You’ve probably walked or driven past some local gems of Prairie School architecture and wished you could peek inside.
This week you’ll have a rare opportunity to do just that. Five private homes — all at least 100 years old and filled with original details such as woodwork, stained glass and hand-painted murals — will open their doors for a bus tour on July 22, a fundraiser for nonprofit Preserve Minneapolis.
“Everybody’s curious about what’s inside,” said architectural historian Dick Kronick, who recruited the homeowners to open up their homes.
Kronick, a Preserve Minneapolis board member and editor in chief of its Minneapolis Historical project to preserve the stories of historic buildings (minneapolishistorical.org), has long been fascinated by the architecture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when pioneers such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan were shaking things up.
“It was a protest movement, a battle of architectural styles,” he said. At a time when many buildings were modeled after Greek temples or Gothic cathedrals, Prairie School architects were inspired by nature.
The buildings were designed to integrate with the surrounding landscape, with horizontal lines, bands of windows, open floor plans, exquisite craftsmanship and restraint in the use of decoration.
“You feel the honesty in the materials,” said Kronick, such as natural-hued, unpainted woodwork and plaster walls that look like plaster — not scored to mimic stone.
Four of the five houses on the tour were designed by Purcell & Elmslie, the renowned firm formed by William Purcell and George Elmslie, both contemporaries of Wright. Elmslie and Wright worked together in Chicago, under Sullivan, before Wright was fired for taking clients on the side, and Elmslie succeeded him as Sullivan’s chief draftsman. Eventually, Elmslie became disenchanted with his boss, who was getting credit for Elmslie’s work, said Kronick, so Elmslie moved to Minneapolis to join Purcell, who had started his own practice.
“They were a potent force,” said Kronick. “There are all these wonderful Purcell & Elmslie buildings around town.”
Houses on the tour include the Owre house, a large home with porches overlooking Lake of the Isles, built in 1911 for Oscar Owre, a dentistry professor at the University of Minnesota. Another imposing home is the Beebe/Leuthold house on St. Paul’s Summit Avenue, built in 1912 as a wedding gift for Dr. Ward Beebe and his wife, Bess.
The other two Purcell & Elmslie houses are more modest in scale but represent the firm’s style and craftsmanship. The Fritz Carlson house in the Powderhorn neighborhood was built for a carpenter who worked on many Purcell & Elmslie houses and wanted one for his new bride.
“They decided to charge him only $100, and the rest was a wedding gift,” Kronick said.
The Backus house in the Lyndale neighborhood was built for Purcell’s piano tuner as a smaller, more affordable variation on Purcell’s own home, now the Purcell-Cutts house.
“It’s a 1,400-square-foot house, but with an open floor plan that makes it feel spacious,” said Kronick of the Backus house.
The fifth home on the tour, an eye-catching brick house on a corner lot on Lyndale Avenue S., was designed by Kirby Snyder for himself in 1915. Unlike the prolific and prominent Purcell & Elmslie, less is known about Snyder, who left few buildings behind.
“He was much more a mysterious dude,” Kronick said. Snyder was a bank director, in addition to working as an architect, and his only other known surviving projects are two commercial buildings. But the house he designed for himself is “sumptuous,” said Kronick.
It’s also a “mystery,” stylistically, Kronick said. “The living room is a collision of Prairie School and classical ornamentation. It doesn’t make sense. Prairie School was a reaction against classic ornamentation.”
Still, Snyder’s house is striking, with many of its original features, including stained-glass windows and a mythical-themed mural painted on a stair wall.
Homeowners at all five homes will be on hand to answer questions.
“They’ve agreed to be docents, and talk about what it’s like to live in a historic house,” Kronick said.
Kronick will give an introductory talk about the Prairie School and the architects who pioneered it.
“They were progressive architects, trying to reject classicism and give dignity to common people,” he said. “It had laudable goals, but it died, which is a tragedy — replaced by the Roaring ’20s and slick Art Deco.”
Prairie School ideals are one reason the style still resonates so strongly, Kronick said.
“There’s heartbreak nostalgia for the Prairie School. The Prairie School was when we got it right.”