Part One: Chicago School vs Prairie Style
Prairie Style architecture was born of what is known as the Chicago School of architectural style. The timing of the birth of the movement might not correlate with all observer’s data depending on time or place, but it is difficult to argue that the two schools share material DNA and a common vernacular. The architectural historian Tallmadge attributed Prairie Style to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his associates as far as they worked in the medium of residential architecture. Commercial architecture of the 1880s and 1890s was not included in his definition of the Prairie Style.
The label Chicago School became, to others writing about the architecture of the time, a catch-all phrase that included commercial architecture, especially those examples as were seen in Chicago, IL at the turn of the 20th century (Brooks, 115, 1996).
The critic F. W. Fitzpatrick wrote in 1905, regarding the ‘virtually new style’ of Louis Sullivan that ‘boldly cast off the thralldom of precedent and treated the new condition of structure in a frank and artistic manner…’ going on to cite Sullivan’s associates, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Maher, and William E. Drummond, as practitioners of the Chicago Style. Ten years later, Wilhelm Miller sharpened the focus and coined the term ‘Prairie Style,’ using ‘the dominant horizontality…’ of the residential examples as his inspiration (Brooks, 116, 1996).
It was the author Sigfreid Giedion’s 1941 work Space, Time, and Architecture that cemented the term Prairie School and separated it from its precursor the Chicago School through constant iteration of the term in reference to the commercial buildings being built at the turn of the century in the Chicago area (Brooks, 117, 1996).
According to Brooks, the Prairie School:
“describes the geographic area involved as well as the characteristic landscape that influenced the architectural designs. ‘Prairie house’ and ‘prairie style’ have long been an accepted part of our nomenclature and their correlation to Prairie School requires no further explanation… The Prairie School was an architectural movement which took place in the American Midwest between about 1900 and 1916 and was manifest primarily, though not exclusively, in residential architecture. It commenced under the inspiration of Louis Sullivan and was given direction and impetus by Frank Lloyd Wright whose architectural designs were the most important, though not the sole, influence in establishing the formal basis for the school. Appearance was often characterized by an unusual emphasis upon the horizontal and by an expressive unity between the plan (often open and freely organized) and its representation in mass and in detail. Materials, particularly brick, wood, and plaster, were employed in such a way as to stress their natural qualities. After the first decade of the century the school became regional rather than local in scope and also more varied and personal in expression.” (118, 1996)
The Prairie School (using the contemporary definition by Brooks) was one of the most original attempts to create an endemic American architectural vernacular. The insulation of the turn-of-the-century Midwesterner helped guard them from the influence of the East Coast and Europe. Many Prairie School architects, Wright in particular, cited their natural surroundings as inspiration for their designs.
In addition to their physical environment, other influences or sources of inspiration for the practitioners of the Prairie School style were the writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. A select few East Coast architects who had created some innovative designs in the years following the American Civil War, such as Charles Follen McKim and his associates William Rutherford Mead, Stanford White and Henry Hobson Richardson (with his experimental use of wood-shingled forms and open interior halls) also pulled from French influences as far as they treated strong planning concepts and the juxtaposition of space to the mass of a structure (Wilson, 93, 1995).
The most direct influence for Prairie School architects was the Arts and Crafts movement and the poet / designer / book artist William Morris (Wilson, 93, 1995). Frank Lloyd Wright wrote an essay in 1901 entitled The Art and Craft of the Machine where he states that ‘The Machine is Intellect mastering the drudgery of earth that the plastic art may live.’ Wright, and other Prairie Style architects, argued that industrial processes freed the craftsman to pursue more artistic avenues and also allowed the repetition of abstraction and simple shapes in the more decorative aspects of their designs (Wilson, 94, 1995). One such architect who embraced the Prairie Style was William E. Drummond.
Part Two: William E. Drummond and the River Forest Public Library
William Eugene Drummond was born to the cabinet maker Eugene Drummond in 1876. He apprenticed with his father as a carpenter and this helped to influence his uncluttered arrangements and clear design. At twenty he joined the University of Illinois Preparatory School and in 1897 entered the U. of I. School of Engineering as one of nine students specializing in architecture. The financial weight of a university education quickly became too much for him to bear. After a year of study he left the university and joined Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio (Ganschiniets a., 5–6, 1969).
Drummond’s financial issues continued into his tenure with Wright (and indeed throughout his life as many popular sources on his life state) for Wright was often unable to pay his apprentices regularly due to his own poor business acumen and lavish spending. It is recorded that Drummond joined the Wright Studio in 1899 and remained in its employ through the year of 1909, moonlighting for other chief architects such as Richard E. Schmidt and D.H. Burnham as chief draftsman in the years of 1901, 1903, and 1904. While employed at the Wright Studio, however, he was charged with not only the duties of chief draftsman but that of office manager as well as completing the working drawings and supervising all other designs (Ganschiniets a., 7, 1969). Frank Lloyd Wright was recorded to be very fond of Drummond and respected his skills as a draftsman, stating that ‘there is only the difference in ability which is far on the side of William in my opinion — over the whole field.’ (Ganschiniets a., 11, 1969).
The Wright Studio disbanded in 1909, or was largely changed by the departure of Wright to Europe. with Louis Guenzel, an associate he met during his time with Wright. Drummond, a poor businessman himself, allowed Guenzel to operate the financial and networking aspects of the partnership, while he concentrated on deepening his design skills (Ganshiniets b. 5, 1969). Drummond dissolved the partnership in 1915 and went through a slow period as architecture was concerned. He is recorded to have worked as a draftsman during World War I up until around 1923 (Ganschiniets b., 16, 1969). It was at the end of this period that he designed the River Forest Public Library.
The library’s place within the Prairie School is disputed, and it is often attributed to what has been called the ‘English Cottage’ style. The Prairie School, during the height of its popularity, was engineered to serve the needs of the then relatively new middle class. Its designs and buildings were not embraced by the elite of Chicago in that period, who preferred to emulate East Coast and European opulence. The Prairie School’s clientele were manufacturers, merchants, and other business men who preferred a more hands-on approach, engaging with those that were to design their built environments. The style appealed to this middle class of self-made individuals through its minimalism and practicality of form (Twombly, 88–89, 1995). While, as has been mentioned, the Prairie School embraced manufacturing as far as it suited its needs, it was essentially an ‘artistic confrontation with industrialism.’ A path where the middle class found and embraced fine art and the avant-garde. (90, 1995).
These values are not only present in William Drummond’s later work, but, despite his need to stay somewhat subdued in order to maintain an income for himself and his family, this aesthetic shines more so than during most of his career, his very early designs for Wright being the exception. The finest example of this is his River Forest Library, built in 1928 (Ganschiniets b., 17, 1969).
The Prairie School was not just architecture but the decoration and the objects within the architecture. Abstraction, stylized floral pattern, geometric forms, ‘architectonic qualities, and interlocking or balancing planes’ were common among those objects, such as furniture and the ubiquitous leaded glass of Prairie School buildings. The abstraction, according to Twombly, was another ‘artistic response to industrial technology’ (90, 1995).
One could argue that a true Prairie School structure is a work of art down to its interior, chairs, tables, windows, china, and landscaping (Wilson, 94, 1995). Drummond applied this holistic approach throughout his career, the River Forest Library being no exception. He was known for interpreting the Prairie School style in a very personal way, while still being recognizable as a practitioner. His structures made heavy use of hard lines and rectangular designs but these were intentionally softened through the use of foliage and bringing the outdoor space into the interior.
His family home in River Forest, in fact, was designed around three large trees that existed on the plot, Drummond nestling the traditional large eaves around their trunks (Ganschiniets a., 12, 1969). This all-inclusiveness is exemplified in the River Forest Public Library. Ganshiniets offers an excellent description of the library:
“The library entrance is guarded by two gargoyles (to take care of guttering overflow) of Drummond’s design. Drummond also designed all the exterior and interior ornament — with a complexity of interrelated themes and motifs. The plan of the main level of the library is free-flowing space under a steeply pitched oak-beamed roof with tie-beams painted with abstract decoration. The five-sided librarian’s desk located at the top of the entrance stairway is detailed with trefoil design, a motif repeated in the legs of the desks and the detailing of the bookcases. The leaded glass deteailing in the windows is again an abstract design. The cork ceiling with its painted abstract design demonstrates Drummond’s personality breaking through a conventional commission. The ceiling has a quality of freedom and creative imagination that Drummond never completely repressed, but which seldom found expression… The exterior is symmetrical in both front and rear elevation (the rear elevation is now altered); this is one of the few instances of symmetricality in Drummond’s later work. And, again, in the brick work, the terra cotta designs, and the corner terminations, Drummond’s ability with details is apparent.” (Ganschiniets b., 17–18, 1969)
It is worth mentioning, in closing, that Drummond had considered the life of architect from a very young age and maintained it throughout his life’s hardships, two World Wars, and the oscillations of his professional practice. He was generally practical and sober but his artistic drive often bled through, despite his intentions to remain subdued. William E. Drummond passed away on September 13, 1948, at the age of 72.
The River Forest Public Library has had its interior renovated and an addition has been added, but the original structure is largely intact today. River Forest Public Library Home Page
Brooks, H. A. (1966) “Chicago School”: Metamorphosis of a Term, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, 25, 2.
- Ganschiniets, S. (1969) William Drummond: I. Talent & Sensitivity, The Prairie School Review, 4, 1.
- Ganschinietz, S. (1969) William Drummond: II. Partnership & Obscurity, The Prairie School Review, VI, 2
Twombly, R. (1995) New Forms, Old Functions: Social Aspects of Prairie School Designs, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 21, 2
Wilson, R. G. (1995) Prairie School Works in the Department of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 21, 2