• George W. Maher

Co-founder of the American Arts and Crafts movement, George Maher
(This article was extracted from GeorgeMaher.com)

George W. Maher (1864-1926) was an architect who was an influential contributor to the Prairie School movement and to American Arts and Crafts design. Based in Chicago, he sought to create an original American architecture that was free from historical references, an architecture in which form would follow function creating a unified integrated design.

Maher’s work was bold, original, idiosyncratic and occasionally controversial. From the beginning of his independent career, his work was frequently published and reviewed in Inland Architect and News Record, Architectural Record, Western Architect and other influential architectural journals of the day. Whenever possible, this site uses photographs from those original articles to present a record of Maher’s work.

George Maher was born in 1864 on Christmas day in Mill Creek, West Virginia. Due to continuing financial difficulties his family moved to New Albany, Indiana and then to Chicago where at the young age of 13 he became an apprentice in the architectural firm of Bauer and Hill. At the time Chicago was becoming a center for innovation in architecture as it was being rebuilt from the fire of 1871. By 1887 Maher was working in the large and influential office of Joseph L. Silsbee where Frank Lloyd Wright and George Grant Elmslie were among his co-workers. In 1888 Maher opened his own practice.

While still working for Silsbee, Maher had started attending meetings of the Chicago Architectural Sketch Club that would evolve into the Chicago Architectural Club, a central organization for the progressive architectural community in Chicago. It was a forum for discussions and exhibitions that provided an opportunity for the exchange of ideas. In 1887 Inland Architect magazine published a paper Maher had presented at the club. Titled “Originality in American Architecture,” it expressed his views about architecture and positioned him with those searching for an original and indigenous architectural style.

Maher wrote that “…the right idea of a residence, to have it speak of its function….” He refers to the work of H.H. Richardson saying “the style leaves an idea of substantiality; no lie can be discerned in the material used of the manner of using it” and further praises it for ”the idea of massiveness, imposing centralization, of grouping novel ideas for comfort in the interior arrangement…” He also wrote favorably of Shingle Style houses and of his respect for what he called “the old colonial” as an example of original American style.

Working in a variety of styles, Maher’s early work during the late 1880s and into the mid 1890s tended to reflect the picturesque manner of Silsbee, but also shows growing influences from Richardson and Louis Sullivan. Towards the mid-1890s Maher’s designs turned more towards symmetrical compositions with forms based on geometric simplification, a trend that can be seen in projects such as the Peters House.

The growing success of Maher’s career lead to the commission for a large house for John Farson to be built in Oak Park. Known as “Pleasant Home”, designed in 1897 and constructed starting early in 1898, it would be among Maher’s most important and influential works. Here Maher would synthesis his own version of the progressive architecture that would later come to be called the Prairie Style.

In describing the Farson house, architectural historian Paul Sprague wrote “…it was extraordinary…compared to typical residences of the late 1890’s. It’s clean lines, flat surfaces of Roman brick, stone and wood, and its simple rectangular window frames, chimneys and porch openings would have been hard to parallel anywhere at the time except in building by Sullivan and Wright.”

The Farson House was an immediate success. Admired and imitated by other architects across the midwest, it lead to numerous additional commissions for Maher, a number of them for wealthy clients wanting to build large houses. In the upcoming years Maher’s designs would explore and redefine the qualities he’d achieved with the Farson commission.

In 1897 most of the Prairie School architects were still just starting to develop what would later become known as the Prairie School style. Maher, who had been in practice for almost a decade was one of the first to develop a personal style that broke free from historical references and his work would often follow a course somewhat independent compared to other Prairie school architects. At the time, Louis Sullivan was still the major influence on the developing group of architects and Maher’s work reflected this influence. Wright’s design for the Winslow house may have influenced the design of the Farson house, but his influential Prairie houses were still several years away.

Maher’s new designs tended to use formal and symmetrical compositions in contrast to Wright’s residential designs that were more picturesque asymmetrical arrangements. There is a sharp-edged geometry to Maher’s work from this period. Crisp taut surfaces cover houses based on the reduction of massing to essential forms.

Among his clients was James A. Patten. Patten was a wealthy financier and speculator in grain, the mayor of the Chicago suburb of Evanston and active as a trustee of Northwestern University. In 1901 Maher designed a mansion for him.

The house combined the broad sweeping horizontal porch and solid massing of the Farson residence with a rock faced ashlar exterior recalling H.H. Richardson’s use of a similar material for the Glessner House in Chicago.

As with other designers of the Prairie Style, as well as the larger Arts and Crafts movement, Maher sought a design unity in the structure, interior ornamentation, furnishings and landscaping for each project. Like Louis Sullivan, Maher used ornamentation based on native plants and geometry. Maher referred to his personal approach as the Motif-Rhythm theory. Using a native plant, often in combination with a geometric shape, the motif would be repeated as a decorative element throughout the design; in the art glass of the windows, the tiles and woodwork of the fireplaces, in stenciling on walls and ceilings, as a decorative element on furniture, on light fixtures and any item created for a house. In Maher’s theory, this repeated use would visually tie the design together. The thistle was selected as the motif for the Patten house.

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Upon its completion the Patten house was widely published in architectural journals of the time. Unfortunately, the house would be torn down years later in 1938.

From 1901 through 1903 Maher designed and oversaw the construction of a large estate for Harry Rubens in the Chicago suburb of Glencoe. Widely published and controversial, the design was unique in Maher’s work. The landscape design for the property was done by Jens Jensen.

In applying his Motif-Rhythm theory, Maher used a geometrically stylized hollyhock and abstracted building elements, a brick wall with a flat arched opening having two columns, as the ornamental themes.

In an usual design, the massing of the large main house is broken up with vignettes of architectural elements and irregular window openings that create an asymmetrical facade. The stables, perhaps because its several parts are smaller with more regular window openings on the exterior, seem to form a more fully realized composition…in some ways, the abstracted brick wall arches with their columns seem to suggest a design from much later in the 20th century.

The interiors, less of a departure for Maher than the exterior, were in a spacious and comfortable Arts and Crafts design. While not commissioned to design the furniture, he did incorporate his chosen ornamental theme into elements throughout the interior.
Unfortunately the estate was broken up into a number of individual lots and the original buildings demolished in 1960.

The house for Ernest J. Magerstadt was designed and built in Chicago in1908. Often considered one of Maher’s finest Prairie style designs. Smaller in scale than some of the mansions he designed, it’s dignified design is fitted to its long narrow urban site with a large porch on the front and the entrance part way along the side of the house. Built of brick, the solid rectangular massing has a broad horizontal hipped roof. There are grouped casement windows in the major rooms and stairs. The clean and very geometric design of the interior has an Arts and Crafts influence. The art glass in the windows and the decorative stenciling employed the poppy as Maher’s Motif-Rhythm decorative theme for the house. The columns at the entrance and the porch also incorporate the poppy as an element. The house still exists with its original decorative treatment well maintained over the years. 

Around 1904 Maher’s designs started exploring ideas derived from contemporary European design. Earlier in his career he had developed an interest in the English Arts and Crafts movement and had been one of the founding members of the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society in the mid-1890s. While the interior design of his houses had shown considerable Arts and Crafts influences from the beginning of his independent career, the exteriors of his houses now began to show these influences as well.

Maher had first traveled to Europe in 1893 and then again later in the decade. Through his travels, his discussions with other members other of the Arts and Crafts Society and the Chicago Architectural Club, and through the architectural journals of the day, Maher would have been aware of current developments in Europe. In 1904 he had visited and been impressed with the German pavilion at the St. Louis Worlds Fair, as had several others of the developing Prairie style architects from Chicago.

He began to explore the possibilities of these new influences assimilating them into more sculptural forms and designs of his own. His designs became less symmetrical than before and often incorporated a sculptural entrance enclosure. Often these houses continue to show Prairie school characteristics as in the Rath House, the Rudolph House and the Schultz House with the dominating horizontal line of their hipped roofs. In the Schultz House as in a number of other houses that would follow, the typical Prairie School use of horizontal banding to group a series of casement windows appears. This new direction in his work lead him to a more independent path from others in Chicago at a time when Wright’s influence had become the dominant force among the Prairie School architects. Still, Maher’s work would continue to have influence with his contemporaries and in turn he would incorporate ideas from them into his designs.

George Maher is known primarily for his residential architecture, however he also designed a number of non-residential buildings. A previous client, James Patten, was influential in helping Maher obtain the commission for several projects at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. These included a campus plan, the Swift Hall of Engineering (1908) and what is probably Maher’s best-known non-residential project, the original Patten Gymnasium (1908). The campus plan was never executed. The gym, a greatly admired design, was replaced around 1940 but Swift Hall is still in use. The University Building office and retail building still stands nearby in Evanston.

Small in scale, the Kenilworth Club (1906) is often regarded as one of Maher’s most successful Prairie style structures with its broad hipped roof capturing alternating windows and stucco panels set in a sympathetic landscape. The Sears School (1911) was also located in Kenilworth. While the Kenilworth Club is still in use, the school has been replaced by a newer building.

Maher built a number of buildings in Winona, Minnesota including several for the J. R. Watkins Medical Company. The best known are the Watkins Administration building (1911) and the Winona Saving Bank from 1914-16. Both are still in use. 

In 1912 Maher was commissioned to design a summer house in Homer, Minnesota for Ernest L. King and his wife, Grace Watkins King who was a member of the family that controlled the J. R. Watkins Company. Overlooking the Mississippi river, the 12,000 square foot house was named “Rockledge”. As part of the commission, Maher also designed the interior furnishing for the house including furniture, light fixtures, carpets, table settings, clocks, vases, seemingly everything in the house. This allowed him to use his Motif-Rhythm theory to the fullest extent possible. As ornamental motifs, Maher choose the tiger lily and the segmented arch.

After several decades the house was remodeled and the Maher designed furnishings were put into storage. Over time the house ceased to be used and was ultimately demolished. Fortunately many of the stored pieces were sold and are now in private collections and on display in museums where they are valued as examples of Arts and Crafts design.

Public interest started to turn away from the work of the Prairie School architects in the middle of the second decade of the twentieth century. Clients’s tastes and the fashion of the time changed. Commissions for Prairie style designs declined with a devastating effect on the practice of many of the architects working in the style. For many, Maher included, it meant increasingly that designs had to be done in the eclectic styles that had become popular, or else there were would be no work to design.

Maher’s son Philip, born in 1894, joined his father’s office after World War l. The firm would become known as “George W. Maher & Son”. In the early 1920s Maher would explore his interest in town planning. Designs were prepared for Glencoe, Kenilworth, Hinsdale and other communities including Gary, Indiana where Maher and his son designed a plan for the “Railroad Gateway Development.” The scheme included a park linking the train station with new buildings for a courthouse and a city hall. During this time, the firm designed a number of other buildings in Gary.

Maher suffered from poor health in the early part of the 1920s. He was hospitalized for a period of time for depression from which he never fully recovered. Unable to fully regain his health, George W. Maher took his own life at the age of 61 in late 1926.

George Washington Maher (December 25, 1864 – September 12, 1926) was an American architect during the first-quarter of the 20th century. He is considered part of the Prairie School-style and was known for blending traditional architecture with the Arts & Crafts-style.

According to architectural historian H. Allen Brooks, “His influence on the Midwest was profound and prolonged and, in its time, was certainly as great as was [Frank Lloyd] Wright’s. Compared with the conventional architecture of the day, his work showed considerable freedom and originality, and his interiors were notable for their open and flowing…space”.

Maher was elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1916.

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