Highlights of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House: A Chicago Family Day Trip
Visiting the "Cornerstone of Modern Architecture" in South Chicago
The Robie House, built in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, is considered by many architecture historians to be the "cornerstone of modern architecture." The low-rise home is definitely the quintessential expression of Frank Lloyd Wright's Prairie Style designs, and it was one the last homes that he made in this style.
Completed in 1910 for a bicycle-manufacturing magnate, the home was designated a national historic landmark in 1963 and donated to the University of Chicago. It also was placed on the first National Register of Historic Places list three years later.
Here are some highlights of a recent visit to the house. Please note that photos inside the house were only for private use, so we aren't including here. All photos here are by us unless otherwise stated.
The Sad History of the Famous Building
The tour of Robie House starts with a nine-minute video that explains the history of the building. Built for Frederick C. Robie in 1909 and 1910, the house was never much of a home. Although Robie himself was a successful bicycle manufacturer, he was saddled with debt after his father's death and his marriage collapsed. So the Robies stayed in the house only 18 months!
The man who bought the house from Robie lived there less than a year before he died. The next family did stay there until 1926, when the building was sold to a theological seminary that used it as dormitory and dining hall until 1958 when a benefactor bought the building at the behest of Lloyd Wright. The benefactor then donated it to the university five years later, which used it for office space until 1997. It was almost destroyed in 1941 and 1957, but now after a $5.5 million restoration it is restored and open for guided tours.
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Red Bricks, Steel Beams and No Attic!
After the video, the tour guide brings us across the street to get a better view of the building's sweeping, low design. the house is actually made up of a pair of two-story rectangular concrete blocks that sit next to each other with a section sitting on top.
The guide explains that all the roman brick is mostly for show and doesn't support the house. Instead, steel beams were used, and some of those are 60 feet long in the overhanging roofs.
The other thing that stands out is the sheer amount of windows all through the house. At the time many houses were Victorian and rather dark. Robie House allowed a lot of light in, and with the way the ledges were there was still privacy for the people inside.
One other point the guide makes is that there is no attic and no basement, but we expected that after visiting Lloyd Wright's own house in Oak Park. He was an architect that despised attics and basements as wasted space.
Own the Robie House!
Visiting the Main Level of Robie House
The main door of Robie House is hidden down a walk around the back of the building, which isn't a surprise because that kind of entrance was typical of Lloyd Wright's designs.
The entry hall is rather small with a low ceiling, which was planned to create a feeling of intimacy. The house also had a powder room off the entry hall, which the guide told us wasn't common at the time. The stairs leading to the main living level are wider and brighter than the architect wanted them to be, but the Robie family insisted, the guide said.
The main living level, which is the middle one of the house, is split by a fireplace that has space to pass on either side. So it breaks the space into two but still allows a very free-flowing feel. From the fireplace to the end of the room is 44 feet of living space, all well lit by a series of twelve French doors containing art glass panels. Outside the doors is an exterior balcony running the length of the south side. The west end of the living room contains two more glass doors that open onto a porch beneath the cantilevered roof.
The room was long enough that some of the kids that lived in the house used to run laps regularly for exercise!
Such a large room wasn't easy to heat, but Lloyd Wright didn't care, the guide said. he was only interested in its beauty.
On the other side of the fireplace is the dining room, which is a smaller space for more intimate gatherings. The original dining room furniture are in the Smart Museum on the University of Chicago campus.
The Guest Bedroom, Kitchen and Our Disappointment
Above the entrance hall was a guest bedroom that was nice but nothing memorable. The visit to the kitchen was kind of cool if only because it was one of the larger ones we have ever seen.
The guide explained to us that the house was built with a garage for automobiles, which was unusual at the time because of course most people were still using horses and buggies. But Mrs. Robie was forward-looking and didn't want a stable -- she insisted on the garage.
We were a bit disappointed that the end of the tour arrived without us going to the third level or seeing the rest of the building. The guide explained that the third level can only be seen through a separate guided tour that is restricted to nine people at a time because of Chicago's safety regulations (something about the lack of bannisters.) Other parts of the house are either being taken up by the trust that runs the place or are still being renovated. To be honest, he wasn't really clear.
Even so, we felt that we got a good sense of the house and would recommend it for anyone who is interested in architecture.
The Robie House: A Building That Changed America
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House was selected by PBS as one of the 10 buildings that most influenced architecture in the United States.
Watch PBS's 10 Buildings That Changed America here.
Have You Visited Robie House?
Have You Visited Robie House?
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