This article is a part of a series from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s excellent field guide on the architectural styles found in Pennsylvania. In it, they’ve assigned key periods of development – from the Colonial period in the 18th Century to the Modern Movements of the 29th Century. This article focuses on an overview of the Traditional/Vernacular style in Pennsylvania from 1638 through 1950
PA Architecture Prairie School Style 1900 – 1920
1. Low pitched hipped roof
2. Wide overhanging eaves
3. Emphasis on horizontal lines
4. Massive square porch columns
5. Paired double hung windows
The Prairie style is a true American creation, developed by an American architectural legend, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was part of an impressive group of talented architects known as the Prairie School working in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century. As a student of Louis Sullivan, Wright was part of a creative force that was changing the world of architectural design. The time period itself was one of great change and growth as was reflected in the emerging new building styles. Wright was especially interested in the design of houses, rather than public buildings, and he became the master of the Prairie style, a new domestic architectural form designed to complement the terrain and temperament of the mid-western prairies. In describing the style Wright said, “The prairie has a beauty of its own and we should recognize and accentuate this natural beauty, its quiet level. Hence gently sloping roofs, low proportions, quiet sky lines, suppressed heavy-set chimneys and sheltering overhangs, low terraces and out-reaching walls sequestering private gardens.” Many other notable architects in Chicago and the Midwest generally designed well-executed Prairie style houses, mostly in that region. The shape and form of the Prairie style house was distinctly different than previous domestic architecture. Wright wanted to create organic homes with strong horizontal emphasis that did not resemble the traditional, revival style houses popular in the past. Wight’s interest in organic architecture, designed in concert with the natural environment continued to develop far beyond the Prairie style and period. Wright’s masterpiece Fallingwater, was built in 1936 in Fayette County, Pennsylvania and reflects the evolution of Wright’s work and the Modern Movement in architecture. Pure examples of the Prairie style are scare in our state, but it is represented in more vernacular forms which were made popular by pattern books.
The main vernacular form of the Prairie style seen most often in Pennsylvania and throughout the country is also known as the “American Foursquare” or “American Basic.” American Foursquare houses are generally two stories in height, square in shape, and have low-pitched, hipped roofs with broad overhangs and symmetrical façades with broad front porches with square columns. Their connection to the Prairie style is seen in the horizontal emphasis created by the roofline of the dominant front porch and the overhanging eaves of the roof itself. These vernacular buildings may also incorporate details from other styles, like Spanish Revival tiled roofs, or Italianate cornice brackets which make their association with the Prairie style more difficult to identify. As with all vernacular building forms, designation as examples of a specific style may not be appropriate. Like the Bungalow style houses popular in the same period, American Foursquare houses could be ordered in prefabricated kits through mail-order catalogs. Sears Mail Order houses are well known, but other companies provided this service as well. This American Foursqure building form, like the bungalow, was a popular and affordable housing choice in the growing suburbs at the beginning of the twentieth century.