The artistry of Frank Lloyd Wright is central to the architecture of the Prairie School. But other architects have had lasting impacts. A new group shines the spotlight on George Washington Maher, an under-recognized building designer throughout the Midwest.
Marc Vitali: On the corner of Pleasant Street and Home Avenue in Oak Park is Pleasant Home – also known as John Farson House.
The first Prairie-style residence was completed in 1897 and is a National Historic Site.
Kevin Brown, Pleasant Home Foundation: Much of the design of the Prairie School, particularly in the early Prairie School, was fairly devoid of extraneous ornamentation. If you look at Pleasant Home in particular, there’s a lot of pretty elaborate patterns that are woven into these designs and corbels and other accents, and it wasn’t typical of what people think of Frank Lloyd’s Prairie School work Wright, for example.
Vitali: Pleasant Home was designed by a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, George Washington Maher.
Brown: Pleasant Home was truly his first foray into prairie schoolhouse architecture and one of the earliest examples of prairie schoolhouse design. When it was designed and built in 1897 it was heavily borrowed or copied, especially in the Midwest, by other architects, for it was revolutionary, not only in its outward appearance, the forms of the school of Grasslands, but also by interior design, open space. -fluid spaces which obviously he and Wright have that in common as well.
Vitali: Maher buildings are everywhere in the area.
This limestone mansion is located in East Garfield Park.
This brick house is one of many in Beverly.
And there’s a cluster of his residences in the Buena Park neighborhood – each filled with fine craftsmanship and incredible detail.
George Maher designed his own family home in Kenilworth in 1893. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Some of his works are borrowed from the English Arts and Crafts movement.
Other buildings had symmetry uncommon in the Prairie School – or decorative touches that show the influence of Louis Sullivan.
Brown: He took geometric shapes and natural patterns like flowers and plants, and he used them throughout the design to create a kind of design harmony.
He’s embedded in the Prairie School of architects and for much of his career he certainly designed prairie houses or prairie leaning houses, but a lot of the elements he incorporated were European, and he always been in European architecture and design. .
I think that’s one of the main differences between him and Wright. Likewise, they argued for native American architecture, and they practiced developing native American architecture, but it’s very evident the borrowing from Maher of European designs, and you’ll see that as his career was evolving.
Vitali: The Pleasant Home Foundation has just launched the George Maher Society, whose mission is to document Maher’s designs and preserve his legacy.
Kevin Brown founded the Society – he also lives in a George Maher house he is currently renovating on Blue Island.
Brown: We are one of the lucky few people to live in one of his creations and for me it is like living in a work of art. You are a sort of shepherd, a steward of a work of art.
Vitali: Maher also did institutional design – the Bathing Beach Aquatorium is still Gary, Indiana.
Some designs have not survived – such as Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern campus. Most recently, the Chicago Town and Tennis Center in Maher was demolished in June 2020.
Brown: There are many buildings and houses that people pass through in their daily lives that they don’t know the history of or the meaning of which they don’t know. We want to highlight some of these communities, see where they come from, where they are and where they are going.
Vitali: George Maher’s career was cut short when he committed suicide in 1926 after his health declined.
His son took over the business and had a successful career as an architect.
Brown: Family was very important to him. The customer was important to him, his tastes, his way of life, his daily life were very important to him.
He wanted to create a democratic architecture, an architecture for the people.
More on this story: Learn more about the new George Washington Maher Society and Pleasant Home.