Renovation for Robie Restoration Continues on Wright's Prairie-Style Masterpiece

By Donovan, Deborah | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), February 7, 2003 | Go to article overview
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Renovation for Robie Restoration Continues on Wright's Prairie-Style Masterpiece


Donovan, Deborah, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Deborah Donovan Daily Herald Real Estate Writer

Custom reproduction roof tiles are installed on the Robie House in Chicago. Photos Courtesy Of Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust

The Robie House, Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie-style masterpiece, was built for about $27,000 in 1909. Today, about half its restoration has been completed for $3.5 million.

The exterior repairs are almost finished, and heating, cooling, electrical and alarm systems have been added to the interior.

The good news about all this dust and construction is that tours are continuing in the house - on the University of Chicago campus on Chicago's South Side - throughout the renovation.

One of the home's most glamorous features is the 174 art glass windows and doors, marching around the house in long bands.

They often have little iridescent panes in gold, violet, turquoise, rose, browns and green. Fragments of zinc and copper in the glass accomplished this, said Janet Van Delft, the home's operations manager.

The window patterns vary, but Van Delft points out that a diamond shape used in all of them has the same angle as the home's roof line.

Windows are an important part of the prows - the distinctive pointed bays that contribute to the ship feeling of the house.

The home could be Wright's best prairie-style creation, and he twice led campaigns against its demolition before his death at 91 in 1959.

Donations for the restoration have included a $2 million Illinois First state grant and $1 million from the Pritzker Foundation's Save America's Treasures program.

Funding has been scarce since Sept. 11, 2001, and the number of visitors - 25,000 in good years - has also declined, Van Delft said. A capital drive will have to be launched to finish the restoration, she said.

Features to enjoy inside Robie House include the living and dining rooms, which are 75 feet long and 20 feet wide and take up most of the second floor. They are separated only by the fireplace and feature walls of windows and glass doors.

Twelve pairs of art glass doors face south, for example. Residents could sit on a built-in bench in the inglenook near the fireplace and look out at the Midway Plaissance. That was before University of Chicago buildings were constructed in the intervening blocks.

The Japanese-looking wood grids on the ceiling originally hid indirect lighting and now hide new wiring.

They are lined with a rice paper, but they might have once held frosted glass.

There's also oak trim that crosses the ceilings and goes down the soffits.

Other lighting includes globes attached to the soffits. Originally there were art glass table lamps and lamps wired into the dining room table.

Sconces, reproduced from two originals still in the dining room, have a grid on the top that throws a geometric shadow on the wall.

"We're not sure if we'll get the original furniture back," Van Delft said. "Once the windows and doors are uncovered on the south side, so much light will come in it might be better to have reproduction furniture. That decision has not been made yet.

"We want the light to come in," Van Delft said. "You could put a covering on the windows to prevent that. But it would make a difference in how people could appreciate them from the outside."

The original furniture, now at the Smart Museum, also on the University of Chicago campus, includes the dining room table and chairs.

The tall-backed chairs formed a "room within a room," and the table legs came up high to form bases for lamps and flower bowls.

The incredible living room sofa with cantilevered arms so large they serve as side tables is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A reproduction is in its original location.

Outside the Roman bricks are another feature that adds to the horizontal feel of the building.

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