Wright's Robie House: The First Modern Family Home?

By Boyce Thompson

Reinvented features, like this sunken fireplace/room divider, show the architect's creativity in this early 20th century landmark.

The best way to experience the Robie House -- Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterwork on the campus of the University of Chicago in Hyde Park, Ill. and built between 1909 and 1910 -- may be to go back in time. Imagine yourself in evening attire standing outside an ornately detailed Victorian home from the turn of the 20th century. You are greeted in a formal entry then taken to a front parlor with doors that open to a large formal dining room. You never set foot in the part of the house where the family lives day to day.That was the cultural and architectural straightjacket that Wright was chucking when he designed the Frederick C. Robie house.

The Robies, who had two young children and plenty of money, asked Wright for a contemporary family house, open and filled with light, yet private, with spaces where family members could spend time together, and alone. They wanted to welcome visitors into the spaces where they lived. And they wanted to take advantage of great views of a park to the south. The Robie house is an early precedent of today’s family-friendly floor plans.

Touring the home, as I did recently, brings to mind important concerns for anyone thinking of building a new home, questions like where do you plan to spend quality time together as a family? Where do you expect to eat your meals? How do you prefer to relax and work at home? And where do you prefer to entertain guests? As with all of Wright’s work, the Robie house lays bare solutions to important trade-offs between openness and privacy, daylight and energy efficiency, and closed and open spaces.

The centerpiece of the home is a huge family room that must have been a real eye-opener for visitors accustomed to Victorian hierarchy. Instead of creating public rooms with carefully delineated purposes, Wright drew a flexible great room with zones for conversations, viewing, relaxation, reading, dining, and
whatever else family members wanted to do. Operable decorative windows on three sides promote cross breezes and bathe the room with light. Patio doors open to a long porch on the south side with a garden view.

The docent points out that the window patterns – colored and clear glass combined at 30- and 60-degree angles -- make it difficult for neighbors to see who is in the room or what they are doing. But at night, he says, a passerby could see electric lights, unusual for the time, shining from the ceilings inside rooms.

First-time visitors might have trouble finding the home’s entrance, partially hidden around the side, and barely distinguishable under a looming balcony. An unassuming path to the door provides an up-close 

look at the home’s exquisite Italian brick details and limestone trim. Details are contained within the home’s materials rather than appended to the structure. As we stand outside on a chilly day waiting to get inside, the tour guide points out that all the home’s major exterior features – the projecting porch, the sheltering eaves, the limestone planters, and art glass windows – are summarized for easy viewing at the front stoop. Low ceilings in the entry provide no relief, though red oak furniture, molding, and cabinetry establish an interior scheme that becomes more obvious later on.

This  ground floor is a lesson in family democracy. A billiard room to one side, with a built-in safe and storage, serves as an adult playroom. The children’s playroom on the opposite side is ergonomically designed with a low fireplace and play area. The rooms share access to a walled outdoor garden, where children could play safely from the street. Wright put the main public rooms on the second floor, where they would have a better view of the park (unfortunately the neighborhood has been filled in and the park views are no more). To get there, you move from the dark entry hall up a dimly lit, half-turn staircase with partial glimpses of the main floor through oak-lattice screens. You are rewarded when you reach a landing with long, light-filled views of the family room to one side and the dining room to the other, another powerful example of the use of compression and release to create architectural impact.

Looking at a two-dimensional floor plan, it’s hard to imagine how your home might employ Wright’s infamous compression and release technique. Landscape architecture – creating a tree-lined front walk that gives way to a glass front door – is one way to do it. Tight interior hallways or entry foyers that lead to open great rooms are another common technique in today’s new homes. Something else to consider -- Wright often lowered the ceilings in bedrooms (where people were supposed to lie down) and libraries (where they were supposed to sit) so that public spaces with higher ceilings seemed more special.

The 9,000-square-foot Robie House was one of the last Wright designed in a Prairie Style. The architecture emphasizes long horizontal and short vertical lines, rather than big vertical elements, like the towers or two-story entry halls in Victorian architecture. He specified a vertical course of red mortar between the Italian bricks to create long horizontal bands. Masons, who must have been cursing as they worked, laid tan mortar on the top and bottom of the bricks to reinforce the long, horizontal pattern.

In contrast to a Victorian home with many small rooms, the Robie house is wide open. Steel beams carry most of the home’s weight to piers on the west and east sides. That luxury allowed Wright to design large living areas, with decorative, non-structural doors and windows along the sides. A sunken masonry fireplace, shown at the top of this post, physically separates the living and dining room. But an opening above the fireplace retains the visual connection between the rooms, a look achieved today with a see-through fireplace.

The most impressive exterior feature – a long cantilevered roof on the west side – resulted from a creative approach to setback requirements. Wright discovered that the requirement that homes be set back 35 feet

from the street didn’t apply to porches. So he designed a large one with a massive cantilevered roof that juts out nearly to the street, extending 20 feet beyond the last masonry support. The irony is that even though the porch is close to the street it would be very hard to see anyone sitting on it, another Wright move to create privacy. It’s accessed through art-glass doors in the living room. One of Wright’s goals, unusual for the time but almost a given today, was that the Robies be able to move freely from interior to exterior spaces.

He also considered the impact of the sun, which seemed especially important on the chilly winter day that I toured the house. Overhangs on the south side welcome winter sunlight – the sun is low in the sky in the winter – to penetrate the family room. But the eaves are long enough to prevent over-heating in the summer. The garden purposely faces the south side where it will receive the most sunshine. On the west side, where summer sun can be harshest, the cantilevered roof shields the house. Everyone building a new home today needs to consider the impact of sunlight. Daylight can turn rooms into very special places. It can also wreak havoc on air conditioning bills.

Wright designed the furniture, fixtures, and interior details for most of his Prairie style houses, in part so that Victorian styling wouldn’t creep into the homeowner’s mix. He only designed furniture for the public rooms of the Robie house – the couple may have run out of money – but little of it is on display for the tour. Only two of Wright’s original square bronze light fixtures remain. They hang above hemispherical wall sconces. The pattern – spherical globes and wooden squares – extends into the ceiling trim. Intricate soffit lighting, covered with wooden grilles, runs the length of the north sides of the house.

The family-friendly floor plan pushes service spaces – the kitchen, the boiler room, laundry room, servants quarters, and a three-car garage – to one side of the house.  The kitchen, detailed with glass-front cabinets, is bigger than you’d find in most Wright homes. But that’s because the Robies had several servants. The master bedroom, on the third floor, is situated where it commanded the best park views. A small closet and art glass

door in this room leads to a balcony facing south and west. To conserve living space, Wright designed dresser drawers into bedroom walls under windows. In this room, and throughout the house, wood cases hide radiators.

Unfortunately, the Robies could only live in the house for a year and a half. The son who built the house was in business with his father, who died in 1910, leaving the son with massive debt. Robie was forced to sell the house for what he paid for it – about $50,000. Maybe that wasn’t enough considering that in 1956, The Archictural Record selected the Robie House as "one of the seven most notable residences ever built in America."

Frank Lloyd Wright Trust runs tours of the Robie House every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when it’s closed for academic tours. Tickets ($14 to $17) seem cheap in comparison to the wealth of inspiration the house provides. Though more than 100 years old, the home contains vibrant, timeless lessons for creating a very special family home.  The house is also showcased in the fascinating PBS TV series 10 Buildings that Changed America.    

Sun Feb 12 00:00:00 PST 2017