What Is Prairie-Style Architecture?

Prairie style building

David Rius & Núria Tuca / Getty Images  

Prairie-style architecture is a style of building that believes a structure should reflect and pay homage to the surrounding environment. This movement, also known as Prarie School, is similar to the Arts and Crafts movement and is known as the first distinctly American architectural style. Spaces are intended to be functional, flowing, and open. 

A prairie-style home is significantly less fussy than a Victorian house of the same era. This movement comes after decades of revival movements like the Classical and Colonial Revivals. Young architects were tired of these archaic European styles and wanted to create something fresh and appropriate for modern American living. 

The basic foundation of Prairie School architecture is that a dwelling should function for its dwellers without being too elaborate or decorated. This school of thought felt that the intricacies of Victorian architecture were too excessive. They also believed in honoring handmade craftsmanship over the mass-produced products of the Industrial Age. 

History

Prairie-style architecture was founded by Frank Lloyd Wright and a group of young architects that Wright would refer to as The New School of the Middle West. The movement came after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The devastation opened up several new building opportunities for young architects.

After the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, many architects were disappointed with the Classical Revival styles presented during the expo. Wright and a group of colleges began to work rigorously to create a new, unheard of style that would become an unconventional reflection of American life in the Midwest. This architectural style officially emerged in Chicago around 1900 and remained a part of the public eye until around 1915.

This innovative aesthetic became known as Prairie style when Wright published building plans entitled “A House in a Prairie Town” in 1901. Although this is a short-lived building style, its influence can be seen throughout Modern architecture. 

Characteristics

Wright thought of a Prairie-style house as a structure that was married to the ground. In other words, he intended to create structures that replicated the flat, bare landscape of the American Midwest. In doing so, he and his colleagues incorporated several key characteristics into their work. 

  • Horizontal lines. Many surfaces were positioned in horizontal ways, which is in contrast to the Art Deco movement that had surfaces pointed upwards. Gutter downspouts and other vertical elements were hidden in Prairie-style homes. Cantilevered roofs were long, horizontal, and flat. 
  • Handmade craftsmanship. Similar to the Arts and Crafts movement, Prairie-style homes incorporated a lot of hand-wrought woodwork and art glass. However, most enhancements were subtly built into the structure and were not overly excessive or detailed. Windows served as art, and a lot of furniture was made in place. This concept of built-in art and furniture prevented new owners from adding non-essentials into the home.
  • Simple and natural woodwork. This style wanted natural elements to shine in their pure form. The woodwork was kept simple and incorporated smooth wood bands so the wood grain could be admired.
  • Open concept first floor. The main room included an open living and dining room space. The only place that was hidden was the kitchen.
  • Flow from inside to outside. Instead of creating a floor plan based on an exterior layout, Prairie homes were built from the inside out. There was an intentional flow from inside to outside.
  • Natural materials and motifs. Exteriors were made with brick or stucco and usually included a large, central chimney. Themes were nature-inspired and straightforward, like a simple rendition of a leaf or branch.
  • Massive walls of windows. Windows were large and sometimes took up entire walls. They included art glass and other features, so they seemed more like a piece of art.

Interesting Facts

Prairie Style was the beginning of modern architecture. 

The Prairie Style was one of the first styles of architecture to incorporate modern ideas that form follows function. This style also implements common modern elements like large, flat planes. However, there are distinct differences between a prairie home and other homes from the modernist movement. 

The Prairie style was inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement. 

Frank Llyod Wright drew a lot of inspiration from the Arts and Crafts Movement. This inspiration led him to incorporate refined craftsmanship into his designs. 

There are still some residential Prairie-style homes. 

Many prairie style homes have been restored and turned into museums, particularly the ones built by Wright. However, there still are a handful of homes that are privately owned. The most extensive grouping of Prairie Style homes in the country is in Oak Park, Illinois. 

In summary, Prairie Style architecture was founded by Frank Lloyd Wright and his colleagues in the early 20th century. The style was meant to be a new and innovative way to design structures for the American Mid West. To this design school, the layout of a building was of paramount importance, but so was a keen eye for craftsmanship.