Prairie Style Homes
Kalamazoo's Architectural History
“The style is usually marked by horizontal lines, flat or hipped roofs with broad overhanging eaves, windows grouped in horizontal bands, integration with the landscape, solid construction, craftsmanship, and discipline in the use of ornament. Horizontal lines were thought to evoke and relate to the wide, flat, treeless expanses of America’s native prairie landscape.”–Wikipedia
303 W. Walnut
Architectural styles are like any other fad–they are established, they flourish, and then they fade, making room for the next big trend. Kalamazoo’s late 19th century population growth lead to the expansion of the city’s borders, the evolution of suburbs (Stuart, Westnedge Hill, Henderson Park, Hillcrest, Henderson, Edison, etc.) and the requisite housing to fill out these newer neighborhoods. The oldest homes in the city to survive, constructed in the 1860’s and 1870’s, typically fall under two Victorian styles–Italianate and Queen Anne. As the 19th century gave way to the less decorative design of the 20th century, several styles (Tudor Revival, Arts and Crafts, Prairie e.g.) emerged as a counterpoint to the visually busy, stylized Victorian home, and a bridge to the austere vernacular of the International Style.
The Prairie Style originated with America’s most celebrated, modernist architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. It wasn’t long after Wright had articulated his ideas on “organic architecture” that his students and other architects began to fashion similarly configured homes during the first two decades of the 20th century. The style is uniquely American, in that it was intentionally conceived in opposition to Classical and European design traditions. Most of the architects working in this style focused their work in and around Chicago, although one can find examples throughout the country. Wright argued that the house should look as though it were “married to the ground”, that it should organically compliment the surrounding environment–and since many of the school’s adherents were located in the relatively flat Midwest, the horizontal nature of the landscape in turn influenced the architects. Wright and his students were also interested in refashioning home interiors with both a revamped configuration of space, and use of furniture and stained glass.
“Dark wooden strips against a light stucco background revealed the influence of traditional Japanese architecture. Windows, usually casement arranged in horizontal ribbons, often featured stained glass in distinctive stylized floral or geometric patterns. One-story porches or porte-cocheres, walls and terraces often extended from the main structure and further strengthened the horizontal appearance.” (Poppeliers, p.110)
1588 Spruce Dr.
902 Lay Blvd.
The always present historical interplay and negotiation between styles, schools and movements toward the expression of a particular ‘look’ situates the Prairie School within a continuum of advancing ideas and concepts regarding design, nature and harmony. The features that defined the Prairie School during its modernist blooming slowly fell out of fashion around the mid 1920s as Americans chose to embrace the comforts of revival styles from the past.
Locally, most homes that share characteristics with the Prairie Style are of the Foursquare variety. The Foursquare House possess “…four rooms on each floor. The first floor typically contains the living room, dining room and kitchen as well as a foyer or a den. Upstairs, most commonly there are three bedrooms and a bath.” These boxy, moderately adorned homes were popular during the waning years of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. Despite its diminished influence, the Prairie Style didn’t totally evaporate. Wright’s post-WWII Usonian Home and the growth of the horizontal, low-slung Ranch Home evokes the Prairie Style’s legacy.
William and Harriette Stone House, 1937
The local house that best expressed Wright’s ideas regarding design was unfortunately demolished in 1965 due to “a plan that converted Kalamazoo and Michigan Avenues into multi-lane, one-way streets, connecting Kalamazoo Avenue to West Main Street via Douglas Avenue.” (Kalamazoo Lost & Found, p.101) Built at the northwest corner of W. Main Street and Douglas Avenue in 1910, the William and Harriette Stone House was designed by Wright acolyte George W. Maher.
Article written by Ryan Gage, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, February 2023
Your Home, September 2009, p.18-19, Sharon Ferraro
What Style Is It: A Guide to American Architecture, John C. Poppeliers, S. Allen Chambers Jr.
(H 720.973 P831W)
How to Read Houses: A Crash Course in Domestic Architecture, Will Jones (728.3 J796)
Kalamazoo: Lost & Found, Lynn Houghton and Pamela O’Connor (H 720.9774 H838)
The Prairie School Tradition, Brian A. Spencer, AIA (H 720.977 M6626)