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Friday, June 22, 2012

Wright's cornerstone of modern architecture

The Robie House in Chicago, a building that would give early definition to the Prairie school style of architecture developed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Scott Beveridge photo)

By Scott Beveridge

CHICAGO – Frederick C. Robie gave Frank Lloyd Wright just three instructions in 1905 for building his new home; he wanted it to be fireproof and to have a sense of openness and privacy.

What the bicycle manufacturer ended up getting would become the "cornerstone of the modern world of architecture," said Peter Schramm, a docent at the meticulously restored Robie House in Chicago.

Wright designed the three-story Roman brick house from his Oak Park, Ill., studio to have a sturdy limestone base to make the building appear to as it's part of the ground, Schramm said. And, the architect selected thin bricks to "set up the horizontal vision" that would define many other Prairie school-stye houses he would design.

Much attention was given to how mortar was applied between the bricks to make the house appear as repetitive bands of narrow horizontal stripes, like a "unique geological strata" rising to the wide overhangs of the low hip roof, other architectural details that would define Wright, Schramm said.

"The Prairie vocabulary was developed in Oak Park," he said.

The house at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave. is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks based on its architectural merits alone, and has been absorbed into the University of Chicago campus, he said.

It's the first house in the United States to have been built with a full steel beam support system, primarily to hold the nearly 17.5-foot overhang that juts out seemingly unsupported over the front porch.

The Germans nicknamed to the house "the steamship," while Robie lovingly called it "the battleship," Schramm said. 

Visitors enter the house through a door tucked into the back of the house and partially hidden behind a high brick wall that cuts out the traffic noise.

Inside, the reception hall ceiling would only be 6 feet 8 inches off the floor to make people feel uncomfortable there until they moved upstairs to a larger room with a higher ceiling.

Wright would reuse this technique called "compression," too, because it gave people a "sense of relief" while exploring their way into his houses," Schramm said.

The house came under threat of demolition in 1941 and again in 1957, only to be rescued by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the University of Chicago. The school and Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust have invested $5.5 million to stabilize the house by restoring the bricks and rebuilding the roof.

The final phase involves adding carpeting, reproduction furnishing and restoring the art glass windows, which Wright didn't name.

A worker adjusts a watering hose in a planter at the Robie House near where sunlight reflects off iridescent glass in one of many art glass windows Wright designed for the home. (Scott Beveridge photo)

The living room is surrounded by large windows that allowed Robie to see all of his neighbors' houses. However, the stained glass was positioned in places that gave him privacy behind a nearly 4-foot brick outdoor banister.

The ceiling here has oak banding to make it appear even taller and a step-down hearth in the fireplace. Also recessed into the ceiling were ornate Wright-designed wooden light screens.

The tour proceeded to a guest room and a kitchen, which was built larger that many others Wright would later include in the homes he designed. Tourists were not permitted inside the three bedrooms on the third floor.

They leave beside Midwest's' first attached three-car garage, something that Wright included even before Ford began producing the Model T.

"Wright realized how important the car would become to America," Schramm said.

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