The Prairie School-A Protest Movement

On July 22nd, 2017 Preserve Minneapolis’s annual fund-raising event will be a tour of the interiors of five Prairie School houses in Minneapolis and St. Paul -- four by Purcell & Elmslie and one by Kirby Snyder. For tour registration, visit our Eventbrite page.

Purcell & Elmslie: Bachus house (1915)

None of the architects we think of as members of the Prairie School ever referred to themselves by that name. They said they were progressive architects, and they saw themselves as reformers fighting alongside the progressive politicians of their era, the 1890s through the 1910s. In fact, some of the progressive politicians were closely associated with progressive architects. For example, Robert La Follette, governor, US representative, and US senator from Wisconsin, and co-founder of the Progressive Party, financially bailed out Frank Lloyd Wright when Wright’s business dried up in the Great Depression.

More than anything else, the progressive architects were fighting against neoclassicism, which had been deemed an appropriate style for civic, commercial, and residential buildings since the Renaissance. The progressives were especially incensed by the neoclassical Court of Honor, nicknamed the “White City,” the centerpiece of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago:

The White City in the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Louis Sullivan, the progressive architects’ guiding light, famously predicted the White City would set back the progress of American architecture by 50 years. He and his followers felt strongly that the forms and rules of classicism laid down by the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius in the 1st century CE and promulgated by the Renaissance were irrelevant to American life. In fact, they pointed out that classical architecture was offensive to American values because it represented the slave-based societies of ancient Greece and Rome.

Instead of classicism, the Prairie School architects designed buildings based on a close relationship with nature. In this thinking, they were responding to two utopian ideas. First, they were inspired by the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau, who said the most important goal of humanity is to ‘become one with nature.’ Second, Prairie School architects were inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement, which began in the 1880s in England as a protest against the shoddy products and inhumane working conditions of the Industrial Revolution.

Accordingly, Prairie School architects preferred natural materials presented naturally. Instead of wood painted and carved to look like stone masonry, which was and still is common in neoclassical buildings, they presented wood finished only with a light coating of wax. They said the wood’s natural grain patterns provided all the decoration that was needed. We will see this in all of the homes on the July 22 tour.

To bring the outdoors inside and thereby emphasize the importance of nature, Prairie School architects designed houses with walls composed largely of glass. On the tour this will be especially well represented in Purcell & Elmslie’s Owre House and in the house designed by Kirby Snyder for his own family.

When they did add ornamentation to their buildings, Prairie School architects preferred the forms of growing plants. Both Frank Lloyd Wright and George Elmslie learned this style of ornament from Louis Sullivan while working in Sullivan’s office. Their renditions of plant life were realized in art glass, terra cotta, and thin panels of sawn wood. The best example of this on our tour will be the sawn wood ornamentation around the front door of the Purcell & Elmslie-designed Beebe-Leuthold house on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue.

In all of these symbolic acts, the Prairie School architects intended to express humility before the greatness of nature – essentially the opposite of the Industrial Revolution’s attempt to conquer nature, which, by the 21st century, we have come to see as folly. This humility is nicely represented in Purcell & Elmslie’s modest Carlson house, which demonstrates that good design does not require high finance. Purcell & Elmslie produced the design of the house as a wedding present for Fritz Carlson, a carpenter who worked on many of their buildings and who said he wouldn’t want to live in a house that had not been designed by P&E.

Author: Richard Kronick