a sense of nature and natural life in and around the house.
From Sergeant's Usonian Houses:
"The living areas spacious, with an enlarged dining alcove, a 100-sq-ft study, and redesigned service core. By incorporating the heater at floorslab level, Wright was able to omit the small basement, together with its stair. This allowed extra circulation space and made the core an island with alternative routes about it, enhancing the house's apparent spaciousness. The bedroom wing of three rooms was terminated by a second bathroom.
"The house is the purest example of the Usonian. It incorporates detailing improvements and combines all the standard elements in a mature and spatially varied interior. Its exterior has an almost overpowering horizontality. The street facade forms a cypress wall from which springs the carport, a 20-ft cantilever utilizing concealed steelwork. Ten years after construction, the Rosenbaums had Wright extend the house. It thus became the first Usonian to be radically altered, something which owners of Wright houses were loath to do, but which he himself always saw as potentially inherent in an organic building. This addition backed a second L onto the first, containing a Japanese garden. With four sons in the family, extra sleeping accommodations were required. A quiet guest room terminated one arm, and the other contained a family kitchen, bunk-playroom, and utility room with second carport."
Typical Wright construction: walls of cypress sandwiched around pine, layered 2x4s to support the roof, in-floor heating. Notably during the construction phase, Wearcoat and tar paper on the roof failed almost immediately in wet weather and were replaced, although differential expansion and leaks in the flat roof would be a problem for many years. Cypress board and batten were buckling, and the living room roof neared failure, so Goodrich added flitch plates and concealed steel I beams.
The Rosenbaum House was the second Usonian house, following the Jacobs House. It followed, in principle, the plan and arrangement of the Jacobs House, with its 2’ x 4’ planning module, L shape, and private areas pushed to the ends of the plan. The simple and natural materials, the projected low cost and designer style of the house, the signature horizontal structure with broad flat roofs, and the arrangement of spaces in the house all make it a stepping off point, along with the other early Usonian houses, for Wright's later career. In the broader context, the house represents the interest in planned communities, especially the easily fabricated homes of the City Beautiful and Wright's Broadacre City.
The materials and design of the Rosenbaum House were characteristic of Wright and the Usonian house. The house is characterized by cypress mounted horizontally in reverse board and batten, in-floor heating, and solid, uninsulated sandwich walls built of pine covered on both sides with cypress. The structure is a modest, single-story, flat-roofed design with a floor plan organized around 2x4 and 4x4 grids. Notably, the project supervisor, Burton Goodrich, had to substitute filch plates and concealed I-beams to overcome the structure failure of sagging roofs during the construction phase.
Stanley Rosenbaum was a college professor, actually working out of his house when he first contacted Wright. This indicates the appeal that the Wright house had to the ordinary man. This was propelled by Wright's prior reputation, his inclusion in the International Style exhibit at the MoMa in 1932, and particularly for the Rosenbaums, a Time Magazine feature and Wright's renown among up-and-coming architects that had worked at Taliesen.
The house served only as a personal residence designed and later expanded to meet the needs of the Rosenbaums while allowing Wright to practice the language that would become central to the Usonian theme. The Rosenbaums would be the sole occupants through Stanley's death in 1983 and its purchase by the city of Florence in 1999. The house's inclusion in the Register of Historic places and conversion into a public museum indicate the general value that Wright's more private built works now hold in architectural history and as an expression of early modern architecture in America.
The Rosenbaum House is simple in its plan and modest in its ornamentation. The governing principles are the natural qualities of the materials, the relationship of the house to the surrounding land, and the convenience of the layout to the needs and desires of the house's residents. Careful attention to detail regarding wood and glasswork are overshadowed by the simplicity of horizontally hung cypress and large windows.
The Rosenbaum House won immediate renown. Stanley Rosenbaum stated that immediately upon occupying the house in September 1940, hundreds of visitors would request entry on a daily basis, so many that it seemed the entire population of Alabama had seen the house. On the national scale, photographs of the house were being displayed at MoMa within the month, further sparking the interest that would lead to commissions for the Pope, Goetsch-Winkler, and Euchtman Houses, followed by countless more Usonian and similar houses.
The Rosenbaum House is an important landmark of American architecture, representing a movement towards nature and simplicity in the years following the Depression. The house would come to represent an affordable designer house available to the ordinary man. However, in time it would also demonstrate the structural and material weakness of most Wright houses, requiring extensive renovation just to keep from disintegrating.
BROACH, Barbara Kimberlin et. al, Frank Lloyd Wright's Rosenbaum House: The Birth And Rebirth of an American Treasure, San Francisco, Pomegranate Press, 2006, 0764937634.
BRIGGS, Sara-Ann, “Rosenbaum House Restoration Begins”, Bulletin: The Quarterly Newsletter of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, USA, Spring 2000, v.10, n.2, pg. 16-17.
HITCHCOCK, Henry Russell, In the Nature of Materials, New York, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942, 0306800195.
“Buildings for Democracy”, Frank Lloyd Wright Quarterly, USA, Spring 2004, v.15, n.2, pg. 4-21.
SERGEANT, John, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Houses, New York, Whitney Library of Design, 1984, 0823071774.