Page C1.2 . 14 November 2007                     
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    L-House on the Prairie


    The kitchen was approximately 16 feet square. The living room, dining room (when present), and upstairs bedrooms were also about 16 feet square. That 16-foot square emerges as a sort of module upon measuring the rooms, but it often was not apparent when viewing the house from a distance.

    The living room L segment as a whole was larger than the kitchen L segment, because it contained a back bedroom about eight by 16 feet (2.4 by 4.9 meters), which made the overall dimension about 16 by 24 feet (4.9 by 7.3 meters). With the kitchen addition, the house dimensions became 32 by 24 feet (9.8 by 7.3 meters).

    The L-house configuration provided good-sized rooms in a fairly compact shape that was easy and economical to build. Many other configurations were possible, but they generally required more complex roofs that were more difficult to build.

    Further expression of the L-house was done by adding on porches, lean-tos, and wings beyond the perimeter of the basic foundation. When yet more space was needed, another section might be added onto the side of the living room, opposite from the kitchen wing, making the new house into a cross form.

    The Ideal L-House

    The L-house had a long evolution that produced individual houses of almost unlimited variation but, like a species, all the L-houses shared a body of structural design elements a morphology generated by exercising a given function in a given environment. Every dimension was in flux relative to every other dimension, yet there was a guiding form.

    The thousands of individual designs clustered around a general ideal that was not necessarily ever built. Perfect examples may well exist somewhere, perhaps in many places, but not in western Minnesota. There the relation between the real and the ideal resembles that advanced by Plato, who believed that perfect forms exist only supernaturally, to be striven for but never attained. Farmers, however, did not build in a quest for a philosophical ideal. They drew upon an existing conceptual ideal and adapted it to specific circumstances.

    The farm couple made the decisions that determined the design of the farmhouse. They worked to a greater or lesser degree in consultation with a local house carpenter, and they often selected a local house that they admired to serve as a model or a starting point. They then adapted that design to suit their own particular situation by referring to certain aspects of several other houses that they wished to incorporate into their house. They might like one house for its general size, another for the placement of the kitchen windows, and a third for its number of bedrooms.

    The new design was generalized or specialized in accordance with their personal experience. The new house would retain most of the design elements of the old houses, but there would be a new emphasis upon those aspects that seemed most important to the success of the family. The general ideal was transmitted through thousands of different houses without being lost.

    Unending variations employ most, but not all, of the elements, and the missing or additional or altered elements are different from one house to the next. The size and shape of the house as a whole varies constantly as does the number of rooms and the specific dimensions of each room.

    The spacing of the windows seems to be different in every house. The height of the springing of the roof, the angle of the roof, and the number of gables and dormers follows no precise rule. Staircases to the bedrooms are extraordinarily individualistic structures that start at different places, rise at a variety of angles (all steep), and turn varying degrees in an effort to minimize wasted space and avoid cutting irregular shapes out of the rooms. Ceiling heights vary not only from one house to the next, but also from one room to the next in the same house. Some houses have a different ceiling height for every room.

    There were essentially only four distinct spaces in the prairie L-house porches, kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms and those discrete spaces were sharply defined and not allowed to flow into each other. Most L-houses contained no foyers, alcoves, pantries, or storerooms, and few hallways or closets. Rooms were separated with flat walls and simple doors.

    The porch received the greatest amount of conscious attention to decoration and design aesthetics. It had the finest details of any part of the house and the most sophisticated contrasts between solid volumes and open spaces, between the incised florid line and the broad plane, and between the delicate curve and the power of right and acute angles.

    Each porch was decidedly individual even though its posts, brackets, and railings were mass produced in factories, because each porch used different combinations of the numerous designs available. The individuality of each porch, set off against the uniform pattern of the siding and shingles, reflected the balance achieved in the nineteenth century between the uniformity of industrial mass production and the independence of each individual, each family, and each farm.   >>>

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    ArchWeek Image

    The lean-to addition to this original L-shaped farmhouse gave the house a longer, lower appearance that was more characteristic of ranch houses farther west than it was of prairie houses in Minnesota.
    Photo: William G. Gabler Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The farm was a self-contained entity with a definite shape. Sheltered by trees from the previaling winds, this L-house sits upon the highest rise in the farmstead island with its base appearing just above the tassled height of the surrounding cornfield.
    Photo: Courtesy Afton Historical Society Press Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Minnesota prairie lands were divided by township roads into one-mile- (1.6-kilometer-) square sections, each usually containing four farms of 160 acres (65 hectares) each, which evloved into rhythmic arrays of farm clusters with their sheltering windbreaks.
    Photo: Courtesy Afton Historical Society Press Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Floor plan drawing of a typical farmhouse.
    Image: Courtesy Afton Historical Society Press Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Horizonal lines dominate the east end of this L-house, except at the front porch.
    Photo: William G. Gabler Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    With its general proportions, repeating window shape, and porch placements, this farmhouse exemplifies the Minnesota L-house type.
    Photo: William G. Gabler Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    The classic L-shaped farmhouse included a kitchen porch, often positioned to receive morning light.
    Photo: William G. Gabler Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Death of the Dream by William G. Gabler.
    Image: Afton Historical Society Press Extra Large Image


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