Prairie Style House, 1900-1920

The Old House Web

By Rosemary Thornton
Contributing Editor, The Old House Web

The Prairie Style house is largely credited to Frank Lloyd Wright, one of Americas most innovative and famous architects.

Wright's goal in designing this radical new form of architecture, according to the book, The Prairie School Tradition, was to create organic architecture. Houses, Wright believed, had to be an integration of structural and aesthetic beauty and above all a sensitivity to human life.

grand rapids
This house in Grand Rapids, MI was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Photo: Courtesy of Dale Patrick Wolicki

Wright worked with and was mentored by Louis H. Sullivan until 1893, when he left Sullivan's employ to open his own architectural firm. Sullivan worked as a Chicago architect immediately after the Great Fire of 1871 and was ultimately more well known as a teacher and philosopher. Sullivan's most frequently quoted statement (and quintessential philosophy) was, "Is there anything that does not reside in function and form? Not that Ive been able to discover."

Wright was the first of Sullivan's students to move toward a new form of architecture -- a style whose gently sloping roofs and low proportions fit with the quiet beauty of the prairie.

The term Prairie Style may have come from a contemporary architect of that era, Irving K. Pond who said the new style echo[ed] the spirit of the prairies of the great Middle West

oak park
The Prairie Style is characterized by strong horizontal lines like those ofthis Frank Lloyd Wright house in Oak Park, IL
Photo: Courtesy Dale Patrick Wolicki

Strong horizontal lines defined the Prairie Style. Other features included one-story projections, belt-courses between the storeys and oversized eaves which appear to spread out and hug the ground. The open interiors, rows of small windows and art glass, coupled with the low-pitched roof create a warm, informal and inviting space that looked right at home on the wide-open spaces of the prairie. These homes blended in with and were intimately connected to the landscape.

Boynton House
Cantilevered projections were typical in Prairie Style houses. The Boynton House,in Rochester, NY is a well-preserved example of a typical Wright house.
Photo: Jack E. Boucher for the Historic American Building Survey

prairie house
A belt-course between storeys is another typical design feature of Prairie Style houses, like this one in Edwardsville, IL. Multiple banks of windows and clerestory windows allowed natural light to flood into Prairie Style houses.
Photo: Rose Thornton

roof overhang
Wide, over-sized eaves that seem to reach for the ground are hallmarks of Wright's Prairie Style design, shown here in the Isaac Hagan House in Kentucky Knob, PA, and below in a Wright House in Oshkosh, WI. This house's low-pitched hipped roof is also typical of the style.
Hagan House Photo: Jack Boucher, HABS

oshkosh house
Photo: Courtesy of Dale Patrick Wolicki

Unlike the ostentatious Victorian house, the Prairie Style house was conspicuously lacking in ornamentation. A variety of geometric shapes and forms inspired by nature were highlighted through window arrangement, columns, low walls and planters, creating a visually appealing home.

Most of Wright's designs use a centrally located fireplace to divide the living room, dining room and entry.

dinette
Rows of windows are strong exterior visual elements in the Prairie Style -- and allow for plenty of natural light inside. Unlike the earlier Victorian homes, characterized by ornamentation and many small rooms, Wright's designs emphasized an open, flowing floor plan. This is the Hagan House interior in Kentucky Knob, PA.
Photo: Jack E. Boucher, Historic American Building Survey

It was a distinctively Midwestern house, with most (but not all) examples found in that region. The Prairie Style began in 1900 and peaked around 1915. After World War I, the pendulum of architectural tastes swung back to old favorites and revival styles became popular.

Dana House
One of Wright's most famous Prairie Style houses -- the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, IL.
Photo: Dale Patrick Wolicki


More Prairie Style Houses
Not all Prairie Style homes were on the grand scale of the Dana-Thomas House, a 35-room mansion designed by Wright for Illinois socialite Susan Lawrence Dana. More modest examples by imitators of Wright exist throughout the American Midwest.

(Click on photos for a larger view)

alton house
This house has both Bungalow and Prairie elements. The simple styles were both reactions to the excess of the Victorian era.

prairie house
"Hidden" entrances were another design element common in Prairie Style. Folks visiting this house in Edwardsville, IL would have to know where the entrance was.

kit house
A Gordon Van Tine kit home in the Prairie Style in New Bedford, IL.

st louis house
Prairie style house in St. Louis area shows typical window groupings, and a low hipped roof.

st louis house
Another fine example of a Prairie Style house in St. Louis. Most existing examples of historical Prairie houses are in the Midwest.

lacrosse house
A beautiful Prairie Style house is in LaCrosse, WI
Photo: Wolicki


Characteristics of the Prairie Style home

  • Hipped roof (sometimes gabled), pitched low
  • Roof with extended lines and oversized eaves
  • /

  • Strong horizontal lines
  • Entrance is typically secluded; only people coming to see you would know how to get in!
  • Windows are set in groups (sometimes with art glass) and in geometric shapes
  • Window placement is intricate part of design; their placement is thoughtfully arranged
  • House appears to grow out of the ground; very low and close to the terrain
  • Open interior spaces
  • Central chimney massing
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