Frederick C. Robie House

I still have a few blog posts pending from my recent trip to America. One that I am most excited to share is on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House. Visits are by guided tour only and are conducted by representatives of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. You can see the outside of the house without being on a tour, but, I highly recommend spending 50 minutes of your day exploring the interior and learning about it’s significance to American architecture.

History

Frank Lloyd Wright is generally regarded as one of America’s most influential architects. His aim was to find a style of architecture that felt native to America. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Wright settled on a style that was to become known as the Prairie Style. Common features include low-pitched roofs, no attics or basements, and long lines of bricks to emphasize the horizontal nature of the buildings. This reflected the long and low prairie landscape that surrounded Wright. Later in his life, he designed a particularly famous building, the Guggenheim in New York.

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The Frederick C. Robie house was commissioned in 1908 and completed in 1910. It is regarded as the best example of Prairie Style. It was also a personal favourite of Wright who campaigned twice to prevent the house from being demolished (once when he was 90 years old). This was the only one of his designs that he campaigned so actively to save. It would be Wright’s final example of the Prairie Style house and in 1991, it was recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of the ten most significant structures of the twentieth century.

The house has an extensive history of ownership. Originally commissioned and owned by the Robie family, it was sold in 1909 to pay off the debts of Frederick Robie’s father. From 1911 to 1912, the Taylors family moved in and in 1912 to 1926 it was occupied by the Wilburs family. They were the last family to call Robie house home. For seventy years it served as a classroom, refectory, dormitory and office space. In 1997, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust took over and both operated and cared for the site. The University of Chicago owns the building and allows the Trust to operate tours and undertake any restoration work.

We were very fortunate to visit when we did as the House has just undergone one of its biggest restoration projects. This included re-plastering the entire inside of the house – a huge task.

The Tour

To reiterate, it is definitely worth going on a tour to see the inside of the Robie House. Don’t miss the opportunity. Tickets can be purchased online, or, if you’re willing to risk it being sold out, at the gift shop/tour starting point.

On the guided tour, you will see every room in the house and learn about the architectural style. For example, in the living room we were told that Frank Lloyd Wright popularized open plan living in American homes. In the image below you can see next to the fireplace there is a corridor that leads to the dining room. Another common design feature of the Prairie Style is that the ceilings are extremely low at the entrance then become higher and open up as you move throughout the house. This is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable at first then relieved once you get to the main rooms.

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There is one small element that I really want to mention. These are the leaded glass windows pictured below. Basically every window or door to the outside had a similar pattern on the glass. On the tour we were told they offered the residents some privacy as they didn’t have blinds. Not sure how much privacy it would have allowed, but, the pattern is stunning.

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The tour also takes visitors outside and points out key features of the exterior. As it was pouring down rain, our guide made the wise decision to say indoors. Parts of the exterior were pointed out when we had the opportunity to look outside. We also had the wonderful opportunity to see the drainage system in full swing re-directing water to the garden bed.

Chair Exhibition

Upstairs, spread across the three bedrooms is an exhibition on famous Frank Lloyd Wright chairs. Late last year I saw a miniature chair exhibition which featured a few of his chairs. My absolute favourite was the Peacock Side Chair.

It was great to see a full-size version and admire its design. This style was designed for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo in 1921. The patterns seen in the chair were recurring motifs throughout the hotel. I love it because it looks so simple yet has multiple intricate features. The contrast of mustard yellow to the wood is beautiful.

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As the bedrooms contain no original furniture, this exhibition works nicely in the space. It allows for a wider representation and display of Wright’s work. Exhibitions can be a little difficult to fit into historic houses without looking a little out of place. This one blends well with its surrounds and enhances, rather than distracts, from the overall experience.

Photographs

To finish, I’m going to share a few more photographs from the Robie House.

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A distinct pattern cast by the light – designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
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The dining room of Robie House
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A wooden grate petition separating the entrance stairs from the living room
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Doors leading to the children’s play room

 Final Tip

The 50 minute tour was about the right amount of time. Benefits of the 90 minute tour (only available on weekends) is that groups are limited to 10 people. Small group tours are ideal and I imagine this tour would be great for those who are a huge fan of Wright’s work. If you are happy just to keep things to 50 minutes then I encourage aiming for the first tour of the day – you might be lucky and have a small group.

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