The Prairie Style in residential architectural began in Chicago, Illinois and surrounding suburbs in the 1890s. A group of mostly young architects were drawn to Chicago from all over the country in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the building boom that followed. Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) was regarded as the spiritual and aesthetic founder of the movement for a “New American” style of architecture. A paradigm that originated in a variety of social, economic, engineering and artistic forces resulting in what became Modern Architecture.
In the last decades of the 19th century, the British Arts and Crafts movement with its emphasis upon beauty, simplicity and utility in furnishings and furniture for all classes of people, gained popularity in the US and Europe. With revolutionary advances in communication and transportation, Americans became more aware of the “exotic Orient” and the centuries old tradition of artistic beauty and simplicity of form inspired by the natural world. At the same time, the United States emerged as a world power at the turn of the 20th century. There was a sense that our nation needed a new form of architecture that was not merely an imitation of European design traditions.
The resulting amalgam of these forces brought to national and international attention the Prairie School ideals in design and ornamentation. Although the best-known and most successful promoter of this new vision of architecture was Frank Lloyd Wright, he was not alone in creating and designing buildings in the Prairie Style motif. Many residents and visitors to La Crosse assume that the Prairie Style homes in La Crosse were designed by F.L.W., or one of his students from his Oak Park studio. This is not the case. However, the city of La Crosse has more architecturally designed Prairie Style houses that any other city in the state. Percy Bentley and Otto Merman were responsible for creating the greatest number of these homes, but not all. Other local architects and builders tried their skills with the Prairie Style. The most stylistically Prairie Style homes in La Crosse were built between 1910 and 1930. But the impact of the Prairie School motif can be seen in hundreds of American Foursquare, Bungalow and Vernacular Prairie residences through the first half of the 20th century in older neighborhoods throughout the city.
We hope that through following the “Prairie Steps” you will gain a new and enhanced appreciation for the Prairie School influenced built landscape in our city.
A special thanks goes out to Les Crocker, Architectural Historian, for sharing his 1970s slides of some of the properties noted on this tour.
Enjoy the tour starring architects noted below...
Bentley and Merman
Percy Dwight Bentley and Otto Merman working as partners and practicing individually, designed the most significant Prairie Style residences in the city. The residential, commercial, religious and public buildings designed by these two architects had a major impact on architects and contractors in La Crosse and surrounding communities through the first three decades of the 20th century.
Percy Dwight Bentley (1885-1968) was the son of La Crosse banker E. E. Bentley (1843-1932) and was educated at Ohio Wesleyan University. He later studied architecture and design at the Armour Institute and Art Institute in Chicago. He was heavily influenced by the work of Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, although he had no training or professional contact with them. Bentley returned to La Crosse in 1910 and formed a brief architectural partnership with Armour classmate William Bajari. Bentley designed many of the best know Prairie Style homes in La Crosse in a period from 1910 to 1920. In 1921 he moved to St. Paul where he partnered with Charles Hausler for nearly a decade. In the mid 1930s he moved to Hood River, Oregon, and later to Eugene, Oregon, where he continued his architectural practice up until his death in 1968. In his obituary it is noted that he was an accomplished pianist and organist and performed frequently during his residency in St. Paul and Oregon.
Otto Merman (1890-1935) was born in La Crosse and received training in building design in his late teen years working in the office of Parkinson and Dockendorff. He joined Percy Bentley as a draftsman in 1912 and worked with Bentley off and on in the Twin Cities and La Crosse until Bentley’s permanent departure from La Crosse around 1920. Merman worked alone or in partnership with Herman Skogstsad and Alfred Widman for the rest of his career.
Parkinson and Dockendorff
The architectural partnership of Albert Parkinson and Bernard Dockendorff began in 1906 and continued until they died (four days apart!) in 1952. During their 46 years working together, they designed over 800 buildings; including schools, hospitals, public and commercial structures and many private residences. They received commissions from all over the upper Midwest, but mainly in La Crosse and environs. Stylistically rather eclectic, their work exhibits examples of Arts and Crafts influenced Early Modern and Art Deco styles as well as the popular “between the wars” Period Revival styles.
Albert Parkinson (1870-1952) was born in London, England, and received his design training from his father and at design schools in England. He joined with Bernard Dockendorff in an architectural partnership in La Crosse in 1905-1906.
Bernard Dockendorf (1878-1952) was born in La Crosse the son of Bernard J. Dockendorff and Elizabeth Hoeschler Dockendorff. He attended local schools at age nineteen he went to Darmstadt, Germany to study architecture at the Polytechnic Institute. After graduation from the institute he worked for a cathedral designer in Mainz, Germany, for two years. Upon his return to La Crosse, he established his architectural practice with Albert Parkinson.