Usonian Automatics by William Tracy

Photo courtesy of the Estate of Martha (Elizabeth) Tracy

William and Elizabeth Tracy were nothing if not dedicated. Beginning in the late spring of 1955 they started casting concrete blocks. Working with their contractor they had commissioned a set of metal forms that accommodated various wood inserts to create the different block patterns they required. Over the course of a year, casting blocks twice a day, five days each week (in addition to working full time jobs), they personally cast roughly 1,700 modular concrete blocks of a wide variety of types—wall (some to accommodate glass), corner, jamb, roof-ceiling, roof edge and so on. Wall blocks were generally 12’ x 24’ x 4’; ceiling blocks, the heaviest – weighing about 160 pounds each – were 24’ x 24’ x 4.’ Today, we marvel at the Tracys’ patience and dedication. The blocks were all for their own house, a Usonian Automatic, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Not only dedicated, the Tracys were also persistent. They had been, in a sense, Wright students; in the summer of 1952, they traveled across the Midwest and visited Wright buildings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan. But when they contacted the Wright office in 1953 requesting a house design, an apprentice, serving as Wright’s secretary, wrote back that the architect was unable to help—the site in Normandy Park was too far, their budget too small. When the Tracys approached architect and former Wright apprentice Milton Stricker, he recognized their devotion to Wright’s ideas and intervened on their behalf. In August 1954, William Tracy again wrote to Wright, and this time he mentioned that contractor Ray Brandes, for whom Wright had designed a house in Issaquah, had offered to build the house, and Stricker had volunteered to supervise. He also suggested the house might be constructed using Wright’s patented block technique, an integrated system for design and construction using modular concrete blocks that Wright had perfected in about 1949. Wright called both the blocks and the buildings made of the blocks by the name “Usonian Automatics.”

usonian automatics

Photo courtesy of the Estate of Martha (Elizabeth) Tracy

usonian automatics

usonian automatic

Photos: Larry Woodin, Echome Foundation

Wright completed the design by November 1954; construction went forward the following July. Although Wright had intended his Usonian Automatics to offer a way for a wide range of clients to build their own houses, construction with this technique is actually quite demanding. The bocks are held together with reinforcing rods running horizontally and vertically in the walls and in two directions in the ceiling/roof; creamy grout poured into grooves cast in the blocks as well as the spaces between the blocks bonds the reinforcing rods and the blocks. The system is modular in three dimensions but depends on meeting very tight tolerances; each hand-made block must be the correct shape and size, and the assembly must be precise such that the whole system will properly bond together. As a result, relatively few Usonian Automatics were actually built. Other than the Tracy house, the nearest examples are in Arizona and the Midwest.

With Brandes as their contractor and Stricker supervising the work, the Tracys achieved an extraordinary result. Although the three-bedroom house has an area of only 1,150 square feet, it feels much larger. The house is set into a slight hill. The solid blocks on the east side near the entrance are opaque, offering little hint of what is beyond. Inside, the living and dining room flow together around the fireplace and open up to the west with floor-to-ceiling doors and blocks with embedded glass for columns to a terrace overlooking Puget Sound 150-feet below. The blocks are light gray; the natural redwood of the doors, trim and other elements provides a rich contrast. The concrete floors are terra cotta colored. There are built-in benches and other furniture of Wright’s design.

The Tracys loved their home and generously showed it to many visitors. Although constructed of blocks the Tracys made themselves, the house proved to be quite sturdy; there have been several earthquakes in the region – the last in 2001 – but the house shows no evidence of cracking. During more than a half century, the only change the Tracys made was the construction of a small workshop at the back of the carport in the 1960s. Although Wright’s successors, the Taliesin Fellows, designed an expansion of the carport, it was never built. William Tracy died in July 2008; Elizabeth in August 2010.

The house is now vacant, awaiting a purchaser. Fortunately, unlike the Paul Thiry house recently destroyed in Normandy Park, the Tracy House, when sold, will be protected by a conservation easement.