In 1905 America was at the height of the Progressive Era, a time of political reform that swept the country from the turn of the century through the first decade of the 1900’s. Theodore Roosevelt was President of the United States. The country was being influenced by the thought and innovation of minds like Booker T. Washington, Upton Sinclair, Henry Ford, The Wright Brothers, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams and W. E. B. Dubois. Thorsten Veblen offered us the Theory of the Leisure Class and Frank Lloyd Wright was attempting to shift the direction of American Architecture away from the influences of the Victorian Age to a more holistic approach under the Prairie School.
Prairie School was most common in the Midwest and is recognized by clean horizontal lines evoking the native prairie landscape, hipped roofs with broad overhanging eaves, superior craftsmanship, and ornamental restraint. The epitome of the Prairie style home is the American Four Square which was designed to offer ultimate space and comfort on the small lots that were affordable to the American middle class of the early to mid 1900’s. This was a stark contrast to the styles of the Victorian Age and even the early 20th Century when architects were attempting to revive the classic styles of Europe.
1905 is also the year our Field Street house was constructed, which may be why it was so difficult to categorize it in terms of architectural approach. Built during a time of sweeping change and human beings attempting to inhabit a new world constructed by the Industrial Revolution, this house represents both the opulence afforded by economic growth and the moderation required to sustain the planet. Robert Louis Stevenson’s recently published Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde captures the era perfectly and gives a sense of the dual nature of the house that still stands in the Islandview area of Detroit.
Eclecticism is the name given to the larger period in which Wright’s Prairie School is encompassed. Interestingly the movement began with The Beaux-Arts School in France which was certainly not austere with French, Italian, Baroque and Rococo influences. Chateauesque is another style of the early part of the Eclectic movement which sought to revive the French Renaissance architecture of monumental French country homes. The Field Street house, with high pitched roofs, dormers, pinnacled tower and stone cladding, is most likely dressed in faux Chateau. In terms of construction, layout, over-hanging eaves and general shape this eastside Detroit home is distinctly American Four Square. The house’s interior features the anti-industrial Arts & Craft style of the eclectic period which was firmly based on traditional craftsmanship using simple form and folk styles of decoration.
The Field Street house is a living monument to change—to transition. It is a reminder that following the period of excess, sometimes called the Golden Era, great thinkers found it necessary to pause and consider the cost to humanity the progress of industrialization. In 2012 we find ourselves at another crossroads and considering how to change direction in order to preserve our planet for future generations. It might be a time to revisit the works of the last turn of the century to help us contemplate our own. Will we be Jekyll or Hyde?