Southwest View — Prairie House, Norman, Oklahoma

Herb Greene’s Prairie House

Modernist Masterpiece

An Architectural Gem on the Oklahoma Prairie

The American School of Architecture

In 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 ().]

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 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 .

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 ().] 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 ().]

Chris J. Zähller in front of Herb Greene’s “Prairie Chicken” House in Norman, Oklahoma
The author in front of Herb Greene’s “Prairie House” in Norman, Oklahoma. Camera: Fuji GSW690 “Texas Leica.” Film: Ilford Delta 100 devel­oped in Adox Adonal (Rodinal). Copyright ©2017 Joseph P. Crumley; all rights reserved.

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 . 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 , 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 ().] 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 ().] 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 . 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
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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