Looking at architecture: the Prairie School

Phantom Screens / June 27, 2016

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The prevailing architectural style of an area changes depending where you go and what time period you’re evaluating. If you were to head to the Midwest around the 20th century, you’d see the beginnings of the Prairie School, which grew into a strong design movement, taking root primarily around Chicago. As you embark on a home remodeling project to upgrade your indoor and outdoor living spaces, consider incorporating elements from this school of thought.

Key ideas in the Prairie School

The Prairie School of Architecture gets its name from the location where it originated. The Midwest was full of sweeping grasslands around 1900, and architects found inspiration from that feature. Prairie style houses use low horizontal lines that mimic the open fields of the Midwest. When you look at a Prairie home, you’ll notice flat roofs and broad eaves.

The blending of nature and human construction engineering was another key element in Prairie architecture, as designers attempted to blur indoor and outdoor living spaces into one. As a result, decoration was minimal in houses and craftsmanship became the new decor.

Development of the design

Louis H. Sullivan was an architect during the late 1800’s. He practiced in the Midwest and taught many young designers who would become famous later in life, chief among them Frank Lloyd Wright. He is credited with the phrase, “form follows function,” meaning that the look or aesthetics of a building should always develop organically from the functional design of the space. Sullivan, along with his young disciple Wright, focused on creating a new American architectural style that seemed natural in the area they lived: the Midwest.

As they studied the landscape around them, they developed the Prairie style. Sullivan focused mostly on commercial architecture, and left Wright to design residential structures. In 1889, Wright constructed his home in Oak Park, IL, after borrowing money from Sullivan. The completed building was a testament to the school of architecture he and his mentor began. If you were to visit the house today, you’d see an addition that was built years later along with all the key elements of Prairie design. Horizontal lines define the space and the placement of halls, rooms and windows create a natural flow. Furthermore, the decor and color of the house brought in the outdoors with motifs inspired by butterflies, for example.

Ahead of the times

Prairie architecture, which later influenced modernism, was far ahead of the common designs of the time. While much of the Midwest was in a late Victorian era of building, Wright and his associates were creating homes that look modern even in the 21st century. For example, Wright built the Dana Thomas House in Springfield, IL, in 1902 in the Prairie style. Right across the street stands a Victorian “painted lady” house that was constructed around the same time. To view the two together, you may think they were from different eras.

Prairie design for remodeling

You don’t have to live in the Midwest or be constructing a new home to get the Wright look. As you plan a renovation project, simply utilize the key components used in the Prairie school of architecture. They include horizontal lines, flat roofs, the integration of nature and home, the use of good craftsmanship and simple decor. Incorporate horizontal lines when installing new windows by placing several in a long line. For example, pick a spot in your home that doesn’t get a lot of light (stairwell, hallway, etc.) and install new windows there. Choose thin, long windows that create a horizontal line. Support that choice with a modern addition that uses stone work constructed in lines.

Bring nature and interior together by creating larger door openings. Instead of a small sliding door leading to your yard, choose a large set of French doors. You can leave them open to enjoy a breeze while keeping the bugs out by adding retractable screens.