Chicago architect George W. Maher was a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright who helped popularize the enduring Prairie School style of architecture for which Wright is better known. Both learned their trade in Chicago’s vibrant post-fire architectural community—Maher as an apprentice from the age of 13, and Wright as a young draftsman just out of high school. Eventually, they served together as draftsmen at Joseph Silsbee’s influential firm in the late 1880s.
Maher was born in Mill Creek, West Virginia on Christmas Day in 1864. The family soon relocated to New Albany, Indiana, and later to Chicago in the late 1870s. Maher began his architectural career soon after the family’s arrival in Chicago, as an apprentice at the age of 13. By the late 1880s, he joined Silsbee’s firm, where he worked alongside Wright for nearly three years.
Both Maher and Wright began designing houses in the early 1890s, for themselves and a small list of clients, largely within the prevailing style of the time—Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, and Gothic Revival. Maher built his home in the North Shore neighborhood of Kenilworth, and Wright in the Western Suburb of Oak Park.
Yet both seemed hungry—perhaps invigorated by their involvement in the construction, drafting, and planning of the 1893 World’s Fair—to expand their style to new forms of architecture. Wright had served as a top draftsman for the firm of Adler and Sullivan, where he had learned from Sullivan’s elaborate ornamentation while adding his own geometric forms. Maher was undoubtedly influenced by Sullivan and Wright’s work, but veered more toward an English Arts and Crafts style.
In 1897, Maher received a commission for a large house at a prominent corner in Wright’s hometown of Oak Park. Pleasant Home, finished in 1899 (and named for the streets intersecting at its location), was one of the first pure expressions of what would become known as the Prairie Style.
Maher’s Pleasant Home synthesized many of Wright’s vertical geometric expressions into a more uniform horizontal theme, embellishing the strong and simple design with subtle, repeating thematic ornamentation (a Louis Sullivan influence) that Maher later called “motif-rhythm theory.”
The elegant, impressive Pleasant Home resulted in a boom for Maher’s residential design practice. From 1901 until 1910, he was at or near the top of any list for a high-end residential architecture project in the Chicago area.
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Maher was also admired as an architectural scholar. He wrote numerous articles in architectural trade magazines describing his philosophy and ideas. In 1916 he was elected as a Fellow by the American Institute of Architects, and he served as state chapter President in 1918.
After World War I, Maher added his son Philip B. Maher to his firm and changed the name to George W. Maher & Son. By this time, the firm was designing public buildings, parks, and large commercial buildings—not only in Chicago, but around the nation. In the early 1920s, poor health and increasing bouts with depression began to limit Maher’s own contributions to the firm’s output. On September 12, 1926, Maher took his own life at the age of 61.
Wright outlived Maher by more than 32 years, becoming synonymous with Prairie Style architecture as it began to return in vogue in the 1950s—even as Wright had long since moved on to more experimental and contemporary styles.
John C Thomas (author) from Chicago, Illinois, USA on November 14, 2012:
Thanks for reading brblog, rfmoran, tammybarnette, and Eiddwen. I currently live around the corner from one of these houses, and I used to live across the street from the Hutchinson Street historic district, so I've been a fan of this architect for some time. It was a fun project!
Eiddwen from Wales on November 14, 2012:
Beautiful and so interesting ;I vote up and share.I wish you a a wonderful day.
Tammy Barnette on November 13, 2012:
Very interesting hub, love the photos! I like that architectural style :)
Russ Moran - The Write Stuff from Long Island, New York on November 13, 2012:
Well done hub. I'm embarrassed to say that I don't recall this man, even though I used to live in Chicago. We always think of Wright when we think Prairie School. Some of Maher's works look like a FL Wright design. Excellent photos.
Bruce from Chicago, Illinois on November 12, 2012:
Nice overview and a good selection of pics - good work.