Set on a prominent corner in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, the Frederick C. Robie House, with its deeply cantilevered roof and horizontal Roman brick massing, seems about to glide westward, pinned in place only by its rising central chimney. Built in 1908–1910, the Robie House is the most succinct and fully realized expression of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie house period.
In 1908, Frederick Carleton Robie, a manager at his father’s manufacturing company, Excelsior Supply, commissioned Wright to build a house for his family on a narrow urban lot near the University of Chicago. Wright’s design maximized the space of the 60 x 180-foot lot, setting the house back from the property line only slightly along its Woodlawn Avenue facade. Inspired by the flat, Midwestern prairie landscape, Wright’s design emphasized dramatic, horizontal lines especially in the deep, cantilevered roof supported by steel beams (one of the earliest uses in residential design); the walls fabricated of long, thin Roman bricks with deeply raked, horizontal mortar joints in white and barely visible, flush, vertical mortar joints in red; the Bedford limestone planter urns, lintels, and sills that provide a continuous contrast to the tawny brick; and the continuous bands of art glass windows. In plan, the building appears as two rectangles sliding past each other, with the main or south wing containing the public areas of the house and the private areas of the house, including bedrooms, the kitchen, and servants’ quarters, occupying the rear or north volume. The attached three-car garage, unusual for the first decade of the century, has three bays with large, hinged doors and art glass windows.
The entrance is typical of Wright’s mature Prairie houses in that it is not clearly visible or easily located upon approach. Tucked away on the north side of the house and accessed via a long, concrete walk, the entrance court is framed by a low retaining wall and the guest bedroom balcony above. The concealed entrance reinforces a sense of privacy, but the compressed space also creates a transitional area between interior and exterior, drawing one into the space. The wide entrance door leads to a low-ceilinged entrance hall. The natural tones of the color palette, art glass, wooden screens, and red oak furniture and moldings of the entrance hall are seen throughout the rest of the house. A staircase to the right leads to the primary living spaces on the second story, glimpsed beyond oak lattice screens.
The compression of the entryway and stair hall is relieved as one emerges in the dazzling brightness of the open plan of the piano nobile. The stair and central fireplace serve as a permeable barrier, functionally dividing the living and dining rooms while also allowing for a flowing sense of space. Each end of the open space terminates in prow-shaped bays. For Wright, the hearth was the literal and figurative center of the house. The fireplace employs the same Roman brick as the exterior. The fireplace and built-in seating are stepped down into the floor. The flues are diverted to the side piers, creating an opening above the fireplace that further unites the living and dining areas. Space flows on either side, as well as above the narrow divider, while the continuous windows along the south wall unites the two spaces, as does the integrated electric lighting.
Throughout his design of the house Wright explored ideas of openness and connection, and he aimed to create a total work of art in which all interior furnishings and fixtures supported his architectural aesthetic. This includes the leaded art glass windows and square wood sconces with opaque glass globes to the built-in cabinetry and free-standing furniture. Wright also designed the original carpets and other textiles for the house, integrating them with the overall aesthetic. In the Robie House, Wright “broke the box,” achieving a physical and visual unity of interior spaces that would inform American residential design for the rest of the century.
The Robie House was completed as personal turmoil overtook Wright’s career. Architect Hermann von Holst completed the commission, with Marion Mahony supervising construction after Wright closed his office and fled to Europe with Martha Borthwick Cheney, a client’s wife. To fund himself during the crisis, Wright published the now famous Wasmuth Portfolio in 1910, which included the Robie House and inspired a generation of European architects.
The Robie family occupied the residence only briefly before bankruptcy forced them to sell the house a year after its completion. David Lee-Taylor owned the house for a year and then sold it to Marshall D. Wilber, who lived in it with his family for twelve years. When the Wilburs sold the building in June 1926, the Robie House’s tenure as a private residence came to a close. The new owners, the nearby Chicago Theological Seminary, converted the house into a dining hall and dormitory. Realizing the house was ill-suited for this purpose, the Seminary planned to demolish the building and replace it with a conventional building in 1941, but opposition from preservationists and World War II put those plans on hold. In 1957, the Seminary announced a renewed demolition plan. Ninety-year-old Wright himself held a press conference on the site, and eventually two adjacent fraternities (including Wright’s own Phi Delta Theta) traded their houses, providing the Seminary with sufficient land for the dormitory.
In 1958, developer William Zeckendorf purchased the property and donated it to the University of Chicago, which used it as offices and offered tours on occasion. In 1997, the University turned the property over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation (now the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust), to manage the house as a historic site. The house has since undergone meticulous restoration by Harboe Architects as part of an ongoing preservation campaign.
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Hoffman, Donald. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House: the Illustrated Story of an Architectural Masterpiece. New York: Dover Publications, 1984.
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