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Robie Reborn

The iconic masterwork of Wright's Prairie House phase starts its second century with a fresh face and innovative tours.

By Gordon Bock

It's hard to believe that, after a century, a house built in 1909-10 still looks like a vision of the future, but that's how Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House appears today – and even better thanks to a decade of meticulous work. Newly restored on the exterior, the house is celebrating its centennial and preeminent place in the Prairie pantheon with a year of special programs ranging from Robie After Hours (part insider tour, part architectural happy hour) to an experience for children called Lego Architects – all thanks to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. "Especially for the centennial," says Karen Sweeney, director of restoration for the organization, "we're trying to break out of the traditional museum fare and do many more interactive programs within the building."

The logic makes perfect sense because 2010 marks not only a big birthday for Robie House, but also the near completion of the exterior restoration and the stabilization of the structure, including the masonry. "Quite honestly, for its age and all the different uses it has seen, the house – especially the exterior shell – was fairly intact when we took it over in 1997," says Sweeney. "Even so, there was a lot of water infiltration from a failing roof and, as a result, a lot of water damage inside the building that we had to deal with." Par for the course, the water infiltration was related to termite damage that had occurred years earlier, and that too had to be addressed.

"We first did a lot of cleaning of the Roman brick, and then re-pointed the entire building," says Sweeney, "bringing it back to Wright's original design of horizontal natural mortar and red mortar in vertical joints and regular mortar in bed joints." Sweeney and her team also removed the bricks damaged by freeze-thaw from water infiltration, as well as later mortar-brick mismatches, and replaced them with custom-made bricks. They also dismantled the brick garden walls surrounding the building that were suffering from frost heaves and rebuilt them with foundations deep enough to withstand Chicago winters. Not to be ignored was the roof. Though Robie House had been completely re-roofed in the 1960s, that roof was aging and used non-historical tiles, so Sweeney and her team ordered reproduction tiles from New Lexington, OH-based Ludowici that closely matched the flat, clay slabs of the originals and completely re-roofed the building.

With the help of a partial set of original shop drawings, the trust was able to do a structural analysis of the steel in the building. As a result, a few reinforcing points on the steel were added – mainly for 500-year winds and the added loading of a museum full of visitors. Because all of the mechanicals were "pretty much at the breaking point" when they got into the building, all of the infrastructure was also brought up to date, including new water lines and electrical wiring – all the services necessary to keep the building going for another 100 years. To bring the heating into the 21st century, the trust replaced the 1960s-era equipment with a museum climate-control system that is a mixture of forced air and hot water systems. "This way," says Sweeney, "we can control both temperature and humidity in the building."

Commissioning the Perfect Prairie
That Robie House would become a showcase of groundbreaking design and innovative use of materials should not come as a surprise to those who know a bit about the client and his architect. The house, completed in 1910, was designed for Frederick C. Robie, the assistant manager of the Excelsior Supply Company, a family business that distributed machine parts for industries such as sewing machines and bicycles. Only 28 at the time he engaged Wright, Robie was also a technophile who had a soft spot for the latest innovations – notably the automobile. "Robie dove into cars very early," says Sweeney, "and was involved in some prototypes." In fact, it was very likely the mutual love of cars that helped Wright and Robie bond as architect and client, with at least one remarkable result. "The house was designed with an attached three-car garage that integrates seamlessly with the main building, which would have been very unusual for the neighborhood," says Sweeney. "This was at a time when houses in the area were still being built with stables – or at the most a stable-cum-garage. Even if you did build a garage, it would be at the back of the lot like a stable – never attached to your house."

Nonetheless, the way Robie House sits on its rectangular lot suggests that a detached garage might have been a reach. "The building pretty much goes to the property line on the north," says Sweeney, "and then the garden walls go to the property line on the south and the east side, so it really kind of eats up the space, leaving little room for anything else." When asked if that was always the case, Sweeny speculates that Wright envisioned the building more as a city house than a house out in the country. Indeed, Robie House is sited in close proximity to the University of Chicago, and though the house is oriented south to what was once the open expanse of an exercise field, the immediate neighborhood was pretty well built-out at the turn of the 20th century with the residences of professors and the nearby Chicago Theological Seminary. In fact, the surrounding educational institutions play critical roles in the history of the house. "Though we don't actually know how Wright got the Robie commission, we believe that they selected the location because Mrs. Robie was a graduate of the University of Chicago, and wanted to be near the social life on campus," says Sweeney.

Apparently the Robies planned to party. "Depending upon how you figure it," says Sweeney, "the gross square footage of the house – including all those concrete balconies and porches and the outside walk – is just slightly over 9,000 sq.ft. The house has a very large percentage of public space and it appears that the Robies were expecting to entertain."

Unfortunately, the parties were soon over. When Robie was hit by financial reverses (as a result of the death of his father) and the breakup of his marriage, he was forced to sell the house after only 14 months of residency. A succession of owners – some equally short-lived – followed until the house was bought by the seminary, which used it as a dormitory and dining hall, but with the intent to demolish the house and expand. In 1941, however, when the seminary's imminent plans to raze Robie House leaked out, the local architectural community – including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – rallied in protest. World War II put the Robie issue on the back burner for a while, but in 1957 the house faced the wrecking ball anew. This time, the reaction was international, and the newly formed Chicago Landmarks Commission – and Wright himself, now 90 years of age – put pressure on the seminary to save the building. Ultimately, a white knight appeared in the form of New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf, who bought the building in August 1958 and donated it to the University of Chicago.

In Trusting Hands
The university used the building for offices for development, the Adlai Stevenson Institute, and publishing (in the garage), but when an historic structures report outlined how much money it would take to restore the building, they looked hard at its future. "The university felt like it wasn't in the business of historic structures," says Sweeney, "so they wanted to get someone involved whose mission was to restore Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and present them to the public. That's when they contacted us, and we took over Robie in 1997." The building is still owned by the University of Chicago, and it is a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, but the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust is the most visible and active steward, by virtue of their experience rescuing and running the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park. "We raise all the money, operate it on a day-to-day basis, and we're solely responsible for the restoration," says Sweeney.

With the exterior restoration and stabilization now largely complete, the house is in fine fettle for its centennial, but much work still remains. "We've moved into the interior phase," says Sweeney, "and though we've got a bit of that done, we still have a lot of work ahead of us in the interior and the hardscaping outside the building – sidewalks and finishing up the landscaping." The team is working its way through the building, conserving some 187 pieces of Wright's patterned art glass, with about half to go. Luckily, the majority of the windows are original and a few that are not present are actually safe in the university's art museum after being previously removed to install air conditioning.

A big help is the wealth of documentation. "It's a wonderful building to work on," says Sweeney. "We have copies of the original drawings that the contractor donated to the university, and we have photographs taken during construction." There's a good paper trail too for the interiors because when Wright left for Germany in 1909, the interiors were completed by designer George Mann Niedecken under Wright's supervision, and his archives are at the Milwaukee Art Museum. "We have access to things like yarn samples for the carpet," says Sweeney, "which means that we're not looking at black-and-white photos trying to guesstimate what the colors would have been."

Even with the wealth of documentation, the restoration of Robie House has unveiled some surprises. "Probably the most unexpected thing we've found over the years involves the ground floor," says Sweeney. "We knew that it was magnesite flooring – a cementitious, monolithic material that Wright really liked because it develops a patina like leather. What we discovered, however, is that while the floor is a brown, salmony color, there's also a one-in. red inset 12 in. from the perimeter of each room – kind of like a carpet border."

Though many pieces of original built-in furniture were removed long ago, the trust expects to have a very close match on reproductions with the help of photographs, samples of remaining furniture and ghostly clues here and there. "When we dismantled a desk that had been added later on the third floor, we found all the evidence of Mrs. Robie's dressing area," says Sweeney. "Because of the way the moving drawers left shadow marks on the plaster walls, we are able to see exactly how to re-create the cabinetry – down to the fact that there was a light fixture inside the cabinets."

As Sweeney explains, there's much interior restoration yet to come, including reproducing the missing living room inglenook, restoring art-glass cabinets in the upper entryway and casting reproductions of long-lost decorative light sconces, but the wealth of results so far reaffirm Robie House's reputation as one of the most well-designed and sublimely coordinated commissions of Wright's astounding career. "It was the City of Chicago's first landmark, and one of the few buildings landmarked both interior and exterior by the state of Illinois," says Sweeney, "and we like to say it's the best example of the Prairie Style." Indeed, members of the AIA voted it one of the 10 most significant structures of the 20th century. "The way Wright came back to visit Robie House twice, and the fact that it's the only house he defended against demolition – while in his 90s, no less – really confirms that he saw it as one of his masterpieces." And coming from the self-styled greatest architect in the world, that's high marks enough for another century.  

 


Gordon Bock is a writer, architectural historian, technical consultant and lecturer, as well as the co-author of the forthcoming book The Vintage House (www.vintagehousebook.com).

 

 

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