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Robie House Is Nominated as a World Heritage Site

The 1910 masterpiece by Frank Lloyd Wright is Prairie Style perfected, but it has a lot of wear and tear to recover from. I dropped by this week to check on the progress.

The Robie House in Hyde Park, standing as a fortress in the snow.   Photo: Ian Spula

On January 30, the National Park Service announced that 10 Frank Lloyd Wright sites around the country had been submitted to UNESCO for World Heritage nomination—the first in the U.S. for modern architecture. These are considered Wright’s seminal works, each representing major stylistic innovations and a culminating moment in his career. Two of the ten are in the Chicago area and, if named World Heritage sites, would be the region’s first: Frederick C. Robie House and Unity Temple. Both are in the middle of extensive restorations. I visited Robie House on Tuesday to see where the project stood and how the restoration is working to enhance the user experience as a house museum.

According to a press release, the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust is hoping to synch up Robie’s remaining restoration work with the official World Heritage designation expected in 2016. The Trust has been fundraising for three years for its final aesthetic push to bring historic faithfulness back to the home’s interiors. A previous structural repair phase was completed about six years and another $6 million is needed, with a $2 million lead gift in hand. When you see the level of finish required it starts to make sense: the home is missing many of its ornate light fixtures, original wall colors, and built-ins, and requires a good deal of carpentry and window repair. Wright’s furnishings, created for specific rooms, are also mostly missing so specialists will be recruited to replicate as many as possible from old drawings and photographs. Accurate paint colors for the interior walls will be drawn from the creases behind radiators.

A high level of detail is important to this and any other Wright Prairie house. “While Wright’s buildings are icons of modern architecture, he’s very much a man of the 19th Century,” says Trust curator David Bagnall. “He was in his thirties when he entered the 20th Century, and he dragged with him an appreciation for material. There’s a richness to his architecture that you don’t see from peers working in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.”

The entrance hall summarizes all the main decorative elements you’ll see in the rest of the house: roman brick; red oak; screens; grills; and art glass windows. Low, dark passageways keep up the suspense as one heads for the main level. There’s a good reason for this: the great room, a linear marriage of living and dining spaces, is, according to Bagnall, one of the great spaces of modern architecture and so why compete? The room is encircled with leaded art glass and lanterns, with built-in nook seating at both ends. Dividing it by function is a grand hearth fireplace with a gap in the chimney visually uniting living and dining areas.

Robie, a bicycle manufacturer and car enthusiast (try reconciling those two today!), wanted a very modern house filled with light. “He went around to designers and contractors at the time explaining his vision,” says Bagnall. “They all said ‘you want one of those damn Wright houses.’” So, in 1910, he got Wright’s most mature expression of Prairie Style, slung low on a deep corner lot with 175 windows letting the world in. Pity that the Robie family got to enjoy it for just one year before family crisis forced a sale. In fact, the house was only a private residence until 1926 when the Chicago Theological Seminary purchased it for institutional and dorm use.

It was during this institutional chapter that Robie House was nearly lost to the wrecking ball. Wright campaigned to save it twice—in 1941 and 1957. He never did that for any of his other works. And so it’s fitting that this house should be singled out again, locally and internationally. “I think the fact that the building survives would have been enough for Wright,” says Bagnall, “but he’d have been thrilled to see it used to educate the public.”

Click through my photo slideshow for more details on the restoration. And for info on Unity Temple in Oak Park, visit their restoration foundation.

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