The Prairie Style in LDS Architecture

Ogden Deaf Branch, 1916, Leslie Hodgson, Architect (740 E 21st Street Ogden, UT)

The Prairie style is an American form of architecture pioneered by Frank Lloyd Wright. In the early 20th century, many LDS architects came under the spell of Mr. Wright’s genius. Nearly one hundred LDS buildings were designed in the Prairie style, including a few temples. The defining feature of the Prairie style is its emphasis on horizontal rather than vertical lines. This poses obvious problems from the point of view of church architecture. Typically churches are designed to orient the worshiper vertically, toward the heavens. Hence the traditional use of steeples, pointed gothic windows, lofty ceilings, etc. How does one accomplish this within the confines of the Prairie style, which, in the words of Frank Lloyd Wright, should be “married to the ground?”

Even though Prairie style buildings might not look like traditional churches, they contain a number of features that enhance the sacredness of worship. These include the sophisticated use of light, religiously evocative ornamentation, and an emphasis on craftsmanship. While Prairie style LDS churches were built exclusively in the 1910s and 20s, elements of the style returned later in the 20th century. Even when more modern styles were employed, LDS architects continued to use lighting, ornamentation, and craftsmanship in ways that echoed principles laid down by Frank Lloyd Wright during the Prairie style period.

Prairie Style LDS Chapels 

The photo gallery below showcases a number of Prairie style features: horizontality (extended lintels and eaves), geometric forms (clearly delineated rectangular shapes), heavily grounded construction, rows of multiple windows, and geometrically stylized ornamentation suggesting hanging vines or trees. In my opinion these chapels evoke the Near East, with echoes of King Solomon’s temple or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Unlike Frank Lloyd Wright’s rambling, asymmetrical Prairie style houses, these churches are highly symmetrical, a feature which seems to enhance the primitive religious flavor of the structures. (The Central Park Ward Chapel has been awkwardly topped with a thin steeple, illustrating the difficulty of reconciling the horizontality of Prairie style architecture with the verticality of traditional church architecture.)

LDS Architects Abandon Frank Lloyd Wright

760 N 1200 W, SLC

In the 1940s and 50s LDS architects moved towards the International Style and then embraced full blown modernism in the 60s. The International Style’s rationalist purity was anathema to Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic, human approach to architecture. He frequently decried it as “collectivist” and even “totalitarian.” In my previous post on the Classical Spirit in LDS Architecture, I noted that International Style LDS meetinghouses often included superficial motifs in the classical style, perhaps added as a compromise between traditionalists and modernists within the LDS architectural bureau. Frank Lloyd Wright would have hated this compromise. Not only was the International Style an assault on his ideals of organic architecture, adding unrelated classical motifs on top only made it worse. Wright said that ornamentation should be “of the thing, not on it.”

Ornamentation: “Of the Thing, Not On It” 

In the 50s and 60s, LDS architects started applying Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles of ornamentation. It is rare to find an LDS meetinghouse in the 60s that doesn’t have at least some ornamentation, often a subtly designed pattern in the outer brickwork. These designs emerge organically from the material of the building as Wright recommended, “of the thing, not on it.” They represent a clear departure from the superficial ornamentation tacked onto the earlier International Style meetinghouses. The ornamentation also distinguishes these meetinghouses from the abstract purity of the midcentury modern styles that inspired their overall structure. Sophisticated use of ornamentation continues on the inside, where vertical shafts of gold decorate organ lofts and segments of wood are arranged into designs that seamlessly emerge from the overall construction.

Craftsman Style Woodwork

The LDS chapels of the 50s and 60s also harken back to Frank Lloyd Wright in their use of craftsman style woodwork. The Craftsman style preceded and influenced Wright’s Prairie style and is notable for its interlocking use of horizontal and vertical beams. Even in standard, mass-produced plans, craftsman elements can be discerned in the design of pulpits, organ boxes, pews, and ceiling construction. Altogether these details evoke a sense of craftsmanship that is in harmony with LDS values of disciplined, conscientious living.

Light From Above

Frank Lloyd Wright believed that a Prairie Style home should blend in with its natural surroundings. He used windows and open floor plans to achieve a seamlessness between the outside and the inside. Additionally, Wright was an early adopter of cove lighting, a technique wherein hidden light sources provide ambient lighting from above. LDS chapels don’t usually have as many windows as the Prairie style would dictate, and when windows are included, they are often heavily draped. However, for many decades LDS chapels have been notable for the sophisticated use of cove lighting, sometimes in ways that reflected the ceiling designs of Frank Lloyd Wright (compare Wright’s Unity Temple to some of the more creative ceiling design in the gallery below.)

Prairie Style Today?

4440 High Grove Rd, Idaho Falls, ID

Home design in the last ten years has been dominated by a craftsman revival. The LDS church has a standard plan that utilizes horizontal lintels in ways reminiscent of the craftsman style. Currently these details are minor design elements. A true craftsman or prairie revival in LDS architecture still awaits in the future.

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