Prairie School

Post image for Prairie School

Frank Lloyd Wright, the renowned Chicago architect, is often credited with invention of the Prairie style. His architectural philosophy was brought to California by those who worked directly under him, and those who emulated descriptions of his buildings in the architectural journals. The expression “Prairie School” refers to the followers, the imitators, and the re-interpreters of the design concept initiated by Wright in the mid-West, an area of flat landscapes. My logo is a drawing of a house designed by one such follower, William Gray Purcell (1880–1965), who designed many Prairie School homes in the mid-West as well as Pasadena, and the Bay Area. A museum of his designs is in Illinois. My logo shows the only home on the West Coast designed by Purcell, and it is on Shattuck Avenue, near Marin Avenue.

Although the Prairie School style was created to meld with the Midwest Landscape, its attributes are remarkably consistent with the features of the Craftsman tradition in Northern California. Both emphasize natural materials, horizontal proportions, and a kinship with the earth. Wright’s design philosophy that “form follows function” blended with the attitudes, material and landscape of the East Bay as easily as it did with Illinois prairie land.

The Prairie School house in the East Bay is noticeable right off because of its size. Two or two-and-a-half stories high, it is taller than neighboring bungalows or cottages. Room wings project to either side, making it wider than the typical house, too. The long, low walls are plastered in pastel colors, earning for it the nickname, Stucco Villa.

The Prairie School house is a juxtaposition of broad boxes that allow the building to adapt to differing site conditions. If the lot is flat, the boxes are at equal elevation; if the lot is steep–and many are–then the boxes step up the hill. Likewise, the roof plane is broken and steps up the hill. The side expansion of room wings is seen more often on corner property whose size and frontage is more conducive to the expanded arrangement.

Each box is capped by a very low-pitched, tar-and-gravel roof. The eaves overhang to the point of real or suggested cantilever. The overhangs cast shadows that modulate the stark stucco walls. On some, the rafters are exposed beneath the eaves in a Craftsman-like manner. On others, a perfectly horizontal board, whose broad side is parallel to the facade, describes the perimeter of the flat roof and enunciates the eave. This is called the fascia.

When one of the wings is a porch, or on rare occasions a portecorchere (a covered driveway at the front door), then the flat roof is supported by heavy piers. Their influence is felt in the California Bungalow as well as in other features of the Prairie house itself. The weight and proportion of the porch piers are reiterated in the massive, terraced stoop which flanks the front stair progression from sidewalk to front door. The posts’ chunky quality is also seen in the heavyset chimney.

Horizontality is also a design element of the casement windows. They are grouped in bands, with shared projecting sills, and appear to wrap around the building. In some examples, there are geometric mullions but more often the pane of glass is left entire, a plain rectangular surface just like the building’s walls. In fact, the Prairie School house is a careful composition of planes and voids, like a Modrian painting.

On the inside, the bands of glass flood the rooms with natural light. While this is desirable, even Craftsman-like, in concept, it can pose a disadvantage with western exposures. The Prairie School house in Illinois did not have to contend with the strong, late afternoon sun of California. Also, in a dense urban situation, the picture windows can make privacy a problem, a dilemma not encountered in the more sprawling development of the Chicago suburbs. Therefore, it is typical to see from the street the soft folds of opaque drapes drawn behind the windows of the Stucco Villa.

Life in a Prairie School house can be sumptuous. The broad proportions evident on the exterior make for spacious rooms on the interior. Even the staircase is wide and the landings ample to match the opulent, airy spaces. The scale of a Prairie house lends itself to the display of large oil paintings, hand-woven wall hangings, and other over-sized pieces of art that demand a gracious wall and enough room to step back and view them from a distance.

The cool pastel exterior of the Stucco Villa belies the warm interior where earth tones predominate and the extensive woodwork is stained a golden oak. The hardwood floosr, the hallway paneling, and the bookshelves made of gumwood, are all subtly ornamented by strips of darker, mahogany-colored wood inlaid in geometric patterns. The fireplace is built of rough fieldstone and placed at a focal point in the living area. Light colors and fine craftsmanship are the attributes that typify the Prairie School house and sustain its image of elegant simplicity.

In 1916, California architect Irving Gill summarized the new architecture of the West in an article entitled “The Home of the Future.” The rhetoric is inflated, but the description a valid one of the Prairie School house in the Craftsman Tradition: “If we omit everything useless from the structural point of view, we will come to see the great beauty of straight lines, to see the charm that lies in perspective, the force in light and shade, the power in balanced masses, the fascination of color that plays upon a smooth wall left free to report the passing of a cloud or nearness of a flower, the furious rush of storms and burning stillness of summer suns. We would also see the glaring defects of our own work if left in this bold, unornamented fashion, and therefore, could swiftly correct it.”

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