Herb Greene’s Prairie House

Modernist Masterpiece

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,” stephaniepi​lat​.oucre​ate​.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).]

Chris J. Zähller in front of Herb Greene’s “Prairie Chicken” House in Norman, Oklahoma
Chris J. Zähller in front of Herb Greene’s “Prairie Chicken” House in Norman, Oklahoma

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.

New Life

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.

Gallery

Gallery

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.

Technical

Camera
Mamiya 645
Lens
Mamiya Sekor 45mm ƒ/2,8
Aperture
Unknown
Exposure
Unknown
ISO
400
Film
Ilford HP5+
Developer
Adox Adonal (Rodinal) 1:100
~60 min­utes semi-stand in Paterson Super System 4 day­light tank
Scanner
Epson Perfection v850
Software
Vuescan
Adobe Lightroom 6

About Chris J. Zähller

International Man of Mystery. Cocktail Nerd. Occasionally designs websites. Sometimes snaps a picture or two.

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