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Prairie School Architecture: Definition & Architects

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Several of the most influential architects in American history belonged to a single movement. In this lesson, we'll explore the Prairie School and see what made it so influential.

The Prairie School

What do the tallest skyscrapers in New York and the single-level ranch homes of the suburbs have in common? Believe it or not, they share a common ancestry. Both are related to the first genuinely American architectural movement, known as the Prairie School.

The Prairie School emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a group of architects devoted themselves to creating a distinctly American architecture. They did so by designing buildings that were reflected the shapes and colors of the landscape (and in particular the prairie) with an emphasis on horizontality, low-pitched roofs, natural materials, and craftsmanship. It was one of the most influential architectural movements in American history, but to really understand it we need to know its architects.

Louis Sullivan

The Prairie School was predominantly focused on residential architecture, but the story of the movement actually begins with the grandfather of the skyscraper and its architect, Louis Sullivan (1856-1924). Sullivan was a Chicago-based architect and the reason that Chicago became America's architecture capital. He was one of the first to utilize newly available commercial steel, creating some of the first steel-frame high-rises and laying the groundwork for the development of true American skyscrapers.

The Wainwright Building in St. Louis was one of the influential structures designed by Louis Sullivan
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His influence on the Prairie School, however, came from his lectures. Throughout his career, Sullivan took on a number of apprentices and greatly shaped their worldview with his personal philosophy about architecture. Sullivan believed in using natural materials because buildings should reflect the landscape around them. He believed in using wide, overhanging eaves and thick columns to emphasize the lines of the structure. Perhaps most importantly, however, he coined the phrase ''form follows function'', rejecting the style-focused neoclassical and neogothic trends of the era and instead designing architecture that celebrated its materials and function over pure style. This would become the de facto mantra of modernist architecture.

Sullivan's students in the late 19th century took his ideas and ran with them, energetically devoting themselves to creating an architectural style that was not tied to European precedents. This was the first iteration of the Prairie School. Notable architects who helped found the Prairie School included George Grant Elmslie, William Purcell, Parker Berry, William Drummond and William Steele. There were also other architects of the time who did not apprentice with Sullivan but were still impacted by his ideas and became members of the Prairie School. Chief among these was George Maher, whose unique interpretation of Prairie School themes helped him develop some of the first residential Prairie School architecture for high-paying and elitist clients.

George Maher helped transition Prairie School ideas into high-scale residential architecture
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Frank Lloyd Wright

While many of Sullivan's former pupils went on to greatness, one stands out above the rest. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) started as a draftsman in Sullivan's firm and quickly proved to be a competent and skilled designer. After leaving Sullivan's firm, Wright became the de facto leader of the Prairie School and its most influential architect. He was one of the principal figures responsible for transitioning Sullivan's ideas into residential architecture and set the aesthetic tone for the Prairie School with his low-pitched homes and spacious and sparsely decorated interiors.

Steinway Hall

Frank Lloyd Wright may have been the most influential member of the Prairie School, but he was never operating in an intellectual vacuum. In 1896, one of the Prairie School architects by the name of Dwight H. Perkins completed an 11-story building (one of the first skyscrapers) called Steinway Hall. Several members of the Prairie School rented loft space in Steinway Hall and it became an unofficial headquarters of the movement, full of artistic exchange, innovation and interaction as the architects worked to define their individual styles and that of the group.

Steinway Hall
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