The University of Chicago News Office
February 22, 1995 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
(773) 702-6421
jschonwa@uchicago.edu
 

Robie House Renovation

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House, considered one of the most important works of 20th-century residential architecture, may soon be restored and opened to the public as a house museum, according to officials at the University of Chicago and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation.

The University, which owns the 86-year-old house, and the Oak Park-based Foundation have agreed to a plan that would eventually lead to the University leasing the architectural masterpiece to the Foundation, which would then open it to the public.

Called by Wright “the cornerstone of modern architecture,” the house marked a dramatic departure from the residential architecture of the day. Its emphasis on striking horizontal lines, its hovering roofs and its fluid, open-spaced interior revolutionized American residential architecture.

In 1957, a panel of leading architects and art historians named the Robie House one of the two outstanding houses built in the 20th century. The other was Fallingwater, a house built by Wright in 1936 in Bear Run, Pa.

“Robie House is a national treasure on our campus,” said University President Hugo F. Sonnenschein, “and we are hopeful that this agreement will make it accessible to more people so that they can enjoy its architectural significance. That would be a truly splendid outcome.”

“We commend the University of Chicago for seeking the best possible use of this historic building,” said Nancy DeSombre, President of the Board of Directors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation. “The Foundation is especially proud to have been chosen to participate in this project. We believe that the goals of the University and those of the Foundation are complementary and that this agreement will result in a long-term partnership.”

Natalie A. Hala, Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation, said, “This partnership represents an opportunity for the Foundation to encourage an expanded understanding of Wright’s creativity. Just as Wright’s Home and Studio anticipates the Prairie style, the Robie house represents its fullest expression.

“The pairing of these structures underscores an important continuum in the creative life of their architect. The pairing of these organizations creates possibilities to expand, diversify, enliven and enrich our educational outreach.”

The house–located on the University’s campus, at 5757 Woodlawn Avenue–is now used for the offices of the University’s Alumni Association. The University is consulting with its Alumni Association on a new location for its offices.

Although tours are given once a day of the exterior of the house and two rooms, most of the house is not available for public view.

A fundraising goal of $2.5 million has been established for the restoration.

The Foundation oversees Wright’s Home and Studio in Oak Park. That building is open to the public, as are some other Wright structures in Oak Park and elsewhere in the country.

Wright designed the Robie House in 1909 for Frederick Robie, who wanted a “fireproof, reasonably priced home to live in–not a conglomeration of doodads.”

In many ways Frederick Robie was a perfect client for Wright. The young manufacturer wanted a house with natural light, open interiors and security for his children. He didn’t want dark rooms, closets, draperies and many other conventions of the day.

The building became the antithesis of Victorian architecture, which emphasized small, high ceilinged rooms and vertical exteriors.

With Robie’s support, Wright expressed ideas he had been hinting at up until then but had been unable to develop fully: the sense of the prairie embodied in sheltering overhangs, low terraces and outreaching walls sequestering private gardens.

As a result of Wright’s innovations, the Robie House combines both privacy and openness. Large windows permit the interiors to be flooded with light on the second and third floors, while at ground level, a children’s play area is protected by a long, broad wall.

The three-story, horizontal structure was designed to blend with the landscape of Midwest. Its oversized roof sections are intended to look like a series of prairie hillocks.

The house also gave form to a uniquely American notion of individualism unaddressed by the European styles popular at the time. The undraped, recessed windows of the living room on the upper floor gave Robie a commanding view of the street, yet would not allow neighbors to see in.

Robie House has consistently drawn praise from people knowledgeable about architecture. In 1991, for instance, the American Institute of Architects listed Robie House as one of the best works of American architecture. Fallingwater was the only other residence to make the list.

Robie lived in the house for one and a half years. After two subsequent owners, the house and its furnishings were sold in 1926 to the Chicago Theological Seminary. In 1957, the seminary announced plans to raze the building to erect a dormitory. Preservationists protested the destruction of the house, and through a series of purchases and gifts, the University eventually acquired the house in 1963. That year it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

 

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