Major renovation awaits Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece
Anyone who has studied Frank Lloyd Wright knows he was his own biggest fan. So the fact that he purportedly told people that the Frederick C. Robie House he built in Hyde Park at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., near (and now "on") the University of Chicago campus, was his greatest Prairie-style home, you should make sure you get down there to see it.
Completed in 1910, it is said to be the most innovative and forward-thinking of all of Wright's Prairie homes. So it should come as no surprise it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and was on the first National Register of Historic Places list compiled in 1966.
This year the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, which owns the Robie House, is in the midst of major interior restoration work in order to bring back the home's original 1910 Wright-envisioned glory, said Karen Sweeney, preservation architect and facility director. It is expected to be complete in early spring 2019.
As the work progresses, the trust is offering a series of Restoration Hard Hat Tours to keep Wright aficionados informed about the restoration process. Expert guides are leading in-depth tours into limited-access areas of the building for a closer look at the project as it evolves over the next several months. Discussions will focus particularly on technical aspects of the restoration process, aimed at architects and true Wright lovers, Sweeney said.
Upcoming tours are scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Fridays, May 25 and June 22. They will cost $60 ($50 for trust members) and tickets can be purchased at flwright.org/hardhattours. Light refreshments will be served before each tour and a souvenir Frank Lloyd Wright Trust hard hat will be included with each ticket.
The highlight of the restoration project is the return of Wright's signature inglenook to the living room. Removed during a time when the Robie House was used for institutional purposes, including as a dormitory and administrative offices, the inglenook is a crucial component of the main floor's aesthetic. Its restoration brings back the Wright-envisioned low, narrow space that explodes into an expansive living room, illuminated by the tint of Wright's abstract leaded glass windows.
Other work being completed includes the restoration of plaster, restoring walls and ceilings to their original color, as well as restoring woodwork and floors. Light fixtures and selected leaded glass windows and doors are also being restored.
Rooms involved in the work include the main entry hall and stairway, the billiard room and children's playroom on the ground floor, and the living room, dining room and guest bedroom on the main floor.
"The expansive living space at the heart of the home is one of the great masterpieces of 20th century architecture and interior design," the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust website states. "The light-filled open plan is breathtaking in its simplicity -- a single room, comprising a living and dining space, divided only by a central chimney. Doors and windows of leaded class line the room, flooding the interior with light. Iridescent, colored and clear glass composed in patterns of flattened diamond shapes and diagonal geometries evoke floral forms, while subtly echoing the plan and form of the building. In his design of the Robie House, Wright achieves a dynamic balance between transparency and enclosure, blurring the boundaries between interior space and the world of nature beyond."
The 9,000-square-foot home has a particularly interesting chimney mass that handles the smoke from four fireplaces -- one in the billiards room, one in the playroom, one in the living room and the last one in the master bedroom.
The home is filled with 174 art glass window and door panels in 29 different designs using abstract geometric forms.
Exterior bands of brick and limestone anchor the Robie House to the earth while overhanging eaves and cantilevered roofs shelter it from the elements. The home is overwhelmingly horizontal in its orientation, just the opposite of the strongly vertical Victorian homes which many of Wright's competitors were building in the same neighborhoods. And while the Victorian homes were primarily made of wood, adorned with fussy ornamentation, Wright's homes were constructed of brick and limestone of balanced tones and color, accented by iridescent leaded glass windows. Broad balconies and terraces allowed interior and exterior spaces to flow together while integral urns and planters at every level were intended to bloom with the seasons.
Wright closed his Oak Park studio and traveled to Europe to complete the "Wasmuth Portfolio" of his work in late 1909 when the Robie House was well underway. The plaster was even on the walls when he departed, so he completed it long distance by sending additional drawings from Europe, Sweeney said. And once he returned to Chicago, he visited the construction site several times more.
"It was always a home that was near and dear to his heart," she said.
Robie, his wife and two children moved into the home in May 1910, but only lived there for 14 months because of financial and family troubles. Two other families followed with relatively short tenures in the home.
In 1926 it was sold to the Chicago Theological Seminary, which used the house as a dormitory and dining hall while it pondered future expansions. Two subsequent attempts by the seminary to demolish the home stirred up major protests. Wright himself even traveled to Chicago at the age of 90 to protest the contemplated demolition of the home he considered to be his masterpiece.
The Robie House was finally saved in the late 1950s, thanks to two University of Chicago fraternities sacrificing their neighboring houses to make way for construction of the seminary's dormitory; a developer friend of Wright's then buying the Robie House from the seminary and donating it to the University of Chicago; and the city of Chicago creating a Commission on Chicago Landmarks that eventually dubbed the home a protected landmark.
Forty years later, in early 1997, the University of Chicago moved its offices and turned all responsibility for restoration, tours, fundraising and operations of the historic landmark over to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which continues to own and run it today.
Early preservation work concentrated on enhancing the home's structural stability and exterior, as well as its mechanical infrastructure, Sweeney said. Now they are turning their sights on the interior.
The architectural significance of the Robie House has long been heralded as a work of art by those in the architectural world. In 1956, The Architectural Record selected the Robie House as "one of the seven most notable residences ever built in America."
Then, the following year, House and Home magazine stated in an article on the structure: "The Robie House is a magnificent work of art. But, in addition, the house introduced so many concepts in planning and construction that its full influence cannot be measured accurately for many years to come. Without this house, much of modern architecture as we know it today, might not exist."
It is worth noting that the Robie House has been nominated for World Heritage designation.
For more information on tours, call (312) 994-4000. The structure is open for standard public tours from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays.