The Prairie style started in the early twentieth century as a rebellion against the elaborate, ornate flourishes of the more European housings that were dotting the American landscape. True to its name, the Prairie style dwelling was built to complement the sweeping horizon of the prairie, which means they had long horizontal lines and sat low to the ground. The horizontal lines were emphasized by broad rooflines that could be any style—hip, flat, gable—and usually had wide overhanging eaves to protect the house from the elements. The houses also incorporated vertical elements such as chimneys, masonry piers and casement windows, emulating trees which dot the prairie landscape. The Prairie house is an entity in and of itself, and it’s proud to be simple.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s name is synonymous with Prairie style as he is the father of it. He believed that houses were too fussy, chaotic, bombastic and adorned. He wanted to redefine residential dwellings, and he did just that—along with several of his peers. The movement petered out, as they all do, but this style was eventually dubbed the Prairie School style. Wright culled many of his ideas from his mentor, Louis Sullivan who created the phrase, ‘form follows function’. Sullivan believed a building should be built in accordance to its locale and its purpose. His style was eventually called the Chicago School of Architecture. However, he was interested primarily in commercial buildings whereas Wright and his peers cared more about residential dwellings.
In 1893, Wright left Sullivan’s office and struck out on his own. In 1897, he and three other architects formed a coalition with the mission of reinventing the home. Because Wright had the most commercial success, he was named the leader of the group. In 1898, Wright built a studio near his home in Oak Park—a suburb of Chicago—and invited various architects to join him there. The list was long, and many came and went, but they all shared a common goal with Wright—creating a new style of housing that was built specifically for its environment.
Wright believed in nature, not books. He created homes that took advantage of their surroundings. One of the ideas he incorporated was the use of natural light as much as possible rather than artificial lighting. He also wanted his clients to be as near to nature as possible, so he included porches, patios and terraces whenever possible. His disdain for artifice was one of the reasons he turned to other styles for inspiration—specifically the Arts and Crafts style. Both styles eschewed pretense in favor of authenticity. Of course, the style adapts itself to the particulars of different regions as would be expected from a style grounded in the belief of capitalizing on its environs.
The exterior of the Prairie style is easy to recognize with its flat, horizontal lines, occasional vertical structure and use of natural materials. What isn’t as immediately evident, perhaps, is the care that is taken in crafting the interior as well. Hearths, sideboards, window seats and bookcases were all important parts of the interior and designed to match the house as a whole. Details matter as well. Whatever theme is evoked is carried out throughout the entire house. In short, all aspects of the Prairie house are harmonious.
The Prairie brought the family together because it had plenty of wide-open spaces in which the family could gather. In addition, there are several built-in storage spaces for the family to hide its clutter. The simple but clean lines of the Prairie made it a popular choice when it first came out. The climatic years for the Prairie style were 1910 to 1916. Other buildings were being built in the Prairie School style—churches, libraries, schools—but Wright had experienced a falling out with his fellow architects by that time, partly because the movement was overshadowing his own work. He left Oak Park in 1909 to work in Europe, then Japan, then Wisconsin, cutting off ties with the Prairie School style. Like a scorned lover, he declared the movement over when it was anything but. His leaving allowed the other architects the freedom to interpret the style in their own ways.
By 1917, the popularity of the Prairie style was on the decline, in part because trends wax and wane. The other reason was the advent of World War I. As per usual in times of war, the country hungered for what it had known—returning to the revival styles. However, after World War II, tastes changed once again, and the Prairie style regained favor once people realized the beauty and the classic lines of this down-to-earth style. The Ranch style, so ubiquitous in America today, is an adaptation of the Prairie style.