Herb Greene Visits Norman and His Prairie House

text and photos by Lynne Rostochil (unless otherwise stated).

Certainly, one of the biggest highlights of 2017 so far was getting to meet the genius behind the Prairie Chicken House in Norman and the Cunningham House in OKC, the one and only Herb Greene.  He came to town way back in April to meet with Brent Swift and Hans and Torrey Butzer, who plan to faithfully restore Greene’s iconic house on the prairie just east of Norman.  While he was here, Greene also gave a talk at OU about architecture, Bruce Goff, and his creative process:

It was fascinating and Herb was funny, charming, and a great story teller.  Luckily, someone recorded it, and you can view the entire chat here.

The following day, a gaggle of us accompanied Herb and his lovely niece, Lila, to the Prairie Chicken House for a little look-see before restoration work begins.

For years, I’ve pretended to be lost and have pulled up in the driveway to supposedly turn around … while really straining past the giant No Trespassing signs to sneak a peek at this glorious creation.  Once, I even parked the car and braved beyond the clearly stated warnings and my fears of being chased off by a shotgun blast to knock on the front door.  The barely visible house was surrounded by untended overgrowth, but I snapped a few shots of the home while waiting for someone to answer.  Soon, the door creaked open to reveal a very sweet elderly woman who wasn’t terrifying at all.  In fact, she was very friendly but refused to let me inside for a tour.  So, when I finally got a chance to tour Herb Greene’s masterpiece and hear his stories about the home, it was like Christmas Day.

When Julius Shulman photographed this house in 1961 (as it was nearing completion), he stayed in the “eye” of the house for four days while he captured this one-of-a-kind abode on film.  He said that it was so amazing to look out this window and see nothing but tall grass everywhere and the strong Oklahoma wind making it dance.  Here are some then and now exterior views of the eye:

(Julius Shulman)

Shortly after it was completed, Greene opened his new home for a tour, where one incredulous observer asked in all seriousness if the place had been hit by a tornado.  I’m sure that all of the curves and angles were a mental stretch for a lot of people, but just a few moments in the glorious space surely changed their minds.

In his book, Generations, which he co-wrote with his niece, Lila Cohen, Herb talks more about the Prairie Chicken House:

My objective was to emphasize the importance of bodily and mental experience through metaphors such as the curved half circle of the west window, which can suggest a sun as well as an eye.  I project feelings of pathos or tragedy from the looming “wounded creature” look of the Prairie House.  

Feelings of protection are expressed by the sense of an enveloping coat and the cave-line interior.  The soft textures, human scale, war color, and lifelike rhythms contribute a feeling that the house is in some way living; mixing cues of sharp and piercing forms with others that are soft and gentle, in the context of the wounded creature, suggests pathos….  I juxtapose that which is vulnerable with that which is protective, sheltering, and comfortable.

That’s EXACTLY how this house feels — vulnerable, protective, cave-like, womb-like.

Here, Herb walks into the home for the first time since he left Oklahoma for good in 1964 to become a professor at the University of Kentucky:

The floor in the entry hall …

… and a fireplace greet visitors:

Once inside, all of the warm-hued shingles direct your eye up, up, up to take in the full drama and delight of the organic goodness of this amazing space:

This house is SO incredibly photogenic — there’s not a bad angle anywhere.  Here, Herb makes his way up the first staircase to the living area…

… while another visitor ascends the second-level staircase to the rooftop deck:

Herb beautifully describes the interior of the home in his book, Mind and Image:

If a combination of rhythms can be harmonized in an image, the result is like a dialogue or conversation in which one rhythm informs, supports, or offers contrasts to the other.  The value of rhythmic dialogues is that they allow and encourage us to organize complex groups of contrasts much in the manner of orchestration in music.  In the interior of the Prairie House, there are several rhythmic systems in dialogue.  One is in the shingled walls; another consists of the lines formed by the intersections of walls, floors, and ceiling; a third is provided by the stairway.  

The walls are covered with wood shingles.  They speak of human scale, warmth, softness, and vibratory activity.  They suggest feathers, scales, nests, baskets, ebb and flow, and life and motion.  The lines made by intersecting surfaces suggest animate gestures and give a feeling of recovering one’s balance with the vertical.  The lines lead inward and then outward, as they close the space and open it.  The stairway presents a contrast of “the straight away” with the surrounding curves.  It also sets up contrasts to the sense of enclosure one reads into the space.  We feel that there is an escape, a place beyond.  

Everything about Herb Greene is poetry, from his writing to his art (yes, he’s an artist, too, and a good one) to his architecture.

The home wouldn’t have received nearly the national and international recognition it has if not for the efforts of Julius Shulman.  Throughout his long career, Shulman often ventured inland from his base in California to check out what was happening in architectural design in other regions of the United States.  During these trips, which spanned over 30 years, he frequently stopped in Oklahoma and photographed some of the state’s most innovative modern architecture.

Mr. Shulman (I never could call him Julius, for some reason, so he was always Mr. Shulman to me) told me that upon his return to New York City from this particular Oklahoma trip, he was chided by his colleagues and editors, who said, “Why would you want to go to Oklahoma?  There’s no good architecture there.  All of the great architects are on the coasts, so you should spend your time there.”  Knowing better than that, Shulman gave them a confident Mona Lisa smile and told them to wait until he developed his batch of images from the Sooner State.

When he returned, Shulman and his curious editors gathered around a light table.  One by one, Shulman laid out his slides of Herb Greene’s masterful creation on the windswept prairie.  With each image he placed on the table, the editors grew more and more excited.  They were stunned, delighted, humbled, and enthralled with what they saw and immediately decided that the images had to go in the very next issue of Life magazine, which dubbed this fascinating piece of Organic Modernism the Prairie Chicken House.  Shulman’s photos made Herb Greene known to many far beyond the small college town of Norman, Oklahoma, and gave his career an enormous boost.

Greene and his family lived here just a few short years.  After that, he rented it to a couple who later finished the teepee’d Magyness House in Norman.  Then, in 1968, Greene sold his “wounded creature” to local business woman and nightclub owner, Janie Wilson, who loved and lived in the house for the next 50 years.

Today, the new owners are working with Greene and Hans and Torrey Butzer to figure out ways to not only restore the house but to also make it better.  For example, Greene recalls that he could never get the temperature above 58 degrees during the cold months, so Brent Swift and his team will work to insulate the home better.

This little guy has some plans of his own, too:

I hope that one of the changes is some kind of railing around the rooftop deck — yeah, that’s the mom in me coming out:

Lila and Herb share a moment on the deck …

… while taking in the spectacular views:

Also, during our time at the house, KFOR’s Galen Culver arrived to interview Herb:

Here’s Herb waxing poetic about the place during his sit-down with Culver:

Check out Galen Culver’s interview — it’s very interesting:

The Prairie House architect comes home to see his famous structure for the first time in more than 50 years.

And here are a few more interior shots, including the eye where Shulman slept:

That light!  I haven’t touched up these photos at all because I didn’t need to.  The light and warmth are just perfect.  Here’s Lila taking in the view:

Finally, you can’t help but want to have the full tactile experience with the shingles:

So, restoration work will begin soon on the home, and the Mod Squad will try to schedule a tour when it is completed.  You won’t want to miss seeing this insanely stunning home in person!