Inside the Renovation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House
After years of research, $3 million, and a weeks-long process just to apply plaster, the architect’s Hyde Park masterpiece will soon return to his original vision.
Published April 27, 2018, at 9:00 a.m.
Text by AJ LaTrace
Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic Frederick C. Robie House in Hyde Park, a strikingly rectilinear residence which is often cited as one of the legendary architect’s greatest works, is undergoing an extensive interior restoration which will repair decades worth of wear and tear and return the home to its original likeness as imagined by Wright.
Designed and constructed during the first decade of the twentieth century, the Robie House is not only viewed as defining example of the Prairie School movement, but one that helped to shape American architecture and usher in the modern era of design. Its restoration, led by the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust in partnership with preservation architect Gunny Harboe, will ensure that the landmark house can be studied and enjoyed by future generations.
The work currently being performed on the house comes after years of research and fundraising, says Celeste Adams, Frank Lloyd Wright Trust President & CEO, who also notes that the $3 million effort comes after an extensive exterior restoration which was completed in the last decade.
“It’s important to understand that preservation is an ongoing process and as time passes, there’s always work to be done, especially in a building that is open to the public,” Adams says. “The time is now to bring the interior back to Wright’s original vision.”
The restoration is being performed in two phases, with work expected to conclude by early next year. Spaces being rehabbed include the main entryway, the lower-level billiard room and children’s play room, as well as the living room, formal dining room, and guest bedroom on the main floor.
As with any sensitive restoration undertaking, one of the biggest challenges that the team faced was in matching and replicating the details of the original finishes and colors used during the Robie House’s construction, says Karen Sweeney, preservation architect and facilities administrator with the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust. The effort will require the expertise of a large cast of researchers, architects, and contractors uniquely skilled for the job, Sweeney added.
Preservation architect Gunny Harboe, whose credits include the restoration of other notable Frank Lloyd Wright structures such as the Emil Bach House in Rogers Park and Unity Temple in Oak Park, was tapped to oversee the forensic investigation into the home’s construction. Together with Dorothy Krotzer of Building Conservation Associates, Harboe carefully examined paints, plaster, and other building materials to ensure the closest match to the Robie House’s original finishes.
As an example, the plaster mix and application process had to be just right in order to reproduce the look and feel that Wright envisioned. Contractors with Bulley & Andrews painstakingly applied thin layers of a lime-based plaster then waited between seven to ten days before applying the next coat. Throughout the process, industrial-grade humidifiers were running around the clock to prevent the material from drying too quickly and cracking. Meanwhile, reproduction brass light fixtures are being fabricated and the house’s millwork is being refinished offsite.
Harboe says that such measures are necessary to match the meticulous level of detail that Wright would have wanted in the restoration. “We’re humbled by working on these buildings, but we take the responsibility seriously,” Harboe said, while also noting that the Robie House, along with the Unity Temple and other famous Wright-designed buildings, have been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. “We can’t leave anything to chance—it’s not just for self-satisfaction, but it’s for the long term and the public good.”
The Robie House will remain open for tours as construction continues inside the home. And for those who want to get a closer examination of the work being performed, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust is offering a special series of three after-hours hard-hat tours of the home. “It’s an extraordinary process and we want to share the process with visitors,” says Adams. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to view the Robie House’s restoration.”