Livin' on a Prairie
In the minds of many, Prairie-school architecture is synonymous with Frank Lloyd Wright. But one group is trying to change that. On Saturday 21, Pleasant Home Foundation is pushing Wright’s counterpart George Maher into the spotlight with a Historic Hutchinson Street House Tour featuring houses built by the less-acknowledged Prairie-school architect.
“Part of the reason we feel Maher isn’t as well known is he suffered from depression. He was very quiet, very much a gentleman and he ended up taking his own life,” says Laura Thompson, executive director of the foundation, which handles the restoration and operations of the eponymous 1897 Oak Park home designed by Maher. To raise funds, the foundation is broadening out beyond its suburban digs to show off the North Side’s Hutchinson Street, which features some of Maher’s—and Prairie-school’s—best work.
The famed Midwest architectural movement sprung up around the Chicago office of architect Joseph Silsbee, where both Wright and Maher worked. The architects embraced the long, Roman brick—different from the popular chunky bricks of the era’s more pervasive Colonial style—and erected images or motifs that could be carried throughout a structure. (Think: Wright’s diamond-shape that repeats in windows and carved wood.) “It wasn’t known at the time, but these young men were saying ‘We don’t want to see the same style—we want natural materials, materials that look like they fit into their environment,’” Thompson says.
On the tour of Hutchinson Street, which is tucked into a maze of one-way streets in Uptown, six monolithic homes will be open for viewing, three of which were designed by Maher. Those familiar with Prairie-style will notice the houses’ signature continuous, low, horizontal brick lines, but Maher’s also include organic flourishes: flowers and arches similar to—but more subtle than—the aggressive thistles of his predecessor Louis Sullivan.
However, unlike Wright and Sullivan, Maher’s passing—although untimely—didn’t propel him into posthumous celebrity. “We want to help people see his work, see the homes that he did,” Thompson says. “Maher’s worth celebrating because he was a pioneer. He formatted the Prairie-school style at a time when it was new—and his designs are incredibly beautiful. In creating homes and landscapes that fit together, he led the way for many other architects.”