Robie House in Chicago
The Frederick C. Robie House is a U.S. National Historic Landmark in the Chicago, Illinois neighborhood of Hyde Park at 5757 S. Woodlawn Avenue on the South Side. It was designed and built between 1908 and 1910 by architect Frank Lloyd Wright and is renowned as the greatest example of his Prairie style, the first architectural style that was uniquely American. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on November 27, 1963 and was on the very first National Register of Historic Places list of October 15, 1966.
Wright designed the Robie House in his studio in Oak Park, Illinois between 1908 and 1909. The design precedent for the Robie House was the Ferdinand F. Tomek House in Riverside, Illinois, designed by Wright in 1907-08. At the time that he commissioned Wright to design his home, Robie was only 28 years old and the assistant manager of the Exclesior Supply Company, a company on the South Side of Chicago owned and managed by his father. Although later drawings of the Robie House show a date of 1906, Wright could not have started the design for the building earlier than the spring of 1908 because Robie had actually purchased the property only in May of that year. He and his wife, Lora Hieronymus Robie, a 1900 graduate of the University of Chicago, had selected the property at 5757 South Woodlawn Avenue in order to remain close to the campus and the social life of the University. The property was a typical urban lot in Hyde Park, measuring 60 ft by 180 ft.
The contractor for the project, H.B. Barnard Co. of Chicago, began construction on April 15, 1909. Wright did not supervise the construction of the house except in the earliest stages. He closed his Oak Park studio in the fall of 1909 and left for Europe to undertake the work which led to the publication of the Wasmuth Portfolio. He turned over his existing commissions to Hermann von Holst, who retained Marion Mahony, an architect in Wright's office, and George Mann Niedecken, an interior designer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin who had worked with Wright on the Susan Lawrence Dana House in Springfield, Illinois, the Avery Coonley House in Riverside, Illinois, and the Meyer May House in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to continue their work on the project. Niedecken's influence can be seen in the design of some of the furnishings for the house as well as the carpets in the entrance hall, the living room, and the dining room.
The Robie family—Frederick, Laura, and their two children, Frederick Jr. and Lorraine—moved into the home in May 1910, although all of the final details, including rugs and furniture, were not completed until January 1911. The final cost of the home was $58,500--$13,500 for the land, $35,000 for the design and construction of the building, and $10,000 for the furnishings. ($58,500 in 1910 is approximately equal to $1,300,000 in 2007.) Robie's original budget had been $60,000.
Robie's tenure in his home was short lived, however. As a result of financial problems incurred by the death of his father in July 1909 and the deterioration of his marriage, Robie was forced to sell the house after living in it for only fourteen months. David Lee Taylor, president of Taylor-Critchfield Company, an advertising agency, bought the house and all of its Wright-designed contents in December 1911. Taylor died less than a year later, and his widow, Ellen Taylor, sold the house and most of its contents to Marshall D. Wilber, treasurer of the Wilber Mercantile Agency, in November 1912. The Wilbers were the last family to live in Robie House, residing there for 14 years.
In June 1926, the Wilbers sold the house and its contents to the Chicago Theological Seminary, who used the house as a dormitory and dining hall although it was primarily interested in the site for purposes of future expansion. In 1941, a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology accidentally discovered that the Seminary was moving ahead with a plan to demolish the Robie House and informed his instructors, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The threat of demolition aroused a storm of protest. Although the Seminary's plans were subsequently postponed, the crisis was averted more by the onset of World War II than by acquiescence of the property’s owner.
The most serious threat to the existence of the Robie House arose 16 years later. On March 1, 1957, the Seminary announced plans to demolish the Robie House on September 15 in order to begin the construction of a dormitory for its students. This time an international outcry arose, and Wright himself, then 90 years old, returned to the Robie House on March 18, accompanied by the media, students and neighborhood organizers to protest the intended demolition of the house. Commenting on the threatened demolition, Wright quipped, "It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy." Fortunately, only weeks earlier, the Chicago City Council, led by Hyde Park alderman Leon Despres, had enacted an ordinance to create the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. On September 15, 1971, the newly formed Commission, with the support of Mayor Richard J. Daley, declared the Robie House a Chicago landmark. Moreover, two fraternities at the University of Chicago provided the Seminary with a realistic alternative to its plans of demolition. During his very brief tenure as a student at the University of Wisconsin, Wright had been a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. The University of Chicago's Phi Delt chapter house was located two doors north of the Robie house at 5737 Woodlawn Avenue, and the Seminary was already the owner of the lot between the two properties. The Phi Delts offered to vacate their house, and the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, located next to the Phi Delt house, offered to vacate their house as well. These offers were a turning point in the effort to save the Robie house since the three properties provided the Seminary with sufficient land for the dormitory they sought to build.
In August 1958, William Zeckendorf, a friend of Wright's and a New York real estate developer then involved in several development projects on Chicago's south side, acquired the Robie House at Wright's urging from the seminary through his development company Webb & Knapp. The planter urns, copings, lintels, sills and other exterior trimwork are of Bedford limestone.
In plan, the house is designed as two large rectangles that seem to slide by one another. Mr. Wright referred to the rectangle on the southwest portion of the site, which contains the principal living spaces of the house, as "the major vessel." On the first floor are the "billiards" room (west end) and children's playroom (east end). These two rooms open through central doors to an enclosed garden on the south side of the building. A door from the playroom opens into the courtyard on the east end of the site. On the second floor are the entry hall at the top of the central stairway, the living room (west end) and the dining room (east end). An inglenook originally separated the entry hallway from the living room. The living and dining rooms flow into one another along the south side of the building and open through a series of twelve French doors containing art glass panels to an exterior balcony running the length of the south side of the building that overlooks the enclosed garden. The west end of the living room contains the “prow” with art glass windows and two art glass doors that open onto the west porch beneath the cantilevered roof. Wright intended that the users of the building move freely from the interior space to the exterior space.
The rectangle on the northeast portion of the site, called "the minor vessel," contains the more functional and service-related rooms of the house. On the first floor is the main door and entrance hall (west end) from which a stairway leads to the second floor living and dining rooms. A half bath is located on the north side of the entrance hall. Further east are a coat closet and back stairway, the boiler room, laundry room, and coal storage room, followed by a small workshop, half bath, and a three-car garage. The western most bay of the garage originally contained a mechanic’s pit, and the eastern most bay contained equipment to wash and clean automobiles. On the second floor of the minor vessel is a guest bedroom above the entrance hall and an adjoining full bath. East of the back stairway are the kitchen and butler’s pantry, and the servants’ sitting room. Two bedrooms and a full bathroom above the garage complete the quarters for the live-in servants.
The third floor overlaps the major and minor vessels in the center of the building. Wright referred to the third floor as the “belvedere,” the “place in command of beautiful views.” The south side of the third floor contains the master bedroom, dressing area, a full bathroom, and, through a small closet, a balcony facing west. Two additional bedrooms and a full bathroom are located on the north side of this floor. All of the windows on this level contain art glass panels.
The entire building is approximately 9062 sqft.
The chimney mass containing four fireplaces—one in the billards room, playroom, living room and master bedroom—and the main stairway from the entrance hall to the second floor living and dining rooms rise through the center of the house, from which the rest of the building radiates. The chimney mass is constructed of the same brick and limestone as the exterior.
The front door and main entrance is partially hidden on the northwest side of the building beneath an overhanging balcony in order to create a sense of privacy and protection for the family. The entrance hall itself is low-ceilinged and dark, but the stairs to the second floor create a sense of anticipation as the visitor moves upward. Once upstairs, the light filled living and dining rooms create a sharp contrast to the dark entrance hall making the living and dining rooms seem even more special. These two rooms are separated by the central chimney mass, but the spaces are connected along their south sides, and the chimney mass has an opening above the fireplace through which the rooms are visually connected. These features unite the two spaces, creating an openness of plan which, for Wright, was a metaphor for the openness of American political and social life.
As with all Prairie houses, Wright designed the light fixtures for the Robie House. Throughout the house, wall sconces can be found in the shape of a hemispherical shade suspended beneath a square bronze fixture. On the second floor living and dining rooms, spherical globes within wooden squares are integrated into the ceiling trim, further tying the two spaces together visually. Soffit lighting running the length of the north and south sides of the living and dining rooms, as well as soffit lighting in the prows of the living and dining rooms, are covered with Wright-designed wooden grilles. Because these lights are all independently operable, different effects can be created within these spaces. Finally, a Wright-designed table lamp with an art glass shade stood on a Wright-designed library table in the living room.
The steel beams in the ceilings and floors carrying most of the building's weight to piers at the east and west ends. As a result, the exterior walls have little structural function, and thus are filled with doors and windows containing art glass panels. The house contains 174 art glass window and door panels in 29 different designs. Although Wright occasionally designed art glass using stylized forms from nature, the designs of the Robie House art glass are simply abstract geometric forms. The steel structure also eliminates the need for internal structural columns and walls, accenting the open plan Wright favored.
Wright also designed the furniture, carpets, and textiles for most Prairie houses. However, Wright-designed furniture in the Robie House was only constructed for the entrance hall, the living and dining rooms, guest bedroom, and one bed for the third-floor bedrooms. Robie’s financial situation following his father’s death may be the explanation for why the entire house was not furnished with furniture of Wright’s designs. Most of the original furniture is currently in the collection of the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago although only the dining room table and chairs are on display. One of the most striking pieces of the furniture designed by Wright for the Robie House is a sofa with extended armrests, echoing the cantilevers of the exterior roof of the building, which effectively create side tables on each side of the sofa. The Wright-designed sofa has been on loan since 1982 from the Smart Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is on display as part of the furnishings in the reconstructed living room of the Francis W. Little House (1915) located in the museum.
The Robie House was one of the last houses Wright designed in his Oak Park, Illinois home and studio and also one of the last of his Prairie School houses. According to the Historical American Buildings Survey, the city of Chicago's Commission on Chicago Architectural Landmarks stated: "The bold interplay of horizontal planes about the chimney mass, and the structurally expressive piers and windows, established a new form of domestic design."<ref name=habs/> Because the house's components are so well designed and coordinated, it is considered to be a quintessential example of Wright's Prairie School architecture and the "measuring stick" against which all other Prairie School buildings are compared.
The house and the Robie name were immortalized in Ernst Wasmuth's famous 1910 publication "Ausgefuhrte Bauten und Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright" (a.k.a. "The Wasmuth Portfolio"). This publication featured most of Wright's designs, including those unbuilt, during his Oak Park years and brought them to the attention of European architects of 1920s, especially students of the Bauhaus school in Germany and the De Stijl school in Holland. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe among other great 20th Century architects, claimed Wright was a major influence on their careers.
The architectural significance of the Robie House was probably best stated in a 1957 article in House and Home magazine:
During the decades of eclecticism's triumph there were also many innovators--less heralded than the fashionable practitioners, but exerting more lasting influence. Of these innovators, none could rival Frank Lloyd Wright. By any standard his Robie house was the House of the 1900s--indeed the House of the Century.
Above all else, 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.
In 1956, The Archectural Record selected the Robie House as "one of the seven most notable residences ever built in America." In 2008, the U.S. National Park Service submitted the Robie house, along with nine other Frank Lloyd Wright properties, to a tentative list for World Heritage Status. The 10 sites have been submitted as one entire site. The January 22, 2008, press release from the National Park Service website announcing the nominations states that "[t]he preparation of a Tentative List is a necessary first step in the process of nominating a site to the World Heritage List."
Directly across 58th Street from the Robie House is the Charles M. Harper Center of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Designed by the Uruguayan-born architect Rafael Viñoly and completed in 2004, the building both respects the scale of the Robie House and contains elements that echo Wright's contributions to the vocabulary of modern architecture. “The massing was considered with that of the surrounding buildings of the campus and the neighborhood,” Viñoly said. More specifically, Viñoly selected the linear limestone and cantilevered floors with the Robie House in mind. In addition, built-in planters edge the second floor balconies and surround the entranceway terrace, echoing those found on the Robie House balconies and porches. The entranceway terrace itself provides visitors with a panoramic view of the south elevation of the Robie House. Viñoly acknowledged that these elements of his design were intended to pay homage to Wright and his architectural vision.
In Blue Balliett's book, The Wright 3, the Robie house is the main part of the story.
New Robie House Programming, Centennial Celebration and Restoration
New expanded tours and programs at the Robie House include guided tours with special themes designed to provide visitors with a deeper understanding of Wright’s design intent and a more personal experience. The expanded Robie House experiences will highlight in-depth examinations of the museum and objects from the Preservation Trust collection as well as family workshops and social events.
The new Private Spaces In-Depth tour ($45/$55 per person) provides access to the entire building, including the kitchen, servants’ wing and the third floor. The tour also allows guests to take interior photography. For the more casual observer the Robie House will continue to feature guided tours as well as a new self-guided The new curatorial program, Engage with Artifacts ($65/$75 per person), provides rare insight into Wright’s designs and allows participants to interact with the Preservation Trust curators and explore original artifacts. Led by a professional photographer, the Picturing Architecture tour ($80/$90 per person) facilitates the investigation of architecture through the use of photography.
Family workshops at the Robie House engage younger audiences in exercises that encourage appreciation of design and architecture. Designed especially for young adults, the Redrawing Wright program ($25/$30 per person) helps students examine the home’s revolutionary spaces as they engage in free exploration and creative drawing.
Despite its new programming at the Robie House, the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust has not committed to a full restoration of the building, including Wright-designed furniture and textiles, as part of its long-range plan for the Robie House. In the fall of 2008, volunteer docents at the Robie House raised concerns over the Trust's unwillingness to commit itself to the full restoration of the building. Four volunteer docents were terminated by the Trust for their continued advocacy on behalf of the full restoration of the Robie House.
- Pictures of Robie House
- The Richard Nickel Committee and Photographic Archive Photographer of the Robie House
- Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust website
- Drawings, photos and data pages in the Library of Congress Historic American Buildings Survey