Frank Lloyd Wright, one of America’s greatest architects, was no stranger to Pennsylvania. One of his most iconic works, Fallingwater, resides near Pittsburgh, and his only commissioned synagogue, Beth Sholom Synagogue, stands prominently in Elkins Park, about 45 minutes outside of Center City.
Yet examples of his residential work, especially in the Philadelphia region, are scarce, save for some gems in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and beyond. Indeed, the closest example Philly has of Wright’s residential work is on the Main Line, where a quartet of homes hide away on the outskirts of the city in the town of Ardmore.
It’s here at the corner of Sutton Road and East Spring Avenue where one finds Suntop Homes, a collection of four residences designed by Wright and built in 1939, just a few years after Fallingwater.
Today, Suntop Homes is considered a hidden architectural gem, nestled behind a wooden fence and rarely open to visitors, if ever. But a look back at Wright’s original plans for the development show that the architect hoped and expected much more than what stands in Ardmore today.
It was 1938, a few years after Wright had put forth his radical Broadacre City plan, considered an antithesis to urban living. He contended that single-family, Usonian homes would be the housing stock of Broadacre City. Usonian residences were described as “warm, open-planned, small houses designed for convenience, economy, and comfort,” Kenneth Frampton writes in Modern Architecture: A Critical History.
One local developer who latched onto Wright’s idea was Otto Tod Mallery of Tod Company. In 1938, he commissioned Wright to design a series of what would be called “minimum houses,” built on lots smaller in size than Wright was accustomed to. These entry-level homes would be intended for the suburbs and young families.
Wright took the job, referring to it as “The Ardmore Experiment.” The original plan called for more than a dozen, three-story units with roof terraces located in six individual buildings. In every structure, four residences were designed around one central point—an inner courtyard of sorts—in a pinwheel fashion. This would allow the homes both communal space and privacy; no home ever directly faced another.
The multi-story design was a departure from Wright’s typical Prairie-style residential work he had spearheaded in the Midwest, which was mostly horizontal. In addition, each residence would have a roof terrace, hence the name Suntop Homes.
In his book Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses, John Sergeant writes:
The essence of the quadruple home plan lay in its clear zoning—which allowed for different activities on the ground floor and upper dining balcony—as well as affording the housewife a commanding position, with easy access from the kitchen to the children’s bathroom and visual superintendence through clear-story windows of their play on the walled roof deck or in the garden below.
But in the end, the Suntop Homes development ended up running over budget. It didn’t help that the project began construction at the start of World War II, or that Wright insisted the use of high-quality and expensive craftsmanship, despite the project’s small budget. Each home was built using materials typical of Wright’s Usonian homes: Cypress, brick, concrete, glass, as well as his Cherokee red-painted floors.
While that attention to detail may be appreciated today, it meant that in 1939, Wright’s grand Ardmore Experiment came to an abrupt end after just four residences out of the 12 were built. The total building cost was $16,000, John Sergeant writes in Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses.
As he was prepping for the Museum of Modern Art’s “Show to End All Shows” exhibit on Wright’s work, curator John McAndrew wrote to the architect, “Everyone had settled in the Ardmore houses when I saw them last week. They certainly are a fine idea. I wish there was one near here for me to rent.”
But today, the Suntop Homes remain a bit of a mystery, even to local residents of Ardmore. In later years, two of the four homes would be severely damaged to fires, though they would ultimately be restored by newer owners.
They also rarely come on the market; in 2011, one two-bedroom, two-bath unit sold for $387,000, even after undergoing a couple of pricechops.
Indeed, the homes aren’t without their imperfections: They’ve been critiqued for their small spaces (each home was originally designed with two bedrooms), although some owners have turned the original carport into another living space or bedroom. In addition, with the kitchen on the second floor, the homes weren’t designed to age in place. To Wright’s credit, however, that wasn’t the original intention of the Suntop Homes.
Suntop Homes will never go down in history as one of the architect’s greatest works, although Sergeant argues that Wright’s innovative ideas for land use and designing for density still “has clear potential in housing design.” Perhaps Wright’s unsuccessful Ardmore Experiment wasn’t such a failure after all.