What is the Prairie School?
It is a North American architectural movement of which Chicago architect Louis Sullivan is the spiritual father and Frank Lloyd Wright the most famous practitioner. The Prairie School is an outgrowth of the great craft movements that arose in Europe in the middle of the 19th century, inspired by the writings and works of John Ruskin, William Morris and other philosopher-artists. It took its inspiration from Sullivan and the first Chicago School, becoming recognizably distinct around 1900. Though there were public and commercial buildings built in the style, it was chiefly a residential phenomenon. For two decades it found favor with progressive clients in the upper Midwest and elsewhere, but by 1920 it had been disrupted by the First World War and overshadowed by the revival of fashionable historic styles and inchoate Modernism brewing in Europe. The Prairie School is ideologically (though not necessarily stylistically) related to the contemporaneous work of Gustav Stickley, Elbert Hubbard, Greene & Greene, Bernard Maybeck and other American advocates and practitioners.
Which architects designed in this style?
Led first by Wright, Sullivan's former chief draftsman, the movement attracted other talented artists, a number of whom had worked for Sullivan and/or Wright. Collectively, they are known as the “Prairie School.” A group of early practitioners, known as “The Eighteen,” shared office space in Chicago’s Steinway Hall, designed by Dwight Perkins. A listing of the best-known as well as some lesser lights would include the following (given alphabetically):
George Grant Elmslie
Hugh M.G. Garden
Walter Burley Griffin
Henry John Klutho
George W. Maher
William Gray Purcell
William L. Steele
John S. Van Bergen
Charles E. White
Frank Lloyd Wright
The commitment to the pure goals of the style varied. For some, it was an artistic, philosophical and moral imperative. For others, it was just another pleasing style desired or accepted by some clients.
For me, the most interesting thing about collecting material for this website is how it has shown the wide variety of work produced. Many architecture fans, even in Iowa, will not have heard of Einar Broaten or Howard Burr; the surprise is how interesting their work is. Unsurprisingly, it is derivative of the “iconic” practitioners such as Wright, Griffin and Elmslie. But these and other local and regional architects ably filled a need for modern and progressive design sought by clients who might otherwise have had to settle for a “builder’s job”.
What are characteristics of Prairie School Buildings?
Prairie School architects strove to produce a distinctly modern American architecture, one inspired by our relatively new country and its democracy, one that did not recall the form or decoration of historic European buildings. Visitors will note generally horizontal compositions, simple lines and geometric volumes, and flowing floor plans that attempted to accommodate the way modern people of the day lived.
An excellent reference for stylistic hallmarks of the Prairie School using illustrations of Wright houses can be found on the Buffalo as an Architectural Museum website.
How do you decide which buildings to list?
Fundamentally, I‘d like to list every existing building that bears recognizable Prairie School hallmarks. Naturally, there are the iconic buildings by Wright, Purcell & Elmslie, Walter Burley Griffin, and others. These buildings influenced the designs of architects of lesser creativity as well as local builders, who frequently adapted clients' wishes in the absence of an architect. These latter structures often blur the line, mixing some PS elements with other recognized styles or local building tradition. Although these mutations are fascinating, they cause some difficulty for the compiler of a list such as this. Nevertheless, I have cast my net widely, since the margins are often as interesting in their own ways as the stylistically “pure” center.
Because of his exceedingly long career, Frank Lloyd Wright is a special case. Although they are of interest, I have generally not listed the “bootleg” houses or his early, post-Sullivan buildings, though there are exceptions such as the Heller House, because of its obvious links to later, true Prairie, works. On the other end, apart from Taliesin (a constant work in process beginning with Hillside School in 1902), the last Wright structure I include is his 1917 Allen House in Wichita. Subsequent works moved away from the Prairie idiom toward later Usonian forms. There are several excellent guidebooks available to the Wright tourist: Storrer’s The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, now in its third edition, and Heinz’s Frank Lloyd Wright Field Guide.
How are the lists arranged?
This is in transition. The original lists are arranged alphabetically by city, then by the name of the building. This worked well for cities with only a few buildings. However, some centers of Prairie School design like Chicago, Oak Park, Minneapolis or Madison have dozens of PS buildings. Organizing them by the name of the building is not helpful for the traveler. Therefore, I will be reorganizing the lists alphabetically by address, beginning with those pages for individual cities. La Crosse, Wisconsin was the first to be organized in this way.
Dates given in the lists represent the year of completion of the building.
Who took the photos?
Unless otherwise credited, all photographs were taken by John Panning, the owner of this site. Please do not reproduce them without requesting permission.
I would be delighted to have your comments about this site, or any suggestion for its improvement. Please send me a note.