Frank Lloyd Wright Sites Local to the Philadelphia Area

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of America’s most prominent architects. Over the entirety of his prolific career, he designed more than one thousand buildings, 532 of which were physically completed. He is renowned for his illustrious architectural legacy and for championing a philosophy known as organic architecture – the idea that architectural design should be harmonious with mankind and integrated with the natural environment. He is also remembered for having pioneered a type of residential design known as the Prairie House: a long, low, and mostly horizontal house style which he fleshed out during his early career in the Midwestern United States.

Some of Wright’s most famous architectural feats include Fallingwater near Pittsburgh, the Johnson Wax building in Wisconsin, and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. However, impressive Frank Lloyd Wright designs can be found much closer to home, just a few miles outside the City of Philadelphia. These include Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, PA; the Suntop Homes in Ardmore, PA; and the J.A. Seeton Residence in Cherry Hill, NJ.

In the realm of residential architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright developed the concept of the Usonian Home, a term which refers to his architectural vision for the future of American residential structures – small, inexpensive, single-story homes with flat roofs and natural lighting. In other words, Wright coined the term “Usonia” to refer to “America.” A prominent example of this residential design is the quartet of Suntop Homes built in 1939, just a few years after the architect’s famous Fallingwater building. Located on the outskirts of the City in the suburb of Ardmore, the Suntop Homes represent Frank Lloyd Wright’s own rendering of the Philadelphia row houses.

Image 1: Suntop Homes in Ardmore, PA. Photo from the Library of Congress.

This collection of pinwheel houses was an ingenious geometry experiment that offered a solution to the age-old architectural puzzle of how to create attached housing models that preserve privacy. Wright believed it was the responsibility of architects to build the people inexpensive, good quality housing. With his innovative Suntop Homes design, Wright discovered a way to reinvent geometrical shapes and attach four houses together in a way that gives each of them privacy and light. Every house has four walls, of course, but two of these are shared with the other homes. Each house is small yet bright, with low ceilings and living spaces full of glass and natural light. In fact, the name “Suntop Homes” comes from the fact that the houses have roof terraces. Today, these structures are privately owned and rarely open to the public.

Another local Usonian-style home is the J.A. Sweeton House in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just 9 miles away from Philadelphia. Frank Lloyd Wright designed this custom-made residence in 1950 on a small budget, and its total size stands at just 1,500 square feet. It has a dramatic slanted roof and a design that is harmonious with the surrounding nature. The geometric shapes and glass windows characteristic of Wright’s style do not fail to make an appearance in this structure, which was purchased by a local architect about ten years ago. He has recently undertaken large restoration projects for the J.A. Sweeton House to return it to its earlier conditions. The house remains privately-owned today.

Image 2: J.A. Sweeton House in Cherry Hill, NJ. Photo by owner Dan Nichols

Outside of these houses, a particularly spectacular local example of Wright’s non-residential work is the Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. It was built during the great American suburban house-building boom of the 1950s, otherwise known as the American suburbanization. This house of worship was created for a Jewish congregation that had roots in North Philadelphia, where it was established in 1918 after World War I. As the process of suburbanization started occurring at a greater rate, the congregation began moving to the suburbs of Philadelphia. The congregation’s leader at the time, Rabbi Mortimer Cohen, wrote to Frank Lloyd Wright in the hopes of persuading him to design a Great American Synagogue for this migrating community. Rabbi Cohen envisioned a building whose principle characteristics were American in essence, a building which culminated as a celebration of the Americanization of this European Jewish community – and Frank Lloyd Wright embraced this vision and delivered a true gem of an architectural feat to the Philadelphia area.

With its powerful geometrical intricacies and multi-faceted shapes, Beth Sholom Synagogue stands out like some sort of geological rock crystal on top of a mountain. “It’s a bold statement – a kind of man-made mountain that could be seen from 20 miles away 20 years ago before the tree cover had grown,” says Dr. David Brownlee, distinguished historian of modern architecture and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Brownlee points out that the geometry of this structure is extremely complicated and full of symbolism. Wright loved to give his designs symbolic richness and meaning, and this is exemplified by the complexity of light, color, and geometry culminating in the design of this synagogue to symbolize spirituality through architecture. The basic shape might be described as a triangular pyramid formed by three big reinforced concrete legs that support each other harmoniously in way similar to a Native American tipi structure. Despite these basic three legs, the overarching plan is an irregular pentagon, and from the outside it’s very difficult to figure out this shape.

Image 3: Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, PA. Photo courtesy of the Beth Sholom Congregation.

As for the interior, it is not an exaggeration to describe the process of entering the building as a powerful experience, a spatial journey of sorts. Upon walking in, there is a door with a low height, then a dark and cramped vestibule, and then finally a glorious view upwards toward the interior of the great dome. A gently sloping stair is followed in order to enter the sanctuary and finally emerge in the midst of a mystical landscape of light. In the great auditorium bowl, it seems like the skies are overhead: the roof is luminous, made entirely of a glass ceiling system that represents the excellence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work. Dr. Brownlee describes the process of entering the building as, “an astonishing spatial adventure, going from one experience to another – it’s confusing from the outside, cramped in the entranceway, and breathtaking in the tipi pyramid space of pure light.”

Today, Beth Sholom serves not only as a center of worship, but also as a historic site and community center for the arts and education in the surrounding community. Located about 45 minutes from Center City Philadelphia, this is the only synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Although the architect accepted the commission in 1953, the construction was not finished until September 1959, several months after his death. In 2007, the synagogue received the designation of a National Historic Landmark, and today it is open to the public and available for touring on select days of the week.

“This architecture hammers home the fact that Philadelphia is a metropolitan area with an unusually well-integrated, closely-associated group of suburbs built along an excellent commuter railroad system, exploring the beauty of the surrounding countryside, and capitalizing off an economic factor of industrial success,” says Dr. Brownlee. These buildings are part of the social and cultural history of suburbanization that swept through the country in the 1950s, and Philadelphia’s success as a city cannot be separated from the history of suburbia development.

As such, these local Frank Lloyd Wright sites must be honored and preserved as living pieces of our region’s heritage. These are buildings and works of art all in one. They live on long after their architects, commissioners, and inhabitants. They serve as vessels of history and connect generations to each other.

Although these architectural gems are located all over the United States, Dr. Brownlee leaves us with a final image to consider and an interesting thought to entertain, “If you took the museum from New York, the scattering churches, the Beth Sholom Synagogue, the Johnson Wax building, and the multitude of residential houses; and if you were to put them all in one place, you’d have yourself an ideal Frank Lloyd Wright town!”


Article written by Cristina Serban on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association

Image Credits

Image 1: Photo from the Library of Congress, taken from Curbed Philadelphia article:

Image 2: Copyright Dan Nichols, taken from Archinect article

Image 3: Copyright Beth Sholom Congregation