Maher’s Moment: A Prairie School master emerges

Eve Kahn Art

Fireplace surround designed by George Washington Maher and Louis J. Millet for the Patrick J. King House, 1901. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Max Palevsky and Jodie Evans in honor of the museum’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

George Washington Maher (1864-1926) based his long architectural career on what he called “motif rhythm theory.” In designing scores of houses around the Midwest, the Chicago architect gave each building its own distinctive floral pattern; hollyhocks, thistles, or lilies, modeled after local flowers, coursed through everything from the column capitals to the glass-mosaic fireplaces (such as the one illustrated below from the Patricia J. King House in Chicago, currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). His office, which he established in 1888 after a brief stint working with Frank Lloyd Wright, also incorporated retro classical details—colonnettes, arched openings—into quintessential Prairie School elements such as low hip roofs, long eaves, and buff-brick walls.

Side chair by Maher for Rockledge (Ernest L. and Grace King residence), circa 1911-1912. Courtesy of Hertiage Auctions.

Although his quirky gesamtkunstwerke are less well known than those of contemporaries like Wright and Louis Sullivan, museums with significant Prairie School holdings are now embracing Maher (pronounced like “mare”). The market competition is stiff, however; perhaps no more than a hundred examples of his furniture and chunks of architectural salvage from his demolished buildings are known to survive. Yet in just the past few months, Maher objects have been put on display at half a dozen museum galleries, while a masterpiece is up for sale on June 4 at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas.

Portière designed by Maher and Millet for the James A. Patten House, 1901. Included in the upcoming exhibition, Apostles of Beauty: Arts and Crafts from Britain to Chicago opening November 2009 at the Art Institute of ChicagoArt Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of the Antiquarian Society.

Heritage’s lot (estimated to bring $20,000 to $30,000), a leather-upholstered oak side chair, has tapered legs, exposed trapezoidal joinery pegs, and an arch-topped back that undulates like a human spine or perhaps a plant stalk. In 2006, Sotheby’s sold two matching chairs, one for $30,000 and the other for $48,000. All came from a set of two dozen made for the dining room of Rockledge, a 1912 mansion that Maher designed for a family in southeast Minnesota (the building was stripped and demolished in the 1980s). An oak armchair from Rockledge, with arched openwork arms, has just been installed in the Sarah Scaife Galleries at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. A 12-piece Gorham silver place setting from Rockledge, with tiny daylilies embossed on the handles, has been laid out in a balcony vitrine for Arts & Crafts silver at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly expanded American Wing. On another balcony’s glass wall, the Met has hung a newly donated thistle-pattern window, which Maher created for a house in Evanston, Illinois, in 1901; thistles appeared everywhere in the building (which was razed in 1938), from the velvet curtains to the woodwork. And on May 30, the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., will unveil a matching thistle window at its new Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.

“Maher is finally coming into his own, getting recognized as part of the top tier of Prairie Style architects,” explains Bruce Barnes, the president of the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation. (The New York organization consults to museums about collecting circa-1900 material and donates pieces: it gave the thistle window to the Met and loaned the Rockledge armchair to the Carnegie.) Maher’s growing fame, Barnes suggests, is partly due to his subtle, unexpected design twists. On the Rockledge side chair alone, he says, “That bowing form down the back is strange and spectacular, and those pegs dangle at various points like teardrops.” Prices are still reasonable, he adds: “For anyone interested in the Prairie movement, Maher can be a rare bargain.”

Window designed by Maher and Millet for the Patten House, c. 1901. Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of the American Decorative Art 1900 Foundation, in honor of Alice Cooney Freylinghuysen.