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Buildings designed to mirror the prairie landscape and large roof overhangs are signature features of the Prairie School of architecture. The entrance is similar to that of the Dana-Thomas House.
By Chris Young | SJ-R
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Following the Wright path
By Chris Young

More than a century after Frank Lloyd Wright completed work on the Dana-Thomas House, his influence on local architecture continues to flourish.

On Springfield's developing west side, signs of the Prairie School of architecture - of which Wright was a leading practitioner - are apparent in many commercial buildings.

In particular, buildings at the intersection of Old Jacksonville and Koke Mill roads reflect Wright's love of horizontal, low-slung structures with overhanging roof lines and tastefully incorporated geometric patterns and shapes.

"He has had quite an influence on that corner," says Donald Hallmark, who retired two years ago following 28 years as site director and administrator of the Dana-Thomas House.

David Parker, an architect with Melotte, Morse, Leonatti and Parker, designed the Illinois Municipal Electric Agency building, 3400 Conifer Drive, northwest of Koke Mill and Old Jacksonville Roads.

He says the client requested the building be designed in the style of the Prairie School, and that was fine with him.

"I personally like it," he says. "Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the reasons I got into architecture to begin with.

"I've wanted to be an architect ever since I read his biography when I was 8 years old."

Popularity cyclical

Regina Albanese, executive director of the Dana-Thomas House Foundation, says it is gratifying to see Wright's style has stood the test of time.

"I find (the Wright-influenced buildings) very attractive, but it's not just in Springfield; it's all over the place," she says. "It's a style that you find particularly throughout the Midwest. 

"We're seeing it in a lot of commercial uses right now - office buildings and medical facilities and also private homes as well."

The Prairie School of architecture developed as a suburban style that fit into the prairie landscape. Like all styles of art, Wright's architecture has experienced its ups and downs in popularity.

"This is very typical," Hallmark says. "There are periods of time when people like him and he is in favor and then it slows down - it is very cyclical - and then it picks up for a generation or half a generation and then goes out of favor again.

"That's been the case in the arts in general."

Wright + green

Successful buildings today must go beyond exhibiting a particular style.

Parker says the IMEA building is built for maximum energy efficiency, probably not something Wright had in mind.

"It's a green building, a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified silver building," Parker says.

Since the Prairie School made full use of windows and available light, Parker was able to use windows to provide and control light within the building.  

And Wright's favored overhangs shelter the windows from the sun, which helps with energy conservation. 

"That's not entirely what he was thinking," Parker says. "His stated goal was to reflect the prairie landscape. "He was trying to relate the building to the landscape, and the windows were there to help you commune with that landscape."

Parker says the IMEA building is a modern reinterpretation, since it is not proportional to most Prairie Style buildings, sitting up much higher.

"It has a contemporary aesthetic while keeping the attractive elements," he says.

Fortunately, some energy-saving features can be easily integrated into Prairie Style buildings.

"It's kind of sweet, actually, from an architect's perspective," he says. "It's a style that lends itself to energy efficiency.

"Foresightful genius or happy accident, I don't know," Parker says. "But I'm glad it happened."

No cookie-cutter

Some of Wright's ideas about moving people through a space and gathering them together lend themselves to office buildings just as they do in the Dana-Thomas House.

"What probably would surprise people about the Dana-Thomas House is his use of a full two-story reception area," Albanese says.She says Wright's buildings are designed to draw people to the lighter areas.

"They talk about compression and relief," she says. "You come in and the entryway is smaller and tighter and darker, and as you make your way up into the reception area, visitors naturally gravitate to the lighter, open areas."

Albanese says the Prairie Style lends itself to many different uses and helps office buildings break out of the cookie-cutter mold."It doesn't have the sterile look (of some office buildings)," she says. "Some modern buildings look a little too sterile."

The public's familiarity with Wright and his architecture helps."I think there is an appeal to that Prairie and Arts and Crafts style," Albanese says. "I think one of the reasons why it is very popular now is you have an environment where just about everybody is comfortable in that atmosphere."

"It surprises me there is new, heightened interest in Frank Lloyd Wright," Hallmark says. High popularity peaked in the 1990s, and prices for everything Frank Lloyd Wright were extremely high.

"Then things slowed down," he says. "A number of items in Wright houses didn't sell, or their prices were down, so it's been really interesting to see this.

"How long this will last is anybody's guess."


Wright 'made his own myth and legend'

Frank Lloyd Wright managed to keep himself and his architecture in the public eye for most of his 92 years.

A skilled promoter, writer and manipulator of the media, Wright always had an outrageous comment or quote that kept him in the public eye - even during slow times.

His personality helped him eclipse other architects of his day who were every bit as talented. Wright even managed to outshine his teacher, Louis Sullivan.

Sullivan was a well-known Chicago architect who designed many downtown buildings.

"Louis Sullivan was every bit the architect Frank Lloyd Wright was, but his work never caught on quite the same," says Donald Hallmark, retired site director and administrator of the Dana-Thomas House.

"It took 100 years for us to understand who Louis Sullivan was and how important he was."

Sullivan said tall buildings in cities should emphasize the vertical, but Wright was more of a house architect, so he took Sullivan's principle and applied it to the suburbs.

"Frank Lloyd Wright's model was that if you are going to build a house in the Midwest, build it low-slung and horizontal so it hugged the prairie."

Half a dozen architects who were part of the new Prairie School worked right alongside Wright in Chicago.

Most were similar in age, and sometimes they worked in the same building and used the same drafting room.

"But for a variety of reasons, Frank Lloyd Wright became the most famous," Hallmark says. "He had an ego bigger than any other the other architects."

Wright's braggadocio was legendary.

As a consequence, he was hard to live and work with - and he made a lot of enemies.

"He lived to be about 92 years old, and he had 70 years as a practicing architect," Hallmark says. "Most people fall out of favor at one time or another, but he didn't. He kept reinventing himself; kept talking and writing even in those leaner periods.

"He made his own myth and legend and made himself critical to American architecture."



Story published Friday, July 1, 2011 ( Volume 6, Number 4 )

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