Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House

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Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House
Jacobs First House - front.jpg
Jacobs First House, street-side, June 2009
Interactive map showing Jacobs First House
Location441 Toepfer Avenue
Madison, Wisconsin
United States
Coordinates43°3′31″N 89°26′29″W / 43.05861°N 89.44139°W / 43.05861; -89.44139Coordinates: 43°3′31″N 89°26′29″W / 43.05861°N 89.44139°W / 43.05861; -89.44139
ArchitectFrank Lloyd Wright
Architectural style(s)Modern Movement, Other
Governing bodyPrivate
CriteriaCultural: (ii)
Designated2019 (43rd session)
Part ofThe 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright
Reference no.1496-006
RegionEurope and North America
DesignatedJuly 24, 1974[1]
Reference no.74000073
DesignatedJuly 31, 2003[2]
Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House is located in Wisconsin
Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House
Location of Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House in Wisconsin
Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House is located in the United States
Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House
Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House (the United States)

Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House, commonly referred to as Jacobs I, is a single family home located at 441 Toepfer Avenue in Madison, Wisconsin, United States. Designed by noted American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, it was constructed in 1937 and is considered by most to be the first Usonian home. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003.[2] The house and seven other properties by Wright were inscribed on the World Heritage List under the title "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright" in July 2019.[3]


Frank Lloyd Wright had been in the architecture business since 1887, starting out as a draftsman assisting on traditional-style buildings. By the 1900s he was a leading designer in the Prairie Style, a modern form aimed to fit the terrain of the American Midwest, independent of traditional European styles. He was also a leading proponent of the style, presenting his designs to the American housewife in Ladies Home Journal[4] and to the architecture community in the Wasmuth Portfolio. The Airplane House is an important example in Madison of Wright's Prairie Style from 1908. Demand for Wright's designs decreased in the 1920s, but in 1936 Wright began to make a comeback with two big commissions: the Johnson Wax Building in Racine and Fallingwater in Pennsylvania.[5]

Up to this point, most of Wright's clients had been wealthy.[6] In contrast, Herbert Jacobs was a young newspaperman who had come to work for Madison's Capital Times after working for the Milwaukee Journal for five years. In 1936 Herbert and his wife Katherine visited Wright at Taliesen near Spring Green and challenged the architect to design and build them a home for $5,000 (equivalent to $94,248 in 2021).[7] One of the ideas of the Prairie School was that beautiful designs should be available to all - not just the wealthy - and Wright had tinkered for years with ideas for less expensive homes like the 1934 Willey house in Minneapolis.[8]: 236  Taking up the Jacobs' challenge, Wright designed a modest L-shaped structure with an open floor plan and two bedrooms - 1,560 square feet (145 m2).[8]

To get to the Jacobs I design from Wright's earlier full Prairie School houses like the Airplane House, he removed the servant's quarters, eliminated the second story, eliminated the basement and the hip roof. Further, he reduced the four-wing cross-shaped footprint to a two-winged L. To save space, he combined the living room, dining room and kitchen into one flowing space.[8]: 219  To economize construction costs he developed a 2+14-inch-thick (57 mm) plywood sandwich wall for use on this house. Rumor maintains that redirected bricks from the Johnson Wax Building ultimately helped keep final construction costs at $5,000.[9]


Street side, 2017
Backyard side, June 2015

The Jacobs House is located in a residential area southwest of downtown Madison, on the east side of Toepfer Avenue between Birch and Euclid Avenues. It is a single-story structure with an L-shaped footprint and a brick chimney mass at the corner of the L. To increase privacy, the street side outside the L is clad in a combination of brick and horizontal pine and redwood boards, with only a narrow band of windows high under the eaves. Inside the L, ample windows and glass doors face the backyard garden area. The house rests on a concrete pad foundation and is covered by a flat roof with extensive eaves. One flat surface shelters a carport. Horizontality is stressed in the roofline, the boards of the siding, and the brick - a carry-over from Wright's Prairie Style designs.[6]

The house's front entrance is through the carport. Inside, one wing of the L is public space and the other wing is quiet.[6] The public wing contains a living room with a reading nook with a built-in writing table next to a wall of built-in bookshelves.[10] The living room flows into a dining area right next to the workspace/kitchen. Behind that is a bathroom. The quiet wing contains two bedrooms, a small shop area, and a study.[8] The house's original heating system consisted of steam heating pipes laid in the sand base that underlies the main concrete pad. The furnace that provided the steam heat was located in a small basement space under the kitchen.[6]

Wright's design came in on budget, with the house costing $5,000 to build, plus a fee of $500 to the architect. Wright would later state, "The house of moderate cost is not only America's major architectural problem, but the problem most difficult for her major architects. As for me, I would rather solve it with satisfaction to myself and Usonia than build anything I can think of at the moment."[6]

After construction[edit]

There was so much interest in the house after the Jacobs moved in that they began charging admission for tours, which eventually paid for Wright's design fee.[11] However they quickly outgrew the two-bedroom ranch and in 1942 moved to a farmhouse west of Madison. The following year they commissioned Wright to build a second, very different home, now called Jacobs II. The family moved there in 1948.[12]: 20  On Herb's retirement in 1962 they moved to the San Francisco area.[8]: 242 

When The Architectural Forum magazine covered Wright's work in 1938, the Jacobs House generated more response than any other featured house. Wright eventually designed forty similar houses,[6] and the open living room/dining/kitchen idea influenced the ranch house that became ubiquitous in the 1950s.[13]

Side, 1st Herbert A Jacobs House, Madison WI, USA.jpg

After the Jacobs left in 1942, the house changed owners and underwent modifications and maintenance techniques of variable historical value. When James Dennis bought it in 1982 the outside wood had been treated with creosote, turning it black.[8] A multi-year restoration project began in 1983, restoring the house to its 1937 appearance and updating worn and inefficient building systems.[14] The current owner opens the house for tours through the Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Heritage Tourism Program, Inc.

In hindsight, many architecture analysts see this first Jacobs house as Wright's first Usonian house, though the sometimes contrarian Wright later said that the first was the 1923 La Miniatura in Pasadena.[8] The Jacobs house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 2003. In July 2019 it and seven other properties by Wright were inscribed on the World Heritage List under the title "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. January 23, 2007.
  2. ^ a b "Herbert and Katherine Jacobs First House". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Archived from the original on 2009-04-03. Retrieved 2007-12-31.
  3. ^ "The 20th-Century Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved July 7, 2019.
  4. ^ "Frank Lloyd Wright, "A Home in a Prairie Town"". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2022-07-04.
  5. ^ "The Life of Frank Lloyd Wright". Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Retrieved 2022-07-04.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Jeffrey M. Dean (1973-11-19), National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Jacobs, Herbert A., House, National Park Service, retrieved 2022-07-03 With two photos.
  7. ^ Heinz, Thomas A., The Vision of Frank Lloyd Wright, Regency House Publishing, 2000
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Storrer, William Allin (1993). The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 242. ISBN 0-226-77624-7.
  9. ^ Heinz, Thomas A., Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide, Vol 1., Academy Editions, 1996
  10. ^ "Description". Usonia 1 - Jacobs House. Retrieved 2022-07-04.
  11. ^ "Herbert Jacobs, 30's Reporter who Reshaped Architecture". The New York Times. 1987-05-27. Retrieved 2022-07-04.
  12. ^ Sprague, Paul (July 21, 2001). "National Historic Landmark Nomination: Jacobs, Herbert and Katherine, Second House". National Park Service. Retrieved April 19, 2015.
  13. ^ "Herbert Jacobs House". Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Retrieved 2022-07-04.
  14. ^ "Restoration". Usonia 1 - Jacobs House. Retrieved 2022-07-04.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Storrer's book among the references above includes rough floorplans.