Big Houses on the Prairie: the Chicago Area Homes of Architect George Maher

The artistry of Frank Lloyd Wright is front and center when it comes to Prairie School architecture. But other architects made enduring impacts. A new group turns the spotlight on George Washington Maher, an under-recognized designer of buildings throughout the Midwest.

Marc Vitali: At the corner of Pleasant Street and Home Avenue in Oak Park stands Pleasant Home – also known as the John Farson House.

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The early Prairie-style residence was completed in 1897 and is a National Historic Landmark.

Kevin Brown, Pleasant Home Foundation: A lot of Prairie School design, early Prairie School especially, was pretty devoid of extraneous ornamentation. If you look at Pleasant Home especially, there’s a lot of pretty elaborate motifs that are woven into those designs and corbels and other accents, and that was not typical for what people think of for Prairie School work by Frank Lloyd Wright, for example.

Vitali: 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 highly borrowed from or copied, especially across the Midwest from other architects because it was groundbreaking, not just the exterior look of it, the Prairie School forms, but also the interior design, the open-flowing spaces which obviously he and Wright have that in common as well.

Vitali: 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’s a group of his residences in the Buena Park neighborhood – each one filled with fine craftsmanship and incredible details.    

George Maher designed his own family home in Kenilworth in 1893. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

Some of his work borrowed from the English Arts and Crafts movement.

Other buildings had a symmetry uncommon to the Prairie School – or decorative touches that show the influence of Louis Sullivan.

Brown: He’d take geometric shapes and natural motifs like flowers and plants, and he would use those throughout the design to create a sort of design harmony.

He gets lumped in with the Prairie School of architects and for a lot of his career he definitely did design Prairie houses or Prairie-leaning houses, but a lot of the elements that he incorporated were European, and he was always into European architecture and design.  

I think that’s one of the major differences between him and Wright. Similarly, they advocated for an indigenous American architecture, and they practiced to develop an indigenous American architecture, but it’s very obvious the borrowing from Maher of European designs, and you’ll see that as his career evolved.

Vitali: 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 that he’s currently renovating in Blue Island.

Brown: We’re one of the lucky handful of people that get to live in one of his designs and for me it’s like living in a work of art. You’re kind of a shepherd, a steward of a work of art.

Vitali: Maher also did institutional design — the Bathing Beach Aquatorium still stands Gary, Indiana.

Some designs haven’t survived – like Patten Gymnasium on the campus of Northwestern. More recently, Maher’s Chicago Town and Tennis Center was demolished in June 2020.

Brown: There’s’ a lot of buildings and houses that people walk by in their everyday life that they don’t know the history of, or they don’t the significance of them. We want to shine a light on some of these communities, see where they’ve been, where they’re at, and where they’re going.

Vitali: George Maher’s career was cut short when he took his own life in 1926 after his health declined.

His son took over the business and had a successful career as an architect.

Brown: Family was very important to him. The client was important to him -- their tastes, the way they lived, their everyday lives was 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.

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