History of Building/Site
Commission brief: verbal obligation to build a house worth at least $20,000, design included boundary walls that ran to the very edges of the lot on the north and east
Design brief: Robie has done some sketches of the kind of house he wanted, probably simple diagrams showing the arrangement of rooms, and when he showed them to contractors and architects he kept getting the reply,” I know what you want, one of these damn Wright houses.” In his reminiscences of 1958, Robie claimed that he went to Wright knowing exactly the kind of house he wanted: “no junk” in the way of shades or curtains; maximum sunlight, with the shading provided only by broad overhanging eaves; separate nursery facilities; a yard with a wall to keep a children in and kidnappers out; rooms without interruptions; and a view out over his neighbors without relinquishing any his privacy. On the surface, it sounds as if he could have designed the house without Wright. However, it might be safer to assume that Robie did not know quite so specifically what he wanted, that aside from rejecting some conventions, the positive side of his program was.
Dates: Commission / Completion:Commission or competition date: Robie approached Wright around Christmas 1906. Largely complete: May 1910
Architectural and other Designer(s): Architect(s):Frank Lloyd Wright
Building contractor(s): H.B. Barnard Co. of Chicago
Others associated with Building/Site: Name(s): The Taylor Family
Association: 2nd house owner
Event(s): bought the house from Frederick Robie and lived in this house for 11 years
Original owner(s)/patron(s):Frederick Carlton Robie
Association:3rd house owner
Event(s): bought the house from The Taylor Family and lived in this house for 14 years
Name(s):The Chicago Theological Seminary
Association:bought the house from Wilber Family
Event(s): used this house for dormitory for married students
Period: since 1926
Name(s): Webb and Knapp
Association: New York Real estate firm
Event(s):saved the house from the risk of demolition
Name(s):Webb and Knapp
Association: New York Real estate firm
Event(s):donate this house to University of Chicago
Significant Alteration(s) with Date(s): Type of change: 14 French doors on the original plan would open out onto balcony from the living and dining rooms.
Date(s): during construction period.
Circumstances/reasons for change: As the metal beams of the balcony were being bolted into place, Wright must have felt that he could exploit still further the skeletal possibilities of iron and steel construction.
Effects of changes: From the street these changes are hard to detect, but to anyone looking up through these hatches to the roofs flying above them, the effect is intensely dramatic and the house begins to take on some of the freedom and romance of advanced nautical design.
Persons/organization involved: Contractor
Type of change: alteration:
Circumstances/reasons for change: As Frederick C. Robie (original owner) went bankrupt a couple of years after construction, the house quickly fell on poor times.
Effects of changes:It was turned into a dormitory.
Persons/organization involved: Chicago Theological Seminary
Type of change:
Circumstances/reasons for change:Robie House was rescued (from being demolished) (like through the ingenuity of Julian Levi and arranged at a meeting in Mayor Daley’s office) by the New York firm overseeing much of the Urban Renewal work in Hyde Park, Webb and Knapp, led by William Zeckendorf, for $125,000. Many Hyde Parks, including newly elected alderman Leon Despres and his wife Marian (Auditorium Theater, Glesner House), worked diligently for preservation and eventual restoration.
Type of change: renovation
Circumstances/reasons for change: seriously deteriorated house was renovated before it serves as museum. Decades of decay and neglect have endangered the Frederick C. Robie House, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building that the architect himself termed “a cornerstone of modern architecture” and the only one of his creations that he fought to save from demolition – twice. Wright was not the only one to regard the Robie House as an important structure. Architectural historians consider it one of the most important buildings in the history of American architecture and a masterpiece of the Prairie style. Although designated one of the 12 most significant structures of the twentieth century by the American Institute of Architects, the Robie House was badly in need of repairs. In 1999, the Robie House was named an official project of the Save America's Treasures program, intended to help preserve America's irreplaceable historic and cultural treasures. Now a 10-year, $8-million-plus restoration project is giving this American icon a new lease on life and preserving it for future generations. The restoration's main goals are to stabilize the building, repair the damage caused over time, and return the building to its original appearance in 1910 when construction was completed and the house best reflected the design intent of the architect and the client. Throughout the process, as much original building fabric as possible will be conserved, and as many original furnishings as possible will be installed. The restored Frederick C. Robie House will be operated and preserved as an architectural house museum, so that future generations can experience this historic treasure.Effects of changes: change from a gathering place for Chicago alumni to museum. Early on in the restoration, the building needed to be stabilized. Termite damage was more extensive than expected, as in this wood joist from the playroom. One wall was so thoroughly damaged by termites that it had to be removed and rebuilt. Removal of the non-original interior plaster revealed decayed wood. The Robie House was originally designed as a home, but is now being adapted for assembly occupancy. For instance, a non-original steel support beam in the first floor entryway had to be replaced with one that will prevent deflection of the plaster ceiling and provide structural stability for the increased load of public access. Inspection of the roof revealed unexpected levels of decay. 30% of the roof decking and 5% of the rafters required replacement or reinforcement. Epoxy treatment was utilized wherever possible to allow for a larger percentage of the original roof to remain intact. Insulation and an ice and water shield were installed to make the repaired roof watertight. Clay tile reproductions were made based on a small number of original tiles stored in the wine cellar when the original roof was replaced in the 1960s. The custom-made "hip" and "ridge" tiles fit tightly to the planes of the roof deck as they would have originally, bringing the roofline to its 1910 appearance. Much of the water damage suffered by the Robie House was due to copper gutter linings that were not angled to drain properly. New copper liners were installed on the upper sections of all the gutters. As additional precaution against leaks, ice and water shield was installed under the new liners and along the top edge. The original copper cornices of the gutters were conserved by sculpture conservators specializing in the conservation of metal outdoor sculptures. Layers of corrosion were removed with stiff rotating brushes. A protective patina restored the look to the original brown color. On the left is the gutter cornice before conservation, and after conservation on the right. The plaster soffits had deteriorated because water leaking through the roof rusted the metal lathe, making the plaster fail, creating cracks and holes, and even allowing icicles to form right through the plaster during Chicago's harsh winters. Robie House is famous for its gravity-defying cantilevers or overhangs. They got a new lease on life as new lathe was installed in preparation for plastering. The soffits (undersides of the cantilevers) were replastered with a texture that recreates the original. The soffits were painted their original golden ochre color, which highlights the colored glass in the windows and contrasts with the dark brown window sashes. With the freshly conserved gutters and repointed masonry, the horizontal lines of the building show dramatically sharp and crisp. Over the decades, soot, dirt and pollutants had accumulated on the brick surfaces. The first step was to clean the masonry by applying a special poultice and allowing it to cure before washing it off. Next, masons ground out the old mortar between the bricks, using chisels and special saws. Many bricks were damaged due to non-original mortar applied over the course of the building's history. Moisture infiltrating clay bricks freezes and expands during freeze/thaw weather cycles, slightly altering the shape and size of the bricks. A brick can handle this stress as long as it does not meet with resistance by adjacent materials. When the bricks expanded against the non-original hard cement mortar, they met resistance, which made them crack or break. Bricks that were too severely damaged to be repaired were cut out of the wall so that they could be replaced with originals that had been stock piled on site. All masonry surfaces were repointed with a lime putty mortar, which replicates the composition, color and texture of the original mortar. Unlike hard cement mortar, lime mortar is the perfect complement to clay brick because it is soft enough to cushion the brick's stress. It was applied as Wright had specified: putty-colored, concave horizontal joints not only to accentuate the building's horizontal lines, but also to prevent rain water from pooling between the bricks; and brick-colored, flush vertical joints.Chicago's winters had taken their toll on the sweeping porches. In the past, new layers of concrete were poured over previous layers to cover up the damage. Not only had large new cracks appeared, but the west porch floor was 5" higher than it had originally been. Note the shortened height of the lowest riser on the steps, due to the raised floor. The west porch was rebuilt with reinforced concrete to add structural support. Beneath the surface, a flexible tubing snowmelt system prevents the build-up of ice and snow dams. Other porches received new topping slabs with snowmelt systems. The cured concrete matches the color and texture of the original 1910 porches. An inadequate foundation had damaged the garden wall running along the property's south border, causing it to lean to one side. It was dismantled brick by brick and reinstalled on a new foundation. Here the limestone cap is being removed. Installation of new mechanical systems, including state-of-the-art temperature and humidity controls ensure a museum-quality interior environment. Interlocking aspirating fire detection and dry sprinkler systems protect the building. All internal electrical wiring was updated and new water service introduced to bring the building into compliance with today's codes for public use. The new piping was concealed beneath floors, within walls, ceiling spaces and existing closets. Just how deluxe Mr. Robie's three-car garage was in its day came to light when the non-original floor was removed to install new heating and water pipes. Sunk into the ground, below floor level, was a small cavity with thick concrete walls - the original mechanic's pit that Robie had requested Wright to include in his design for the garage. The placement of the new pipes was altered to allow the pit to remain intact. Although the Robie House Bookshop is currently housed in the garage, restoration goals include historic interpretation of the garage space. This central set of garage doors was reconstructed based on historic photographs. Later, staff at the University of Chicago discovered a fragment of an original garage door in the attic of a university building. Two more sets of reproduction doors were created based on detailed measurements of the original. All three sets of garage doors are now fully operational. With time and funding, the center doors will be modified to match the originals. The garage art glass windows were in fragmentary condition when restoration began, and were conserved for installation. They continue the unified line of art glass on the south façade of the house.The original eight-foot-high wall surrounding the garage was lowered at some point between 1925 and the 1950s. The existing wall was dismantled, original bricks and limestone set aside, and a new foundation poured. Both original and reproduction bricks were used to rebuild the wall to its 1910 height. In order to present the most accurate façade possible, original bricks were used on the side of the wall facing the street, and reproduction bricks were placed on the side facing the garage courtyard. To recreate the historically accurate wall, additional bricks that would match the originals were needed. Months of research, comparing of brick samples and test firings led to a brick manufacturer in Ohio that could match the distinctive color and texture of the original iron-spotted, coal-fired bricks. The reproduction bricks were cut in half lengthwise to achieve the correct height. The opening seen in the wall awaits reproduction steel gates. The Robie House's built-in flower boxes or planters help achieve a synthesis between the building and nature. The original watering system stopped working soon after construction was completed, and the planters had suffered damage over time. New copper liners were installed, and while the original pipes remain in place, new water supply pipes with freeze protection were added. This feature will allow for the installation of a drip irrigation system in the future. Here the glass panel from one of the art glass windows has separated from the metal came. All 174 art glass panels in the Robie House require conservation. Some are missing areas of metal came and are in danger of falling apart in situ. Others are bowing at an alarming rate. Many require reputtying with insulating putty. All need a thorough cleaning. Preservation Trust staff completed a detailed survey of the condition of each window, and created a triage list of priorities for conservation. Staff members consulted with top art glass conservators to develop a methodology for conservation and documentation of the work performed on each panel. One aspect the Robie Art Glass Conservation Methodology specifies is glass replacement: plate glass which exhibits significant cracks, breaks or chips should be replaced in kind, while similarly affected colored glass should always be edge-glued. Here the craftsman is cutting new glass to replace a cracked piece. When the conserved glass returns from the restoration studio, it is reinstalled into its original frame and location. The frames and window sashes are stabilized or conserved as needed.Persons/organization involved: The Robie House is being restored to its original splendor by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, according to the guidelines developed by the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. The $8-million-plus project endeavors to preserve this icon of modern architecture as an architectural house museum, so future generations can experience its remarkable design and incredible spaces. Exterior restoration has been completed. Interior restoration has begun in the dining room prow area and will proceed as funds are raised. The restoration of the kitchen and baths is partially funded by tourismcares.org.
Current Use: Of whole building/site: Museum operated by Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust
Main features: It looks extremely complicated as a total composition, but it can be broken down visually into simpler parts. The law of interlocking masses - each large component of the house is designed in strict symmetry, but the components are allowed to combine in a fluid way. It is though the laws of physics had been momentarily suspended so that one solid mass could interpenetrate another until at a certain point these laws were suddenly reasserted and the drifting masses locked into place.- master bedroom wing on uppermost story. It follows a T-shaped plan and left to itself It would have been almost completely symmetrical. Strictness of symmetry – two giant flower urns obviously balance one another, but so do the piers on which they stand, the piers on which the long balcony seems to rest, and even the clusters of piers that hold up the roof. Exterior was shaped with colossal Froebel blocks but Wright wanted, make one forget the whole Froebel system with a few brilliant psychological tricks.- Garage wing stands at the rear of the house could not possibly have a pendant on the opposite side. There was no need for one and no space. - Wright cleverly detaches the garage from the main house, not physically but perceptually. Just at the point where the garage roof and the roof of the main house should merge.- Wright opens up a long, narrow slit that separates them again at least in a visual sense.- Just beneath the slit there is a grid of posts and lintels, which lines up with windows on both the south and north side of the kitchen and acts like a series of perforations, allowing the eye to pull the whole garage wing apart with just a gentle tug. Other perceptual tricks- The long balcony that runs along the side of the house is in fact supported by metal beams that protrude at regular intervals from the living and dining room floors.- With the stone copings above and below, the balcony itself looks like one giant I-beam, supported by a great brick post at either end.- It functions as a metaphor for an old-fashioned system of support, post and lintel construction, next to which the bold cantilever of the roof appears all that much more bold and soaring. - On the north side of the house, where there is no balcony, the same cantilevered roof looks slightly tamer.- In bright sunlight the balcony casts a broad band of shadow and reinforces the horizontal lines of design.- Horizontal joints deeply underscored for the masons conceal reinforce the dominant horizontal lines. French doors open out onto balcony from living and dining rooms. Featuring sweeping horizontal planes and a low-pitched roof cantilevered dramatically beyond the walls. Lightness and transparency provided by 174 art-glass windows and doors. Construction and materials: There is much more steel in the house than is usually supposed. Masons conceal all vertical joints while all horizontal joints were deeply underscored. Exterior walls are constructed of a red-orange brick. The capstones, lintels, sills and other exterior features are of a light gray stone, similar to sandstone. Art glass window dapple the house with color and light. It has no street façade and no obvious door. There are hardly any solid walls. Instead, it seems to be a building assembled out of giant blocks, free-floating roofs, and endless ribbons of windows. The distinguishing feature by which the house is immediately recognized is the famous cantilevered roof that extends twenty feel beyond the last masonry support and provokes the troubling thought that no wooden roof could possibly extend that far for long. Its relentlessly straight lines make the house look like the least natural of objects. It shuns the foliate ornament and historical detail that characterize the other houses on the block, most of which were constructed from progressive designs of the decade immediately preceding that of Robie House, 1900 to 1909. Its only ornament seems to be the abstract patterns in its windows and hundreds of flowers that blossom in season from planters hidden in nearly every horizontal ledge. Peering through the screen of plants and glass, one wonders where the inhabitants could possibly live. Comparing the house with its generous and graceful neighbors, one senses a sharp social break, a tone of emphatic dissent. On a street of large, stately houses the Robie House looks small and severe and, one might rashly judge, cheap, like an interloper from a different class, a mechanic among the gentry.
Original Physical Context:
60-foot lot that Robie purchases in 1906 is the narrowest lot on this stretch of Woodlawn Avenue.
A new U.S. postal stamp featuring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House was made available February 4th, 1998 as part of a series of 30 stamps that honored important people and events of the 20th century.
Cultural & Aesthetic:
‘Most ideal place in the world.’ said Fred C. Robie A few houses of the previous generation had experimented with similar ideas, but comparisons serve merely to show how distinctive the Robie House really is, and how complete was its rupture with convention.
Canonical status: One of the best known early examples of Prairie style architecture. 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.” When the Seminary again proposed to replace the house with a high-rise dorm in 1956-7, Wright visited and gave a much-quoted statement: “To destroy it would never be permitted in Europe. It could only happen in America, and it is particularly sad that professional religionists should be the executioners…It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy.” Soon after, the city’s new Commission on Architectural Landmarks named Robie House its first “honorary” landmark, although the commission lacked power. The Seminary’s response was to suggest giving Robie to the city if the city would relocate it or to build a model in a museum. Robie House epitomizes Wright’s signature Prairie style, while Wright made significant contributions to modern architecture during his prolific 70-year career. It was considered by Frank Lloyd Wright his quintessential Prairie School creation, a work of both art and spirituality. The house is generally considered a turning point in modern residential architecture. It was voted one of the ten most important buildings in America – in its structure, as design, as integration of materials, as design for domestic life and layout of living space. The Robie House contributed to a totally new conception of the façade and thus broke with an age-old tradition in architecture. For centuries the façade had been the static face of a building, solid, symmetrical, and set at right angles to the axis of approach. Wright’s reputation as a great innovator in the realm of structure has obscured the fact that he was also a brilliant visual psychologist with many perceptual tricks found in Robie House as instance.
The Robie House preservation fight in the 1950s was the spark behind the city’s first landmark protection ordinance.