Discussion over “Prairie Modern” McMansions in the Atlanta suburbs

A historian discusses “Prairie Modern” McMansions that have been built in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur:

For the past several years Decatur architect Eric Rawlings has been designing homes in a style he describes as “Prairie Modern.” Rawlings considers the eight Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes to be among the best examples in his portfolio. Others in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood call them out-of-place McMansions. All but one of the Prairie Modern homes have been built at teardown sites, single-family residential lots where smaller homes were demolished to make way for the Prairie Moderns…

Rawlings defends his Prairie Modern design and he strongly disagrees that his Prairie Modern homes are McMansions. He left this comment in a 2011 blog post:

I have over 60 built projects in Oakhurst alone and only 8 are Prairie Style, only 22 are New Construction. I have about 40 renovations, many of which preserve the original building with a minor addition not even visible from the street. KC Boyce’s house is only 2100sf with 4 beds and hardly a McMansion by the actual definition. Susan Susanka, author of the Not So Big House, invented the term McMansion and would completely disagree with your interpretation of the definition. His 2 story house with low slope roof is barely taller than the houses near it with steeper roofs. The house on the left is sitting more than 6ft lower because of grade elevations. Scale does not mean height or floor area. It refers to the proportion and size of the pieces and parts that make up the structure. A simplistic two story cube is out of scale compared to a one story house made of smaller forms. A larger house made of the same sized pieces and parts is in Scale with a smaller house made of the same size pieces and parts. The Fayetteville house is 25ft tall, 10ft shorter than the Decatur Zoning limit of 35ft. [Copy pasted as received.]

Despite Rawlings’s assertions that his Prairie Moderns are not McMansions, they are more than twice the size of the homes they replaced. They are also larger than neighboring homes that are contemporaneous to the ones torn down. And, they draw from an architectural vocabulary that is out of character with the community. All attributes that conform to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s definition of a McMansion.

Lots of interesting pictures of homes to illustrate the argument. Several things are worth commenting on:

1. Susan Susanka did not invent the term McMansion. The term dates roughly to the late 1980s.

2. There seems to be some discussion of what exactly constitutes a McMansion:

2a. The historian draws from a definition from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and it seems that the teardown dimension is big here: these houses are bigger than the surrounding homes.

2b. But there is an architectural congruity issue as well: Prairie style homes don’t fit in this particular community. This amuses me: the Prairie style is well-known in the Chicago area because of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work in Oak Park and Chicago and you could find a number of “Prairie Moderns” in the region. I suppose this style is tied to Prairie regions (Midwest) but wouldn’t the Prairie style make more sense than stucco houses in the Atlanta area? Of course, one could argue that neither style or perhaps any “foreign” styles are appropriate.

3. Adding to the intrigue is that one of the “Prairie Moderns” won an award from Decatur for “Sustainable Design and Energy Efficiency.” So perhaps not everyone has an issue these homes. If so, this would be common in teardown situations: you can often find people arguing for newer homes and owners being able to do what they want for their property and others arguing that new houses should have some architectural congruency with the existing neighborhood and that there should be some design guidelines or standards (perhaps through the creation of a historic preservation district).

h/t Curbed National

4 thoughts on “Discussion over “Prairie Modern” McMansions in the Atlanta suburbs

  1. Thanks for your observations. Just a few corrections, though:

    1. Rawlings made the incorrect Susanka attribution in one of his comments left at my blog. I didn’t correct him;
    2. I didn’t write that Prairies were historically inappropriate for the Atlanta area; I wrote that they are not right for South Decatur; and,
    3. That Design Award: The City needs to change its description because at the time it was given it was for projects meant “to recognize contributions made to retain the historic character of the City.”

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  2. Preservation groups should not give out awards to projects that don’t involve preservation. It is well known to everyone involved (staff, board members, architects, developers – maybe just not the general public), that non-preservation awards are given to curry favor on the part of the group and often nominated by the architect him or herself. That way they can crow about having won a award. Maybe Decatur didn’t have any real preservation awards to bestow…

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  3. Pingback: The Oakhurst McMansion var. “Prairie Modern” | History Sidebar

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