Prairie-style houses are influenced by the natural environment that surrounds them. Their architects believe that architecture should be defined by its landscape, and not the other way around. Emerging from the Arts & Crafts movement that emerged in the second half of the 19th century, the Prairie movement originated in Chicago around 1900, and was meant to push back against the cold, sterile architecture that arose from Industrial Revolution, rejecting factory-made goods in favor of traditional artisan-crafted ones, and eschewing mass-produced materials for natural ones. But while it kept its eye firmly on the past, Prairie-style homes also incorporated modern elements—like flat planes and understated ornamental flourishes—that united the past with the present, and the wild with the tame. Here’s what you need to know about Prairie-style houses:
What Is a Prairie-Style House?
A Prairie-style house celebrates the beauty of the natural world, specifically the prairies of the US Midwest, and evokes a time of preindustrial simplicity, with simple, unfussy design. Houses built in the Prairie-style are known for functional, open floor plans that make their rooms suitable to various designs, décor styles, and uses.
What Makes a House Prairie-Style?
Prairie-style houses are meant to blend in with the flat, open landscape of the prairies of the US Midwest, spreading out horizontally across large lots, rather than building upwards. In the words of the most famous Prairie architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, Prairie-style houses are “married to the ground.”
To mimic the prairies, Prairie-style houses often have flat or minimally-pitched rooflines with overhanging eaves, and low-profile exteriors composed of flat lines and planes. They are built with materials with roots in the natural world, with wood, stucco, stone, and rustic brick commonly used for siding.
Unlike most buildings, where the layout is carved out within the structure’s footprint, Prairie-style houses are designed from the inside out, sprawling across the land as they need to. A Prairie-style house not only blends in with nature, but fosters a connection between its residents and the environment. Large windows flood the inside with sunlight, and offer views of the outdoors.
The interior layout is designed for function above all else; featuring plenty of open space, and lots of large windows to allow for sunlight. As with the Arts & Crafts movement, Prairie-style houses celebrate artisan craftsmanship, incorporating fine handmade elements like stained glass, decorative woodwork, and built-in fixtures. These handmade touches were understated, subtly incorporated into the home in a way that blended in seamlessly, turning the entire house into a work of art.
Here are the most common elements found in Prairie-style houses:
- Low profile
- Flat planes and horizontal lines
- Wood, stone, brick, or stucco exteriors
- Connected indoor and outdoor spaces
- Open floor plans
- Natural woodwork and built-in fixtures
- Restrained use of simple ornamentation
- Handmade craftsmanship
- Extra-large windows
The History of Prairie-Style Houses
A US evolution of Britain’s Arts & Crafts movement, the Prairie style began at the turn of the 20th century by a group of young Chicago-based architects, including one of the most famous architects in American history, Frank Lloyd Wright. These architects melded the natural ethos of Arts & Crafts with the ethos and writing of Louis Sullivan, who is also known as the "father of modernism." Sullivan wanted to create a style of architecture with a sense of place that reflected the uniqueness of the US landscape and bounty of natural resources—a style that was not derivative of European architecture, but something unique to the US.
The Prairie School was short-lived, ending shortly after the beginning of World War I, but its ideals evolved into other styles of modern architecture, like ranch-style homes. Many original Prairie-style houses—particularly ones designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—have been turned into museums, but there are still some that are privately owned, most notably in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois.