Prairie style architecture evolved from the handcrafted, meticulous design and construction prevalent during the earliest years of the 20th century. It's virtually synonymous with Frank Lloyd Wright though many other architects, many of whom were also employed by Louis Sullivan, explored this style.
The evolution toward Prairie School is evident in the many notable examples in and around Chicago where Sullivan and his many protégés worked. For example, in studying the Arts & Crafts influence evident in Frank Lloyd Wright's 1889 home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, its easy to see the direction he was headed. Over the next couple decades a variety of Wright homes were built nearby and showcase the evolution of the Prairie style. Another example of the Prairie School is evident in several designs included in the 1909 Cement Homes of William Radford. Styles like the two-story 8215 and the single-story model 8227 with its Wright-inspired planter.
This uniquely indigenous American style has been integrated into many current styles. In its original form it remained popular only until about 1920 when it largely faded from the architectural scene. However, despite its relatively short life span, it has proven a surprisingly adaptable and modern form. Many of its elements were resurrected during the 1930s when the Ranch style was initially being explored and even today, homes of the Prairie School have a remarkably contemporary appearance. As a result, it's not uncommon to find Prairie influences in modern vernacular designs.
With its clean lines and strong presence, the Prairie style was a reaction to the ornate overblown Victorian architecture of the late 19th century. As a direct descendent of the Arts & Crafts philosophy, the Prairie School style, like its Craftsman cousins, followed a natural progression. The Arts & Crafts philosophy stressed purity of design and artistry in execution. Natural materials were used and revered for what they were. Moving from the outdoors to indoor spaces became a seamless transition.
The building form was long and low with broad, overhanging eaves, and broad covered porches. Moving away from the bungalow style per se, the Prairie style played on Midwest regional influences and incorporated stylized Japanese elements that were very popular at the time. While gabled roof lines were seen, low-hipped roofs became a definitive characteristic of this style.
Other distinctive elements include strong horizontally-oriented façades and open, flowing interior space instead of many small boxy rooms. Ribbons of windows, often with well-defined vertical detail subtly mimicking Japanese shoji screens, add to the horizontal orientation. Many houses are essentially symmetrical, but with subordinate wings or porches. However, asymmetrical designs are also common.
Secondary influences of Mission, Italian Renaissance, and Tudor styles are often seen in such details as tiled roofs, decorative cornices, and false half-timbering. Massive masonry piers support porch roofs and modified versions are typical of more vernacular interpretations.
Decorative detail ranges from the floral and circular geometric forms of Sullivan to the more angular geometric designs of Wright, though many interpretations by other contemporary architects are found.
Prairie style houses often have a combination of these features:
Prairie Style: Houses & Gardens by F.L. Wright
At Home on the Prairie: The Houses of Purcell & Elmslie by Dixie Legler, Christian Korab