“When designing the prairie house, I chose a 2 acre site east of Norman where no other house was visible from the site.” – Architect Herb Greene
In 1962, Life Magazine featured a daring architectural feat in the lonely wilds of the Oklahoma prairie. Architect Herb Greene designed and built a family home to mimic the shape of a prairie chicken. In the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright, Greene broke with traditional patterns in a quest to build a home that would reflect a sense of place and natural form.
He chose the shape of the prairie chicken that danced upon the plains in spring, a bird that symbolizes the treeless, windswept, and powerful plains. Today, the lesser prairie-chicken that once graced the midwest faces a tenuous future. Their numbers that once exceeded a million have shrunk to just some 30,000. As the prairie chicken goes, so goes the prairie that the bird depends upon for sustenance.
A couple days before, I’d accompanied Sandra (just call her Ms. Prairie Chicken) into some of the best remaining habitat in New Mexico near Portales, and more specifically Milnesand, where she’d interviewed biologists and a ranch manager for her work for the Lesser Prairie-Chicken Initiative.
There, native grasses of soft, exquisite beauty like little and big bluestem and side oats grama mingled with a low shrub called shinnery oak. Wildflowers bloomed in a subtle palette that surely would inspire any artist, and practically would support prairie chickens, but even so their numbers are few. Their hope lies in the hands mostly of private landowners who are conserving and restoring the treeless, sumptuous native grass and scrublands.
Leaving eastern New Mexico and heading east through Amarillo, Texas (miss that one if you can!), and into eastern Oklahoma, we knew we wanted to visit the prairie chicken house, curious to see how it might have changed or not since built in 1961.
Looking at a map to find a camping spot, we zeroed in on Black Kettle National Grasslands where we were sure we’d find lovely prairie again.
Instead, we found rolling pastoral hills with meadows and trees and many inholdings. No prairie big enough to support lesser prairie-chickens and the many other species of wildlife that also need chunks at least 25,000 acres in size.
The next day we stopped in at the Washita Battlefield site, another tragic episode in the genocide of American Indians that provides context for the what happened to General Custer at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. He led his troops into a sleeping village and killed women, children and men in their teepees by Washita Creek.
The landscape then looked far different than today, as Custer wrote of shivering in a cold camp without a source of firewood.
Why the change? In a nutshell, as settlers claimed the tribe’s homeland for themselves, they brought in trees. They planted them to shade their homesteads. They sequestered water resources that enhanced conditions for trees, and built fences and hedgerows. The biggest factor? They put out wildfires that once regularly cleansed the prairie of native tree seedlings).
Regardless of the plethora of trees we kept seeing as we drove toward Oklahoma City, we wondered if perhaps the Prairie Chicken House would still resemble the photos that Sandra had discovered that dated to the early 1960s.
Driving south of the city toward the town of Norman, it seemed strange to navigate our way through a maze of traffic and at last onto country roads, wondering about a lost landscape as we searched for the dream of Herb Greene.
At last, we found it. Trees block much of the view. The Prairie Chicken house squats among overgrown shrubs, as ignored and as forgotten as the plains.
The metaphor seemed simple and obvious. As the prairie chicken house goes, so goes the prairie. No longer do the winds whistle across endless miles to fold across the bird home. No longer do people come to the home to experience the daring phenomenon inside and out that led Herb Greene to write this:
“In the most informative aspect of perception I’m interested in tactility; the warm color and texture of the carpet and the shingled walls address this in the interior while the relief of raised boards and shingles address this at the exterior. I wanted to create curiosity, I wanted to create a puzzle, a gestalt. Women were often moved to tears when experiencing the interior yet the outside scared and puzzled people. A man once approached the house from a tourist bus and asked “Is this where the tornado hit?”
We left, sobered by what we’d seen and later musing about the conundrum of the house as well. Were all those cedar shakes sustainable? Did they require the logging of another ecosystem to nourish the prairie?
The house, while enticing as a creative work seemed like it would be cavernous and strange to inhabit, without enough windows. It reminded me a bit of an A- frame house I once lived in for six months in Missoula. The light coming only from both ends gave a sense of living in a culvert. Would that even be an efficient use of energy to dwell within the heart of this bird-shaped house?
Yet, I’m still struck by the concept of what the architect intended. Can we do more with our homes to be functional, sustainable, and a beautiful gesture that honors the wild inhabitants?
Should some homes be built as a testament to landscapes so we’ll never forget? Yet, in this case, people have forgotten the Prairie Chicken House. Maybe it’s not too late for someone to purchase the home, cut down the invading trees, create a small prairie, and invite people in to a museum that teaches the meaning of place? But it will never have the endless sweeping landscape it once did.
Continuing on this theme, I ask my kindly readers. What house design would best honor the original wilds of the setting? What kind of wild art and architecture is out there that merges beauty, wildlife and nature’s lessons on living within limits?
I believe adobe southwest architecture comes close, as I blogged here. In some ways, the curves and ripples of the adobe walls and roofs mimic and merge with the great clouds of the sky and the feel of wind. The colors are those of the earth and the cliffs. The materials come from the place and are plentiful.
What do you think? Send ideas and pictures.