Oakhurst is a residential neighborhood in Decatur, Georgia. First conceived as a series of streetcar suburbs linking Atlanta and Decatur in the 1890s, the community experienced a subdivision and building boom in the first three decades of the twentieth century and another immediately after World War II. For much of the twentieth century, the neighborhood’s cultural landscape was best understood and most legible with those periods in mind. The frame Craftsman-informed bungalows, brick period revival homes, and vernacular small houses were Oakhurst’s built environment identity.
For the past several years Decatur architect Eric Rawlings has been designing homes in a style he describes as “Prairie Modern.” Rawlings considers the eight Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired homes to be among the best examples in his portfolio. Others in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood call them out-of-place McMansions. All but one of the Prairie Modern homes have been built at teardown sites, single-family residential lots where smaller homes were demolished to make way for the Prairie Moderns.
Rawlings is a familiar sight in Oakhurst. He frequently walks several times a day from his home across from the new 4/5 Academy at Fifth Avenue to Kavarna, a nearby coffee shop. The architect fills his travel mug with coffee and returns home, his effort to cut down on coffee consumption. A University of Kentucky architecture school graduate, Rawlings has practiced in Decatur since 2001. Rawlings is a nice guy — he and I chatted for about half an hour at a party shortly after we moved into the neighborhood, yet he doesn’t seem to recall the episode. “Who tries to have a Design Award taken away from a person theyve [sic.] never met?,” he wrote in a January 2012 comment on this blog.
His portfolio includes a wide array of projects, from the Prairie Moderns to other large homes executed with nods towards the period revival styles that dominate parts of the neighborhood. He and his partner, builder Arlene Dean, have done renovation and rehabilitation projects for homeowners throughout Oakhurst.
Rawlings is quick to note in emails and on his Website that he worked on the adaptive use of part of the historic Old Scottish Rite Hospital. He asserts that he practices historic preservation, despite being one of leaders of a 2007 effort to defeat a proposed Oakhurst Historic District. According to Rawlings’s Website, “Eric has a very broad range of experiences from Historic Preservation to Modernism with an emphasis on sustainable or ‘green’ design.”
“I whole heartedly agree with preserving old buildings and I do more of this than anything,” Rawlings wrote in a 2011 email. I asked him in a subsequent email about his position in the 2007 historic preservation debate. He replied,
I was against it. Again, not because I’m against preservation, but because we can’t have a one track solution to the complex problem of what to do with thousands of homes of varying Architectural quality that were severely neglected for decades. As much as I love to restore old buildings, I also like designing the buildings that set the tone for the future. We have far too many homes that are not good examples of the Architecture of their time and they are in very bad physical shape. Forcing people like myself to “preserve” an ugly box with no overhangs, no porch, no Architectural detail, no character, etc. is absolutely insane. [Copy pasted as received.]
I first noticed Rawlings’s work when I saw one of his Prairie Moderns on Fayetteville Road where it stood in stark contrast to small Victorian-era cottages and later one-story vernacular homes. I filed it in the back of my mind as an idiosyncrasy among the neighborhood’s mostly smaller, mostly vernacular building stock.
And then I discovered another Prairie Modern on East Lake Drive, just one block from the neighborhood’s revitalized business district. And there was another on Third Avenue that was sporting a City of Decatur Design Award sign the first time I saw it in the summer of 2011. Within a few months of noticing the award-winning home, I saw another Prairie Modern rising on a teardown site across the street.
Driving from our home to South McDonough Street, my wife and I noticed a massive Prairie Modern looming atop the hill that parallels the south side of Oakview Road. My wife joked that it must be a new hotel under construction.
In February 2012 I walked the entire neighborhood doing an informal survey of teardown sites and mansionization. The Prairie Modern homes are now scattered throughout the Oakhurst neighborhood.
According to historian Darlene Roth, Oakhurst’s early twentieth century architecture was the wellspring for architectural development in other parts of the city. She summarized Oakhurst’s architectural character in a 1987 historic resources survey:
What Oakhurst represents for the City of Decatur is a pattern of housing –scale, materials, and styles–which won out over other available possibilities during the 1910s and especially the 1920s. The brick bungalow with Craftsman details is the single most predominant style in the Oakhurst area, which housing material persisted throughout the city, used in other forms (chiefly the Tudor period house and English Country house styles). Most of Oakhurst was settled after it was annexed to Decatur, but the setting was already in place–the relationship of lots to streets, of lots to each other, of lot size to the overall neighborhood. The Oakhurst areas were the most populous in Decatur through the 1920s, and it was the Oakhurst pattern of down-scaled houses, rather than the Adams-King’s Highway pattern of upscaled houses which has continued to dominate Decatur architecture. There are literally hundreds of houses which contribute to the look and substance of this section. The section is very large and has considerable infill in the center of it, but the section as a whole is overwhelmingly pre-World War II, overwhelmingly bungalow, and overwhelmingly brick in construction.
Two things stand out from Roth’s narrative. First, there’s no mention of the Prairie style. Second, she wrote about the “Oakhurst pattern of down-scaled houses” (emphasis added).
The Prairie Modern houses are starkly juxtaposed against their more modest, historically authentic “down-scaled houses.” Seeing them among the smaller vernacular homes I am reminded of the efforts made by telecommunications companies to make towers fit into forested and suburban settings by constructing what are sometimes called Frankenpines, monopines, or monopalms. They just don’t work visually.
Compare the panorama photos below showing Oakhurst’s Prairie Moderns and telecommunications towers designed as faux trees. Like the trees that tower above the natural canopy, the towers create focal points that distract from the surrounding environment. The towers are out of place, out of scale, and with their year-round green and fixed branches that don’t sway with the wind, wholly unnatural looking.
Rawlings defends his Prairie Modern design and he strongly disagrees that his Prairie Modern homes are McMansions. He left this comment in a 2011 blog post:
I have over 60 built projects in Oakhurst alone and only 8 are Prairie Style, only 22 are New Construction. I have about 40 renovations, many of which preserve the original building with a minor addition not even visible from the street. KC Boyce’s house is only 2100sf with 4 beds and hardly a McMansion by the actual definition. Susan Susanka, author of the Not So Big House, invented the term McMansion and would completely disagree with your interpretation of the definition. His 2 story house with low slope roof is barely taller than the houses near it with steeper roofs. The house on the left is sitting more than 6ft lower because of grade elevations. Scale does not mean height or floor area. It refers to the proportion and size of the pieces and parts that make up the structure. A simplistic two story cube is out of scale compared to a one story house made of smaller forms. A larger house made of the same sized pieces and parts is in Scale with a smaller house made of the same size pieces and parts. The Fayetteville house is 25ft tall, 10ft shorter than the Decatur Zoning limit of 35ft. [Copy pasted as received.]
Despite Rawlings’s assertions that his Prairie Moderns are not McMansions, they are more than twice the size of the homes they replaced. They are also larger than neighboring homes that are contemporaneous to the ones torn down. And, they draw from an architectural vocabulary that is out of character with the community. All attributes that conform to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s definition of a McMansion.
Rawlings points to media coverage and to the 2011 City of Decatur Design Award as evidence for his architectural achievements represented in the Prairie Modern design. According to KC Boyce, who owns the Third Avenue award-winning house, the idea to compete for the award originated with the architect.
Oakhurst’s Prairie Moderns have many detractors. ”Not a big fan of the ‘Prairie Modern’ style. Doesn’t fit in well with our Oakhurst bungalows. Looks rather boxy,” wrote “Rob” on the Decatur Metro blog (Jan. 27, 2012). Another Decatur Metro comment author “CL” wrote,
The ‘prairie modern’ style looks pretty wonky and weird to me. But I’m a little biased… I generally prefer older, less enormous houses for aesthetic and environmental purposes. I’d rather renovate and live in a small/cute bungalow than inhabit some excessive behemoth of a house (even if you build it with green materials, the fact that a house is so large has a lot to do with how much energy it uses!).
And I agree with Rob — it really ticks me off when people build these weird houses in the middle of a street filled with petite bungalows (which I think are truly a defining characteristic of homes in Decatur and Oakhurst)!
Decatur Metro’s keeper, Nick Cavaliere, encourages anonymity at his site and it is not possible to attach real world names to these anonymous writers.
I’ve commented in this blog and on the Decatur Metro blog on the visual dissonance the Prairie Modern houses create in Oakhurst. Earlier this year I was doing an oral history interview with a man who has lived in Decatur since the early 1970s. Formerly in the real estate business and a community leader in the 1970s and 1980s who has been credited with helping revitalize Oakhurst, he began speaking about the Prairie Modern homes as he was reflecting on recent development in Oakhurst. Although he signed a release that will allow me to transmit his interview to the DeKalb History Center, since he’s no longer in public life I will refer to him as S.J.
“There’s a house right down here on Benson that’s a contemporary flat roof, it’s a contemporary house,” said S.J. “This house they’re doing in back of me, it would fit into a historical district but it’s a Prairie-style home, the type of home that Frank Lloyd Wright – it would not fit in a Craftsman or Victorian type of setting.”
I asked S.J. what type of buildings he would expect to see in Oakhurst if not the Prairie Modern homes. He replied,
No, you would not have found that. The houses that would have been here would have been Craftsman, Victorian, a few cottages, and that type of thing. Some of the other houses, ranch styles and stuff, came in here in the early fifties.
Yes, a few of those. But you would not have seen the Prairie-style homes. You would not have seen the flat roof homes. You would not have seen them.
S.J. has no stake in historic preservation, yet he articulated perfectly why the Prairie Modern design is incompatible with Oakhurst’s established building stock, whether or not you attach the modifier, historic.
Folks have criticized my characterization of these homes as McMansions. True enough, they are not the palatial Cliffs Notes homes found in outlying Atlanta suburbs and in suburbs throughout the nation. Decatur is a small city of a little under 20,000 people covering about 4.2 square miles. In context, then, the Prairie Modern is a smaller, Decatur-scaled McMansion variety.
As for Rawlings’s claims that the architect practices “historic preservation,” they may have been true decades ago when historic preservation focused on elite buildings characterized by high style architecture. But in an age that requires preservationists to consider the tout ensemble, the entire scene, the approach Rawlings advocates appears more like relic collecting than historic preservation. His disregard for vernacular buildings, established neighborhood character, and cultural landscapes makes his perspective an anachronism in a field that has left its antiquarian roots in the past.
If you are interested in learning more about teardowns and mansionization, the National Trust for Historic Preservation maintains an extensive resource guide on its Website.
This is the first of several posts on the types of McMansions springing up in Decatur’s Oakhurst neighborhood. The next post will be on the “Historically Inspired Foursquare” and the final post will look at Oakhurst’s “Monopoly Houses.”
Update (March 21, 2012): Wheaton College sociologist Brian Miller wrote a brief analysis of this this post on his blog, Legally Sociable.
© 2012 D.S. Rotenstein