The Prairie School in Beverly

Wall panel text for the exhibit at the Ridge Historical Society by Mati Maldre and Sue Delves, 2004

I acquired an interest in architectural photographic documentation, paralleled with a new exposure to the Prairie School of architecture, in 1971, while studying with Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1980, ten years after Paul Sprague and Tom Yanul first identified and documented the cache of Walter Burley Griffin-designed houses on 104th place, Kathy and I purchased the Jenkinson House designed by Griffin in 1912. Aided by a Graham Foundation Grant in 1988, I launched my independent research on Griffin and his Prairie School contemporaries, pursuing a project to document and photograph, with my 4×5 Deardorff view camera, all 64 of the existing structures designed by Griffin in America (1902 to 1914). My photographs were published as Walter Burley Griffin in America in 1996 (University of Illinois Press), in collaboration with Paul Kruty and his extensive research. Paul argues that Griffin should be recognized as the third great member, after Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, of the Prairie School of architecture. The book provided the first complete visual record ever published of Griffin’s surviving architectural and landscape work.

Meanwhile, I also gained tremendous respect for Beverly Hills/Morgan Park’s treasury of Prairie School homes representing many other architects of the Prairie School, gradually assembling the representative collection you see in this exhibit. I view this exhibit as a vehicle to focus attention on the wide variety of Prairie School examples, from the vernacular up to the “big stars” like Griffin, Wright, and Maher, including those whose work was done during the height of the Prairie School between 1910 and 1916. 

Early in the development of their careers, Walter Burley Griffin and other young architects worked from studios in the new Steinway Hall on Van Buren Street. Each one had come under the spell of Louis Sullivan’s daring ideas, and they were working with Frank Lloyd Wright who later referred to their coterie as “the eighteen”. Later many also worked from Wright’s studio in Oak Park. They shared creative ideas for a new, completely American architecture, reflecting the simplicity of the flat midwestern prairie, at the same time setting aside traditional standards. 

The Arts and Crafts Movement and its concentration on simplicity, along with the introduction of homemaker magazines aimed at middle or upper-middle-class families helped to spread curiosity about new concepts in tasteful requirements for a home. Most important was House Beautiful, published in Chicago and therefore reflecting and fostering midwestern taste and a new style of living that was happening here. 

Prairie designs aimed for an organic sensation of a building related to the site, and the needs of the people who would occupy it. The basic concept was to make the building and landscape harmonious; to consider light, breeze, and view as part of the design. They began with simple shapes and forms, creating horizontal, ground-hugging lines with sheltering, overhanging eaves. Casement windows were grouped, sometimes in simple ribbon-like lines but more often using distinctive wood-mullioned geometric patterns. (Griffin frequently used the diamond and triangle). Living spaces were opened into a single L-shaped space, usually around a central fireplace. Rooms became only suggested areas of use rather than absolutely confined. The result was compact, economical, and friendly.

Texture and/or roughness combined with the use of warm earth color was expressed by the rough textured stucco, rough sawn cedar trim, sand plaster walls, and the proliferation of rectilinear interior woodwork, all of which was stained and/or varnished but never painted to hide the texture. Beverly-Morgan Park provided a suburban setting where natural elements could blend with the designs. (The area now known as Beverly Hills was annexed to Chicago in 1890, and Morgan Park didn’t vote for annexation until 1914). Most of what is listed as Prairie Style homes in this area are not of the low, ground-hugging type so often associated with these architects, such as found in Wright’s prototypical Evans House on Longwood Drive. Rather, these prairie homes were built for moderate-income families utilizing small lots. They were “city” houses, built on a modest scale and less opulent than other prairie houses, but retaining the basic concepts of open space, light, and airiness. 

Griffin generated rational design solutions that sought to improve living conditions for all. In his most masterful designs, such as those in Mason City, Iowa, or Anna, Illinois, his achievements can be compared to any of his Prairie School contemporaries. Yet, he was also able to transform traditional boxes and small cottages into spaces of harmony and warmth which elevated the status of moderate housing to new plateaus of enjoyment and function.

Selected photos

» View more from the series “Beverly Hills Prairie School, 2005-2006