Wright’s Robie House Rules
Sure there’s Taliesen, the Guggenheim and Falling Water but if you fancy yourself a Frank Lloyd Wright aficionado, you better get yourself to Chicago. There are tours of his many designs in the city. I had only a few days in town, so I had to be picky. I selected the Robie House in Hyde Park.
• Visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House
Transportation: Got a stupendous deal on airfare. $140.40 roundtrip for two from LAX to Chicago’s O’Hare. Not a typo!
Cost of Lodging: $375 for 3 nights at an Airbnb near Wicker Park.
The day was lovely, the plantings perfectly lush and all was right with the world. Except that I had booked a tour online for a Friday and I was there on Thursday. Amateur! No matter, the crack staff changed my ticket for me minutes before the tour and we were set. Pro-Am tip: Check your ticket before leaving your Airbnb.
Check in is located in the former garage of the Robie House, which was made for cars not horses as Frederick Robie was a car owner — ahead of his time. The tours are limited to small groups, and we met our excellent guide, Janina, in the courtyard. (The building across the street under construction is part of the University of Chicago and echoes some architectural features of the Robie House, albeit in a more glassy, boxy manner.)
While waiting for the tour to begin, one quickly notes an exterior detail: the long bricks are made to look even longer by the use of 2 colors of mortar, red for the verticals and off-white for the horizontals. This in itself is enough to qualify as genius in my book. I’m not a builder or an architect but this simple, (and I would imagine laborious) technique, creates such an elongated, pleasing line. The building stretches out elegantly but appears planted to the land under the day’s cornflower sky. Keeping the “Prairie” in “Prairie House.”
Wright was all about creating a complete work — not just an attractive shell for the Robie family to move their own furnishings into. Wright designed everything as a Gesamtkunstwerk (complete work of art), although I doubt he would have used that term. (See posts on Philip Johnson’s Four Seasons and Moholy-Nagy’s Room of the Present for more on gesamtkunstwerks). He looked at the project as a total entity, not a collection of piecemeal components. As a result, the structure and its contents mesh. I mentioned the brick detail, but that was just beginning. The details abound:
the stained glass,
the lattice grilles,
the panel of switches,
the rugs, (and the X in the fireplace brick – meant to ask about that),
the built-ins throughout,
and doorknobs. From his Wasmuth Portfolio:
They are all mere structural details in the completeness, heating apparatus, light fixtures, the very chairs, tables, [and] cabinets…are of the building itself…Floor coverings and hangings are of the house as the plaster on the walls or the tiles on the roof. — Frank Lloyd Wright
One of the main focuses of the tour is the living room, specifically the inglenook fireplace, considered by Wright to be the heart of the house. Here Janina points out the side chimneys.
It also serves as a divider between the living room and dining room without closing off the rooms completely.
The living room sports a spectacular bay window fitted with art glass.
Most of the original furniture is missing or has been stolen, but a sofa remains.
The wood throughout the house is gorgeous. Here you can see the wood floor in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
All mod cons in the bathrooms — revolutionary. And that shower!
I have visited both Taliesins and the Guggenheim, 2 very different structures designed by Wright. This is yet another type of structure, designed for an individual, his wife and children — a warm, family-centric home, that maintains its glow and spirit, even without the furniture or the family present.
That’s nice. Sooo, should I go? If you have any interest in Frank Lloyd Wright at all, yes. Be advised, part of the tour is discussing the exterior, so you’ll be outdoors for awhile. (Some folks in our group were impatient with this and very eager to see the inside.) There are additional tours available of Wright’s home, his buildings around Oak Park and a bus tour of Wright around Chicago. Visit the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust to see them all.
I’m smitten. Tell me more. The house has an interesting ownership tale. Robie was only in the house for 14 months (he lost his fortune and his wife left him) before he sold it to another family who stayed only a short time. The Wilbur family then purchased it and stayed for 14 years. Then various organizations owned it and it was threatened with demolition twice. Wright intervened on both occasions.
Location 5757 South Woodlawn Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637
Cost $17 for adults, $14 for students, military and seniors 65+. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. You can purchase tickets online here, or just show up to the gift shop and you’ll may find a slot, unless it’s peak vacation time. If you want to take photos inside the house, you’ll need to pay $5 extra. You can take all the shots you like outside without purchasing the pass.
Tip If you go, be advised there is major construction of the building across the street (at the time of writing this post) meaning street parking is hard to come by. Research nearby parking lots ahead of time or use Lyft. (Random fact: Our lovely Lyft driver’s old boyfriend was a former Robie House guide.)