American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 14
The prairie house

James F. O’Gorman

Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled his prairie house in the February 1901 issue of Edward Bok’s Ladies’ Home Journal, a Philadelphia-based, general circulation magazine (Figure 14.1). This “city man’s country house on the prairie” (in fact a repeatable cluster of four houses arranged in a “quadruple block plan”) has been recognized as the first complete realization of his suburban domestic ideal. Including porch and porte cochere, the “Home in a Prairie Town” was to rise from a hearth-centered, cruciform plan with library, living room, and dining room widely opening into one another along an axis perpendicular to the street, and with porch, living room, fireplace, entry, and porte cochere stretched along offset axes parallel to the street. Above this “footprint,” the house in Wright’s drawings stretched broadly in repeated tripartite Richardsonian layers, all grouped around the central masonry mass. The entrance hall was to be reached through a Richardsonian archway. Within, furniture and furnishings were all designed by the architect in the spirit of the domestic Arts and Crafts movement and the contemporary trend toward simplicity. In its essential parti, with spaces radiating outwardly from closed core through wings to transitional areas of porch or covered carriageway to open yard (a centrifugal sweep reinforced by banks of out-swinging French doors and double casement windows), the house was a logical step beyond the McAfee and Husser houses of the previous decade. While it was heir to a domestic planning process as old as American architecture, and though it was rooted in a profound understanding of [Henry Hobson] Richardson’s work (Figure 14.2), it was also a completely Wrightian design.1

The project unveiled in the Ladies’ Home Journal was the first of a series of built and unbuilt prairie houses Wright designed in the next decade and a half that mark the culmination of his earlier efforts. Many are variations of the Ladies’ Home Journal model: the Bradley House at Kankakee, Illinois (1900), the Henderson House in Elmhurst (1901), and even, greatly expanded, the justly famous Darwin Martin House in Buffalo. In the Ward Willits House in Highland Park, Illinois (1901), Wright first built the fully articulated cruciform plan (Figure 14.3), with entry in one wing, living room in a second, dining room occupying a third, and utility spaces in a fourth, all grouped around a central masonry stack of fireplaces. Subsequent houses, ranging from square to cruciform plans, almost all have a masonry core, and most develop three-dimensionally into spreading masses through the use of pronounced horizontal lines. Some major examples, other than the Martin and Willits houses, include the Gilmore House in Madison, Wisconsin (1908), and in Illinois, the Cheney House, Oak Park, and Francis Little House, Peoria (both 1904),

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