An Architectural Gem on the Oklahoma Prairie
The American School of Architecture
In 1957 a young architect named Herb Greene returned to his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, to teach. Working alongside his former professor (modernist Bruce Goff) and others, he helped develop the American School of architecture. Described as
A new school, probably the only indigenous one in the United States by cofounder Donald MacDonald, the curriculum eschewed the pedagogy of the French Beaux Arts and Bauhaus schools, instead approaching architecture and its pedagogy in an
original and authentically American fashion by empasizing
individual creativity, organic forms, and experimentation. [Sidenote: Pilat, Stephanie, “The American School of Architecture: Building on the Plains,” stephaniepilat.oucreate.com (12 February 2017).]
The Prairie Chicken
While teaching at the university, Greene purchased a small plot of land east of Norman and designed and built a home for his young family. The home, now known as The Prairie House, [Sidenote: When Look and Life magazines featured the home in articles in 1962 they dubbed it the
Prairie Chicken House. Perhaps the most famous photographs of the house were taken by Julius Shulman. Best known for his Case Study photographs, Shulman frequently traveled to Oklahoma to document its midcentury architecture.] was completed in 1961.
Situated on two acres with no other homes in view, the house featured
natural materials, passive design, natural lighting and ventilation, energy efficiency, and careful site placement. [Sidenote: Laylin, Tafline, “Herb Greene’s Crazy 1960s Prairie Chicken House Was a Green Design Before Its Time,” inhabit.com (23 August 2011).] The rough cedar shingles covering the the home inside and out give it the look of a shaggy, living thing. Greene says he wanted the house to look as though it were struggling to climb from the flat landscape,
Like it’s coming into the ground and in some views trying to free itself from the ground. [Sidenote: Culver, Galen, “The Prairie House Architect Comes Home to See His Famous Structure for the First Time in More than 50 Years,” KFOR.com (17 April 2017).]
Greene and his family lived in the house for only two years. The University of Kentucky offered him a professorship, and for the next half century the house was home to local businesswoman Janie Wilson, who lived in it until her death in 2016. Business owner Brent Swift acquired the property soon after.
The house has since undergone extensive repairs and renovations. When the bureau visited the property in 2017, Brent Swift Architecture and Butzer Architects and Urbanism were involved in the restoration, with Greene informally consulting. [Sidenote: Rostochil, Lynne, “Herb Greene Visits Norman and His Prairie House,” OKC MOD (3 August 2017).] Since then Austin Hacker and Bryan Bloom of design firm OXBloom have acquired the property from Swift and are continuing renovations. [Sidenote: Azzarello, Nina, “Step inside the 1960s ‘Prairie House’ in Oklahoma Collaged in Swirling Cedar Shingles,” designboom (23 September 2018).] In partnership with the Tower Theatre they have instituted a concert series hosted in the historic building.
History in Peril
Oklahoma is a treasure-trove of midcentury modern architecture, but in recent years many of the state’s iconic structures have met the wrecking ball. Stage Center, Union Bus Station, Bavinger House, and Founders Bank are all gone. Also endangered but not yet gone are the Citizens Bank Gold Dome and the Central National Motor Bank, while Oklahoma City’s First Christian Church (a.k.a. “The Egg”) just narrowly avoided demolition when an area church agreed to buy the property earlier this week. The Okie Mod Squad have compiled a list of endangered structures, past and present, as well as links to preservation resources.
When my friend Joe Crumley and I photographed the Prairie House I brought along a Hasselblad 500C that I intended to use. I changed my mind and instead borrowed Joe’s Mamiya 645. While not as well-made as the Swedish Hasselblads, the Mamiya 645s are much more ergonomic and produce beautiful images. Unlike the 1:1 square format of the Hasselblad, the Mamiya takes 2:3 (6cm × 4.5cm) images.