The Wright Idea

courtesy of Tim Long - Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust

“Still turning heads after 100 years,” reads a banner on the side of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House. Tourists cluster outside, eager to see the interior of this elegant fortress of a building. A ten-year-old poses stiffly near a planter and flashes a toothy grin as her father snaps a photo on his digital camera. A gleaming silver tour bus comes to a crawl at the curb in front of the house, and rows of gray heads peer from behind tinted windows to get a good look at the edifice. “All right, one-thirty tour, are we ready to begin?” a tour guide says brightly. As the pack moves toward the house’s front entrance, the tour group encounters two middle-aged women with their heads pressed up against the windows. “We were just looking,” they mutter, and sheepishly scuttle aside.

Since its construction, the Robie House has indeed been turning heads, as much out of controversy as admiration. It was the building Wright himself once called “the most ideal place in the world,” yet was once in danger of destruction. Located in the heart of Hyde Park, at the corner of 58th and Woodlawn, the home has long been a fixture in the Hyde Park community as a tourist attraction and architectural fascination, and it celebrates its centennial anniversary this year. The hubbub around the home, which is only one of hundreds designed by Wright throughout his prolific career, is notable. But the Robie House is more than just an architectural masterpiece–the story surrounding its South Side location is also the story of the man who designed it. The neighborhoods of Kenwood and Hyde Park shaped Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision as much as it shaped them.

The Chicago chapter of Wright’s career arguably began in Kenwood. In 1887, Wright arrived in Chicago and convinced the architects of a church to take him on as an apprentice for $8 a week. All Soul’s Church–originally located at 39th and Cottage Grove, but since demolished–was completed in that same year. At a church production of “Les Misérables,” Wright met his future wife, Catherine Tobin, the daughter of a wealthy Kenwood resident.

Wright knocked on the door of the famous Adler and Sullivan firm shortly after his work on All Souls’ Church, and spent several years there under the wing of Louis Sullivan. But strapped for cash and itching to branch out, he accepted ten independent commissions between the years 1891 and 1893 without Sullivan’s knowledge. Called Wright’s “bootlegged” houses, these residences were done in styles typical of the period. Two of them still survive in Kenwood.

The two stately siblings sit on the corner of 49th and Kenwood, fairly ordinary-looking and easily missed amidst a crop of 19th-century homes. Wright tried to justify the unoriginality of these houses in his autobiography: “I couldn’t invent the terms on my own overnight. At that time, there was nothing in sight that might be helpful.”

Built in 1892, the George Blossom House blends in with its aristocratic neighbors. But looking through a book of Wright’s work, University of Chicago professor of art history Katherine Taylor comments on the house’s small architectural details that make it noticeably Wright’s. “You can see his influence–the odd positioning of the windows, its horizontality. Today it looks”–she pauses, searching for an adequate word–“different.” Paint curls on the yellow clapboard siding and the graying ionic colonnade supporting the front porch. Balusters line the edge of a sagging side porch, and a century’s worth of paint distorts their original slender form. Moss colors the trim green in places.

Just up the block, the McArthur House is decidedly the pretty one. Also built in 1892, this edifice marked a turning point in Wright’s grasp on artistic license–for the first time in his life, Wright took the liberty to design all of the home’s furniture, woodwork, and art glass. Today, bright Fisher-Price toys and tricycles peep through the black grillwork of a fence. A matching garage in back is concealed by trees.

Wright attempted to remain incognito during his “bootleg” years, but his distinctive style ultimately gave him away. His mentor Sullivan, who owned a house in Kenwood, saw a nearby home whose style was unmistakably Wright’s. Sullivan promptly booted him out of the office in 1893 for breach of contract.

Southwest of the bootleg homes, the Isidore H. Heller House sits at 5132 Woodlawn Avenue. While designing this residence in 1897, Wright was still working under the assumptions of Sullivan’s style; his influence is apparent in the intricate Beaux Arts frieze tracing the third story of the building. But this commission marked an obvious shift in Wright’s architectural ideas; his Prairie Style had begun to emerge. From the home’s limestone façade, it’s hard to get a sense of its linearity; stepping alongside it, however, reveals its horizontal orientation. Rather than a single grand entrance facing the street, Wright positioned the main entrance along the southern edge of the building, a tacit push for the guest to walk around the entire structure and appreciate it in full. Wright used the same tactic in his next and most famous Hyde Park/Kenwood home.

In 1908, Wright began work on the Frederick C. Robie House. Perhaps the greatest example of his Prairie Style work, the Robie House is the apex of Wrightian geometry, a culmination of all the linear elements of his previous works. The place seems to levitate above the ground; a floating battleship in a then-sea of actual prairie. The simplicity is striking. In the entrance of the Robie House, one is overwhelmed by a sense of compression: the low-lying roof and narrow space make the visitor feel cramped. “Most people assume that the ceiling height is due to Wright’s own shortness, but Wright wanted it to be uncomfortable,” tour guide Beth Fioritto explains. “This was used to make the entryway a transitional space and encourage the guests to see the rest of the house.” Once inside, it’s clear that the building was designed with the client in mind; Fioretto points out a low “kid-friendly” hearth and bench in the Robie children’s playroom. Wright stressed in his autobiography, “Human use and comfort should have intimate possession of every interior–should be felt in every exterior.” Strong horizontal lines permeate the entire building; the mortar itself was specially stained to make rows of brick appear to be unbroken horizontal rows. Strength is balanced with delicacy in intricate wooden screens that cover the ceiling of the main level. Light streams through chevron-embossed windowpanes, evoking golden stalks of prairie wheat.

courtesy of Tim Long - Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust

Wright’s aesthetic came from more than his imagination. “It was a matter of commissions,” says Professor Taylor. “His clients typically were modern, mechanically-minded business men,” the kind of people who were also attracted to the community surrounding the intellectual hotbed that was the University of Chicago. Wright himself described his clients as people “with unspoiled instincts and untainted ideas.” In the case of the Robie House, it was a predestined meeting of the minds. Robie himself was fascinated with engineering; as a hobby, he designed and built prototype automobiles. “When Robie expressed ideas for his home to other architects, they told him to go to Frank Lloyd Wright,” Fioritto explains. “Wright and Robie thought alike.”

The Robie House marked the end–and perhaps the peak–of Wright’s Prairie Style period. “This absorbing, consuming phase of my experience as an architect ended about 1909,” Wright wrote. “I had almost reached my fortieth year: weary, I was losing grip on my work–and even interest in it.” However weary he was of Prairie Style, Frank Lloyd Wright had a special love for the Robie House; he personally gave German-American architect Mies van der Rohe a tour. The building was later acquired by the UofC, which used it as a dormitory to house students of the Theological Seminary from 1926 to 1959. With the advent of mid-century urban renewal, the house was set for demolition in 1957 to make room for a new dormitory. In spite of his initial abandonment of the project in 1909, Wright fought relentlessly to keep the Robie House. He won, and in 1963 the Robie House was designated as a historic landmark.

“I like to end the tour here where we began,” Fioretto says, gesturing widely to the area adjacent to the garage. “I think this is how Wright meant for us to view the house: in its entirety.” In celebration of the Robie House’s centennial anniversary, numerous events will be held, including extended tours, concerts, cocktail after-hours, and special family programming. On October 23, in conjunction with the UofC Humanities Day, Professor Taylor will be joined by architect Geoffrey Goldberg and Robie House scholar Donald Hoffman to talk about the home’s architectural significance, followed by “Projecting Modern,” a multimedia art exhibit on the third floor.

In addition to the centennial events, the Robie House has been undergoing extensive interior renovations; the floors have been restored to their original salmon color, and white stucco walls are being repainted to replicate Wright’s original pallet–rich earth tones of ochre, peach, and tan. “Often on tours, people will comment on how contemporary this house is even after one hundred years,” Fioritto says at the conclusion of the tour. “For me, [Wright’s work is a] departure from building typical houses,” she adds as a final thought. “Wright’s houses are livable; the house fits the people who lived there.”

To learn about upcoming Robie centennial events, click here