Architecture / Style / Prairie School

Chronology

1890-1915 (Whiffen)
1900-1920 (Blumenson)
1900-1920 (Roth)
1900-1920 (McAlester)
1900-1920 (Baker)

Description

An early 20th-century design that rejected historical and Classical styles in favor of open, flowing floor plans and a strongly horizontal character, suggesting, some say, the Midwestern prairie. Centered in Chicago, it is strongly associated with its boldest practitioner, Frank Lloyd Wright, although he worked beside several capable peers. Characterized by its overall horizontal appearance (which is accomplished through the use of bands of casement windows, long terraces or balconies, flanking wings, low pitched roofs with wide overhangs, and darkly colored strips or bands on exterior walls). (Kremer, 2019)

At the start of the 20th century, another group of Chicago architects was at the forefront in the development of a distinctive midwestern residential mode known as the Prairie School. The acknowledged leader and spokesman of the movement and the architect who produced the most noteworthy examples was Frank Lloyd Wright. (Poppeliers, 82)

Wright’s (contribution to the) Prairie School developed in the 1890s, and flourished between 1901 and his departure for Europe in 1909. (Howe, 327)

A number of young architects, some of whom worked in Wright’s studio, also designed in the Prairie Style during its brief but prolific heyday before 1920. They included Walter Burley Griffin, Marion Mahoney, George W. Maher, William E. Drummond, William G. Purcell and George G. Elmslie, to name a few. (Poppeliers, 80)

The architects of the Prairie School consciously rejected currently popular academic revival styles and sought to create buildings that reflected the rolling midwestern prairie terrain on which they were to be built. As a result, the Prairie house had a predominantly horizontal appearance with a broad hipped or gabled roof and widely overhanging eaves. Often the roof was penetrated by a large, plain, rectangular chimney. Prairie houses generally had two stories with walls of light-colored brick or stucco and wood. Walls were always arranged at right angles – there were no curves in the Prairie house. Dark wooden strips against a light stucco background revealed the influence of traditional Japanese architecture. Windows were usually casements arranged in horizontal ribbons and often featured stained glass in distinctive stylized floral or geometric patterns. One-story porches or prote cocheres, walls and terraces often extended from the main structure of the Prairie house and further emphasized its horizontal appearance. (Poppeliers, 80)

The one-story front entrance porches of Prairie School houses are also low and broad and made prominent by thick square posts and generous, often recessed gables. (In some Wright-designed houses, however, the main entrance is secluded and hidden from public view.) Front doors might feature one of a number of arrangements of square and/or rectangular panes of clear or stained glass. Usually, a door design, based on designs found in nature, mirrored the patterns found in a house’s windows. (Vincente, 119)

(Prairie School buildings) consists of a one- or two-story house built with brick or timber covered with stucco. The central portion rises slightly higher than the flanking wings. The eaves of the low-pitch roof extend well beyond the wall creating a definite horizontal and low to the ground quality. The large and very low chimney is found at the axis of the intersecting roof planes. Extending walls form the sides of terraces, balconies or delineate walks and entrances. Casement windows grouped into horizontal banks and sometimes continuing around corners emphasize the length of the house. The exterior walls are highlighted by dark wood strips against a lighter stucco finish or by a coping or ledge of smooth stucco along brick walls. (Blumenson, 73)

Interiors were as innovative as the exteriors. The flowing interior spaces of the Queen Anne and Shingle Style were an integral part of Prairie School design. Walls were plain except when accented by wooden strips, as on the exterior. Wooden trim in simple geometric shapes was used for stairways, built-in cabinets and the furniture that some of the architects designed to complement their houses. (Poppeliers, 80)

The Prairie School had its greatest influence in the Chicago area, where many Prairie Style houses were built in Oak Park and other suburbs. Examples can also be found throughout Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin, as far east as Rochester, New York, and even on the West Coast; they generally were the work of Chicago-based architects. But the ideas of the Prairie School were spread through publications and Prairie Style houses were designed by architects in Utah and Arizona and as far away as Puerto Rico. (Poppeliers, 80)

After World War I, Americans embraced the comfortable associations of the revival styles so completely that the Prairie Style did not realize its full potential in the United States. The plans and philosophy of the Prairie School, however, received critical acclaim in Europe through publication of the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. When America was again ready for cautious architectural experimentation in the 1930s, its own Prairie School movement was dead and the innovative ideas of the style had to be imported from Europe. (Poppeliers, 80-83)

Although the Prairie School had the largest following and the most influence in the early 20th century, other important innovations in domestic architecture were made on the West Coast. There, such pioneering architects as Bernard Maybeck, Greene and Greene and Irving Gill developed distinctive styles that survived in a limited way through the 1930s. They represent a major achievement, one of international importance, in American architectural development. However, during the first decades of the 20th century most Americans chose to live, work and shop in buildings after architectural styles of the past. (Poppeliers, 83)

Variations

Leading Examples

The Robie House (1908-09, Frank Lloyd Wright), Chicago, is perhaps the most famous example of the fully developed Prairie School house. The bold interplay of horizontal planes with the solid vertical mass of the central chimney, along with the cantilevered overhangs, are identifying features of the style. (Poppeliers, 81)

The Woodbury County Courthouse (1916-18, Purcell and Elmslie and William Steele), Sioux City, Iowa, is one of the largest Prairie School buildings ever constructed. Its ornamentation shows some affinity to the work of Louis Sullivan. (Poppeliers, 81)

The Edward Boynton House (1907-08, Frank Lloyd Wright), Rochester, New York, was the easternmost example of the Prairie School when it was built. The cahirs and tables in the dining room show that the interiors of Wright’s Prairie houses were beautifully integrated with the exteriors. (Poppeliers, 82)

Merchants’ National Bank (Poweshick County National Bank) (1914, Louis Sullivan), Grinnell, Iowa, almost defies classification. One of a number of similar small-scale midwestern banks, its plain brick facade with its commanding cornice seems related to the Prairie School, but the rose window in its exuberant terra-cotta surround is unique. (Poppeliers, 83)

Carter House (1910, Walter Burley Griffin (1876-1937)), Evanston, Illinois. (Howe, 327)

William Martin House (1903, Frank Lloyd Wright), Oak Park, Illinois.
(Howe, 327)

Purcell-Cutts House (1913, William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie), Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Howe, 327)

Bradley “Airplane” House (1911-1912, Wiiliam Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie), Woods Hole, Massachusetts. (Howe, 328)

Wright House (1889, Frank Lloyd Wright), 951 Chicago Ave, Oak Park, Illinois. (Howe, 329)

William H. Winslow House (1893-1894, Frank Lloyd Wright), River Forest, Illinois. This was Wright’s first house after leaving Sullvan’s office. (Howe, 329)

Willits House, (1901, Frank Lloyd Wright), Highland Park, Illinois. (Vincente, 119)

J.K. Ingalls House (1909, Frank Lloyd Wright), Oak Park, Illinois. (Vincente, 119)

Martin House (1904, Frank Lloyd Wright), Buffalo, New York. (Vincente, 119).

Glossary

Sources Cited