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by Wendell Garrett
|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.
--Frank Lloyd Wright, 1908
Taking their cue from the vast, virgin grasslands of the heartland of America, a group of young Chicago architects in the early 20th century produced houses that reflect the land on which they were built -- with unbroken roof planes, sheltering eaves and dramatic, sweeping lines. It was a new look for a new century. Low, ground-hugging houses with refreshingly spacious interiors under sweeping roofs, leading to terraces reaching out to nature, all dressed in the colors of the prairie in autumn and simplified with built-in furniture.
The Chicago architects, led by Frank Lloyd Wright, had succeeded in their quiet revolt against the fussiness of High Victorian taste. Gazing toward the horizon they saw the prairie as the perfect metaphor for redefining the American home. They argued that buildings should reflect the lives of the people who inhabited them.
This progressive philosophy -- based on the idea that the function of a building, together with its site, landscaping, materials, furniture and decoration, should make a unified architectural whole -- remained the foundation for the Prairie School.
The Prairie style house expressed America's democratic spirit by echoing one of its most distinctive landscapes. With its refreshingly open interiors and strong horizontal lines, the Prairie house clearly evoked the freedom and sweep of the limitless Midwestern landscape. Deep, sheltering eaves and low terrace walls were transformed into head-high screens that allowed air and light to flow easily. Box-like formal rooms gave way to open plans with occasional built-in furnishings that freed up floor space. Nature's color -- golds, rusts, yellows, greens -- reinvigorated interiors.
Each new house grew naturally and honestly from the needs of the people who would live in it and from the landscape, rather than from an historical design formula from the past. Prairie School architects added furnishings, often of their own custom-design, along with art glass, integrated lighting, and landscaping, lending harmony and integrity to the whole.
Although these innovative houses often shocked neighbors, their unconventional appearance was deceiving. The form, while revolutionary, was merely a fresh interpretation of exalted themes: the family, the home, time and place.
Most of Wright's colleagues believed that they were creating a progressive new American style, not just a style for the prairie. In fact, most of the Prairie-style houses were built not on the prairie but on suburban or city lots. In 1913, William Gray Purcell (1880-1965) and George Grant Elmslie (1869-1952) designed a private home that remains one of the most significant examples of Prairie School architecture in the country.
The house, at 2328 Lake Place in Minneapolis, was built for Purcell's own family and incorporates his talents for domestic planning with Elmsie's ingenious and exacting decorative detail. The residence -- the Purcell-Cutts House -- and its Prairie school collection of furniture is owned and maintained by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.
Today, Prairie style commonly refers to the work of Wright and his contemporaries from about 1900 to 1915. The style took shape in many other building types -- churches, schools, factories, stores office buildings, and banks -- but its most successful application was in the American home. The style left its most significant imprint on the Midwest, particularly Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.
The basic tenets of Prairie design were simplicity, open planning, respect for natural materials and integrated interiors. Low and broad like the prairie itself, Prairie houses celebrate the flatness of the Midwestern landscape with strong horizontal lines and outstretched wings that actively engage the house with the earth.
The real revolution created by the Prairie houses was inside, in the handling of space. To Wright and his generation, the space within a building was more important than the walls that defined it. Changes in ceiling heights and floor levels, and even the artful placement of a sculpture or a plant on a low wall, define areas for dining, reading, and living without the need for solid barriers. Interior walls stop short of the ceiling or are eliminated altogether, permitting air and light to flow freely.
Built-in furnishings and freestanding pieces visually separate space. Broad bands of casement windows and French doors further erase boundaries, extending space beyond the house into nature. Windows joined at right angles make corners disappear. Continuous stripes of wood trim, placed just below the ceiling and along window and door tops. lead the eye horizontally from space to space. Views are open from room to room, conveying a sense of freedom and movement.
Most ready-made furniture was incompatible with Prairie architecture. Much of what was available, lamented Wright, was "senselessly ornate." So Prairie School architects designed their own, striving for graceful, simple pieces suitable for informal living. Each element, from a built-in cabinet or window seat to light fixture or chair, was conceived as an integral part of the overall design -- an extension of the house itself. Using the same materials and ornamental detailing for both house and furnishings lent integrity to the whole and guaranteed artistic harmony.
Prairie School furniture, like the architecture, was carefully crafted to emphasize a tranquil horizontal line. Table tops and other horizontal planes were cantilevered beyond their supports and often rested on massive legs, creating the illusion that the furnishings, like the house itself, were grounded to the site. Square spindles were incorporated into banisters and used in screen-like room dividers and chair backs. Art glass patterns in sideboards and bookcases related to window patterns. Chairs, sofas, and other furnishings often followed a theme based on a geometric shape, generally rectilinear, found in the floor plan.
To the Prairie architects, the home was a sacred place and the hearth its perfect symbol. Here the family gathered around the warming fire, safe and secure. These architects situated nearly all their fireplaces at the heart of the house instead of an outside wall. Built there, it provided additional structural support and allowed the architect to eliminate unnecessary walls. With fewer walls, one large fireplace could warm the entire floor.
Most Prairie fireplaces were brick or tile, rarely stone. Some were simple; others were more complex and decorative, with sweeping arches of tapered brick or mosaics of opalescent glass or tile. Whatever the final form, the fireplace was an integral part of the Prairie house, evoking permanence, comfort, and security.
The Prairie House reflects the search by Frank Lloyd Wright and his colleagues for an ideal, authentically American dwelling inspired by nature, shaped by human needs, and unified by a system of thoughtfully developed design principles.
Constructed about 100 years ago, these buildings and their furnishings appear remarkably contemporary today, continuing to fulfill their roles as active family centers, to influences the design of modern homes, and to serve as models of superlative achievement in a defining moment of American architecture.
WENDELL GARRETT is senior vice president of American decorative arts at Sotheby's.