Chicago — Frank Lloyd Wright’s hometown

By Michael Raffety 6-17-13

Never having been to Chicago we decided to include it in our vacation plans this spring. It was actually a two-part excursion. First we rented a car to drive to Rockford, Ill., an excursion that will be discussed in a later column. But before we took off for Rockford we were due to go on a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright homes. We missed the tour by going to the wrong Wright house. Totally our mistake, plus a rental Garmin that was giving us fits because it wasn’t charging in the rental car’s plug and was sinking slowly.

Our personal Garmin did manage to get us to Hyde Park, where we were included in a tour of the Robie House, a classic Wright Pairie-style house completed in 1910 and still looking stunningly modern.

It’s hard to judge the home’s spaces when the upstairs bedrooms were closed to the public, but the guest bedroom downstairs was a generous space for the time. The living room, billiard room and dining room were good-sized spaces separated by the stairwell and a split flume fireplace that allowed one to look through to the dining area from the billiard room that I called the living room.

Not readily apparent from the street view is the wall of art glass windows with 12 French doors fronting the street on the long, south side of the house. Wright chose to have the house take up most of the lot right up to the sidewalk instead of the usual placement of a house set back from the street and fronted by a front lawn. The Robie House is set on a corner lot, with the leftover lot space delegated along the back side of the house. It is 9,000 square feet. Including land, construction, design and Wright-designed interior furnishings, the home cost $58,500.

Compare that to Fallingwater, which cost $155,000 to build in 1934. Price-wise they are comparable. Fallingwater cost $11.5 million to rehab in 2002. The house built for Frederick and Laura Robie is still being rehabilitated with only a few sconces left and the dining room table missing its attached corner lamps.

Seen from the full length of its side, it is obvious the three-story house is huge. The lower story includes the nearly hidden entryway, the three-car garage, an innovation at a time when people were still building carriage houses and stables for their horses. Also adding to the size of the house are the servants’ quarters. It is noteworthy that there was a generous window in the kitchen for the kitchen staff.

Wright’s Usonian houses, built for mid-century middle class families without servants, featured much smaller kitchens without windows. The Hagen Kentuck-Knob House in southeast Pennsylvania near Wright’s most famous house, Fallingwater, also featured a windowless kitchen. As did the the Gordon House, since moved to Oregon Cardens in Silverton, Ore. He made up for it by having a skylight. Not the same thing as having a window over the kitchen sink. The kitchen at Fallingwater featured a view of the river.

What really makes this house timeless is the very long overhanging roof, made possible by Wright’s use of steel. I attribute this inclusion of steel in his residential design to the time he spent working for the Louis Sullivan architectural firm in Chicago.

Sullivan is mentioned in all art history survey books, with particular attention to his Carson Pirie Scott Department Store, built in 1889-1901 in Chicago’s Loop, and usually called revolutionary and the forerunner of 20th century big city architecture. It relatively cleanly takes advantage of the steel frame structure, letting the windows reflect that horizontal and vertical repetition of the steel frames. It is still in use, now hosting Target.

In addition to the long horizontal overhangs, Wright also emphasized the horizontal by using red mortar on the vertical joints and regular grey mortar on the horizontal joints. The red mortar disappears from not too far away and makes it appear the house is composed completely or horizontal lines of brick.

Two other themes that mark many other Wright home designs are verandas and the lack of downspouts. Wright did have gutters. They were copper painted black. Instead of a gutter downspout he just let the water cascade into a hidden drainage collector. The third characteristic of Wright homes is the fireplace and chimney is never attached to the outside, but is centered in the home. The chimney mass in the Robie home hosts four fireplaces, including one in the master bedroom, which is not on the tour.

Wiring for electric lighting was advanced for the time, but Wright went further and included a central vacuum system.

“The Robie House combines cubic forms and projecting planes with mastery never before seen in architecture,” wrote Professor Frederick Hartt in “Art, a History of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.”

Our visit to Hyde Park and the Robie House concluded when I was putting my camera bag in the rental car and a Cadillac full of African-Americans stopped to ask, “Where’s the Obama house? ”

“I don’t know. We’re from California.”

Frankly, I thought the Robie House was better than Obama’s Georgian revival style house. “In 1991, the American Institute of Architects named Robie House among the Top All-Time Work of American Architects,” according to Wikipedia.

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