March 9, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 13

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    Plans announced to turn Robie House into museum

    Plans call for Frank Lloyd Wright's Frederick C. Robie House, considered one of the most important works of 20th-century residential architecture, to soon be restored and opened to the public as a house museum.

    The University, which owns the 86-year-old house, and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation have agreed to a plan that would eventually lead to the University leasing the architectural masterpiece to the foundation, which would then open it to the public. The foundation currently oversees Wright's Home and Studio in Oak Park.

    The house, located at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave., is now used for the offices of the Alumni Association. The University is consulting with the Alumni Association on a new location for its offices. Although tours are given once a day of the exterior of the house and two rooms, most of the house is not available for public view.

    Called by Wright "the cornerstone of modern architecture," Robie House marked a dramatic departure in design from the residential architecture of the day. The house's striking horizontal lines, hovering roofs and fluid, open-spaced interior revolutionized American residential architecture.

    In 1957, a panel of leading architects and art historians named Robie House one of two outstanding houses built in the 20th century. The other was Fallingwater, a house designed by Wright in 1936 in Bear Run, Pa. In 1991, the American Institute of Architects listed Robie House as one of the best works of American architecture.

    A fundraising goal of $2.5 million has been established for the restoration.

    "Robie House is a national treasure on our campus," said President Sonnenschein, "and we hope that through the Wright Foundation we can restore this architectural masterpiece and make it accessible to more people. That would be a truly splendid outcome."

    "We commend the University of Chicago for seeking the best possible use of this historic building," said Nancy DeSombre, president of the board of directors of the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio Foundation. "The foundation is especially proud to have been chosen to participate in this project. We believe that the goals of the University and those of the foundation are complementary and that this agreement will result in a long-term partnership."

    Natalie Hala, chief executive officer of the foundation, said, "This partnership represents an opportunity for the foundation to encourage an expanded understanding of Wright's creativity. Just as Wright's Home and Studio anticipates the Prairie style, Robie House represents its fullest expression.

    "The pairing of these structures underscores an important continuum in the creative life of their architect. The pairing of these organizations creates possibilities to expand, diversify, enliven and enrich our educational outreach."

    Wright designed the Robie House in 1909 for Frederick Robie, who wanted a "fireproof, reasonably priced home to live in -- not a conglomeration of doodads."

    In many ways, Frederick Robie was a perfect client for Wright. The young manufacturer wanted a house with natural light, open interiors and security for his children. He didn't want dark rooms, closets, draperies and many other conventions of the day.

    With Robie's support, Wright expressed ideas he had been hinting at up until then but had been unable to develop fully: the sense of the prairie embodied in sheltering overhangs, low terraces and outreaching walls sequestering private gardens. He designed the three-story, horizontal structure to blend with the landscape of the Midwest. Its oversized roof sections are intended to mimic a series of prairie hillocks.

    As a result of Wright's innovations, Robie House combines both privacy and openness. Large windows permit the interiors to be flooded with light on the second and third floors, while at ground level, a children's play area is protected by a long, broad wall. The undraped, recessed windows of the living room on the upper floor gave Robie a commanding view of the street, yet would not allow neighbors to see in.

    The house also gave form to a uniquely American notion of individualism unaddressed by the European styles popular at the time. It became the antithesis of Victorian architecture, which emphasized small, high-ceilinged rooms and vertical exteriors.

    Robie lived in the house for one and a half years. After two subsequent owners, the house and its furnishings were sold in 1926 to the Chicago Theological Seminary. In 1957, the seminary announced plans to raze the building to erect a dormitory. Preservationists protested the destruction of the house, and the University eventually acquired the house in 1963. That year it was designated a National Historic Landmark.