How did a house that was part of a rare series designed and endorsed by one of the world’s most renowned, innovative and recognized architects, Frank Lloyd Wright, end up in the small Iowa town of Monona, Iowa, with a population of barely over a thousand people?
It’s a story that has no definite answer, but the present owners of the house have traced its origins back to the original owners and their direct ties to the founders of Upper Iowa University.
This history, the history of Frank Lloyd Wright, hypothesis’s on how the original owners found out about such a rare series of homes, who owned the house through the ages and how the new owners are preserving its history are all part of a new book, “This American House.”
“Our home, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Meier House in Monona, Iowa, is one of the few existing examples of Wright’s remarkable American System-Built Homes project of the 1910s. We’re thrilled to announce the forthcoming release of our book, ‘This American House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meier House and the American System-Built Homes’, which sheds light on this long overlooked early effort by Wright to provide affordable but architecturally distinctive housing to middle class homeowners,” said the book’s authors Michael Schreiber and Jason Loper.
According to the authors, the book chronicles the storied history of the Meier House, its unique place within Wright’s works and Iowa architectural history, and their efforts to “steward this early 20th century Prairie style gem into the 21st century.”
“This American House further illuminates the fascinating historical connections of Delbert W. and Grace Burgess Meier, the first owners and namesakes of the Meier House, to Fayette, where they met circa 1900 while students at Upper Iowa University. Grace Meier was a member of the Alexander-Robertson family who founded UIU,” they explained, adding, “The staff of UIU’s Henderson-Wilder Library provided invaluable archival materials and photographs for our book.”
“Delbert and Grace Meier met while students at Upper Iowa University at the turn of the last century. Grace Meier’s family were the founders of UIU. Delbert Meier would go on to attend law school at the University of Chicago, and ultimately took over a law practice here in Monona, close to his own hometown and family in Postville. They built their Wright home in Monona in 1917, and would remain in it for the rest of their lives,” Schreiber said.
According to the authors, Grace’s great-grandparents, the Alexanders, were progressively determined in the 1850s to provide for the continuing education of their daughters as well as their sons, and so funded the founding of Upper Iowa University in Fayette.
Grace, then Burgess, taught in rural schools in northeastern Iowa for a year before obtaining a scholarship to Upper Iowa University, the very school her forebears had founded. Del, of Postville, too, would find his way to Upper Iowa University, a year after Grace. They would marry in 1903. Del set up his law practice in Monona in 1908.
How and why the Meiers chose to build a Wright–designed American System-Built Home remains a mystery.
What makes the house so unique and rare? The following information was taken from the new book.
Through Wright’s partnership with an enterprising Milwaukee real estate developer named Arthur L. Richards, they developed a program whereby a prospective homeowner could choose a house from a variety of models in Wright’s signature Prairie style, ranging from small cottages to spacious two-story residences, two-flat buildings, and apartment buildings. Various interior fixtures and furnishings could also be selected from a wide array of similarly predesigned options. The lumber and all components for the house (plaster, paint, windows, hardware, and fixtures) would be supplied by a Richards-owned mill and lumber company and shipped to the construction site, where skilled craftsmen would assemble the house.
Fewer than 20 American System-Built Homes of varying sizes and floor plans were constructed before the project stalled due to materials shortages and a troubled real estate market as the United States entered World War I in April 1917. A subsequent legal dispute between Wright and Richards effectively ended their collaboration. Only about a dozen of the homes remain standing today in Illinois and Wisconsin, including six on Milwaukee’s Burnham Street, which are being painstakingly restored. The Meier House is the only American System-Built Home to have been constructed in Iowa, and one of only 11 Wright-designed buildings in the state.
The authors bought the home in 2013 and since that time have been doing extensive restoration work.
“The house is a continuing work in progress. We’re stripping and restoring the original woodwork, and plan to have some missing original elements recreated and put back into place, like built-in wardrobe and fireplace cabinets. Eventually we want to remove the front porch that was added in the 1960s, to restore the facade to its original appearance,” Schreiber pointed out.
Both working in Chicago, they continue to travel between the two locations.
“It took us a little over six months to write the manuscript and collect all the images we wanted to include. That meant obtaining images from libraries and other resources, photographing every standing American System-Built Home and working with former owners to find old photos of our house. It also meant finishing a slew of projects at the Meier House so we could get interior and exterior photos that would be included in the book,” Schreiber said.
(Editor’s note: This article was republished with permission of news/feature writer Jack Swanson and Fayette County Newspapers.)