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Monday, June 2, 2014

The Robie House, Chicago, Illinois

Copyright, Jim Lane
5757 S. Woodlawn Avenue, the Robie House--the Prairie Style at its best.
Almost two years ago, as a segment in a lengthy discourse on various styles of domestic architecture, I discussed the Prairie Style of architecture. In doing so, it should be noted, that the early 20th century American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright practically owns this style having literally invented it, promulgated it, and melded it into his broader theories involving what he termed organic architecture. Just a few days ago I visited in Chicago, Illinois, the one house marking the epitome of the Prairie Style, the house Wright designed for Frederick Robie, his wife Laura, and their two children. Though technically in Chicago, the house is located in the University of Chicago area of Hyde Park. In fact, the University now owns the Robie House. Daily tours are less than $20.
The Robie House dining area as designed by Wright, 1911.
The Art Deco, window panels
and lights designed by Wright.
Though the house itself easily rises to the status as one of Wright's masterpieces, anyone who has toured Fallingwater, Taliesin, or Taliesin West is going to be disappointed. With but a few exceptions, it's like touring a vacant house with a highly knowledgeable real estate agent. Although Wright designed the interior right down to the last stick of wood in the coffee table, the furniture is now gone except for some modest reproductions (and damned few of those). Why? Family problems, hard times, greed, theft, carelessness... The Robie family moved in around 1910. Mrs. Robie took the children and moved out a year later. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Robie's bicycle factory fell upon hard times (later merging with Schwinn). Later, he was forced to sell the house and all of its contents to pay off the debts of his recently deceased father. The second owner, advertising executive, David Lee Taylor died a year after moving in. His widow sold the place, lock, stock, and barrel to the Wilbers family, who managed to live there some fourteen years. Thereafter, the Chicago Theological Seminary across the street bought the place and used it as a student dormitory.

The Robie House living room as seen today.
The couch is a reproduction. The Inglenook fireplace is not.
Even virtually empty, the house seems not as large as it looks from the outside.
Actually, it's little short of a miracle the house itself has survived, much less its furniture. Twice, (in 1941 and again in 1957) the Robie House was threatened with demolition. Though the Hyde Park area in which it was built was very much like a prairie in 1910, Chicago grew like a mammoth fungus during the early 1900s. The total cost of the house was some $58,000 (including land and furnishings)--Wright's most expensive house at the time. That would be roughly $1.4 million today. Nevertheless, the two lots upon which the house resided soon became far more valuable than the house itself. The seminary wanted to tear it down and build a proper dormitory. The Chicago fine arts community and most importantly, Wright himself, raised such a ruckus that the seminary's expansion plans were shelved. By 1957, the house was falling into disrepair and the seminary once more attempted to (quietly this time) dispose of their "white elephant." The house came within two weeks of succumbing to the wrecker's ball. Again Wright (by then close to 90) as well as others, saved it in a complex land swap deal, this time talking Chicago's Mayor Daley into placing it at the top of the city's brand new list of historic landmarks. The University of Chicago acquired the property through an alumni donation in 1963.

The Robie House courtyard with its rare (for its time) three-car garage. The garage area now serves as the ever-present souvenir shop. A private entrance is to the left.
Quite apart from the "vacant" feeling in touring the Robie House, even for someone having studied the plans and Wright's work in general, there are surprises. In looking at the 58th Street "front" of the house one sees only the courtyard gate, beyond which Wright designed for the automobile-loving Frederick Robie a three-car garage. Though there is a private entrance from this courtyard, it is not the main entrance to the house. The main entrance, as the address suggests, is accessed from the Woodlawn Ave. "end" of the house and is, in fact, located in what is, in effect, the "back" of the house, thus affording the family an element of privacy. The entry foyer is on the ground level giving it the feeling of being a basement entrance (Wright had a dim view of basements and attics as not fit for human habitation). Thus the main living areas are on the second floor while the master bedroom and one or two others, are on the third level--all this in a structure so vertically unified as to appear to be a single story (or two at most).

The Robie House main entrance.
The ground floor Robie House foyer.
Without a doubt, the one room in every home which has changed the most during the past hundred years is the all-important kitchen. As one of Wright's older house, the Robie kitchen is no exception. Though the kitchen now inexplicably boasts a modern-day refrigerator, there remains an access window/door through which ice deliveries could be directly made to the family icebox food storage "appliance." Fresh milk could be delivered in a similar manner without the delivery man ever entering the kitchen itself. Wright was a great fan of built-in furniture, so it comes as no surprise to find lots of cabinet and glass-door cupboard space in his kitchen, as well as a wooden cutting board topped "island" which would be quite at home in any modern kitchen. The kitchen sink was white porcelain and quite overbearing in partnership with the "antique" gas range (at a time when wood-burning stoves were the norm).

The Robie House kitchen with its cantilevered cutting board counter.
Dated? Yes, but nothing a few modern appliances couldn't cure.
Frank Lloyd Wright's career as an architect spanned almost seventy years. Though he worked for, and was heavily influenced in his early years by Chicago's Louis Sullivan, Wright was, a self-taught architect. We hardly raise an eyebrow in discussing a self-taught painters, musicians, or photographers, but even in his own time, such was not the case with architects. Despite having no university degree, Wright was a licensed architect. More than this though, Wright was an artist and architectural theorist and only secondarily involved in "engineering" his works. He could, and did, "hire" engineers to execute his designs or to rein him in when they became too daring. Thus one cannot simply visit or study Wright's works without doing so from a chronological viewpoint.

A Queen Anne house in Chicago's Oak
Park designed by Wright during his
early years working for Louis Sullivan.
Wright's 1959 Guggenheim Museum,
New York. Notice his belated
rediscovery of the curve.
During the 1880s, Wright was designing in the Queen Anne style. By the time the Robie House took shape in the open fields of Hyde Park, he had invented his own Prairie Style. By the time Fallingwater thrust itself out over Bear Run amid the Pennsylvanian woodlands, Wright had defined his own personal version of the International Style. Taliesin East and West were transitional experiments. And in his late years, he had, for a second time, jettisoned "the box" in favor of a truly "organic" style still being emulated by 21st century artist-architects today. Some might argue the point, but most designers would likely agree, no other architect in this or any other century has ever made such a lasting impact.

Buffalo-Niagara Falls International Air Terminal, designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. The Wright influence permeates world architecture today like that of no other.

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