Our house was designed by a man named David Henken.  I wish I could have met this man.

As a young engineer living in New York City in the 30’s, Henken decided that the city was getting too congested.  He wanted to build a home up in Westchester County, immediately North of the city, where he and his family could have more space.  But in the wake of the Depression, this was a challenge.  He and his wife talked with friends about ways to leverage their resources by buying common land, and using a common architect and a common builder.  I’ve read one account that the idea was originally to have four homes built around a shared swimming pool.

Around this time, Henken and his wife attended an exhibit of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work at MoMA. Included in the exhibit was a portion dedicated to a Usonian community in Michigan, which seemed in many ways to be a perfect model for what they had been considering. Seeing this exhibit so captured their imaginations that Henken and his wife pulled up stakes in New York to study with Wright at Taliesin, his compound in Wisconsin.

While at Taliesin, not only did Henken attain a great deal of practical knowledge of architecture, but he also managed to convince Wright to get involved in the development of a cooperative community in New York.

When the Henkens returned to New York, they began the long process of assembling a group of prospective shareholders, finding a parcel of land, and securing financing.  In the classic cooperative tradition, this took countless meetings, many fits and starts, and a tremendous amount of cat herding – all of which added up to a massive amount of time.

Once land was secured, and a group coalesced to form the core of the community that would become Usonia, these intrepid city-dwellers all pitched in to prepare the land for roads, water and electricity, and began to build their houses, most of which had received design approval from Frank Lloyd Wright.

At the heart of this effort was Henken – he participated in the labor, and also served on the design committee, coordinating the design and construction of the various houses.  Because of his relationship with Wright, he was the central liaison with the architect.  This was no small task, either, at least judging by Wright’s reputation (see Ken Burns’ documentary on Wright for a glimpse of how difficult this may have been).

Finally, Henken personally designed over one quarter of the houses in Usonia – and he never obtained an architect’s license.  When, like Henken, we began looking for a home outside New York City, we became increasingly disenchanted with the standard center hall colonials that populate this area.  What really made us begin to look in earnest for something different was a visit to one of Henken’s houses in Usonia (as well as one designed by his neighbor, Aaron Resnick).  It resonated with us as a design that aligned perfectly with our idea of Home.

-David Henken, with Frank Lloyd Wright-

*Just about everything I know about David Henken comes from the above book, “Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright” by Roland Reisley with John Timpane (Princeton Architectural Press, New York 2001).  I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  Mr. Reisley was an early member of Usonia, and lives there to this day, in one of the three houses in the community designed by Frank Lloyd Wright himself.  His experiences, and the dozens of beautiful pictures of the houses and people of Usonia, make for a wonderful read.