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Prairie Homes & Prairie School Architecture

Lowered ceilings, open planning, indirect lighting—all these can be traced to modern, American style Prairie homes. By Patricia Poore

    American styles tend to be derived from other countries and cultures. But Prairie homes (1889–1919) are all-American, developed out on the prairie. Architect Louis Sullivan’s teachings and philosophy were the inspiration for the style, which began in 1890s Chicago. Frank Lloyd Wright set the standards for the genre, which was based on the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement. (Indeed, Gustav Stickley embraced the designs of the Prairie School, publishing Wright and others early on in the pages of The Craftsman magazine.)

    Yet it was, on purpose and by design, a Midwestern style: “modern” and “progressive,” and linked to the broad landscape of the prairie. 

Believing that Victorian rooms were boxy and confining, Wright (building on such precedent as H.H. Richardson’s designs and those of architects who developed the Shingle Style) redefined the American house, creating open, free-flowing space. These interiors were dramatic and even shocking with their open floor plans (often centered around a large central chimney), their rows of small windows, and their one-story projections. Architects who worked with and around Wright over the next 25 years developed a style that became prevalent throughout the Midwest, in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, and Des Moines.

    The style’s influence was far-ranging, reaching all areas of the country (as well as northern Europe and Australia), and changing the 20th-century domestic interior. Lowered ceilings, using a change in level to demarcate space, open planning, indirect lighting—all these can be traced to this modern, American style. It helped that the Ladies Home Journal in 1901 published an article with a plan by Wright, with the headline “Home in a Prairie Town. ” (Thus was the name coined.)

    In broad strokes, the style was popularized throughout the country in pattern books. In Radford’s widely distributed books, for example, many designs featured smooth stucco, horizontal banding, low projecting roofs, Prairie windows, and abstract ornament. The ubiquitous bungalow books published in this same period often included houses labeled “Midwest Bungalow” or something similar, which were clearly derived from the Chicago school. And if half the American Foursquares in the country are Colonial Revival, the other half surely have Prairie lineage; you can see it in their porch roofs and columns, grouped windows, and articulated water tables.

    The Midwest is experiencing a surge of interest in Prairie-School architecture. They are being restored, added to, and copied. Not all of these houses are by Wright—or by George Elmslie, or Tallmadge and Watson. In the period 1900 to 1920, many architects and even spec builders put up homes in the regional style. In a recent architectural survey, the Prairie Style was picked as the favorite style for “dream houses.” Surely this points to resurgence of interest—and a revival. Low houses with sheltering eaves and open-plan interiors are being built from New England to California. Wright’s houses were stark and startling when he built them at the end of the Victorian era. But he was ahead of his time. Now the horizontal informality seems familiar and relaxing.

    Hallmarks of Prairie Houses

    Though they’re a hundred years old, Prairie School and Prairie-style houses still seem modern in their massing, materials, and lack of ornament. Dwellings built from Kansas City to Des Moines incorporated Prairie School-influenced massing and details: grouped windows, low-walled porch and stoop, modern ornament.

    HORIZONTAL is the emphasis on houses built to acknowledge the flat prairie lands. The massing is horizontal, and so are treatments such as porches, banded windows, and belt courses.

    LOW-PITCHED ROOFS, hipped or nearly flat, extend the horizontality, as do their overhanging eaves.

    CUBIC or otherwise geometric form is prevalent in massing and details.

    WINDOWS have different proportions than those of the 19th century. Look for vertical muntin patterns in sash, and tall narrow windows in bands that form a horizontal expanse. Geometric or abstract art glass (in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright designs) was mass-produced.

    ORNAMENT is sparse and integral; look for abstract forms molded into concrete pillars, for example, rather than classical ornament or decorative sawn wood.

    Prairie House Interiors

    Prairie School interiors are of a piece with the exterior style. Horizontal emphasis, grouped windows (often with art glass), and integrated architecture continue inside. Seating, storage, and lighting is often built into the architecture of rooms. Surfaces are generally plain (not covered with paper) and color schemes are neutral, monochromatic, or analogous (i.e., coral, orange, persimmon, or blue-greens with greenish blues).

    Prairie-style motifs found their way into builder’s houses, including foursquares and bungalows, usually in the form of ceiling beams and horizontal woodwork, lighting, and furniture.

    Prairie School houses introduced innovations that became conventions in later building. Examples include raised hearths, lowered ceilings and level changes within the house, built-in furniture, indirect lighting, open floor plans, and the kitchen as an extension of living area. These modern houses truly changed the 20th-century domestic interior, through the 1950s and until today.

    Recommended Reading

    Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie Houses
    by Alan Hess (Rizzoli, 2006)
    A focus on the interiors and details of over 70 extant buildings of the Prairie School years. The author explains how Wright broke from Beaux Arts symmetry to create “a tartan plaid of main spaces and secondary spaces, of public rooms and circulation spaces”—with brilliant results.

    Purcell & Elmslie, Prairie Progressive Architects
    by David Gebhard (Gibbs Smith, 2006)
    A comprehensive look at the work of Wright contemporaries William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie. Their progressive firm was the most productive of the era’s Chicago-area architectural offices. Photos record the appeal of simple forms, textures, and organic decoration in buildings suited to their sites.




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