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Prairie School Style — 1905 to 1920

1909 - Frank Lloyd Wright for Mrs. Thomas Gale

Mrs. Thomas Gale House, Oak Park, Illinois

Prairie Style Characteristics

A short history

Prairie Style is said to be the first original American architectural style. Houses at the time were described as "bungalows of the Middle-Western type." Its salient characteristics include strong horizontal lines and natural interaction with its landscape. The best examples embody the sensitivity to the surrounding environment that makes it appear that the structure is a natural part of the scenery. Part of this is achieved by using natural, indigenous materials. (Though not Prairie per se, Wright's Falling Water embodies that ideal.)

Though the exterior character was remarkable, it was the radical interior reorganization that set the Prairie Style apart. Instead of the Victorian plan with its small, compartmentalized rooms, this modern innovation opened up interior spaces by creating a more natural flow between rooms. In even relatively small houses, spaciousness was achieved by removing doors and walls and increasing the line of sight from room to room. In Wright's words, designs should be "trimmed to the last ounce of the superfluous." (LHJ, April 1907)

Prairie Style also incorporated the natural environment by providing easier access to porches and patios. The use of many windows allowed ample light and cross-ventilation, which were coming to be considered essential to health and well-being.

Traditional vs. modern

There were two diametrically opposed schools of thought with regard to architecture at the end of the 19th century. One was the traditional, which drew on the styles from America's past and the influences of prominent European and English designers and architects. The traditionalists who treasured the Classical Revival styles, like as Daniel Burnham who organized the hugely influential 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition in Chicago, appealed to the conservative home buyer.

The opposing school, expressed in the Prairie School, was influenced by new currents in design and visionary architectural thinkers like Louis Sullivan, as well as the Arts & Crafts Movement with its values of honesty in materials and craftsmanship. Other significant influences included the emerging Modernist Movement, Minimalism, De Stijl, and broader international exposure to new cultural influences like those of Japan and Egypt, for example.

Though Frank Lloyd Wright is most closely associated with Prairie School architecture and was critically important to its development and popularity, there were other architects who were equally impressive in design skill (if not in personal charisma and self-promotion) including Barry Byrne, George Grant Elmslie, George Washington Maher, William Gray Purcell, and many others.

As the Prairie style became more widely accepted from about 1905 to 1920, it became more stylized and generic. It went far beyond its original aesthetic and influenced the popular Foursquare (aka Prairie Box) and later Ranch styles.

Notable Prairie Style Homes

Dr. Clarke House - Fairfield, Iowa by Francis Barry Byrne. 1915-16.

Resources

The Prairie School Traveler — A comprehensive listing of Prairie Style houses.

 


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