The artistry of Frank Lloyd Wright is front and center when it comes to Prairie School architecture. But other architects made lasting impacts. A new group spotlights George Washington Maher, an under-recognized designer of buildings throughout the Midwest.
Marc Vitali: On the corner of Pleasant Street and Home Avenue in Oak Park stands Pleasant Home – also known as the John Farson House.
The early Prairie-style residence was completed in 1897 and is a National Historic Landmark.
Kevin Brown, Pleasant Home Foundation: Much Prairie School design, especially early Prairie School, was fairly devoid of extraneous decoration. If you look at Pleasant Home in particular, there are very nice intricate motifs woven into those designs and borders and other accents, and that was not typical of, for example, what people think of for Prairie School work by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Vitaly: Pleasant Home was designed by a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, George Washington Maher.
Brown: Pleasant Home was really his first foray into Prairie School architecture and one of the earliest examples of Prairie School design. When it was designed and built in 1897, it was heavily borrowed from or copied, especially throughout the Midwest from other architects, because it pioneered not only its exterior appearance, the Prairie School form, but also the interior design, the open-flowing spaces that of course he and Wright also have in common.
Vitaly: Maher buildings are all over the region.
This limestone mansion is in East Garfield Park.
This brick home is one of several in Beverly.
And there is a cluster of his residences in the Buena Park neighborhood – each filled with fine craftsmanship and incredible details.
George Maher designed his own family home in Kenilworth in 1893. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Some of his work borrowed from the English Arts and Crafts movement.
Other buildings have a symmetry unusual for the Prairie School—or decorative touches that show the influence of Louis Sullivan.
Brown: He adopted geometric shapes and natural motifs such as flowers and plants, and he would use them throughout the design to create a kind of design harmony.
He got caught up in the Prairie School of architects and for much of his career he certainly designed Prairie houses or Prairie-leaning houses, but a lot of the elements he incorporated were European, and he was always into European architecture and design.
I think that’s one of the big differences between him and Wright. Likewise, they advocated for a Native American architecture, and they practiced developing a Native American architecture, but it’s very clearly Maher’s borrowing from European designs, and you’ll see that as his career has developed.
Vitaly: The Pleasant Home Foundation just launched the George Maher Society, whose mission is to document Maher designs and preserve his legacy.
Kevin Brown started the Society – he also lives in a George Maher house he is currently renovating in Blue Island.
Brown: We are one of the lucky handful of people who get to live in one of his designs and to me it is like living in a work of art. You are kind of a shepherd, a steward of a work of art.
Vitaly: Maher also did institutional design—the Bathing Beach Aquatorium still stands in Gary, Indiana.
Some designs did not survive – such as Patten Gymnasium on the Northwestern campus. More recently, Maher’s Chicago Town and Tennis Center was demolished in June 2020.
Brown: There are many buildings and houses that people walk past in their everyday lives that they don’t know the history of, or that they don’t know the meaning of. We want to shine a light on some of these communities, see where they have been, where they are and where they are going.
Vitaly: George Maher’s career was cut short when he took his own life in 1926 after failing health.
His son took over the business and had a successful career as an architect.
Brown: Family was very important to him. The customer was important to him — their tastes, the way they lived, their everyday lives were very important to him.
He wanted to create a democratic architecture, an architecture for the people.
More on this story: Find out more about the newly formed George Washington Maher Society and Pleasant Home.