Robie House, Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, regains glory (pictures)

Perhaps the great architect's most famous building, Robie House in Chicago is in the middle of a multi-million-dollar renovation. CNET's Daniel Terdiman stopped by on Road Trip 2013.


Daniel Terdiman

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1 of 37 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Robie House

CHICAGO--Given that Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater, Taliesin West, the Tokyo's Imperial Hotel, and many other great buildings, it's hard to say which one is his greatest.

But after visiting Robie House here as part of Road Trip 2013, CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman thinks he might have seen the best Frank Lloyd Wright building of them all.

With what is the quintessential example of Wright's Prairie Style of architecture, Robie House is a stunning work of art. Located at the University of Chicago, the house, completed in 1910 for businessman Frederick C. Robie, is in the middle of a major, multi-million-dollar renovation that should return it to its original glory.

Already, the building's exterior is done. But now, work is being done on the interior, although it's not clear when it will be finished.

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Looking east

Robie House features Wright's signature geometric design, with long horizontal lines and striking angles at every turn. The house was a true collaboration between Wright and Robie, although the new owner only lived there for about 18 months before being forced to sell the building to help pay off his late father's debts.

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Robie House corner view

Robie purchased the lot for the house in 1908 for $13,500, when his family was still wealthy, and the house was finished in 1910.

The southwest corner of the house looks to many like a boat, and a lot of people refer to that corner as "the prow."

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Roman brick

Wright used Roman brick throughout Robie House because of their long rectangular, horizontal, shape, and the fact that he could use vertical mortar between the bricks that matched the color of the bricks, maintaining the sense that the facade was all horizontal lines.

Everything about the house instills the sense of horizontal conveyed by the flat landscape of the American prairie, which surrounded the house when it was built, and with which Wright was very familiar.

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Entrance from the street

Wright enjoyed creating interesting entrances to his buildings and giving owners a sense of privacy outside their front doors. While it's not hard to find Robie House's front door, it is partially hidden away behind an outer gate.

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Courtyard with three-car-garage

Given that Robie House was built just a few years after mass production of cars began, it's quite possible -- although no one knows for sure -- that its attached three-car garage may be the world's first. The garage was purpose-built for cars rather than converted from storing horse-drawn carriages.

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Front door

Robie House also features a wider-than-normal front door. Wright designed the building in order, like with many of his buildings, to bring the outside in, but maintain the privacy of those inside.

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Entrance room

This is Robie House's entrance room. It features lots of natural colors, and a large carpet that George Mann Niedecken, who worked for Wright, designed.

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Like so many of Wright's buildings, Robie House provides its residents with grand hearths. This one is in the house's entrance room.

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Stairway up

Wright enjoyed paths of discovery, and those could be stairways as well as hallways. This is the main Robie House stairway that leads up from the entrance room to the living room on the second level.

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Looking out over the staircase

A look at the view from the top of the staircase.

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Living room

Those who climbed the Robie House staircase for the first time couldn't possibly have been prepared for just how grand the living room -- which they would encounter when they got to the top of the stairs -- was.

Designed with one of Wright's specialties -- the open floor plan -- the living room was a giant room featuring recessed lighting with what appears to be a Japanese influence, a common trait in Wright's houses.

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West end

The west end of the Robie House living room.

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Looking back at house

A veranda on the west side of the house allows those inside to step outside where they have a lovely view of the surroundings, and a veiw back at the house, protected from the weather by the building's grand cantilevered roof.

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The balcony offers a look at University of Chicago buildings across the street, as well as protection from one of Wright's signature touches, a large, cantilevered roof.

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South side balcony

A long narrow balcony abuts the south side of the Robie House's living room.

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Exterior stairway

A narrow staircase connects the entrance courtyard and the balcony on the west side of the house.

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Major grant

Today, after having gone through many different owners -- including several institutions -- Robie House is owned by the University of Chicago and managed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust, which got a $5.5 million grant to do the renovation.

Twice, in 1941 and again in 1957, Robie House was slated for demolition, and both times Wright stepped in personally to save his masterpiece. Wright argued in 1957 that, "Why destroy this building any more than you would destroy an important painting? Because it's more important than any could possibly be."

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Living room art glass

Like so many of Wright's buildings, Robie House features windows with what's known as "art glass." The house has 175 art glass windows.

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Tall art glass

These doors open onto the south-side balcony from the living room and feature Wright's famous art glass design.

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Art glass on the south side

Wright brought the outside in through the use of dozens of windows throughout, but maintained the privacy of those inside, in part by using art glass instead of clear windows.

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Another Wright signature was the use of cornices -- essentially rain gutters -- on the underneath edges of the roof.

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Robie House still has one original sconce, a light that casts beautiful shadows and indirect lighting, a favorite design element of Wright's.

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Living room looking east

A look back into the main part of the house from the west side of the living room.

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Living room hearth

The living room features another hearth, which in keeping with one of Wright's favorite design elements, has open space directly above the fireplace, and two flues on both sides.

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Light screens

A look at light screens on the ceiling of the Robie House living room.

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Dining room built-ins

As he often did, Wright designed built-in furniture into the Robie House dining room. Doing this allowed him to maintain more control over the interior living space than many architects enjoy.

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Breakfast nook

Wright liked designing rooms within rooms in his buildings, and Robie House is no different. This is a breakfast nook found at the east side of the house's open dining room.

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Staircase to private quarters

This is a look down on the staircase that leads up to the house's private quarters from the main level.

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Master bedroom

This is the Robie House master bedroom.

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Master closet entry

The master bedroom had a grand master closet that included built-in drawers, meaning that residents didn't have to have bulky chests of drawers.

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Closet doors

The closet doors in the master bedroom were faithful to Wright's love of geometric patterns.

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Courtyard looking west

A look to the west from the main Robie House courtyard.

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Wall safe

The master bedroom had a small safe built into the wall.

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The master bedroom featured a very modern -- for the time -- shower with two heads.

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Robie House from the north

A look at Robie House from the north.

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Upstairs bedroom

Some of the house's art glass is seen leaning against the wall in one of the upstairs bedroom. The glass is being repaired as part of the major renovation project.

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