For many years the Robie House in Chicago stood altered and neglected but now the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust is restoring it, to present it to the public as it was when built
There are photographs from the 1950s that show Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye looking almost like a ruin. Saplings have colonised the terraces as nature moves in for the kill.
You wonder how a building so securely in the history books, so canonical, could ever get that way.
Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House was never in quite that state, yet in 1941 and again in 1957 faced the threat of demolition, and for a long while suffered so badly that a historian writing in 1984 could conclude: 'In the years since World War II, the house has been violated in every way, so that almost nothing about it is right (or Wright).'
1Designed in 1908, the Robie House was completed in 1910, but Wright's young client Fred C Robie did not live there long; in debt and with his marriage disintegrating, he sold it the following year. It remained a family home only until 1926, when the nearby Chicago Theological Seminary bought it to serve as a dormitory. The seminary disposed of some of the house's original furnishings, remodelled the interior and proposed its demolition in 1957 to build a new hall of residence. Wright, then almost 90, successfully rallied preservationists to the cause.
Later, the new owner of the Robie House, the University of Chicago, further altered it for use as offices, but in 1997 agreed to lease it - via the National Trust for Historic Preservation - to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust (FLWPT), which began an $8 million restoration of the building.
Supported by $1 million from Save America's Treasures, but otherwise dependent on FLWPT fundraising, that restoration is now at the half-way stage. The Robie House exterior is in much improved condition and work on the interior starts soon. In charge of the process is the trust's own architect, Karen Sweeney, who as a volunteer was earlier involved in the restoration of Wright's Oak Park home and studio.
The FLWPT wants to present the house to the public essentially as it was on completion, in the manner of such European examples as Adolf Loos' Villa Muller, Brinkman & van der Vlugt's Sonneveld House, and the rescued-from-ruin Villa Savoye.
On the brink Standing on a 180 x 60 ft lot at the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and 58th Street in Hyde Park, south Chicago, the Robie House is often seen as the quintessential 'Prairie House', whose permutations Wright explored during the first decade of the 20th century.
'I loved the prairie by instinct as a great simplicity, ' said Wright, who sought a domestic architecture that would harmonise with it - one that relates the building to the earth by stressing the horizontal planes; where broad eaves emphasise a sense of shelter; where proportions are 'more liberally human';
where box-like rooms give way to fluid space as walls become screens; and where the fireplace - the family hearth - is the core 2.For the long south-facing balcony of the Robie House and its famed cantilevers - the oversailing blade-like roofs that make it both sleekly horizontal and a little histrionic - Wright naturally had to use steel, in a structure that otherwise comprises load-bearing brick walls, reinforced concrete floors, and a brick-veneered timber frame for the lightweight top storey.
As later at Fallingwater, the audacious looks potentially precarious. Indeed, at the Robie's close relative, the slightly earlier Tomek House in the Chicago suburb of Riverside, structural precariousness was once very evident, with a pillar inserted at a ground-floor corner to support the sagging overhang above. Such measures were never called for at the Robie House. 'Overall, the property was stable, 'says Sweeney. 'But there was a massive amount of water leaking into it, damaging the wooden members and the brickwork. It was on the brink of running into real problems.' The only steel to be replaced was a beam supporting the guest bedroom and upper entry hall, to handle the extra loads that come with the building's change of use. In the process, though, the trust discovered termite damage to the north wall of the playroom - the house's central bearing wall - and had to completely rebuild it. Fortunately the termites were not active anymore, but they had also been eating the joists and oak floor.
Otherwise, one can take the restoration from the top down. When built, the Robie House was roofed with thin clay tiles, but thicker ones were substituted during piecemeal renovation in the 1960s, with nibs at the back that raised them slightly and trapped windblown rain or snow. On the basis of a few original tiles found in the wine cellar, the FLWPT has now replicated Wright's 1910 roof - it may be only a matter of millimetres, but once more the roof planes have their intended profile. Sweeney says that inspection of the roof decking and rafters in the course of this work revealed 'unexpected levels of decay', and the structure was either reinforced or renewed, with added insulation, and an ice and water shield throughout.
Defective gutters were a major cause of the water penetration. In his Details of Modern Architecture, Edward Ford suggests that the gutters are the most variable of all the Prairie House elements and give many of the buildings their character. 'The Robie House gutter is a flat gull-wing of copper with ornament stamped on its underside. While still functioning as a gutter, it gives a paper-thin edge to the roof. Its slight 'lift' gives the roof a visually weightless character so that it seems to have floated down onto the brick piers.'
3Which all sounds suitably poetic - except the gutter didn't function quite as Ford presumes. 'The original copper lining wasn't angled to drain properly, ' says Sweeney; so water was penetrating the soffits, rusting their metal laths and damaging their plaster, and then finding a way into the house.
In a wintertime photograph taken before the restoration began, you see these problems vividly, for one soffit is so saturated that icicles hang from it.
In renewing the copper lining on the upper sections of all the gutters, Sweeney has slightly increased the pitch, and added some more tiny downspouts, which should improve drainage without detriment to the 'weightless' effect. The trust decided to remove the verdigris patina on the gutter cornices, which are brown again as they were at first. It remade all the soffits with new laths and plaster and finished them in their former golden ochre colour; you best see the effect of this when you move inside.
The west porch, too, was leaking, as it had done for years. Previous owners had tackled the problem by adding new coats of concrete on top of the deck, so by 1997 it was 4in higher than when built. The trust removed the old concrete, which had proved to be very absorptive, and poured a new structural deck with a waterproof membrane and topping slab, returning the porch to its 1910 level.
Perhaps the most striking difference so far has come with the restoration of the brickwork and mortar of the Robie House exterior, which was essential to recover the original aesthetic. In themselves the long, thin Roman bricks of the building contribute to the overall horizontality, but for them to really function in this way the pointing has to be as Wright intended - the horizontal joints concave and putty-coloured, the vertical ones flush and close in colour to the brick. Like the limestone plinth and copings, they then read as uninterrupted bands. With crude localised repointing over the years, this effect was totally lost when work began.
The trust first cleaned the bricks and ground out the old mortar. It removed bricks too damaged to repair, and replaced them either with originals from less prominent parts of the house or with reproductions.
Wright's mortar was a soft lime putty that let moisture evaporate gently, but a later hardcement substitute trapped it, leading to cracks in both bricks and mortar during the harsh Chicago winter. The mortar now replicates Wright's in colour, composition and application, based on analysis of original samples.
As well as rebuilding the south-front garden wall (which was askew) on improved foundations, the trust wanted to re-establish the intitial relationship of the Robie House to the street, which meant reconstructing the 8ft-high wall surrounding the courtyard and three-car garage - lowered some time between 1929 and 1941.
Some bricks from the dismantled wall survived, such as the roof tiles, in the wine cellar but too few to reconstitute it, so the question of reproductions arose. The original bricks were distinctive not just in size but in their ironspot-flecked texture, and while gas kilns are now the norm, they were fired by coal. Sweeney eventually found a manufacturer in Ohio prepared to re-activate its beehive kilns, like those in which the Robie's bricks were made, and she was happy with the colour match it managed to create.
Although this company couldn't supply the bricks in Roman size, it could do so in twice-as-thick Norman, so they were all halved lengthwise. The front of the rebuilt wall uses original bricks, with reproduction ones on the back. The latter look a shade too salmon, perhaps, but are otherwise identical.
Work in the garage itself, which is now the Robie House Bookshop, included installation of new underfloor services (during which a period feature, a mechanics' pit, was uncovered) and restoration of the art glass windows.
Extending the long band of art glass that runs beneath the living and dining rooms, they certainly help to unify the south facade.
Lost and found Inside the Robie House, the FLWPT's priority was to meet requirements for opening to the public, with the installation of a fire detection and suppression system, and emergency lighting and exit signs, along with total rewiring. These additions are mostly unobtrusive: the dry-pipe sprinkler system combining fixed and drop-down heads, the latter concealed in the ceiling behind brass plates; and emergency lighting that makes use of exisiting historic fixtures, which stay lit by a back-up battery system if power fails.
Happily the trust persuaded the City of Chicago to settle for eight emergency exit signs rather than the requested 20, all placed quite close to the ground.
With the move inside, though, and the tasks now remaining, the emphasis shifts from restoration of the existing to recreation of the lost - which of course raises questions.
But first you have to get inside, which is seldom straightforward in a house by Wright, and here as convoluted as could be.
From the south the entry is invisible, and you must take two 90¦ turns around the west end of the Robie House before being channelled progressively towards the door, which is in shadow beneath an overhang. The entrance hall only punctuates your arrival. On the ground floor are the billiards room and children's room. The main rooms are above, so another right-angled change of direction takes you up the stairs, which dog-leg at a half-landing and climb to the first floor hall, where you face one last 90¦ turn - the living room through the zone to your left, the dining room immediately to your right.
So ends this protracted entry sequence (on which Wright brought Mies one day in 1937). It both exaggerates the privacy of the house, whose defensiveness has already been announced by the perimeter wall, and creates high expectation in the visitor. At present, though, there is something of an anti-climax, because of first-floor alterations over the years. The most significant is the loss of the inglenook beside the fireplace in the living room, but built-in bookshelves in the hall and a buffet by the north wall of the dining room have also gone. Moreover, the screen between the top of the staircase and the dining room has been reduced in height, and Wright's furniture is either missing or elsewhere. This particularly affects the dining area, where table and chairs together formed a 'room' within a room.
The FLWPT plans to reconstruct all the once built-in elements, and retrieve or replicate the furniture, to recreate both the original spatial conditions and the overall ambience of the house. 'We had a lot of discussion about this, ' says Sweeney, 'but we decided that what really mattered with the Robie House was its architectural significance - not the people who lived in it or its history since it was built. To properly convey that to visitors, we have to have the main architectural elements as Wright intended them to be.' The trust will also reinstate a 1910 kitchen: 'It helps school groups in particular to appreciate the modernity of the rest of the building when they see those oldfashioned appliances - an ice box instead of a refrigerator.' At the Sonneveld House in Rotterdam you see the clock turned back in a similar way, and pristine re-creation there far outweighs any patina of use (AJ 7.6.01). Outside, though, the clock continues to tick and the Sonneveld's context has changed dramatically, with the modish Netherlands Architecture Institute now directly opposite. So, too, at the Robie House, where a new building for the University of Chicago looms on once open land immediately to the south. Perhaps in Oak Park you can find a quiet corner and think that little has happened for a century, but not here; and when the passage of time is so evident, a restoration that pretends otherwise is at greater risk than usual of seeming idealised or inauthentic. What the restorers have replicated at the Sonneveld House is as much an image as a reality.
To support the argument for recreation at the Robie House, there is no doubt that the first floor is denuded at present. True, the light through the yellow art glass, enhanced now by the repainted soffits, is beautiful, especially in autumn when it harmonises with the colours outside. The flow of space is exhilarating, with the direct connection between living and dining rooms, not just down the whole south side of the house but through the oblong cut in the wall above the fireplace; a flow accentuated by the prow-like projections at each end of the house and the elongated motifs on the carpet. To balance this, the dropped ceiling around the edge of the whole first floor, and the overhanging eaves beyond, give a degree of enclosure.
But the inglenook must have increased the sense of shelter in the Robie House, enriching the living room not just through its connection to the hearth - symbolic centre of the building - but also in the spatial definition it supplied. With the dining room's anchoring furniture gone, it too is space without a focus. So the house seems more simplistic than it was, and the case for recreating the missing items is strong.
Imagining them reinstalled, however, one might still ask whether the plan of the Robie House, logical though it is for the constricted site, would have made everyday life there as rewarding as in some other Prairie Houses. Wright's favourite was the Coonley House, which, like the Tomek, is in the Olmsted-planned suburb of Riverside. It is now split in two but when built was a place of continually unfolding vistas, with long corridors linking its various pavilions, all set in Wright-landscaped grounds.
Perhaps its opulence makes this a special case. One could look instead, though, at the cruciform pinwheel plan which Wright often used during this period, as in the early Willits House in Highland Park. This creates diagonal connections between adjacent rooms in an intriguing way. Spaces are only part-revealed and, as at the Coonley, there is a sense of discovery; by contrast, after the protracted entry sequence, the Robie House delivers in a rush. The cruciform schemes are user-friendly too: for instance, it would be easy to find a place to yourself if you wished, while still feeling connected to life in the house.
Looking forward Historians make much of the proto-Modern nature of the Robie House: the first-floor flow of space and its implied extension;
the long bands of glass that, anticipating Le Corbusier's strip windows, form a band of light around the building and make the roof appear to float; devices that, in Wright's words, 'break the box'. Analogies recur to Cubist painting of precisely the same time, with its indefinite boundaries, permeable forms and semi-abstraction .This argument flourishes partly because the Robie House is such a gift to photographers, with its incisive geometry, streamlined horizontals, and dramatic projecting planes.
But did Wright really intend such a stripped and clean-cut form? The key document here is the drawing that appears in the celebrated Wasmuth folio of 1910-11 - the edition that brought Wright to European notice. It shows the Robie House with plants draped over its balcony walls and flourishing at every level - as if taking root on a rockface. These irregular screens of foliage soften the building considerably and obscure its clean lines;
they make it seem less radical, less Modern.
Because of its confined site, the Robie House lacks the integrated landscape that often enhances Wright's projects; this planting would have been some compensation.
In his introduction to the Wasmuth publication, Wright refers to the 'severity' of his forms but says: 'Their chief office is a background or frame for the life within them and about them. They are considered as foils for the foliage and bloom which they are arranged to carry.'
5 Early photographs of the Coonley House show just this burgeoning vegetation, but it seems that the planting at the Robie House never resembled Wright's drawing. Yet its omission helped to give the building its Modernist credentials.
So the FLWPT must opt either for Wright's Wasmuth vision or the sleekly-groomed Robie House of countless photographs.
'We're still considering this carefully, ' says Sweeney, 'but we will probably put at least some of the planting in, to relate the Robie to the Wasmuth drawing and the other Prairie Houses. Because it is Modern to a point but it's not all the way there.' The clean-cut look probably also helped to foster the many similes and metaphors that crop up in accounts of the Robie House, by giving the building and all its component parts such an intense presence - a hyperclarity. While Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim provoked a string of maybe feasible comparisons - beached tanker, flower, fish, etc - and Le Corbusier's Ronchamp did likewise, their gestural forms were an invitation to free-associate. Though more restrained and orthodox, the Robie House has been just as resonant, with critics referring to steamships, geological strata, Japanese temples, American Colonial dwellings - and much else.
The writing can get a little purple, as in an essay by Vincent Scully: 'The Robie House is at once an airplane and another of Jung's archetypes, a sacred mountain: heavy, hollowed, massive, and rising on wings. One must go on an ancient labyrinthine journey, seeking the secret entrance?' 6Resisting the lure of aeroplane or mountain, Sweeney and her colleagues are staying down to earth. For them, the restoration of the Robie House is very much 'in progress', with $4 million yet to find. They're keen that visitors notice the water-stains, cracks and peeling plaster that disfigure the interior at present - the signs that there is still work to do. 'It will be wonderful to get the house looking as Wright envisioned it. When the browns and golden ochres are back on the walls, people will appreciate how unified his design was, ' says Sweeney. 'But the first half of the project has gone very well. At least the house won't be deteriorating now while we raise the rest of the funds.' Sweeney hopes the Robie House will be fully restored by 2007. Already, though, the FLWPT has retrieved it from neglect and dispelled those old spectres of demolition.
It could be 1910 again when you look at the Robie's south front - just don't turn around.
Perhaps when the original design is fully reinstated, the house won't be a comfortable piece of 'heritage' that simply fÛtes Wright's achievements, but a place of continuing critical enquiry. Few 20th-century works are so embedded in architectural discourse as the Robie House, but much of the writing about it is partly hypothetical, being based on early photographs and the plan. So have scholars like Scully really said the last word? When the building is shown anew, there might be some reassessments. Wright isn't history yet.
References 1 Donald Hoffmann, Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. Norton, 1984, p94 2 Frank Lloyd Wright, Collected Writings, Vol 2, 1930-32. Rizzoli, 1992, p198 3 Edward Ford, The Details of Modern Architecture, Vol 1 MIT Press, 1990, p191 4 See, for instance, Neil Levine, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. Princeton University Press, 1996, p57 5 Studies and Executed Buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright (reprint of the Wasmuth folio). Rizzoli, 1998, p16 6. Vincent Scully, 'Frank Lloyd Wright and Twentieth Century Style' in Modern Architecture and Other Essays. Princeton University Press, 2003, p112 CREDITS RESTORATION ARCHITECT Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust: Karen A Sweeney, AIA STRUCTURAL ENGINEER Tylk Gustafson and Associates, Chicago, IL MECHANICAL ENGINEER Architectual Consulting Engineers, Oak Park, IL GENERAL CONTRACTOR The Meyne Company Division of Bulley and Andrews, LLC