Frank Lloyd Wright Before 1900 - The First Prairie Houses

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Winslow House, 1893, Frank Lloyd Wright's First Prairie Style

The Winslow House is an early form of a Prairie House by Frank Lloyd Wright, 2 story, yellow brick
Winslow House, 1893 by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Hedrich Blessing Collection/Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

The 1910 Frederic C. Robie House may be the most famous Prairie House, but it was not the first. The very first Prairie House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright resulted from his "moonlighting." Wright's bootleg homes—the residences he built while still working at Adler & Sullivan in Chicago—were traditional Victorian styles of the day. Wright's pre-1900 Queen Anne styles were a source of frustration to the young architect. By 1893 at age twenty-something, Wright had parted ways with Louis Sullivan and embarked on his own practice and his own designs.

Wright yearned to build what he considered a "sensible house," and a client named Herman Winslow gave Wright the opportunity. "I was not the only one then sick of hypocrisy and hungry for reality," Wright has said. "Winslow was something of an artist himself, sick of it all."

The Winslow house was Wright's new design, low to the ground, horizontal inclination with hipped roof, clerestory windows, and a dominating center fireplace. The new style, what would become known as Prairie Style, attracted great attention in the neighborhood. Wright himself has commented on "popular reaction to this new endeavor."

After the first "prairie house" was built, the Winslow House in 1893....my next client said he did not want a house "so different that he would have to go down the backway to his morning train to avoid being laughed at." That was one popular consequence. There were many others; bankers at first refused to loan money on the "queer" houses, so friends had to be found to finance the early buildings. Millmen would soon look for the name of the plans when the plans were presented for estimates, read the name of the architect and roll up the drawings again, handing them back with the remark that "they were not hunting for trouble"; contractors more often than not failed to read the plans correctly, so much had to be left off the buildings.—1935, FLW

SOURCE: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, pp. 177, 187.

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Isidore H. Heller House, 1896

Early three-story private home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1896
Isidore H. Heller House by Frank Lloyd Wright, 1896-1897, near Chicago, Illinois. Photo ©Sharon Irish, shrnirish on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

In 1896 Frank Lloyd Wright was still in his 20s and delighting in his new house designs, beginning with the Winslow House. The Isidore Heller House may represent the height of Wright's Prairie Style experimentation—what many people have called his "transitional period." Wright enlisted the German-born sculptor Richard W. Bock to provide upper level ornamentation to this three-story wrightian model, an exercise in height, mass, and decoration. Some of this design in mass and linear orientation appeared later in the 1908 Unity Temple.

How did Wright's residential experimentation go over in the neighborhood? The architect later explained:

The owners of the early houses were, of course, all subjected to curiosity, sometimes to admiration, but were submitted most often to the ridicule of the "middle of the road egoist."—1935, FLW

Architectural tryouts are often fraught with disdain by the status quo. One is reminded of another architect's experimentation in a suburban neighborhood, namely when Frank Gehry bought a pink bungalow in Santa Monica, California.

The Heller House was built in the Hyde Park area of south Chicago, near the site of the infamous 1893 Columbia Exposition. As the Chicago World's Fair had celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's landing in America, so, too, Wright was celebrating his new world of architecture.

SOURCES: Selected Events in Frank Lloyd Wright's Life, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at www.franklloydwright.org/about/Timeline.html [accessed June 6, 2014]; Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 188.

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George W. Furbeck House, 1897

George W. Furbeck House, 1897, early transitional residence designed by a young Frank Lloyd Wright
George W. Furbeck House, 1897-1898, transitional design by a young Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo © Teemu008 on flickr.com, Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

When Frank Lloyd Wright was experimenting with his house design, Warren Furbeck commissioned Wright to build two homes, one for each of his sons. The George Furbeck home shows the continued Queen Anne influence of the day, similar to the turret designs of the Parker House and Gale House.

But with George Furbeck's house, Wright keeps the low pitched roof seen on the Winslow Prairie House. The young architect also diminishes the presence of traditional rounded turrets by incorporating a front porch into the design. The porch was originally not enclosed, which is appropriate to Wright's experimentation with Prairie openness.

SOURCE: Selected Events in Frank Lloyd Wright's Life, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation at www.franklloydwright.org/about/Timeline.html [accessed June 6, 2014]

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Rollin Furbeck House, 1897

Front view of early Frank Lloyd Wright house with narrow three story center section
Rollin Furbeck House, 1897-1898, early design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives Collection/Getty Images

In June 1897, Frank Lloyd Wright turned 30 years old, and he had most of his design ideas for his Prairie House style. The Rollin Furbeck house has a turret-like design, similar to brother George Furbeck's house, but now the tower is linear with the straight lines of the prairie and the verticality brought about by the long windows.

An idea (probably rooted deep in racial instinct) that shelter should be the essential look of any dwelling, put the low spreading roof, flat or hipped or low gabled, with generously projecting eaves over the whole. I began to see a building primarily not as a cave but as broad shelter in the open, related to vista; vista without and vista within.—1935, FLW

Any architect's genius is to modify designs that have come before, to create an evolution in architecture. In the George Furbeck House, we see Wright playing with the Queen Anne style. In the Rollin Furbeck house, we see Wright's modification of Italiante house style features.

Frank Lloyd Wright's early house designs show us that architecture's evolution is as natural as the prairie itself. We also get the sense that in the frustrating business of architecture, designing can be great fun.

SOURCE: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 179.

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A Queen Anne Beginning - Robert P. Parker House, 1892

Robert P. Parker House, 1892, Early design by Frank Lloyd Wright
Robert P. Parker House, 1892, Early design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo © Teemu008 on flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the early 1890s, Frank Lloyd Wright was a twenty-something married architect. He was working for Louis Sullivan at Adler and Sullivan in Chicago and moonlighting in the suburbs—making money on the side with what can be called "bootleg" residential jobs. The Victorian house style of the day was the Queen Anne; that's what people wanted built, and the young architect built them. He designed Robert Parker's house in the Queen Anne style, but he wasn't happy about it.

The typical American dwelling of 1893 was crowding in upon itself all over the Chicago prairies as I used to go home from my work with Adler and Sullivan in Chicago to Oak Park, a Chicago suburb. That dwelling had somehow become typical American architecture but by any faith in nature implicit or explicit it did not belong anywhere.—1935, FLW

Wright was continually frustrated with the way American life was moving upward—Sullivan completed the Wainwright Building in 1891, ushering the modern office worker to city desks. The young Frank Lloyd Wright cultivated his memories of working on a Wisconsin farm when he was a boy, doing :real" work, and forming the ideal of "organic simplicity."

SOURCE: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 177.

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Thomas Gale House, 1892

Thomas Gale House, 1892, with a Queen Anne look by Frank Lloyd Wright
Thomas Gale House, 1892, with a Queen Anne look by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Oak Park Cycle Club on flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 1892, Frank Lloyd Wright was a 25-year-old draftsman who had grown up amidst the industrial revolution. He supplemented his income by designing residential properties in the flourishing suburbs, which got Wright thinking about typical American house styles.

What was the matter with this typical American house? Well, just for an honest beginning, it lied about everything. It had no sense of unity at all nor any such sense of space as should belong to a free people. It was stuck up in thoughtless fashion. It had no more sense of earth than a "modernistic" house. And it was stuck up on wherever it happened to be. To take any one of these so-called "homes" away would have improved the landscape and helped to clear the atmosphere.—1935, FLW

Wright's visceral reaction was more than a rant on aesthetics. The Victorian-era Queen Anne Architecture in the USA also represented the age of industrialization and the machine. The Queen Anne style Robert Parker house and this Thomas Gale house had Wright designing mainstream, a place that didn't suit the feisty architect.

SOURCE: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, p. 177.

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Walter H. Gale House, 1892-1893

Walter H. Gale House, 1892-1893, early bootleg design by Frank Lloyd Wright
Walter H. Gale House, 1892-1893, early bootleg design by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo by Oak Park Cycle Club on flickr.com, Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With Walter Gale's house, the young Frank Lloyd Wright began to experiment with design. Compare this elongated dormer to the ones found in the Parker House and the house of Walter's brother, Thomas Gale, and you can sense Wright's wanting to break with the typical Queen Anne Style formula.

Essential, were it brick or wood or stone, this "house" was a bedeviled box with a fussy lid; a complex box that had to be cut up by all kinds of holes made in it to let in light and air, with an especially ugly hole to go in and come out of....Architecture seemed to consist in what was done to these holes....Floors were the only part of the house left plain after "Queen Anne" had swept past.—1935, FLW

Where was Wright going with this? Back to his youth on the prairie.

SOURCE: Frank Lloyd Wright On Architecture: Selected Writings (1894-1940), Frederick Gutheim, ed., Grosset's Universal Library, 1941, pp. 177-178.