In 1909 the venerable midwestern architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the James Kibben Ingalls House in the leafy, suburban Chicago-area village of River Forest. The home, constructed for the president of the Western Heater Dispatch railroad company and his family, was striking, with cantilevered balconies and four wings extending from the central fireplace. Bartending bigwig Jim Meehan of New York’s PDT bar grew up on Thatcher Avenue, “across the yard” from the residence, when architect John Tilton lived there. “All the other houses surrounding it were populated with kids I played with almost every day,” says Meehan, who also regularly passed Wright’s studio to and from high school and learned to swim and play tennis at the Wright-designed River Forest Tennis Club.
Inspired by a Visionary’s Legacy
These idyllic, bygone days helped inspire Meehan’s newest project, Prairie School, a bar in Chicago’s Fulton Market opened in collaboration with Kevin Heisner and Matt Eisler of the prolific Heisler Hospitality, whose collection of bars and restaurants includes such hot spots as Regards to Edith, Sportsman’s Club, Bad Hunter, and the Revel Room. Meehan, who just released Meehan’s Bartender Manual (Ten Speed Press), a follow-up to 2011’s The PDT Cocktail Book: The Complete Bartender’s Guide from the Celebrated Speakeasy (Sterling Epicure), says that the organic Prairie School architecture Wright espoused reminds him of home.
Meehan left the Chicago area in 1995 to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison and never returned to live. “Many of my friends were fortunate to have opportunities waiting for them when they finished school,” he says, “but as the son of a Catholic-school teacher and an admissions steward at a racetrack, I needed to write my own ticket, and I ended up starting behind bars.” Even now he’ll remain in Portland, Oregon, while head bartender Kristina Magro presides over Prairie School from day to day.
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Every time Meehan returns to his old turf, though, he admires Chicago’s design and architectural legacy. Wright—and the late-19th-century school of like-minded architects he nurtured—was the perfect muse for the Heisler project. “The modern, industrial space needed warmth and an environmental quality that Prairie School maxims lionize,” explains Meehan. The Prairie School bar, which serendipitously opened amid celebrations of Wright’s 150th birthday, is as much a commemoration of the heartland as it is of Wright’s artistic vision. “The Prairie School of architects spurned neoclassical European architecture and aesthetics in favor of forms that accentuated the midwestern landscape,” Meehan says, adding that civic pride is on full display at the bar.
Aesthetics and Functional Design
Heisner, also the resident designer at Heisler Hospitality, emphasizes the importance of details throughout the Prairie School bar and its sibling establishments. “We work hard to dial in everything from acoustics to lighting to seating for our guests, and ease of service for our staff, so that once we’re open, our primary focus is on hospitality,” he explains. Wright’s imprint is evident, from the way the stained glass that the architect loved is incorporated into both the entryway and the base of the bar stools to the way the lowered ceiling plane anchors the room, reminiscent of the ceiling in Wright’s Robie House, on the grounds of the University of Chicago. “We adhered to Wright’s guiding principle of bringing the outdoors in,” Heisner goes on, “through the use of natural elements and textures, [such as] our live-edge white-oak bar top, flagstone on the walls, and wood lounge tables.”
Wright, who was passionate about Japanese art and design, had a particular knack for blending elements of the East and West, and Prairie School espouses that ethos through a Japanese sensibility. Carpeting, for example, was chosen for the bar to help evoke the soothing, Japanese tea ceremony aesthetic of tatami mats.
Manifesting Wright’s Principles in the Menu
Japanese elements were also brought in to Prairie School’s drink menu. Rhine Hall Distillery’s plum brandy, made in the nearby West Town neighborhood, is woven into Prairie School’s Falling Water cocktail—a liquid ode to Wright’s most famous edifice—with cold-brewed Ethiopian coffee, Cardamaro, and egg. Locally sourced ingredients are also a priority at Prairie School. In the Father-in-Law, for instance, Chicago’s own Koval Single Barrel Oat Whiskey is mixed with sherry and cream from Kilgus Farmstead, two hours away in Fairbury.
The ice stamps Meehan uses to brand drinks, and the machine that churns out Japanese whisky highballs, are also references to Wright, he says. “Wright embraced technology,” Meehan says, “whether it was wiring his homes for electricity before there was a service to plug into, or building attached garages for his homes, which acknowledged the importance of the car to modern living.”
Time away from Chicago has only made Meehan grow fonder of the city, and when he visits he typically heads to the Art Institute and takes plenty of walks along Lake Michigan. As bars around the world become boringly homogenized, Meehan wanted Prairie School to truly reflect Chicago. “Without it being hokey or a caricature of itself,” he says, “I’ve helped open a bar that serves cheese curds, a Brandy Old Fashioned, and an all-Chicago craft beer list without the usual suspects.”
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Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.