Frank Lloyd Wright

The Prairie Style: From Theory to Practice

Although Frank Lloyd Wright designed houses, churches, and commercial buildings in differing styles, he is probably most associated with the Prairie Style, which dates from approximately 1893 to the First World War.

It seemed to embody his most significant philosophical ideas about architecture and brought him both national and international acclaim by the time he was forty.

Neil Levine, in The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1996), attributes the impetus of the Prairie School to Chicago architect LouisH. Sullivan, with whom Wright worked before establishing his own studio. The group included, among others, Dwight Perkins, Myron Hunt, and Robert Spencer—all housed on an upper floor of Steinway Hall. They worked mainly for middle- to upper-middle-class clients in suburban Chicago, notably Oak Park, rural Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Their work "was a regional revolt and reform then occurring in the visual arts," notes H. Allen Brooks (The Prairie School: Frank Lloyd Wright and His Midwest Contemporaries [NY: Norton, 1972]: 4).

"Nature was Wright's constant preoccupation," says Levine (xvii). Wright gained an appreciation for nature, particularly Midwestern nature, from working on his uncles' Wisconsin farm during his teenage summers. There he could observe the horizontal line of the land, the line that he considered domestic and democratic and freeing. "On the flat prairie of the Midwest, breadth would be a sign of shelter, as height was a sign of power and success in the city" (17). It would signify comfort, a quality that Wright wanted to characterize his buildings, particularly his houses.

To this end Wright's Prairie Style house typically features a large, centrally-placed fireplace, a hearth that "grounds" the house, that becomes its focus. Frequently he designed benches on either side of it, as he did for the Westcott House here in Springfield, Ohio, in effect creating a room within a room. In at least one instance he elevated this space from the rest of the area and set it off by a series of arches.

The Winslow House in River Forest, Illinois, built in 1893-94, typifies the Prairie House. It set the standard. In fact, Wright himself called it "the first 'prairie house'" (14). Similar to the later Westcott House, it, too, was sited back from the street on an elevated spot and featured a reflecting pool on a terrace, tawny colored Roman brick, and a deep overhang of hip roof. "In the Winslow House," says Levine, "the formal equation of hearth and home became a fundamental element of the Prairie House type, transmitting the emotional content of the type through the very core of the building" (19).

Building materials of Prairie Style homes were simple: plaster (stucco), wood, and brick. According to Henry-Russell Hitchcock, nearly all masonry houses stood on open, prairie sites, while wooden and brick ones were typically suburban (In the Nature of Materials: The Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright 1887-1941 [New York: DaCapo, 1942], 39). Although Wright departed from members of the Arts and Crafts Movement by approving use of the machine, he made relatively little use of current engineering innovations; however, upon occasion he did include steel beams. Ornamentation on his houses (except for leaded glass) was also rare. Instead he depended for interest upon juxtaposed shapes and forms, for example, horizontal bands of windows, as displayed in the Westcott House.

H. Allen Brooks, writing in Frank Lloyd Wright and the Prairie School (NY: Braziller, 1984), emphasizes the American-ness of the Prairie Style, given its "theoretical connection with nature, the design process being derived from natural laws rather than philosophical idealism or classical rules" (9). Wright and other members of the Prairie School believed that the design should adapt perfectly to function. "The creative process was 'organic,' unfolding or growing from the inside out, establishing integral relationships between plan and elevation, interior space and external expression, architecture and decoration" (10).

Furthermore, they believed that the relationship between the building and its landscape should be close; i.e., a house should blend into its setting. Therefore, they used materials indigenous to the Midwest: e.g., pine, oak, and limestone. They left exterior woodwork unplanned and unpainted (but stained). They stained and waxed interior woodwork (10).

Noteworthy to the Prairie Style was the openness of both interior and exterior spaces. Rooms became fewer in number than those in previous architectural styles but more flexible in use. Instead of having several rooms each with its own purpose, the main room of the Westcott House, for example, is an open space extending sixty feet. Portions were used as a living room, a dining room, and a library. In other words, the interior spaces were not enclosed in the traditional sense. Wright believed that this multi-purposed approach to living areas made the house seem larger and more relaxed. When he did use dividers, they were usually piers or screens rather than walls.

This unified approach to design meant that Wright wanted the furnishings of a house integrated into the total design plan. He created formal, slat-back chairs, window glass, light fixtures, rugs, china—aiming for artistic harmony (20). Generally each set of furniture, lighter than that of the Arts and Crafts Movement, was unique to its building.

"What is most striking about [Prairie School architects'] work is its optimism and genuine sense of purpose—a spirit which is characteristic of much of the new architecture at the turn of the century—and its earnest moral tone, perhaps best described by the dual imperative that their work be both 'simple' and 'honest.' Theirs was a fundamentally American approach, although one based on principles that were recognized and applauded far beyond our borders," comments Brooks (7).

In Wasmuth Portfolio (Berlin, 1910), Wright articulates his goal in this way: "To thus make of a dwelling place a complete work of art, in itself as expressive and beautiful and more intimately related to life than anything of detached sculpture or painting, lending itself freely and suitably to the individual needs of the dwellers, an harmonious entity, fitting in color, pattern and nature the utilities, and in itself really an expression of them in character—this is the modern American opportunity" (16).

Although other Prairie School architects overshadowed Wright after 1909, the Prairie Style had a significant impact upon the United States, Europe, and Australia. (The ranch style homes of the 1950s and 1960s illustrate its revival.) Says Brooks, "The buildings of the Prairie School, in spite of their international impact and continuing influence, were very respectful of their own time and place and very much American. They were not fanciful inventions for the sake of being different, but rather combined the best ideas, both from high art and the vernacular, that American architecture had to offer. Responsive to the lessons (and romanticism) of nature, and to the modernity of the machine, these buildings, the many hundreds of them, have more than stood the test of time and continue their useful service with little or no need of modification. Nestling quietly into the landscape, where they seem to belong, they enrich the quality of life for all who know them, and leave us with an abundant inheritance of ideas and principles for the future" (27).


Frank Lloyd Wright in Ohio

Completed in 1908, the Westcott House is the earliest Wright-designed house built in Ohio. In the 1930s, Wright decided to design houses for the middle class-Usonian houses, he called them. These were generally smaller, one-story, sometimes, with wings sprouting from the main section. Like their Prairie Style forebears, however, they, too, were designed with multi-purpose spaces and with an emphasis upon nature. The house and the environment were to become one.

The Charles Weltzheimer residence, built in Oberlin in 1948, is the only Usonian house in Ohio open to the public. It has an L-shape, with the bedroom wing set at a right angle to the combined living and dining areas. The southern side of the flat-roofed house has clerestory windows that seem to produce a glass wall. Furniture, cabinetry and lighting are built in. The exterior features reddish wooden croquet balls decorating the fascia and curved cutouts on clerestory panels. The Weltzheimer/Johnson House is now owned by Oberlin College as part of the Allen Memorial Art Museum. 

When in 1951 the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an article about the Weltzheimer House, it inspired Canton residents Nathan Rubin and his wife to visit. They fell in love with the house, and commissioned Wright to design one for them. Built in 1951, Wright originally designed it for a group of Usonian homes in Okemos, Mich. It is long and low with brick and horizontal wood siding. Wings protrude at 120-degree angles from the main section of the house.

Nathan Rubin is related by marriage to Ellis A. Feiman, who commissioned Wright to design a house for him three years later. Located only one block from the Rubin House, the large, brick Feiman House features an outside brick wall with T-shaped cutouts.

The third Frank Lloyd Wright house in Canton, the John J. Dobkins House, also dates to 1954. Located farther east than the Rubin and Feiman houses, it is set back from the road, has tall, thin casement doors and prominent windows that rise to nearly the roofline.

Another Wright property in Ohio open to the public is the Louis Penfield House in Willoughby Hills. Situated east of Cleveland on the Chagrin River, it is available for weekend and holiday rental. Different from many other houses that Wright designed, the Penfield House has doors that reach a normal height—six feet eight inches. Although Wright himself was short and preferred his structures close to the ground, he accommodated the needs of Penfield, who reportedly stood taller than six feet. Wright raised some ceilings to eight feet as well. The three-bedroom Penfield House is Wrightian in its use of narrow doors and stairways. Ribbon windows and vertical beams help to make the concrete block and wood structure seem larger than it is. The living room features built-in furniture. For more information about the Penfield House, visit

The Cincinnati area boasts three Wright properties, the Cedric G. Boulter, William Boswell and Gerald B. Tonkens houses. The Boulter House sits on a corner near the Gaslight District, close to the University of Cincinnati. The house was completed in 1956. Wright designed an addition for it in 1958, one year before he died. Its carport was enclosed in 1990.

The Boswell House, from 1957, is located in Indian Hill. It is the last known Usonian house built in Ohio. Thrust into the side of a hill, it seems invisible except in winter. This large structure houses an open living room with glass on three sides, the windows facing the woods. At each side of the living room are the dining room and the private study. Two long wings come off the main space. Service rooms extend down one wing: kitchen, breakfast nook, laundry, bathroom, tool room, servants' quarters and spacious playroom. The other wing includes the master bedroom suite and bath, walk-in closet and dressing room, five smaller bedrooms and two baths. The Boswell House was completed in 1961, two years after Wright’s death, under the supervision of Taliesin architects. 

The Tonkens House, dating to 1955, is located in Amberley Village. It boasts a roof of solid coffered concrete block. The home is distinctive because of the gold leaf on the hall ceiling that leads from the entry to the bedroom wing.

One other significant Ohio Frank Lloyd Wright destination is the Kenneth L. Meyers Medical Clinic in Dayton. Currently called the Plastic Surgery Pavilion, it serves as the clinic of Dr. James Apesos and features a circular laboratory in the center of the medical section. Sited on a large tract of land back from the street, the structure appears to rise from the earth. This long, low brick building is imposing, with bands of windows that meet at the corners. Eaves are broad, and a low entry leads to the high space of the main room. Once again a large hearth—the center of many Wright designs—offers welcome. Bench seating based on Wright's plan was added in 1989, so were two large tables. (The clinic dates to 1956.) Dr. Apesos has been careful to adhere to Wright's influence in other appointments as well, such as a narrow terrace of red-dyed concrete that echoes the color of the brick.


Frank Lloyd Wright - Wright in Japan

The following overview is by Karen Severns, a founding trustee of Wrightian Architectural Archives Japan (WAAJ) and the writer-director of Magnificent Obsession: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Buildings and Legacy in Japan.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s fascination with Japan began with ukiyo-e woodblock prints in the late 1880s and spanned his entire lifetime. When the 37-year-old architect made his very first trip outside America, in 1905, it was not to Europe — that mecca of Western architecture — but to Japan. With his wife Catherine and another couple, he spent two months touring natural and historical landmarks from Nikko all the way down to Takamatsu. Wright was able to maintain his idealized image of Old Japan throughout the visit, despite the country’s wholesale rush to modernize, calling it “the most romantic, most beautiful” nation on earth.

Wright always credited Japan’s arts, and not its architecture, with inspiring his work. But while in the Japanese countryside, he could not have helped absorbing the vernacular of the temples, shrines and homes: the hip-gabled roofs; the gigantic overhanging eaves; the endless tatami mats; the fusuma and shoji panels used to reshape rooms; the union of interior and exterior spaces. In these traditional structures, he found confirmation of the organic design principles he had been developing for a decade.

The Wrights returned home as Japanophiles. Within a year, Wright mounted his first ukiyo-e show at the Art Institute of Chicago. For the next two decades, much of his income would be from the thousands of prints that passed through his hands.

Prompted by Frederick Gookin, a friend and fellow Japanese print dealer, Wright began a vigorous pursuit of the contract to build Tokyo’s new Imperial Hotel in late 1911. The first golden age of his career had recently drawn to a close with several years of personal upheavals; when his mistress was brutally murdered in 1914, Japan seemed an even more alluring refuge from the public condemnation at home. Finally, after years of project delays and several trans-Pacific crossings, Wright took up temporary residence in Tokyo in January 1917.

Over the six tumultuous years he lived off and on in Tokyo, Wright poured his prodigious creativity into the Imperial Hotel project. It would remain, as the many decades of his career passed, his largest and most complex design. He also designed at least a dozen other buildings for Japan, including an embassy, a school, a hotel and a temporary hotel annex, a theater, a commercial-residential complex and seven residences. Of these, six were built: the Imperial Hotel and Annex, the Jiyu Gakuen School, the Aisaku Hayashi House, the Arinobu Fukuhara House and the Tazaemon Yamamura House. Only the school and Yamamura House survive, along with portions of the Imperial and Hayashi House.

But Wright left another, equally significant, legacy in Japan: his transformative effect on the men who helped him build the Imperial Hotel. Many of them went on to create their own masterpieces, to alter Japan’s cityscapes and mentor a new generation of pioneering architects. Among these were his righthand man, Arata Endo, the first architect to share credit with the master; Antonin Raymond, the Czech-born “violent evolutionary” who led Japan’s modernist movement during his 43 years in the country; Kameki and Nobu Tsuchiura, who followed Wright to Los Angeles and stayed with him for two years; Yoshiya Tanoue, Takehiko Okami, Eizo Sugawara, Muraji Shimomoto, Taro Amano and their professional progeny.

Japan is the only nation outside of America in which Wright lived and worked, but his imprint there has been endangered by the loss of those with firsthand knowledge, and the casual destruction of historic buildings, documents and artifacts. In 2005, marking the centenary of Wright’s first visit to Japan in 1905, the nonprofit Wrightian Architectural Archives Japan (WAAJ) was founded to ensure that his legacy of innovative, organic design would live on.

For more information on Wright in Japan, visit:

Excerpts from the original text for the Wasmuth Portfolio: Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright (Berlin, 1910, pages 14, 15, 16):

"The horizontal line is the line of domesticity."

“The virtue of the horizontal lines is respectfully invoked in these buildings. The inches in height gain tremendous force compared with any practicable spread upon the ground.”

“To Europeans these buildings on paper seem uninhabitable; but they derive height and air by quite other means, and respect an ancient tradition, the only one here in America worthy of respect--the prairie. In considering the forms and types of these structures, the fact that they are nearly buildings for the prairie should be borne in mind; the gently rolling or level prairies of the Middle West; the great levels where every detail of elevation becomes exaggerated; every tree a tower above the great calm plains of its flowered surfaces as they lie serene beneath a wonderful sweep of sky. The natural tendency of every ill-considered thing is to detach itself and stick out like a sore thumb in surroundings by nature perfectly quiet. All unnecessary heights have for that reason and for other reasons economic been eliminated, and a more intimate relation with out-door environment sought to compensate for loss of height.”

“So the forms and the supervisions and refinements of the forms are, perhaps, more elemental in character than has hitherto been the case in highly developed architecture. To be lived with, the ornamental forms of one's environment should be designed to wear well, which means they must have absolute repose and make no especial claim upon attention; to be removed as far from realistic tendencies as a sense of reality can take them. Good colors, soft textures, living materials, the beauty of the materials revealed and utilized in the scheme, these are the means of decoration considered purely as such.”

“And it is quite impossible to consider the building one thing and its furnishing another, its setting and environment still another. In the spirit in which these buildings are conceived, these are all one thing, to be foreseen and provided for in the nature of the structure. They are all mere structural details of its character and completeness. Heating apparatus, lighting fixtures, the very chairs and tables, cabinets and musical instruments, where practicable, are of the building itself. Nothing of appliances or fixtures is admitted purely as such where circumstances permit the full development of the building scheme.”

“Floor coverings and hangings are as much a part of the house as the plaster on the walls or the tiles on the roof. This feature of development has given most trouble, and so far is the least satisfactory to myself, because of difficulties inherent in the completeness of conception and execution necessary. To make these elements sufficiently light and graceful and flexible features of an informal use of an abode requires much more time and thought and money than are usually forthcoming. But it is approached by some later structures more nearly, and in time it will be accomplished. It is still in a comparatively primitive stage of development; yet radiators have disappeared, lighting fixtures are incorporated, floor coverings and hangings are easily made to conform. But chairs and tables and informal articles of use are still at large in most cases, although designed in feeling with the building.

To thus make of a dwelling place a complete work of art, in itself as expressive and beautiful and more intimately related to life than anything of detached sculpture or painting, lending itself freely and suitably to the individual needs of the dwellers, an harmonious entity, fitting in color, pattern and nature the utilities, and in itself really an expression of them in character -- this is the modern American opportunity. Once founded, this will become a tradition, a vast step in advance of the day when a dwelling was an arrangement of separate rooms, mere chambers to contain aggregations of furniture, the utility comforts not present. An organic entity this, as contrasted with the aggregation: surely a higher ideal of unity, a higher and more intimate working out of the expression of one's life in one's environment. One thing instead of many things; a great thing instead of a collection of smaller ones.”