The Prairie Style 1900-1912: Wright's "Golden Innocence"


Before Frank Lloyd Wright's eccentric personality and self- proclaimed genius elevated him to his present status as an American icon, he gained worldwide praise by 1905 as the inventor of the prairie home. The prairie house refigured the nature of American family life, and offered an environment which strengthened the workings of family life. Wright's upper-middle class clients generated the majority of his popularity. They approved of Wright's new invention because it preserved their social status from the impending forces of urbanism and family disintegration. In selling his idea to the urban gentry, Wright purveyed in solid form his ideology of the American family and its relation to the surrounding society. Wright emphasized the house as a means of strengthening the family against increased social disorder. Chicago residents had witnessed some of the worst labor disputes in the nation's history, the Pullman Strike and the Haymarket Riot. Wright's success in marketing his social ideology stemmed from his ability to allay through his architecture the apprehensions generated by such events.

Popularized through magazines like the Ladies Home Journal

Wright's prairie homes embody a multitude of dualities which serve to blur his ideology. Wright attempted to provide a shelter for modern family life while at the same time conforming to Victorian notions of order and social hospitality. Wright's Winslow House in River Forest, Illinois (1894) and the Willetts House in Highland Park (1902) exhibit this duality in both their interiors and exteriors.

Placing the prairie home alongside other contemporary styles makes it easier to understand the innovativeness of Wright's design. This is a cottage design by Andrew Jackson Downey, a revered designer of the American Victorian home (1). It exhibits many of the traits which Wright abhorred.

On the exterior, Downing's design is essentially a box, and its rooms are similarly dedicated to discrete functions. In designing the prairie house, Wright sought to "beat the box," to escape the rigidly defined spaces which he claimed were not only false representations of natural beauty but were also detrimental to the American family. As Wright commented later in his career: "The box is a Fascist symbol. I felt it to be Fascist, undemocratic, and absolutely anti-individual (2)". In his eyes, Downey was detracting from family togetherness by squaring off spaces for the dining room, living room, parlor, and separating them with rigid doors and walls.

Both of Wright's homes are fairly convention of form in their frontal facades. The Winslow House's facade takes on a simple and symmetrical stance toward the street (3), and the Willetts House presents a formal, almost symmetrical facade(4). Both houses appear to conform to the social ideals of the surrounding Victorian society. They are modest and accommodating in their frontal facades, and make no gestures toward originality or "standing apart from the crowd (5)." Details of the front facade of the Winslow House such as the white frames around its windows, the broad white panel that encloses the entrance, and the yellow-tinted brick," connect it with the Victorian ideals of classic simplicity and proportionality (6). Indeed, the symmetry of the facade itself, its balance from left to right, affirm these ideals.

A primary goal of the prairie house was to offer protection from the threatening evils of society. Even in the early Winslow House, Wright's defensive posture begins to emerge. The disproportionate smallness of its front door and the concealment of windows underneath the wide overhang of the roof suggests the values of privacy and seclusion. And the Willett House looks forward to the Robie House, Wright's cantilevered fortress in the heart of Chicago (7) through its "setback" stance toward the street. Wright positioned the house at the rear of the lot, while the Robie House accomplishes this stance of defensiveness with a brick wall facing the sidewalk on all sides. Wright intends in both sites to establish a buffer zone between the family and the larger society. The front facades of Wright's prairie homes reveal a duality of purpose, a simultaneous attempt at Victorian decorum and social withdrawal. According to Twombley:

The prairie house drew on the newer metropolitan notions that home life was not to be intruded upon except by invitation, that it was separate though not totally withdrawn from the rest of the community, and that contact with the outside world should be at the residents' discretion (82).

Relating to the front facade's balance between withdrawal and social acceptance, the rear facade contradicts the order of the front facade in its disorder. The Winslow House's street facade reveals a component of its character which is formal and ordered. The informality of the opposite side of the house says something quite different (8). Thus, we see a duality of purpose in Wright's design, an order and a disorder counterbalanced. This duality can be viewed as either Wright's confusion of motives or his attempt to meet the pluralistic demands of his clients.

Wright's exteriors reveal his desire to integrate the house with its natural surroundings. The prairies were flat, so Wright "brought the whole house down to scale . . . . The house began to associate with the ground, and became natural to the prairie site (9)." The wide-sweeping horizontal lines and the articulated overhang of the roof illustrated the importance of horizontal components in Wright's prairie exteriors.

Wright himself claimed that the interior of the prairie house held the greatest significance, and the outside "was there, chiefly because of what happened inside (10)." With his "open plan" ,he sought to "beat the box," to escape the Victorian compartmentalization which he claimed was stifling the American family. The archetypal vision of the Victorian home, with mother entertaining the ladies over tea in the parlor, the father smoking cigars in the study, and the children banished to the nursery upstairs, was Wright's nemesis. To avoid this subdivision of space, Wright did away with the conventional divisions between spaces on the lower floors of his prairie homes. Rather than setting rooms in the house apart in its space and function, he unified them into one common space.

Rather than use walls and doors, Wright separated rooms through permeable partitions which preserved a sense of progression through space without enclosure. The Winslow House floor plan flows into the library to the left and the living room to the right, then proceeds into the dining room. This "open plan" provides for greater circulation through the space, an intertwining, commingling of spaces.

Prairie house space was multipurpose. It minimized the singularity of the event's location . . . . With the floor plan more open, children could not be isolated . . . nor could household functions be kept apart . . . The dining area might become a sewing room between meals and the parlor a noisy playroom all day (11).

Thus, the "open plan" works against a rigidly defined set of behavioral and social patterns within its spaces, and increases the potential for family interaction.

In the same way that the rear of Wright's exterior facade implied a certain informality, the "open plan" affirmed the diversity and versatility of the functions and roles contained within it. The duality of design and function seen in the front and rear facades of the Winslow House is also present on the interior. The Victorian influence visible in Wright's frontal facade, the formality and order which it exhibits, is also embodied in the interior. The Winslow House exhibits a complex arrangement of symbolic and functional features. The dining room and parlor act more on a symbolic level, connecting the inhabitant with the Victorian desire for order and decorum, but the open plan acts to undermine exclusive patterns of usage.

After the front facade, the reception hall provides the visitor's first impression of the Winslow House, and contains similar gestures toward Victorian order and decorum. Upon entering the reception room, the fireplace and inglenooks dominate the visitor's view. This dominant placement of the fireplace is included for the benefit of the visitor, not the inhabitant (12). It states the importance of the family to the visitor and to the community. In this we see Wright's attempt to satisfy the second component of the urban gentry's demands, its need to conform to larger society.

Viewing Wright's "open plan" and the formal spaces of the Winslow House simultaneously, this duality between family importance and societal interaction emerges. Even within this formal space, a case can be made for the versatility of design in the reception room. It functions both as a playroom by day and a space for parties and social gatherings by night (13). A different assessment of the parlor's function discounts this versatility, and appropriates the space as purely symbolic. "The room seems hardly to have been designed for family use; it is simply an entrance hall . . . . It is hard to imagine the area's being used for the ordinary activities of daily life (85)," Smith writes. Thus, Wright moves the space to a grand symbolic level, and counters the highly versatile "open plan" which adjoins it. The parlor is the intersection of Victorian formality and family integrity in the Winslow House.

Like his reception room, Wright's dining rooms operated on a symbolic level, preserving the Victorian creed of order and decorum. The Winslow House's dining room was a lesson in order, formality, and regularity. The perfect symmetry of the chairs around the table, and the precise placement of these elements within the space of the room, professed a perfect, almost altar-like order. With this order came a rigid set of behavioral guidelines, and the very rigidity of the chairs testified to the decorum expected in the space. Wright once commented that his body bore the bruises of his furniture.

The Winslow House dining room's formality and decorum has incited the phrase "quasi-religious" to describe it because it approaches the family ritual of dining as if it were a religious ceremony. "Wright's severely rectilinear furniture sets within a rectilinear context, making these dining rooms seem . . . like stately council chambers. . . . They declare unequivocally that the unity of the group requires the submission and conformity on the part of its members (14)."

Like the reception hall, the Winslow House's dining room contrasts with the "open plan" which surrounds it, affirming the importance of communal ceremony for the nuclear family and the priority of social gatherings within the space. The "open plan" discourages distinct, exclusive modes of behavior while Wright's ritualistic spaces demanded that certain proprieties and standards of behavior be upheld. "The occasions of dining and `living' give rise to quite different modes of grouping, and the ritual of dining demands a "oneness of purpose (15)" from family members.

This contradiction between the will of the individual and the requisites of the family or society has been defined as a conflict between freedom and order in Wright's design. But this seeming dichotomy between freedom and order could be a demonstration of Wright's "grasp on social reality (16)." Wright's formal and informal spaces existed simultaneously to harbor a wide variety of social and family interactions. The dualities which present themselves in the interior and exterior of the Winslow House are perhaps reconcilable in their ability to provide for the divergent and numerous needs of Wright's upper middle class clients.

Thus, Wright's dual stance toward the needs of his middle class clients emerges in his prairie exteriors. Wright suspended himself between the opposing desires of the urban gentry to be sheltered from the evils of the burgeoning metropolis while remaining connected with Victorian-esque sensibilities. To satisfy these clashing desires, Wright adopted a tactic which has been defined as "vaguely dishonest posing." "Wright seemed to bow to Victorian insistence on family regularity in front while letting undisguised functional reality influence the arrangements where it was most private" (46), Twombley asserts.

But instead of viewing Wright's outer Victorian formality and inner individualism as opposites, perhaps they should be viewed as altered continuities. Twombley's term "vaguely dishonest posing" implies a sort of subterfuge, when in fact Wright created a design which consciously negotiated between divergent needs of the urban gentry for privacy within society. Twombley's assessment that Wright "seemed to bow to Victorian insistence on family regularity" implies a weakness of purpose in Wright's design philosophy. Wright bowed to no one. He embraced and chose his style of designing, and built out of his own free will the prairie houses his clients wanted to live in. Rather than dwelling on the hypocrisy of Wright's dual notions of order and freedom, we should view them as a comprimise between the architect and the client.

As Twombley illustrates, Wright's view of the urban gentry was tinted by his own personal experience; he shared their roots. Because of this connection, "he was perfectly willing to provide [the urban gentry] with startlingly new surroundings and yet not change it in any fundamental way but to strengthen it against assault" (89). It is entirely possible for Wright to remain true to himself as well as his clients' needs.

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