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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Prairie Style Architecture

The Winslow House, 1894, Frank Lloyd Wright,  River Forest, Illinois
Many of us heard of them, but few of us have seen them...or if we have, we didn't realize it. I'm talking about America's first home-grown, native housing style, born and bred in the U.S.A., inspired by our indigenous landscape, created by an indigenous architect, nurtured, and brought to full flower in the heartland of suburban America. I'm talking about the Prairie style house and its founder, Frank Lloyd Wright. And even though his first, original manifestation of this style, the Winslow House (above) in River Forest, Illinois, dates from 1893, it is quintessentially a 20th century housing style that, in this case, arrived a few years early. Wright's initial offering is simple, foursquare, symmetrical and pure. In other words, it's not typical of the style. The Winslow House was the seed--a massive ground floor (below), a central chimney, large, heavily accented ground floor windows, and a low, hipped roof, widely overhanging a minimized second floor. It was so starkly different from anything its owner or any of his neighbors had ever seen in this Chicago suburb, one of Wright's later clients, while admiring the architect's talent and skill, specifically ordered that his own home by Wright not look like the Winslow House lest he be laughed at by all his neighbors.

Winslow House, ground floor plan (notice the tiny kitchen in back).
Despite the modern style, there was still a lot of 19th century thinking in the details.
Perhaps the most immediately noticeable departure of the Prairie style, as it developed in the Chicago area, from anything that had ever gone before was the de-emphasising of the entrance. For centuries in all forms and styles of architecture, the entry had been the focal point of the entire front façade. And Wright's Winslow House was no exception. But as Wright, his associates, and his imitators cultivated the style, though the front porch sometimes remained, the entrance itself moved to the side, often all but invisible from the street. And though their designs were invariably two-story, the use of broad, intensive, extensive horizontal lines throughout often gave the impression of a single level, at least at first glance. Their look was wholesomely "modern" (in an era when the word still had real meaning), even if somewhat intimidating.

Robie House, 1909, Frank Lloyd Wright, Chicago
If the Winslow House was the seed, Wright's Robie House of 1909, in nearby Chicago, was the fully matured, architectural masterpiece to evolve. And if the neighbors thought the Winslow home looked funny, they found the Robie House downright hilarious. Some called it the aeroplane house. The running joke was that if you'd attach a propeller, the house, with its extremely flattened hip roof and wing-like, cantilevered eaves, would literally "take off." Even though the visual effect is that of a single level, the house, in fact, has three floors. The ground floor entrance is from a walled, side courtyard containing an attached three car garage (a totally new element in domestic architecture at the time), the laundry, boiler room, a billiard room, children's playroom, and a walled, sunken garden, bearing Japanese influences, which Wright thrust up hard against the sidewalk in front. The second floor is thus the main level with living room, dining room, kitchen, broad, roofed verandas, a guest room, and servant's quarters. The master bedroom, and all others, are on the hardly noticeable third level.

Robie House drawing and main floor plan. As with many examples of urban architecture, urban congestion often interferes with conceptual ideals only apparent in drawings.
It might surprise you to realize, despite what I've described, that most of us have seen the popular manifestation of the Prairie style. In fact, I'd venture to say every town or city in the U.S. has hundreds, maybe thousands of them, built in the first twenty or thirty years of the 20th century. But don't look for anything remotely resembling the Robie House. This and similar forward looking designs by Wright and others were hybrids. The popularization of their designs was much more traditional, boxy, symmetrical, and plain. The entrance once more moved to the front, off a somewhat simplified, but still fairly traditional, raised porch; and whereas Wright and others had favored brick and stone masonry, the plan book equivalents usually resorted to wood construction to save money. Eventually, all that remained of Wright's original Prairie style features was the broad eaves, the hipped (often pyramidal) roof, similar dormers, and a somewhat more horizontal emphasis than before. As with many 20th century styles, this one was fairly short-lived (1900-1920 in its pure form). Although today enjoying a modern revival, in the case of the style's plan book bastardizations, few were built after 1930. And by that time, they had become so common, people had long since stopped laughing.

Wright's Prairie style is so timeless it remains alive and well in many suburban settings as
seen here in this fairly authentic (yet compact) adaptation to the quarter-acre lot common in many subdivisions today.

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