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The Prairie Style of Architecture, c. 1901 - c. 1917.

We of the Middle West are living on the prairie. The prairie has a beauty of its own and we should recognize and accentuate this natural beauty, its quiet level. Hence, gently sloping roofs, low proportions, quiet skylines, suppressed heavy-set chimneys and sheltering overhangs, low terraces and outstretching walls sequestering private gardens. --Frank Lloyd Wright, 1908.

Prairie Style is one of the few architectural styles with a solid American pedigree. It grew out of and alongside Arts and Crafts Movement architecture in the period from about the turn of the 20th century until approximately WW I, when it was effectively killed by consumers stampeding for (by then) socially more elevating revival styles. The greatest architect working in the Prairie Style was Frank Lloyd Wright, and the majority of landmark examples of the style are from his hand. His prestige was so great that the Prairie Style even influenced the Bauhaus movement in Germany (cf. the 1920/21 Sommerfeld House in Berlin).

My purpose here is 1) to focus on the characteristic elements of the style as revealed in landmark examples of domestic architecture and 2) to aid in interpreting the interior and exterior appearance of Prairie houses. See the many URLs below which illustrate the discussion. My frequent pointing to certain examples for which I've found illustrations does not mean other houses do not also follow the pattern under discussion.

The Prairie "look."

Landmark Prairie houses are unforgettable. Often rising from ground which has itself been sculpted (Wright's May House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1908; Wright's Gilmore House, Madison, Wisconsin, 1908; Purcell and Elmslie's Bradley House II, Madison, WI, 1914/15), and in some cases surrounded by extensive landscape architecture (Wright's Dana House, Springfield, Illinois, 1902; Wright's Darwin Martin House, Buffalo, New York 1904, Wright's Coonley House, Riverside, Illinois, 1907), these houses are not so much imposed upon the environment as made one with it. Wright famously spoke of his own house, Taliesin (1911-59), as being "of the hill, not on it," that is, sensitively sited.

The house itself has no basement, rising from a cement slab Wright used to call a "water table" (prominently visible in Wright's Robie House, Chicago, Illinois 1906). This slab, picked out in white, is immediately topped by the mass of house, very often in brick. Construction in geometrically simple planes and piers of brick rises to above the main-floor wondows--in the most complex houses, construction continues in brick throughout (Robie House, May House, etc.). The brickwork picks up and continues the horizontal motif established firmly by the water table; the horizontal spaces between bricks are "raked" (some white mortar is scraped out), so that sunlight creates dark horizontal lines in the brick planes which form the walls and piers of the house. Vertical spaces between bricks were often masked by being filled with mortar colored approximately to the bricks' shade of red, highlighting the horizontals even further. Wright occasionally used Roman brick, which is somewhat thinner and longer than "normal" brick, so as to heighten the effect.

A few of the best houses rise in what architects call "asymmetric massing," meaning that the houses avoid neat and easy symmetries which let you visualize the front as a simple geometrical shape like a square or a rectangle with the door smack in the middle at ground level. Asymmetry requires careful measurements and one-off building parts, and is a reason why Prairie Houses were so costly. The motive for asymmetry is the visual excitement created by projection of masses like wings, porte cochères, porches, and terraces out from the central mass of the house. The idea is to complicate the visual pattern interestingly, and to reveal the architect's bravura in creating a sense of balance in the design the hard way. The door will often be off axis, and if the house is by Wright, it is likely to be around the back and hidden from the street. Good examples: the Robie House; the May House; Wright and Mahoney's 1909 Amberg House in Grand Rapids; Sullivan's 1909 Bradley House I in Madison, WI, etc.

The glazing in Prairie houses is arresting and visually impressive. All landmark examples have extensive "ribbons" (bands) of casement windows (tall one-piece windows that open like little doors) arranged in conspicuous long rhythmic series of tall rectangles. The leaded art glass in these windows is distinctive for its geometrical patterns of lines, squares, and diagonals, as well as iridescent colors. The geometric patterns are (especially in Wright houses) often abstractions of plant forms (wheat, sumac, etc.), and many architects integrated these motifs through the whole house. The Stewart House by George Washington Maher (1905) in Wausau, Wisconsin, has tulip decoration which is astonishingly echoed in tulip-shaped columns which uphold the front porch!

The main floor tends to have porches outside with plain, geometrically-designed planters. All porches and wings, as well as the central mass, are overhung with hipped roofs (i.e., the roof is folded in such a way that all outer edges bend down, with no triangular gables like Greek temple pediments) which are cantilevered out well beyond the walls of the room or porch (there are a few notable exceptions to this practice, such as the Dana House, and the Amberg House, which have prominent gables). These big, overhanging eaves are boxed (i.e., have flat undersides) and are designed to provide shelter from the elements and accentuate the structure's horizontals. Deeply overhung eaves (much more costly than normal ones) are a characteristic feature of landmark Prairie houses, Wright's in particular. (Wright enjoyed playing a little trick. He would cantilever some roofs way out beyond the house (over a porch, for example) and have piers rise at the end of the porch as though they were going to be supports at the corners of the extended roof--but then stop them half way up, putting planters on top! The point was to emphasize the daring cantilever.)

Prairie houses have informal open plans, i.e., broad, non-restricting passages leading from one to another of the main floor's interior spaces, creating long views from room to room and emphasizing the feeling of freedom and space (a feature picked up later by midcentury modern architects). Privacy or a more intimate space could be achieved by drawing heavy velvet curtains across the entrance to the rooms.

The feel in one of these interiors is of generous spaciousness, as well as of coziness, for Wright designed the heights and arrangement of his bands of windows to narrow down, creating a safe bulwark at the edge of the living room. Geographer Jay Appleton advanced a theory of prospect and refuge (roughly, that humans evolved to take pleasure and feel security in their dwellings when able to see out broadly while feeling cozily hidden within), which has been extensively applied to Wright's architecture by art historian Grant Hildebrand.

Interior ceilings were often vaulted, with interesting pleated patterns picked out by oak trim (Wright's Dana House, Coonley House, etc.). Plate racks of oak tend to encircle rooms at about head height to display curios and objets d'art. In the May House in Grand Rapids, Wright installed leaded-glass skylights over the area just before the main windows looking out to the street: there is no describing the effect of standing under them on a sunny day while looking out.

The heart of any Prairie living room is the fireplace. Broad and sometimes surrounded by inglenooks, they are the architectural focus (as it were) of the room, and Wright spared no expense (to his clients) to create dramatic effects here. In the May House, for example, he had glaziers lay gold-backed iridescent mirrored glass strips in the horizontal channels between courses of bricks, creating an unexpectedly successful and beautiful effect. In the Martin House he had a mosaic of Wisteria laid around the fireplace; in the Coonley House, he surrounded it with frescoes. Similar effects can be found in landmark houses by other Prairie architects.

Domestic spaces like bedrooms were often placed above the main floor containing the living room (the latter may be of double height, however: Wright's Hardy House, Racine, Wisconsin, 1905; Wright's Roberts House, River Forest, Illinois, 1908, etc.). The floor with the bedrooms was usually the top floor (Wright's Dana House, Robie House, May House, etc.); it is rare to find tall Prairie houses because this would defeat the overarching horizontality of the house as it embraces the land. Some houses with the main floor sheathed in brick have the upper floor (or parts of them) done in stucco (but there are many variations on exterior materials). The undersides of the boxed eaves are generally stuccoed.

But if the exterior of a landmark Prairie house embraces the land by its horizontality, natural materials (brick, stucco, wood, wooden shake roofs), and color palette (browns, yellows, creams, golds--the colors of autumn), the interior is just as closely connected. Walls in the best houses are elaborately articulated with oak trim, isolating plastered surfaces like framed prints on the walls, above the plate rack, and on the ceiling. In these spaces Wright and the others used two main palettes: the autumnal colors, including rusty cinnabar-reds (Dana House, May House, Wright's Stockman House, Mason City, Iowa, 1908) and verdant glade colors (Wright's Willets House, Highland Park, Illinois, 1901, Dana House, Coonley House). Many houses one sees in pictures have fairly restrained cream-colored walls, but it is hard to say what the original colors were: "resale value" and "good taste" in recent years have tended to push owners toward blah colors.

The plaster has sand mixed into it, giving it a rough texture; color was applied by "stamping" it on with a stiff brush (one sees the technique called "scumbling" here and there), sometimes with a glaze coat over another complementary color underneath. The point is to have a varied, deep wall treatment. Most of the paints I've seen in museum houses have flat (i.e., matte) finishes.

In addition to the art glass and special fireplace surround treatments, interiors were commonly filled with custom works of art which included architect-designed furniture. The most famous Wright collaborator was Milwaukee interior decorator George Mann Niedecken who designed trademark Prairie Style furniture which picked up the simple unornamented planes of the exteriors of these houses. Niedecken also designed numerous rugs and murals in Wright houses (Dana House, Coonley House, Robie House, May House, etc.). Other prominent artist collaborators (not just with Wright) include sculptors Richard Bock and Alfonso Ianelli and painters Orlando Giannini and Oscar Gross.

Why did the Prairie Style (at least as a viable domestic architectural style) die overnight at the time of the First World War? Brooks (336-348) looked into this interesting question, and on the basis of records of architects' interviews with clients, he concluded that the client base moved from men (who had no stylistic pretensions out of sheer ignorance but wanted raw quality) to their wives (who were influenced by magazines out of Boston and New York touting historical styles). This is only part of the story, of course. Oddly enough, in the strongly historicizing Loma Portal neighborhood of San Diego (1930s), there are two Prairie Style revivals on Goldsmith St.! (Wright, incidentally, called the 1937 Herbert Johnson House--"Wingspread"--in Racine, WI the "last of the Prairie Houses.")

The Prairie Style has recently become newly fashionable for commercial building (e.g. ConAgra's campus in Omaha, NE), and individuals with the money for it are even building some new domestic structures. Most strikingly, the son of Wright partner Marshall Erdman (who built Wright-designed prefab houses) has developed a Prairie Style enclave ("Middleton Hills") in Middleton, Wisconsin (a suburb of Madison). To meet varied financial portfolios, the Erdman development features duplexes, free-standing houses, and even apartment buildings. Accustomed as we are to seeing one Prairie house at a time throwing its neighbors into the shade, a development with dozens cheek-by-jowl is a little disconcerting (and offputting). There was, however, one major Prairie development in the style's heyday: the beautiful Rock Crest-Rock Glen development in Mason City IA, 1912 (in which Wright did not participate).

A note on dates. I have taken all Wright dates from Storrer's Complete Catalog, 3rd edition. Some authors and websites date by year the house was planned by Wright (Storrer being one of them); some by date building started; some by finishing date.


Bibliography. Images.

URLs for images.
Amberg House: http://www.peterbeers.net/interests/flw_rt/Michigan/Amberg_House/amberg_house.htm
Richard Bock works: http://www.prairiestyles.com/bock_comm.htm
Harold Bradley House I: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/hp/register/viewSummary.asp?refnum=72000047
Harold Bradley House II: http://www.organica.org/pejn260.htm
Avery Coonley House: http://www.peterbeers.net/interests/flw_rt/Illinois/Coonley_House/coonley_house.htm
Coonley House Niedecken furniture: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/amer/65pc_wright.html
Susan Lawrence Dana House: http://www.state.il.us/HPA/hs/Thomas.htm
Dana House again: http://www.dana-thomas.org/InforHouse.htm
Orlando Giannini works: http://www.prairiestyles.com/giannini_comm.htm
Eugene Gilmore House: http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/wisconsin/madison/wrightgilmore/gilmore.html
Oscar Gross works: http://www.prairiestyles.com/gross_comm.htm
Thomas Hardy House: http://www.peterbeers.net/interests/flw_rt/Wisconsin/Thomas_Hardy_House/thomas_hardy_house.htm
Loma Portal, San Diego Houses: http://moses.creighton.edu/bucher/Interests%20pages/San%20Diego%20Hses/Loma_Portal/Loma_Portal_Prairie.html
Darwin Martin House: http://www.darwinmartinhouse.org/history/history-frm.html
Meyer May House: http://www.dgunning.org/architecture/Michigan/Meyer%20May/
Middleton Hills: http://www.housingzone.com/topics/pb/build/pb04ja003.asp
Frederick Robie House : http://www.bc.edu/bc_org/avp/cas/fnart/fa267/FLW_robie.html
George Mann Niedecken works: http://www.prairiestyles.com/niedecken_comm.htm
Rock Crest-Rock Glen Development: http://www.pbs.org/wbgriffin/mason.htm
Hiram Stewart House: http://www.stewartinn.com/index.htm
George Stockman House: http://www.dgunning.org/architecture/Iowa/stockman.htm
Harvey P. Sutton House: http://www.nebraskahistory.org/images/histpres/nebraska/RW05-001.jpg
Taliesin: http://www.franklloydwright.org/
Ward Willits House: http://www.greatbuildings.com/buildings/Ward_Willits_House.html

Prairie Style - General.
Brooks, H.A. 1972. The Prairie School. Frank Lloyd Wright and his Midwest Contemporaries. (Architectural history.)
Legler, D. and Korab, C. 1999. Prairie Style. Houses and Gardens by Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School. (A good repertoire of photos.)
Visser, K. 1998. Frank Lloyd Wright & the Prairie School in Wisconsin. An Architectural Tourning Guide.

Prairie Style - Identification guides.
McAlester, V. and McAlester, L. 2000. A Field Guide to American Houses. (This is the best of the guides--Prairie Style 438-451)
Rifkind, C. 1980. A Field Guide to American Architecture. (Prairie style 98-103)
Walker, L. 1996. American Homes. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Domestic Architecture. (Prairie Style 196-197.)

Prairie Style - Frank Lloyd Wright houses.
Heinz, T.A. 2005. Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide. Includes All United States and International Sites. (This is the guide you want in your car.)
Hildebrand, G. 1991. The Wright Space. Pattern and Meaning in Frank Lloyd Wright's Houses. (Useful especially for its 3-D analyses.)
Hitchcock, 1941. In the Nature of Materials. The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright: 1887-1941. (The first important catalog of Wright's works.)
Hoffmann, D. 1986. Frank Lloyd Wright. Architecture and Nature. (Wright's sensitivity to site and materials.)
----------. 1995. Understanding Frank Lloyd Wright's Architecture. (A good introduction.)
----------. 1996. Frank Lloyd Wright's Dana House. (An in-depth study of arguably Wright's most complex prairie house.)
Huxtable, A.L. 2004. Frank Lloyd Wright. (A treatment by one of the great architectural critics of our day.)
Pfeiffer, B.B., and Futagawa, Y. 2002. Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie Houses. (A databank of beautiful and revealing photos.)
Robertson, C. 1999. Frank Lloyd Wright and George Mann Niedecken. Prairie School Collaborators. (Niedecken created trademark Wright furniture and murals.)
Sloan, J.L. 2001. Light Screens. The Leaded Glass of Frank Lloyd Wright. (A fine introduction to the topic. She also published a thorough catalog.)
Storrer, W.A. 1994. The Frank Lloyd Wright Companion. (A thorough illustrated catalog of Wright's works of academic quality.)
----------. 2002. The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. A Complete Catalog. Third edition. (A portable version of the above.)
Wright, F.L. 1911. The Early Work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The "Ausgeführte Bauten" of 1911. With an introduction by G.C. Manson.
----------. 1960. Writings and Buildings. (A collection of Wright's works made by E. Kaufmann and B. Raeburn. Prairie Style pp. 36-106.)

Odds and ends.
Droste, Magdalena. 2002. Bauhaus 1919-1933. (See pp. 44-49 on the Sommerfeld House.)
Giedion, S. 1949. Space, Time, and Architecture. (Wright, 329-360 in the standard textbook the modernists all read.)
Jencks, C. 1985. Modern Movements in Architecture, second edition. (Jencks interestingly discusses Wright, 124-140.)

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