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EXPANDED CONTEXTS OF THE PRAIRIE SCHOOL

At the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, held in April 2009 in Pasadena, California, Griffin Newsletter editor Paul Kruty led a session of four papers on the subject of “Expanded Contexts of the Prairie School.” Professor Kruty’s introductory remarks provide a concise exposition of the state of studies of the Prairie School and of Griffin scholarship at this moment. The four papers that followed this introduction were “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Paradoxical,” by Donald Hoffmann; “Elmer Grey: Prairie School Disseminated,” by Chris Czezny Adams; “Marion Alice Parker: Woman Architect of the Prairie School,” by Nicole Watson; and “Purcell & Elmslie: Spiritualistic Architecture,” by Richard Kronick. The session was well-attended and was followed by a generous question-and-answer period.

Thank you for coming this morning, and welcome to the session “Expanded Contexts for the Prairie School.” My name is Paul Kruty, and I teach at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This session seeks to explore possible lines of research relating to the Prairie School, a subject of special interest to me as well as of some significance to the history of American architecture.

Centered in Chicago and the Midwest during the early years of the last century, the Prairie School was a loosely connected group of architects united by a set of common goals: in general, to reform American architecture in a number of different ways, including technical, economic, social, and, of course, formal; and, specifically, to rid it of what they perceived to be the evils of the so-called Revival styles—that is, the adaptation of the canonical Western historic styles to contemporary buildings. Although this point of view was quite universally explored, if not accepted by most architects, throughout the Western world by the 1890s, and included lines of thought developed from the rational theory of E. E. Viollet-le-Duc, the picturesque and organic traditions that arose out of the Gothic Revival, and the values of the English Arts & Crafts movement, the Chicago group came to it principally through the figure of Louis Sullivan. Indeed, as most simply defined, the Prairie School architects were the followers of Louis Sullivan. It would probably make more sense to call it “the Sullivan School;” of course, the most common name used at the time was “the Chicago School.” By whatever name, they were individuals, seeking individual solutions, united by a shared interest in an idea.

We all recognize early Midwestern modernism. Firstly, because of its simple form, so-called “abstract geometry,” and its inventive ornament used judiciously. These are the qualities of Sullivan’s own architecture and, thus, their source in Prairie School architecture. Secondly, picturesque and informal composition, at least in residential architecture, attention to “natural” materials, and a very general tendency to accentuate the horizontal—these are features added to the Sullivan formal vocabulary by Frank Lloyd Wright, yes, but simultaneously employed by Robert Spencer, Hugh Garden, George Maher, Myron Hunt, and Elmer Grey, among others, who sought to develop the implications of what Henry-Russell Hitchcock called the “Richardsonian suburban mode.” While Wright was the supremely gifted member of the Prairie School, and later rejected any discourse that sought to place him in the group from 1895 to 1915, in fact he was (particularly in the early years) one of a “mighty handful” that worked together to try to transform American architecture under the aegis both of Louis Sullivan’s example and his ideas.

As a movement, the Prairie School did not survive the cultural change engendered by World War I, while its decorated forms held little appeal for the later architects of the International Style, despite the common ancestry of the two modern movements (although there was occasional recognition of the commonalities by members of the two groups). Wright’s practice did survive, as we know, as did Walter Burley Griffin’s, both with their ideals intact. And to some extent were responsible for a continuing “Organic Tradition in American architecture” that still exists. But these things are not the same as the Prairie School.

The historiography of the Prairie School presents a curious case. The first generation of scholars, led by Allen Brooks and followed closely behind by David Gebhard, Mark Peisch, and then Paul Sprague, laid the groundwork for the flowering of research in the late 1960s and through to the early 1980s, when Bill and Marilyn Hasbrouck published The Prairie School Review from 1964 to 1976, and major museums, such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Princeton Art Museum in 1972, the Milwaukee Art Museum in 1978, and the Cooper-Hewitt in 1984, supported comprehensive exhibitions devoted to the subject.

What happened next was utterly unexpected, if, in hindsight, perhaps predictable. In a word (three words, actually): Frank Lloyd Wright. The world was hit by Wrightomania. Christies couldn’t sell enough debris looted from Wright’s buildings, and Tom Monaghan couldn’t buy enough of what they were selling. Of course, his collection’s purported purpose and its collection-catalog’s title—Preserving an Architectural Heritage—was rendered ironic when the collection was dispersed ten years later, forcing Wright scholars to travel from London to Tokyo, and to track down endless wealthy amateur collectors, in order to reconnect related items that, if once together in the buildings where they belonged, at least for a time had been together near Ann Arbor, Michigan.

But the obsession with Wright had consequences for the Prairie School. As a subject it practically disappeared from the scholarly discourse, as Wright scholarship boomed. Thus, books about Prairie School Architecture in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin of 1982 were replaced with ones entitled Frank Lloyd Wright in Michigan of 1991, and The Wright State: Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin of 1992, although that same year, 1992, there was a second work called Frank Lloyd Wright & the Prairie School in Wisconsin. But this is also illustrative of the changing historiographic role of Wright’s colleagues among the followers of Sullivan: they were becoming the followers of Wright! Thus the emergence of a new definition of the Prairie School as the followers of Frank Lloyd Wright, which is patently false; but also the concomitant analysis of whether a building is “Prairie” or not by how much it looks like a Wright building—which is equally false.

As a consequence, the very significance of the Prairie School was diminished. When the Chicago Art Institute returned to the subject in 1995 with a small show and publication, it now emphasized the regional meaning rather than the national significance of the movement. It was no longer Early Modernism FROM the Midwest, but, as their publication was titled, The Prairie School: Design Vision FOR the Midwest [emphasis added].

Yet another skewing of the scholarship grew during these years: the wholesale appropriation of Sullivan, Wright and the Prairie School into the Arts & Crafts Movement, a result, I think, of the continuing rage in the antiques market for Arts & Crafts products. (Has there ever been a Grove Park Conference without a Wright lecture?) And yet the serious case for seeing the Prairie School, including Wright, principally as part of the Arts & Crafts cannot be made.

Another consequence of the “Wright Intrusion,” if we may call it that, is that the scholarship on the Prairie School remains an unfinished project. Because of the way individual interests develop, quite early on there were books on lesser individuals such as Henry John Klutho, Antonin Nechodoma, and the Trosts, before there were monographs on Robert Spencer, Dwight Perkins, and William Drummond. But with the cessation of sustained scholarly interest, these foundation studies never appeared, so that now there are still no published monographs on these three important figures; with the more recent change in climate regarding the Prairie School, as we shall see, there is a Perkins book in the works and I, myself, am presently completing the study of Robert Spencer.

The new century, while hardly dampening the frenzy associated with Wright (and apparently the taste for Coonley Playhouse ties and Robie window paperweights), has seen a re-awakening of Prairie School studies, from monographs and exhibitions to internet sites providing a great deal of information and perhaps even more mis-information. Two firms have been the chief recipients of this renewed interest: Purcell & Elmslie; and the husband-and-wife team of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin. Purcell & Elmslie have seen a number of museum publications on their work since the turn of the century, as well as the posthumous publication in 2006 of David Gebhard’s seminal work on the firm.

The Griffins in particular have been given nearly their due. Beginning with major publications on Griffin in America and the Griffins in India in 1996 and 1997, as well as a catalogue raisonné of their Australian work, and continuing with a comprehensive exhibition held in Sydney, Australia, in 1998, and international symposia held at the University of Illinois and the University of Melbourne in 1997 and ’98, writings on their work now include numerous studies of Griffin’s plan for the Australian capital city, Canberra, and most recently a major tome of his complete writings on architecture, landscape and town planning. For the past ten years, there has even been a Griffin Society in America, publishing a newsletter and holding annual meetings. Marion Mahony Griffin has also had a separate burgeoning of interest in her work, including a delightful exhibition at the Block Museum at Northwestern University in 2005 and a comprehensive analysis of her work at Millikin Place in Decatur, Illinois, issued in 2007. She was even “discovered” by The New York Times last year, more in connection with her being a woman working for Wright than as a major figure of the Prairie School.

Finally, the task of synthesizing all of this new information and new interpretation into a comprehendible narrative remains to be done. Allen Brooks’ magnificent book remains the only possible basic textbook on the Prairie School—and yet it is now almost forty years old.

So, today’s four papers draw on the work that has come before, but seek to extend the range of possibilities— by re-investigating the 1890s; by seeking to bring new light on office procedures and neglected voices; and by examining non-architectural interpretations stemming from the architects’ own statements of intent. And, of course, by dealing with Mr. Wright, explicitly or implicitly.

Paul Kruty
Urbana, Illinois
April, 2009

SYMPOSIUM ON MARION MAHONY GRIFFIN HELD AT NORTHWESTERN’S BLOCK MUSEUM
By Sarah Downey

Marion Mahony Griffin

Photo courtesy of
Art Institute of Chicago

The long anticipated educational symposium on the life and work of Marion Mahony Griffin drew scores of scholars and students to Northwestern University on November 5, 2005. This symposium was a highlight of the four-month long exhibition of her work at the university's Block Museum of Art.

The discussion began with a presentation by James Weirick, professor of landscape architecture at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, who focused on the juxtaposition between Mahony’s elaborate artistic style and its motifs, and the mystery of the fundamental gaps the strange omissions and silences, as he called them, found in her accounts of herself and her life with Walter Burley Griffin.

Speaking next was Alice Friedman, professor of art and co-director of the architecture program at Wellesley College, who placed Mahony in the context of other female architects at the turn of the 20th century, reflecting in particular on the dramatic story of Sophia Hayden and her thwarted commission to design the Women’s Building at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893.

In the wake of those events, many held fast to the belief that women weren't cut out for the profession, noted Friedman, and it would be Mahony's innate talent, in conjunction with her later associations with Frank Lloyd Wright and Griffin, that helped her beat the odds. After lunch, Paul Kruty, professor of architectural history at the University of the Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, examined the origins of the Marionesque drawing style which became world-famous as the way of presenting Wright's buildings and from which several of her contemporaries culled inspiration, including Harry Robinson, who became an expert at mimicking the style (indeed, Kruty argued that one of the drawings on exhibition long thought to be by Mahony was actually by Robinson). Kruty also showed how, through its evolution, Mahony’s creation became a rendering style universally associated with American architectural modernism.

Griffin Society was well represented at Mahony symposium: (L. to R.) Tom Zusag, Marty Hackl, Paul Kruty and Mati Maldre discuss the proceedings between sessions.

Photo by Jane Block

Christopher Vernon, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts of the University of Western Australia spoke extemporaneously about Mahony’s botanical artworks, which complemented his thorough essay in the exhibition catalog and revealed intriguing details about the friendships that helped Mahoney thrive artistically and personally during some of the darker periods following the project for the new Australian capital, Canberra.

An enlightened account of the period often characterized as Mahony’s tragic widowhood came from Dr. Anna Rubbo, associate professor in architecture at the University of Sydney. While devastated by her husband's death, Mahony’s activities when she returned to Chicago were representative of somebody who's actually having an interesting time, and underscored by her work with social reformer Lola Maverick Lloyd, who after her divorce from one of Winnetka's most prominent men began to develop education-based communities in Texas and New Hampshire for the World Fellowship Center.

"Fairies Feeding the Herons", 1931-2

Detail of the mural at Armstrong School,
Chicago, IL by Marion Mahony Griffin

Photo by Mati Maldre

Lloyd's death in 1945 would preclude Mahony from fully executing those project designs, but afterward she devoted more time to “The Magic of America”, the 1,100-page memoir she completed in 1949. What started as a tribute to Griffin gave her a chance to present her philosophy to the reader, noted Rubbo. David Van Zanten, the Mary Jane Crowe Professor of Art and Art History at Northwestern University and the person most instrumental in shepherding the Mahony exhibition and symposium from its inception, moderated the panel discussion that wrapped up the informative and often exciting day.

Comments segued from the latest home prices in Castlecrag (astronomical) to publication of ‘The Magic of America,’ (overall, imperative). Weirick stated that he thinks the number one thing is to get “The Magic of America” published, which drew applause from many in the audience. As efforts toward that end continue at the Art Institute of Chicago, visitors to the Block Museum could see a few pages from the manuscript on display.

Debora Woods, the Block's senior curator, says at least 80 to 100 people a day have been coming to the exhibition since the highly successful opening night in September.



“A HOUSE IN THE SPIRIT OF THE TIMES”

Editor’s Note: Continuing the series begun in the last issue of reprinting documents contemporary to Griffin’s American practice, we offer here an essay by Griffin published in “Country Life in America” (24 no.1, May 1913, p.38) as part of a series entitled “My Ideal for the Country Home.”Following his fame as winner of the Canberra competition the previous year, Griffin was now chosen to be among a select group of prominent domestic architects that included Wilson Eyre, Horace Mann, Myron Hunt, and Harrie Lindeberg. As the example of his work offered to illustrate his essay, Griffin chose the Benjamin Ricker house in Grinnell, Iowa, site of this year’s Griffin meeting. Rather than describe or explain the Ricker house in his essay, which he titled “A House in the Spirit of the Times,” Griffin used the opportunity to critique the course of contemporary American architecture.

The Benjamin J. Ricker House -Front Elevation

Photo by Mati Maldre

The basis of resemblance of the buildings of a place and period is what constitutes an architectural style.

This basis cannot rest alone in physical utilitarian characteristics, emotional aesthetic qualities nor in the intellectual stimulus of associated thoughts, but concerns itself with the varying ratios of all these three determining characteristics of a complete work of art, so it must be evident that it cannot be in the individual field of creative effort to consider style. That is a final resultant of minds, forces, and time, and offers a proper study for historians and philosophers.

It is admitted that the architect may consciously choose in case of just one of his factors, the intellectual incident, to appear to the educated tastes of traveled or book-informed clients on the basis of some association. But that does not produce a style, neither is it a democratic nor a reasonable course. Can any one claim that it is necessary to the perpetuation or dissemination of “The glory that was Greece, the splendor that was Rome” to set up now their buildings made over to suit, as may be, our practical every-day modern needs? Let’s preserve the relics in museums, the records in libraries, and save the representation for the theatres, or other branches of art so well adapted to give us the thought, habits, and ideals of other times and places. Would it not be better to free the architecture of our homes from this impossible burden of a literary message, or language, if you please?

Though one sex may wear “Empire” gowns and we can store in our parlors a few duplicated “Louis XV” chairs, we have already had to draw the line at “Tudor” heating plants, “Renaissance” plumbing equipment and “Old Colonial” illumination systems, and though we may boast “Late Pullman” cars and “Early North German Lloyd” steamships, fortunately we cannot take pride even in nineteenth century automobiles nor “fin de siecle” aero planes, so changing are our technical conditions and so limited in capacity for literary encumbrance are these dynamic things.

But who can say for all that, that these latter creations may not be beautiful and are not often surpassingly impressive in their emotional appeal?

Every day new materials, new processes, new possibilities are opening up before our imagination vast fields for exploration and development, not only to our greater comfort and convenience, but for the greater stimulus of our esthetic sensibilities and the real joy of life.

So when the invitation is afforded in such a symposium as this, though not able to answer as to proper styles in orderly fashion because disputing the premises, I am glad to state why, summed up as follows:

  • Because individually selected associations in connection with useful arts, not being democratic, can never be universal or general and must result in a heterogeneous and mutually nullifying collection of expressions. The home group is a work of useful art where if anywhere harmony and quiet are most essential to our well being.
  • Because, moreover, the irrelevant idea of style has set apart the architect into a mysterious aristocratic academic cult environment where he is out of reach and touch with common life. This idea of association in architecture not only distracts the designer’s interest from fundamental aesthetic laws but diverts his attention from and limits his freedom in availing himself of the innumerable advantages in modern developments of construction which are often only reluctantly adopted from material manufacturers, builders, engineers and practical inventors who have had to work blindly and often futilely without the architect’s sympathy, his point of view, esthetic sense or training.

To instance architects’ slow avail of the opportunities for interior freedom and openness afforded the house by circulation heating plants, as opposed to the segregated cells necessitated by the fireplace system, their adherence to primitive handwork limitations in crude forms and constructive features, even to faking defects on top of machine-finished precision for the sake of peasant life traditions, is only to start a series of indictments to be extended and filled out indefinitely by any observant critic.



GRIFFIN IN GRINNELL, IOWA

The Ricker House, detail of 2nd-story windows and ornammental "Teco" tiles, designed by Marion Mahony

Photo by Mati Maldre

The site of the 2005 annual meeting is one rich in associations with the Griffins and the Prairie School. For this Iowa farming community and college town, Griffin created three separate projects during 1910 and 1911: a public fountain to memorialize Dr. E. W. Clark, a recently deceased local doctor; a large residence for Benjamin Ricker, a glove manufacturer; and a subdivision plan for the northern edge of town.Important pieces of the puzzle that were necessary to understand the relationship among these three were missing until Paul Kruty and Paul Sprague undertook the research for their catalog of the American work.

The Ricker House, living room glazed tile fireplace,
designed by Marion Mahony

Photo by Mati Maldre

The Ricker house, constructed in 1911, was one of the first projects on which Walter and Marion Griffin worked together as husband and wife. It is the first building from Griffin’s office to include decorative ornament set in panels on the façades, in this case, in the form of colored Teco tiles and brick. As this is similar to the treatment found on the façade of the Robert Mueller house, designed by Marion Mahony for Hermann von Holst before her marriage to Griffin and built in Decatur, Illinois, it is presumed that she added those touches to the exterior here. Inside, she created an abstract fireplace mural of Teco tiles in the library that has long been admired. However, the existence of a second, representational tile scene was not known until restoration work on the house began in 2001, when it was discovered that a version of the famous Mess house mural was preserved under a plywood board that had been added many years ago above the living room mantel.

The Ricker House, glazed "Teco" tile fireplace in the study, designed by
Marion Mahony

Photo by Mati Maldre

All of this was accomplished by the Griffins before Louis Sullivan’s Merchants National Bank was built on the corner of Fourth and Broad streets in 1914. One of the most famous of Sullivan’s later “jewel boxes,” the bank has been restored and adapted for use by the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce.

 



SOCIETY SALVAGES WINDOWS FROM GRIFFIN'S MARSH HOUSE

The Marsh House,
Winneka, Illinois (Demolished in 2003)

Photo by Mati Maldre

The Society recently acquired the surviving casement windows from the James S. Marsh house built in 1910 and demolished in 2003. The Marsh house stood in the north shore village of Winnetka until it became another victim of the "tear-down" fever ravaging the historic neighborhoods of Chicago and its suburbs. On a clear Sunday morning, Chicago's Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson accompanied board members Mati Maldre and Paul Kruty to the muddy site to rescue the windows, which are decorated with Griffin's characteristic wooden muntins set as a central hexagon surrounded by pairs of triangles and rectangles with pentagons in the four corners. The Marsh house stood in the same development in which Griffin's Orth Houses, the "Solid Rock" house, and two other speculative houses still stand. Its loss was particularly unfortunate and is deeply felt by admirers of Griffin's work everywhere. After the Griffin Society, the City of Winnetka, and various preservation groups were unable to convince the owner to save the house (and without the legal authority of a local landmark ordinance to intervene), the Griffin Society was able to salvage a group of windows for dispersal to appropriate historical societies and museums.

 

Windows from the Marsh House,
Winneka, Illinois

Photo by Mati Maldre

   
   

The Society owes a debt of gratitude to James Soukoulis, owner of the property, for allowing the windows to be saved. Thus far, windows have been donated to the Ridge Historical Society, which serves the Beverly/Morgan Park neighborhood; the McNider Museum in Mason City, Iowa, which hosted last year's annual meeting; and the Stockman House Foundation, also in Mason City.

The prototype for the lost Marsh house still stands in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood: the house at 1712 W. 104th (Griffin) Place, built by developer Russell Blount and sold to Edmund Garrity. After Griffin prepared the design for Blount, who constructed it in the spring of 1910, he offered a similar design to William Tempel, who was simultaneously developing the family property in Winnetka. Tempel arranged for its construction later in the season and found a buyer in James Marsh.

The Society plans to continue distributing the windows until homes have been found for all of them. For information, please contact the Griffin Society at 1152 Center Drive, St. Louis, MO 63117, e-mail: info@walterburleygriffin.org.

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