Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright's marvelous Robie House

More than a century old, the famed architect's Chicago masterpiece is undergoing an $11 million restoration. CNET's Daniel Terdiman checks out its return to glory as part of Road Trip 2013.

The southwest corner of Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, the Robie House, reminds many of a boat, which is why it is sometimes called "the prow." The world-famous building is in the middle of a long, $11 million restoration project. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

CHICAGO -- Never known for being humble, Frank Lloyd Wright probably didn't surprise anyone when his appeal to stop the proposed 1957 demolition of his famed Robie House here went something like this: You wouldn't destroy this building any more than you would "a great painting because it's more important than any [painting] could possibly be."

Wright, the world-renowned architect, built famous houses all over the world. But few made the impression Robie House did. Called one of the ten buildings that changed America by PBS, the 1910 Prairie Style masterpiece has survived more than 100 years and two attempts to take it down.

And now, it is regaining its original glory, thanks to what will end up being an $11 million long-term restoration project being led by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

Started in 1997, the project has already successfully returned the building's exterior to the shape that led Robie House to being called, in 1957 -- ironically, the same year as the building was almost torn down -- one of the two outstanding houses of the 20th century. Now, the Frank Lloyd Wright is well into the interior restoration, a project that aims to make the house very much like it was in 1910, erasing the toll 103 years and many, many people living and using it has taken.

As part of Road Trip 2013, I visited Robie House last week and got a chance to see the great building first-hand. What's clear is that, although work is far from done on fixing up the interior, Wright's sense of how to create a compelling living space may never have been better.

Daniel Terdiman

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Throughout the house, large, open rooms attest to Wright's love of creating flowing spaces. Climbing the rather narrow interior stairway, a so-called pathway of discovery, you emerge in the living room, a grand parlor boasting many of Wright's signature design touches: striking geometric patterns, substantial use of art glass, a dedication to natural light without sacrificing privacy, and much more. I've visited other Wright masterworks -- Fallingwater , the Marin County Civic Center , and Taliesin West -- and I have little trouble agreeing with the great architect that Robie House is as important as (most) paintings.

And that's even with the building's interior being years from finished.

Robie House was started in 1908, built in collaboration with its soon-to-be owner, Frederick C. Robie. But thanks to the debts of his deceased father, Robie had to sell the building just 18 months after construction was complete in 1910. In the century since then, Robie House has had a revolving door of owners, in the early years two different families, and then a series of institutions. It finally ended up in the hands of the University of Chicago, fitting given that it is on the world-class campus in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood.

Many consider Robie House the quintessential Prairie Style building due to its long, horizontal lines -- reminiscent of the prairie with which Wright was so familiar, and which once stretched to the building's doorstep. It also featured a central chimney, and what is known as a "hipped roof," which isn't quite peaked but which has a low, sloping roof.

But walk up to Robie House, especially anywhere on its western side, and what grabs your attention is another Wright specialty -- a huge, cantilevered roof over a private, second-story porch. The view from the street is stunning, as the almost never-ending line of tourists with cameras outside reflects. To some, though, the building evokes the look of a boat, and many call the southwest corner "the prow."

Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House, as seen from the south. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Stand on Robie House's south side, though, and what strikes you is the postcard view and the long, dominating horizontal lines. Though there are, of course, vertical lines to be seen, they are easy to miss. Wright knew how to make an impression.

Inside, visitors will still be floored by some of the design elements, especially in the living room, but here and there you're reminded that substantial work is being done. Exposed beams, art glass leaning against walls, and other evidence of in-progress construction give a hint that some day, though no one yet knows when, Robie House will once again be back at its full glory.

But don't worry. If you find yourself there before that, you will not be disappointed. It is, after all, Robie House. It changed America, and it can change your view of what architecture can be.

 

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