Arts & Crafts Architecture: Craftsman, Prairie & Four-square Houses
The Arts & Crafts period from the turn of the 20th century to the start of the Second World War [Note 1] is unique in American architectural history.
First, it was the only period in which houses that ordinary people could afford were enriched with all manner of finely crafted detail.
Rich wood trim, art glass, and colorful tile mosaics had been used in houses for a long time, but only kings, potentates and robber barons could afford them. The rest of us had to do without — at least until the Arts & Crafts movement made rich detailing the standard in home building.
Second, all of the Arts & Crafts architectural styles — Prairie, Craftsman, Mission, Four-square — are American. Unlike previous house styles that were imported from Europe, American Arts & Crafts homes are almost completely homegrown.
If you are fortunate enough to own an Arts & Crafts home, you own a gem — a true American original — full of handcrafted details that are rarely seen in modern housing.
That 6,000 square foot McMansion that your boss just bought is full of 1/2" gypsum board walls, painted MDF moldings and carpeting over OSB subflooring. Yours is full of thick, three-coat lath and plaster walls, varnished quarter-sawn oak moldings with oak strip flooring over a thick pine subfloor. Of course, your floor squeaks and his doesn't, but you have to put up with a few little quirks to own a little bit of American history.
The Arts & Crafts Philosophy
As many social movements do, it began with a revolt, an intellectual and philosophical rebellion against heady excesses of the late Victorian age.
Victorian architecture celebrated the abundance made possible by mass production and industrialization. Dimensioned lumber, inexpensive milled trim, and good-quality moldings could be made very quickly by machines in previously unheard-of quantities and could easily be shipped anywhere in the country on its ever-expanding national railroad system. They were used with increasing elaboration to embellish late-Victorian homes.
By the end of the 19th century, ostentation had reached its zenith in the elaborate Eastlake style house. But, by then a great many people had had enough of industrialization. There was a widespread and growing rebellion against the numbing immensity of massive mechanization and a longing for an earlier, simpler time.
The revolt began in England, where industrialization was the most advanced and its side effects the most odious. Largely inspired by the writings of John Ruskin, an influential moralist and social critic of the time, the Arts & Crafts Movement was just one of many forms of rejection of the dehumanizing effects of the factory system and mass production processes. Former days of villages, craft shops and artisans were thought healthier and more humanizing than assembly-line work in factory towns shrouded in smoke and dust.
All of these movements ultimately failed. The Industrial Revolution did not go away or even slow down. But before finally dying out around 1910 the Arts & Crafts Movement in America spawned a stunning revolution in architecture and design that largely dominated the 20th century until the mid-1930s. Since this period is when most pre-war Nebraska homes were built, the Arts & Crafts home styles are generously represented in our older urban neighborhoods.
With the end of 2nd World War in 1945, Arts & Crafts architecture, quietly but abruptly, died.
Challenged to build unheard of numbers of houses to meet the ravenous postwar appetite for new housing, homebuilders quickly abandoned the leisurely, handcrafted detailing of the Arts & Crafts period. It was just too time-consuming and had to go in favor of new mass production techniques that built an average of 5,000 sturdy new homes in a single day.
It was sad to see such wonderful craftsmanship go by the wayside, but it was inevitable. The Depression and World War were over. It was a bright, exciting, new era. America had changed, and so had its housing needs. The legacy, however, is still with us in the form of thousands of Arts & Crafts houses throughout the country and especially in the upper Midwest.
Do You Own A Mail Order House?
Many Arts & Crafts houses were built from pre-cut kits manufactured by Sears, Roebuck & Co., Aladdin and other kit makers. Kits weighed about 25 tons, included a detailed assembly manual, extensive blueprints, and 10-30,000 individual pieces.
Sears, which sold them from 1908 to 1940, offered 447 architect-designed models. Most were priced from about $725 to $2,500, although some larger models like the Verona, two-story Dutch Colonial which included almost every amenity, even flower boxes under the windows, sold for more than $4,000. Sears sold over 70,000 kit homes before the program was discontinued.
So many mail-order kit homes were built in Nebraska that the odds a pretty good that your pre-1940 home is a kit house. If so, congratulations are in order. You own one of the best designed and built homes in America. Here are some clues to look for.
- Look in your attic, basement, garage and crawlspace for blueprints, shipping documents or the assembly manual. These were often tucked in out-of-the-way places. The document will tell you the name of the company that made the kit, and the model number.
- Kit houses were often modified by their original owners. But usually, the overall dimensions remained the same. Measure the width across the front and sides of your house and look for those exact dimensions in plan books.
- Compare the front and side views of your house with published plans and illustrations. Look at the overall configuration, roof style, type of porch and placement of the front door and chimneys. These are unlikely to have been modified. Windows, on the other hand, were sometimes moved around or omitted, so they are of less help.
- Compare your floor plan to similar plans in pattern books and mail-order catalog illustrations. Keep in mind that rooms may have been added since the house was built, and porches may have been enclosed.
Typical Sears lumber code on a rafter.
- Look for stenciled markings on floor joists and rafters in the attic or basement where they are exposed. These marks were keyed to the blueprints that came with the kit. Companies marked their lumber differently, so the type of marking can tell you who made the kit. Sears used a code number system to mark lumber. Each piece was marked with a letter and number for each size of board, so all boards of the same size would bear the same code number. Aladdin marked its lumber according to where it was to be used.
- Look at original mortgage or purchase papers, building permits, utility company records (particularly those relating to water and sewer installations), for clues as to the origin of the house.
Aladdin lumber mark on a joist.
- Don't forget newspaper archives. Many communities required building permits and land sales to be published. Look for articles about new home construction, especially if it mentions that the home is a Redy-Cut kit home. The quality of Sears and Aladdin homes was such that builders often built the kits on spec, knowing there would be considerable interest in the home simply due to the reputation of the company.
- If you have a local historical society or association devoted to the preservation of period homes, they often have considerable research material and experts who can authoritatively determine whether your home is a kit.
No architectural style is born in isolation. It borrows from earlier styles, emphasizing some features, deemphasizing others until a new, identifiable form emerges. The Arts & Crafts styles are no exception.
While the Arts & Crafts Movement provided the philosophy and rationale, the nuances of the architecture were taken from a great many sources: late Victorian shingle-style and other purely American influences such as Shaker and Southwest Spanish Mission; as well as some distinctly Asian influences, particularly the broad horizontal lines, low roofs and well-crafted natural materials characteristic of the traditional Japanese house
The various Arts & Crafts styles also freely borrowed from each other. Although distinct and identifiable styles with some common features such as low pitched hip roofs, minimal applied decoration, and extensive handcrafting, they each have elements unique to their style.
But, they also blend into each other to such an extent that it is often impossible to positively classify a particular house as one or the other style. A Craftsman bungalow with Prairie elements is as common as a Prairie house with Craftsman elements. Four-square houses freely purloined elements of both.
Arts & Crafts styles borrowed liberally from Art Deco and other "modernism" decorative styles — and just as freely were borrowed from by modernist designers.
So while these uniquely American styles are identifiable, and excellent examples of each can be found in Nebraska communities, most Arts & Crafts era houses are hybrids of the three main styles — incorporating many of the best features of each.
There are a number of different craftsman-style houses, the American Four-square is actually a craftsman-style house. But the most popular Craftsman home was the simple 1-1/2 story bungalow. In fact, for most people, "bungalow" and "Craftsman house" are synonymous terms.
Just about every Nebraska town boasts at least one bungalow.
The bungalow style is thought to have its roots in the native architectural styles of the Bengal in India. During the last decades of the 19th century, English officers had small houses built in the "Bangla" style. The houses were one story with tile or thatched roofs and wide, covered verandas. The style was introduced to American architecture in 1906, through an article that appeared in The Craftsman magazine published by Gustav Stickley. It was adopted by period architects such as an answer to the need for small, affordable homes, and rather quickly became a staple of homebuilding in America.
Bungalows are modest, inexpensive, low-profile houses faced with wood siding and brick or, less commonly, stone. Wood siding was often applied in contrasting wood bands or courses separated by wide horizontal trim boards called "architrave" moldings.
Characteristically, they possess broad, low gable or hip roofs, usually with one or two large front dormers, wide eaves with exposed rafters and brackets (actually called "corbels") under the eaves. Wide, open front porches were supported by heavy masonry or wood piers. Windows are abundant and distinctive: "4 over 1" (4 panes in the upper sash to one pane in the lower sash) or "6 over 1" double-hung. These are now commonly called "Craftsman" windows.
The house's condensed floor plan made use of all available space. A single living room replaced the front and rear parlors, entry hall, and library characteristic of the Victorian house. The living room almost always had a fireplace, often set in a niche called the "inglenook". It opened directly into the dining room, which also served as a multi-purpose family room. The dividing wall usually was only five feet high so the rooms were connected visually.
The kitchen connected to the dining room through a swinging door that provided easy access but kept food odors out of the rest of the house. (These have usually been removed now that kitchen ventilation is available, and most are lost, but the swinging door hardware often remains attached to the door jamb.)
The Craftsman routinely published plans for bungalow homes, which were available free to Craftsman readers and could be used anywhere in the country. Although a number of attempts to catalog Stickley Bungalows have been made, the full extent of Stickley's influence will probably never be known since he urged homeowners to modify plans to fit their needs, and they did. So, identifying a house as a Stickley design is often nearly impossible.
Stickley was probably the most influential, but hardly the only proponent of bungalow homes. Bungalow designs were spread by the practice of using mail-order plans available from illustrated catalogs. Many bungalow plan books were published.
Stickley himself published collections of his plans from the magazine in Craftsman Homes (1909), More Craftsman Homes (1912) and Craftsman Houses: A Book for Home Makers (1913). Other influential plan books published at the time were William P. Comstock's Bungalows, Camps and Mountain Homes (1915), which contained detailed instructions on how to build a bungalow, Frederick T. Hodgson's Practical Bungalows and Cottages for Town and Country (1912); Henry H. Saylor's Bungalows, Their Design, Construction and Furnishings (1911) which featured a number of Bungalow house plans.
By 1910 a growing number of companies offered pre-fabricated (or what were then called "ready-cut" houses) which were shipped by rail and assembled on site by the owners or local builders. Sears, Roebuck & Co. began selling its "Modern Homes" from a catalog in 1909. Kit homes were a giant step in affordable house building. Ready-cut houses were "assembled" from lumber already cut to the correct size at the manufacturer's mill. Everything from nails to millwork, even paint was shipped by rail on pallets to the nearest terminal, then trucked to the building site. Pre-cut lumber and trim, and pre-assembled doors, windows and moldings, even cabinets were carefully numbered to match the plan books that guided assembly. It made construction faster, and therefore less costly, although the common claim that a ready-cut house replaced 10 carpenters was probably a bit of an exaggeration.
Although Sears dominated the market, Montgomery Ward (Wardway Ready-Cut Homes), Aladdin Homes ("Redi-cut" Houses) and Gordon-Van Tine Company also offered extensive lines of kit homes. The cost of a bungalow kit in 1915 was about $600.00 (about $15,000 in inflated 2018 dollars).
Due in part to the widespread availability of plan books and ready-cut kits, Bungalows, like Four-squares (see below) were seldom built with the assistance of an architect. A builder got comfortable with a certain style and floor plan and built the same house with minor variations in detail over and over again — often on the same block. Many builders built only kit houses. The reputation of ready-cut houses for quality was such that the fact that a house was a ready-cut kit was a strong selling point. (For more information on how most pre-war homes were built see A Brief History of Homebuilding.)
The Prairie House
The Prairie-style house is a product of the Prairie School of architecture. This new style of housing was coined the Prairie-style after a 1901 article in the Ladies Home Journal by Frank Lloyd Wright entitled, "A Home in a Prairie Town."
According to architecture historian Dixie Legler: [Note 2]
It was a new look for a new century. Low, ground-hugging houses with refreshingly spacious interiors under sweeping roofs, leading to terraces reaching out to nature, all dressed in the colors of the prairie in autumn and simplified with built-in furniture. A group of idealistic young architects in Chicago, led by Frank Lloyd Wright, had succeeded in their quiet revolt against the fussiness of Victorian houses. Gazing toward the horizon, they saw the prairie as the perfect metaphor for redefining the American home."
Architects of the Prairie School sought to redefine American housing by designing homes with low horizontal lines and open interior spaces in deliberate contrast to the Victorian Era's tall, narrow houses with closed-in interiors.
Victorian housing was the creature of Eastern cities with small, constricted urban lots. Prairie houses were children of the Great Plains; low, wide structures more suitable to its limitless horizons. Rooms were often divided by leaded glass panels or low cabinets rather than walls. Both American Southwest and Japanese influences are most apparent in this Arts & Crafts style, more so than in the Craftsman or Four-square styles.
The first Prairie houses were usually finished in lime plaster with wood trim or sided with horizontal board and batten. Later Prairie homes used concrete block — a new material at the time. The spacious, open floor plans of Prairie homes took on many forms: Square, L-shaped, T-shaped, Y-shaped, and even pinwheel-shaped. Furniture was either built-in or specially designed by the architect just for the house.
The style was popularized in pattern books and illustrated magazines, but there was never, as far as we can determine, a mail-order kit for a Prairie-style House. Few Prairie-style homes were built without the involvement of an Architect.
They never received the widespread builder acceptance of the Craftsman and Four-square styles, and are consequently much less common in our communities. The few that do exist, however, are usually little gems and well worth preserving.
The Prairie house is the only Arts & Crafts style to penetrate the great post-war housing boom. Wright's own work had already incorporated many Modernist elements into Prairie architecture by the 1930s and by the 1940s improvements in construction technology allowed architects to evolved the Prairie-style into something approaching Mid-Century Modernist architecture.
Modernist design added few new or innovative elements to the vernacular, contenting itself with merely continuing and extending the pivotal design features of the Prairie School — roofs got flatter, windows grew larger until whole walls were made of glass, houses became even more horizontally oriented, to the point that some modernist houses almost disappeared into the landscape. But the Prairie antecedents of these modern houses are clearly evident.
The American Four-square
In 1890 there were no Four-square houses in Nebraska. By the end of First World War in 1918, there were thousands. Where the style came from is somewhat of a puzzle.
Bungalow and Prairie-styles can be traced to specific architectural schools or historical ancestors. But the Four-square style seems to have no precise parentage, no renown architectural advocates, no underlying design philosophy, not even a distinct school of thought. It just got built.
Theories abound as to its architectural origins. One such theory is that it appeared when builders squared off the Folk Victorian house, stripped it of its elaborate ornamentation, lowered the roof pitch, extended the eaves, added Arts & Crafts-influenced interior features and a big front porch.
Or perhaps it was the already square Italianate Victorian design that was the architectural genesis of the style. Remove the cupola and gingerbread; replace the tall Victorian windows with Arts & Crafts-style windows, enlarge the porch, and you end up with a Four-square house.
Still others believe that it is, in fact, a refinement of the traditional rectangular two-story colonial re-popularized by the Colonial Revival school in the last quarter of the 19th century to celebrate the Centennial of the founding of the country. The colonial was squared off, a porch added, its roof lowered and Craftsman detailing applied.
We think that the true story is much less exotic: the Four-square is just the builders' two-story version of the popular Craftsman bungalow. Buyers liked the simplicity, open floor plan and interior efficiency of the bungalow, but many wanted a larger house. Builders responded with the Four-square, preserving the essential design elements of the classic bungalow while adding a full second floor.
However it came to be, this distinctive house that has become one of the most recognizable of American home styles. A classic Four-square cannot be anything but a classic Four-square. There is no other house style that resembles it. Even its close cousin, the Prairie Box, is clearly just a Four-square with Prairie detailing.
Today, it is well regarded by architectural historians as one of the icons of American residential architecture. But, recognition was long in coming.
For decades the Four-square was mostly ignored by the architectural community as just an uninspired, builder-designed curiosity: chunky, rectangular, symmetrical, unassuming and plain as an old shoe. It was thought to have little style and no architectural significance.
American Four-square house with clapboard siding and a hip roofs in the Irvingdale area of Lincoln. Both this house and the house below were built by the same builder, on the same block, probably from a mail-order kit.
In contrast to other localities, Four-square houses in Nebraska usually do not feature the typical horizontal band between floors nor different siding on the upper story.
The style did not even have a name until 1982 when the term "Four Square" was coined by Clem Labine, founder and editor of Old House Journal [Note 3] in his article (with Patrica Moore), entitled "The Comfortable House: Post-Victorian Domestic Architecture".
Labine and Moore pointed out that the true importance of the Four-square lay not in any significant architectural feature, or revolutionary design innovation, but in its extraordinary livability and simplicity. It is, the authors observed, one of the least expensive houses to build and one of the most comfortable and economical to live in.
The style has its own folksy attraction, a particular aesthetic appeal that is hard to describe in strictly architectural terms. As our chief designer observed:
"It is the jovial, rotund, country grandma of houses: broad, squat and plain, with neither style nor pretension, but with limitless warmth and comfort. No house says 'welcome home' like the wide, smiling front porch of the classic American Four-square."
It also may be the most American of house styles. With the exception of our good neighbor, Canada where the style is almost as popular, no other country has Four-squares in any significant number.
It is without question a "folk" house, utterly devoid of affectation of any kind. A spacious two-story dwelling with a low-pitched, hipped roof and wide, overhanging eaves, its square or nearly square footprint is perfect for making the most efficient use of city lots.
It is clearly designed for the vagaries and extremes of the quickly-changing weather of the American Prairie. Its low-rise hip roof collects snow, a natural insulation in the winter, and its wide eaves protect the house from blistering summer suns and driving rains for which the Great Plains are justly famous. It is the ultimate "comfortable" house.
Typically, each floor contains four rooms, one neatly tucked into each corner. Arranging each floor in quadrants eliminated the need for long hallways and made the most efficient use of interior space.
On the first-floor, are found an entry foyer, living room, dining room, and kitchen. Upstairs, three bedrooms and a bath surround a small foyer at the top of the stairs.
Simple, symmetrical Four-square homes were less costly to build than earlier, more complicated designs with protruding wings and complex roof lines. The efficient interior layout used the least amount of material for walls, and the symmetrical hip roof simplified and sped construction.
The houses are very efficient to heat and cool, often designed so that the upstairs and downstairs were distinct climate zones separated by a door at the top or bottom of the stairs.
The downstairs was heated by day, and upstairs for sleeping. First floor registers were often designed not to close off heat, but to redirect it to the second floor at night. A large number of double hung windows — often as many as 30 windows — made it possible to completely ventilate the house on cool summer evenings for sleeping comfort, eliminating the need for the sleeping porch common in many Victorian house designs.
Omaha Fire-Bombed by Imperial Japanese Army
August 18, 1945
On August 18, 1945, an incendiary bomb attached to a paper balloon that had floated across the Pacific and halfway across the United States exploded above 50th and Underwood streets in Dundee with a loud bang and bright flash. It did no damage, but woke up most of the neighborhood and set dogs to howling for miles around.
The incendiary bomb was attached to large hydrogen-filled balloons set adrift across the Pacific as part of a Japanese army plan to set West Coast cities ablaze. Japan launched more than 9,000 balloons between November 1944 and April 1945. The 5,000-mile journey took about three days.
Most did no harm. Only a few reached North America and most of those that did fell harmlessly in western forests and on empty prairie.
Many failed to explode such as the bomb found in Schuyler, Nebraska in February 1945 and another in Laurens, Iowa.
Americans were asked to keep quiet about the bombs to deny the Japanese any information about their range or effectiveness.
The Omaha bombing came three days after Japan had already announced its surrender on August, 15. The formal peace accord was signed on September 9, 1945 in Tokyo Bay aboard the U.S.S. Missouri.
Two weeks after the Dundee explosion, a pregnant woman and five children from a Sunday school class were killed in Oregon by a bomb they found laying on the forest floor. Theirs were the only known deaths caused by the bombs and the only deaths due to enemy action in the continental United States during the War.
Large tracts of Four-square homes still exist in older Lincoln neighborhoods, particularly in the old "streetcar suburbs" in the Near South, Irvingdale, Country Club, Bethany, College View, University Place, and Havelock; but the design was universal and can be found in remote farmhouses as well as in the urban core of nearly all Nebraska cities.
Omaha has several Arts & Crafts neighborhoods including our favorite, Dundee, which houses the Happy Hollow Historical District.
The Four-square was a popular mail-order style along with the Craftsman bungalow. Sears alone offered a dozen different kits and other manufacturers as many as twenty. It arrived crated in a boxcar with a "free", step-by-step, instruction manual and all the parts pre-cut and numbered for "easy assembly" (uh-huh!).
Four-squares were built with a variety of exterior finishes, including brick and narrow-strip wood clapboard siding. A few feature shingle siding or stucco, but these are relatively rare in Nebraska. Brick and stone facings, while uncommon elsewhere, are fairly usual here.
The second story was often finished in a different siding than the first - shingles over clapboard, for example. A wood band usually separated the two treatments. Its entrance was the focal point of the front facade, and it often had a front and sometimes side-hipped dormers in its pyramid-shaped roof. The interior and exterior spaces of these houses were usually linked by a full-width front porch with massive, and very distinctive, square pillars supporting the porch roof.
Arts & Crafts Interiors
The Arts & Crafts period produced the first truly comfortable houses that regular people could afford. They were well lighted, ventilated, heated, and pleasantly decorated, with the ultimate convenience of indoor plumbing.
The paradox of the period is that this level of modern comfort was made possible by the very thing that Arts & Crafts idealists despised — urban industrial mass production.
The virtues of village living where skilled artisans created beautiful things in small, human scale, craft shops using hand tools and traditional methods of one-of-a-kind manufacture might have been the heart of the Arts & Crafts philosophy, but these notions, appealing as they might have been, were already woefully outdated and wildly impractical even as the Arts & Crafts movement began in the late 1800s. . . (Continues)
1. The Arts & Crafts period started in England around 1860 and had crossed to the United States by 1880. By the time the movement reached it peak of influence in the United States, around 1910, it was already dying out in England and most of Europe. In the U.S., its impact on architecture and design continued until it began tapering off in the mid 1930s. By the eve of the World War it was already being supplanted by several modernist schools that heavily influenced Post-War architecture.
2. Dixie Legler, Prairie-style: Houses and Gardens by F. L. Wright, Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1999.
3. The publishers of the Old House Journal have generously given permission for Google to catalog and reproduce back issues in the Google Books collection. Browse the collection starting here. If you are an old house owner, but not an Old House Journal reader, you are missing out on a wealth of valuable information. To subscribed, go here, and welcome to the Old House community.