Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the United States’ most widely recognized architects. In 1893 he founded his practice in Oak Park, on the western edge of Chicago. At this point in American architectural history, residential architecture drew heavily from European roots. Wright believed these styles weren’t representative of the long, low prairie landscapes and open skies of the Midwest. Over the course of his practice, he developed the prairie style of architecture, which eventually put the Midwest on the map.
Wright took cues from the Midwestern landscape as well as the arts and crafts movement, of which the prairie style is a direct descendent. He had a strong cohort of Midwestern architects who celebrated and often contributed to his work. This group, which Wright would later refer to as “The New School for the Middle West,” included George Elmslie, William Gray Purcell, George Washington Maher and others, and their work can be seen in places across Southwest.
Characteristics of the prairie style include one- to two-story homes, low slope roofs, long and low roof lines, strong horizontal elements, windows grouped together to create prominent views, built-in cabinetry, a prominent central chimney and a wide use of natural materials like wood and brick.
The Purcell-Cutts House near Lake of the Isles is the most famous example of prairie style architecture in Southwest, but other local projects range in size and ornamentation and include buildings both private and public.
In his work, Wright believed that architecture should be formed by its context and should respond to the culture of its time. By maintaining these prairie style buildings in our neighborhoods, we reinforce the importance of place. Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” These prairie style buildings are a tool that can be used to shape the development of the Southwest community now and in the future. They’re a reminder of where we are and where we came from — a nod to beautiful, long landscapes and expansive skies native to the Midwest.
Charles T. Backus House
212 W. 36th St.
The Charles T. Backus House, a low-cost, two-level prairie style home, was designed by Purcell and Elmslie. The home was constructed in 1915 for approximately $3,000 (or $76,000 in today’s dollars). The prominent features include a first-level pergola above the exterior doors, window trellises, grouped windows, a low sloping roof jutting out over the building facade and horizontal wood trim spanning the face of the building.
Stewart Memorial Church
116 E. 32nd St.
The Stewart Memorial Church is one of the few pieces of public architecture in Southwest designed in the prairie style. This Missionary Baptist church is located in the Lyndale neighborhood and was designed by Purcell and George Feick in 1909. It is reminiscent of Wright’s design for the United Temple in Oak Park. Characteristics include long low roofs, porches at exterior entrances, decorative elements along roof edges and windows ganged together by the sanctuary and along other exterior walls. All of the windows, doors, exterior brick walls, porches and other features were rehabilitated in 1999 to maintain the integrity of the original design.
1324 Mount Curve Ave.
Located in Lowry Hill, the Winton House has been called one of the “purest examples of Prairie Style in Minneapolis.” Constructed in 1910 and designed by Maher, this home is one of the largest prairie style homes in Southwest. Grand porches extend the interior to the outdoors, while large expanses of windows further connect inhabitants to the surrounding nature.
- Frank Lloyd Wright Trust website
- Antique Home Organization
- Chicago Architecture Center
- City of Minneapolis
Callah Nelson is an architectural designer at Locus Architecture at 45th and Nicollet in Kingfield.