A number of Prairie School remodeling style Minneapolis homes arrived in the Midwest in the heart of the craze in the early 1900’s; in Minnesota, two of the most famous buildings are the Merchants National Bank (Winona, 1912) and the Purcell House (Minneapolis, 1913). However, the Prairie School architectural movement began with little fanfare. In 1901, an article in the Ladies’ Home Journal titled, simply, “Home in a Prairie Town” appeared. In it, a young architect by the name of Frank Lloyd Wright proposed his “open plan” for homes. At its most basic, the style featured low, horizontal lines and wide-open interiors — referencing the expansive, undeveloped land of the Midwestern prairie. It deeply resonated with Americans, and the Prairie School style dominated new-home construction for the next 25 years.
While Prairie School had a certain commonality with the Arts and Crafts movement of late-19th-century England, Wright saw his brand of homes as being uniquely American. He and his “Chicago group” valued craftsmanship, recoiling against Henry Ford’s assembly line mentality that was sweeping the nation at the same time they were trying to do the opposite. Wright saw mass-produced items as inferior and factory work as dehumanizing, and his open-ended designs striving for the opposite — literally breaking down walls and bringing families closer together. The revered Victorian architecture of Europe was seen by the Prairie Schoolers as stuffy, confining and irrelevant to the pioneer spirit of a young America striking out on its own.
What, specifically, was so special about Prairie School? It was original, inventive and brilliant in its simplicity. Again, like the land surrounding these structures, the roofs of the houses were hipped, or nearly flat, and low, complementing the structure’s overall horizontal lines. The overhanging eaves were long. Numerous windows were flush with each other, in bands. Exterior ornamentation was sparse and subtle, including perhaps abstract forms that were built into concrete pillars.
The interior of Prairie homes was as nontraditional as the outside. Natural, rather than artificial, light was utilized as much as possible. Hearths, window seats, bookcases and sideboards were inviting and relaxing, and the overall spaciousness encouraged communal gatherings. The living room often extended naturally into the kitchen area. Walls tended to be plain rather than papered, and colors were neutral, or at least discreet. The focus was always on harmony.
For all his vision and influence, it would be misleading to give all the credit to Frank Lloyd Wright. The second-most-commissioned group of architects next to Wright consisted at various times of George Feick, Jr., William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie. A number of their works pepper the Midwestern Plains; in Minnesota, two of their most famous buildings are the Merchants National Bank (Winona, 1912) and the Purcell House (Minneapolis, 1913). Other architects Wright influenced later developed the popular American Four Square style. Ranch-style homes, now seen everywhere across the country, were also derived from what not only Wright, but many of his other colleagues, designed.
Ironically, the man credited for founding the Prairie movement may also have been the one most responsible for its fading popularity, for he was large in ego as well as fame. “Wright’s early concentration on publicity and his claims that everybody was his disciple had a deadening influence” on his cohorts, claimed Marion Mahony Griffin, one of the members of his Chicago group. By 1925, the popularity of Prairie School homes was fading.
But — cliché or not — the great ones do know how to come back. In 1936, in the midst of the Depression, Wright developed a simplified version of Prairie architecture called Usonian. He believed these very affordable, bare-bones houses — having no attics, basements and little decoration — epitomized the democratic ideals he so cherished. Like classical music, the Prairie School style has stood the test of time. More than a century after Frank Lloyd Wright birthed the form, a survey found that most participants still chose it as their “dream house.”