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January 17, 2018
Advanced Geometry Architecture Paper
The Robie House: Chicago, Illinois
The Frederick C. Robie House, or the Robie House for short, is a National Historic Landmark in Chicago Illinois located on the campus of University Chicago in Hyde Park. The building was designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1909 through 1910, and it is regarded as the best representation of the Prairie School Style, the first solely American architectural style. Between 1908 and 1909, Wright designed the Robie House with its precedent as the Ferdinand F. Tomek House in Riverside, Illinois, which was also designed by Wright in 1907 through 1908. The man who commissioned the house was Frederick Robie, the assistant manager of the Excelsior Supply Company, owned and managed by his father. He and his wife, Laura Robie, an alum of the University of Chicago, had selected the property at 5757 South Woodlawn Avenue in Hyde Park, so they could stay close to the campus and the social life of the University. The property measured at 60 feet by 180 feet.
The contractor, H.B. Barnard Co.of Chicago, began construction on April 15, 1909, and Wright was only able to supervise the early stages of construction as he left for Europe to work on the Wasmuth Portfolio. To continue the building of the house, he turned over his commission to Hermann von Holst and George Mann Niedecken, an interior designer from Milwaukee who had previously worked with Wright on several projects such as the Susan Lawrence Dana House, the Avery Coonley House, and the Meyer May House. Niedecken’s work can be seen in the design of some of the furnishings for the house as well as the carpets in the entrance hall, the living room, and the dining room. The Robie family, consisting of Frederick, Laura, and their two children, Frederick Jr. and Lorraine, moved into the home in May 1910, although all of the final details, including rugs and furniture, were not completed until January 1911. The final cost of the home was $58,500 and today that would approximately be $1.5 million. However, Robie lived in his home very shortly, only fourteen months, because he was forced to sell it from a result of financial problems caused by the death of his father in July 1908 and the failure of his marriage.
In December 1911, David Lee Taylor, president of Taylor-Critchfield Company, an advertising agency, bought the house and all of its Wright-designed contents. Then a year later Taylor died so his widow, Ellen Taylor, sold the house to Marshall D. Wilber, treasurer of the Wilber Mercantile Agency, in November 1912. The Wilbers family were the last people to live in Robie House, living there for a total fourteen years. In June of 1926, the Wilbers sold the house to the Chicago Theological Seminary, who used the house as a dormitory and dining hall though it was mostly interested in the site for future expansion. In 1941, a graduate student of the Illinois Institute of Technology accidentally discovered that the Seminary was planning demolish the Robie House, so he informed his instructors, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The threat of demolition started a bunch of protests. And although the Seminary’s plans were postponed, it was more so because of World War II than by the protests.
The most major threat to the Robie House’s existence came about sixteen years later. On March 1, 1957, the Seminary announced its plans to demolish the Robie House on September 15 in order to build a new dormitory for its students. This time the entire nation outcried against its demolition including Wright himself who then, 90 years old, returned to the Robie House on March 18, accompanied by the media, students, and neighborhood organizers to protest. Fortunately, only weeks earlier, the Chicago City Council, led by Leon Despres, the Hyde Park alderman enacted an ordinance to form the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. On September 15, 1971, the newly created Commission, with support from Mayor Richard J. Daley, declared the Robie House a Chicago landmark. Additionally, two fraternities at the University of Chicago provided the Seminary with an alternative to its plans of demolition. While Wright was a student at the University of Wisconsin, he had been a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. The University of Chicago’s Phi Delt chapter house was two doors north of the Robie house, and the Seminary was already the owner of the lot between the two properties. The Phi Delts offered to vacate their house along with the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity, who were located next to the Phi Delt house. These three properties provided the Seminary with sufficient land for the dormitory they sought to build.
In August 1958, William Zeckendorf, a friend of Wright’s as well as a New York real estate developer who was involved in several development projects in Chicagp, acquired the Robie House through Wright’s urging from the seminary to his development company Webb & Knapp. In February 1963, Zeckendorf donated the building to the University of Chicago. The University used Robie House as the Adlai E. Stevenson Institute of International Affairs, and later the building served as the headquarters for the University’s Alumni Association. In January 1997, the University moved their offices out of the house and then turned over their tours, operations, fundraising and restoration to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust is restoring the Robie House to its original appearance in 1910. This was when construction was completed, and the house best reflected the design intentions of the architect and the client. The Robie House is one of the best known examples of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie style of architecture.
The term was coined when architectural critics and historians noticed how the buildings and their various components were influenced by the landscape and plant life of the midwest prairie of the United States. Wright not only designed the house, but all of the interiors, the windows, lighting, rugs, furniture and textiles. As Wright wrote in 1910, “it is quite impossible to consider the building one thing and its furnishings another. … They are all mere structural details of its character and completeness.” The Robie House is an amazing work of art, and further, the house introduced so many concepts in planning and construction that without this house, much of modern architecture as we know it today, might not exist. In 1956, The Architectural Record selected the Robie House as “one of the seven most notable residences ever built in America.” In 1991, the American Institute of Architects named Robie House among the Top All-Time Work of American Architects.
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