FLW Tour Around Chicago – Part 2
Today, I was able to continue my Frank Lloyd Wright building visits by taking a tour of the Robie House in south Chicago. This house is owned by the University of Chicago but is being restored by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.
Even with a wet and miserable Chicago day, there were a lot of folks around the museum shop and I wasn’t confident of getting onto one of the tours straight away. But being by myself, I was able to get one of the last spots on the next tour. The tour began in the garage courtyard before heading across the road to one of the University plaza’s to take in the full front view of the house.
Our guide told us that the area was vacant land when the house was built in 1909/10, so there would have been views across the prairie from the top floors. This area is now one of the inner suburbs of Chicago with the city stretching many miles south and west. No more views.
I was disappointed to hear that the house is currently under restoration and that we wouldn’t be able to see the top floor (something to do with fire codes). We entered through front door (in the back) and the state of the restoration was very apparent; the ground floor rooms were vary bare with no furnishings and sconces/light fittings missing. You could envision how the rooms should look, but it wasn’t the same without the furnishings. Contrast this with the Dana Thomas house, where many of the original furnishings were kept with the house and are on show. FLW was keen on the furnishings being an integral part of the house, and you can see this when they are missing.
I was interested in the engineering of the house. This one features the long cantilevered roofs as many of the Prairie Style houses did, using steel-reinforced concrete with central load-bearing pillars running from foundation to the roof. This allowed the use of extensive glass along the external walls as they weren’t bearing the load of the roof. This was key to the design of the Darwin Martin House; the guide at the time explained that it was like a “two story skyscraper” due to this engineering approach. The Dana Thomas house, by contrast, only used central pillars for the two rooms with the barrel ceilings, and those were only used for the corners of the barrel ceilings (the main ceiling load being taken by the external walls).
We continued up to the main floor of the house; an open plan area with a lounge at one end and dining room at the other. This was the most impressive section of the house, with the central fireplace splitting the space and the entry stair subtly hidden. The value of the row of art glass windows and the “prow-like” ends was apparent as it really opened the rooms to the outside (I gather this was one of the design features that carried into his Usonian Houses). However again there were few furnishings, and apparently the real ones will remain in the University’s Smart Museum of Art, rather than being placed in the house. This also left the rooms apparently lacking in purpose. I think one of the things I love about his houses is the notion of a purpose for everything (in the same vein as “a place for everything and everything in its place”).
After leaving the house and taking some exterior photos, I walked around the local streets and into the main campus of the University. The Chicago Theological Seminary is very impressive, as are the vine-covered old buildings of the University, particularly with a bit of spring colour in the trees.