Toronto Prairie: Our (almost) missing style

Toronto is pretty flat, but it’s no prairie. Perhaps that’s why the Prairie style didn’t catch on. While it’s not surprising that a style so closely associated with the US Midwest wouldn’t make a large impact here, it is surprising that within a place like Toronto, where eclecticism was and is often the order of the day, the Prairie style wasn’t at least experimented with. Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) is one of those architects that almost everyone has heard of, and it was under his leadership that the Prairie style matured during the first three decades of the 20th century.

Emanating from his Oak Park, Illinois studio, the style was characterized by its strong horizontal character, long gently pitched roofs, eaves extending well beyond the exterior walls, and open plan that seemed to hug the ground. In this regard, the influence of the flat prairie landscape is clearly felt. The style had its strongest manifestation in Chicago, but even nearby Buffalo can boast an impressive number of Prairie-style buildings. Toronto wasn’t as fortunate.

There is, however, one lone example of the style in Toronto (that I’ve found), and it’s worth noting. Situated within a sea of neo-Tudor and Colonial Revival houses in Deer Park, the McNamara House at 50 Heath Street West is in a league all its own. Built around 1920, the house is unusual: it has a flat roof, deep eaves, and is painted solid white. Emphasis is placed on geometry and the massing of rectangles and squares. It does not rely on historical references. Provincially speaking, the McNamara House isn’t alone. By historical fluke, the Ottawa area can boast the largest number of Prairie-style buildings in the country, thanks entirely to the work of one man: Francis Sullivan (1882-1929). Sullivan apprenticed under Wright and while operating a private practice in Ottawa from 1911-1916, he built some of Canada’s best (and only) Prairie-style buildings. The Connors house, Lansdowne Park Horticulture Building, Church of Sainte-Claire de Goulbourne, and the public library in Pembroke are all his work and reflect Wright’s influence.

Though an anomaly in Toronto, the Heath Street house and the Prairie style in general seem to have inspired a new generation of architects in the 1950s, this time in the form of Ranch-style houses (to be discussed in a later article). Scattered across Toronto’s inners suburbs, these houses reflect the influence of the Prairie style. The McNamara house can take comfort in this, adrift in a sea of Georgians and Tudors.

Editor’s Note: This post is an ongoing column exploring various architectural styles in and around Toronto. Spacing writer and heritage architecture consultant Thomas Wicks will look into the history of that style, the people behind it, and where in Toronto examples can be found.

McNamara House (Toronto) photo by Shannon Kyles

9 comments

  1. Do I detect Wright’s Californian textile block system in that house’s eaves? I have to admit a weakness for the arresting (eye catching) qualities of pattern, and would love to see a bit of a revival of the textile block system. It probably wouldn’t be allowed on taller structures (at least not in earthquake zones), but can be safe on podiums or low-rises. According to one paper, the system can be retrofitted to meet seismic standards, too — see http://tinyurl.com/2uqjzc

    What do you think? Is liking Wright for his ability to add pattern and texture just for kids, while the real grown-ups take their Wright “neat”? I might never grow up then! :-)

  2. Thank you, I really enjoy these columns.

    Can you please research Corktown/Cabbagetown? I think it’s interesting that these neighbourhoods were essentially destroyed in the 60s, but small pockets still remain.

  3. For all its uniqueness, it’d be farfetched to think an under-the-radar anomaly like the McNamara House specifically influenced the 1950s generation of Toronto architects–I’d give a lot more credit to survey texts and the architectural/design press for that one…

  4. Excellent post. I love the opening and closing lines, and all the content in between is pretty darn good too. Interesting info on prairie-style houses considering I don’t really associate the “prairies” with beautiful things, but that’s probably just an urban bias.

  5. thanks adam but I didn’t say that one house (the McNamara house) influenced all of that 50s stuff, what I was saying was the prairie style in general did (along with other influences as well).

  6. Excellent article, thank you. Indeed prairie style is not something often seen in Toronto neighbourhoods. However, as it is written in the post, Toronto is not the real home of the style – unfortunately. I really like this style and I hope that at some point there will be something like a ‘retro-prairie’ style resulting in new prairie buildings.

  7. Thomas,

    Most interesting article in bringing forward the role of Francis Sullivan and the “Prairie Style” in Toronto. As you probably know, Sullivan passed-away in Arizona while working with Frank Lloyd Wright at his first desert camp “Ocotilla” near Chandler, Arizona, just southeast of Phoenix. I’ve been documenting the history of the camp and would certainly appreciate some help if anyone may know of a photograph of Francis Conroy Sullivan. There are a couple of photographs showing people in the drafting room at “Ocotilla” but, nothing identifying those that remain un-named. I’ve got George Kastner (German), Henrich Klumb (German), Vladimir Karfic (Czech), the Weston family, and a couple of others. Do you have any references to a photograph of Sullivan.

    Appreciate anything you can come up with.

    Brian A. spencer / Architect
    Post Office Box 5951
    Carefree, Arizona 85377
    email: basarchmb@msn.com
    cell tel: (608) 217-9300

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