When the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust assumed management in 1997 of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House in Chicago, the iconic modernist structure was in severe disrepair. For nearly a decade the Trust has worked to restore and conserve this significant example of Wright's modern period, distinguished by its strong horizontal lines, dramatic cantilevered overhangs, and distinctive art glass windows. Now, with all exterior repairs and conservation completed, the Trust is stepping up restoration of the house's interiors to ensure all is ready for its 100th anniversary in 2010.
The Robie House will begin its new life as a museum on May 1, 2010, offering tours and programming, expanded public access, educational sessions, events, and performances.
Designed for Frederick C. Robie (a bicycle and motorcycle manufacturing tycoon) and completed in 1910, the Prairie-style residence had suffered termite damage and extensive water damage over the years to both its exterior and its interiors. Several owners had made changes to Wright's work—removing cabinetry and casework, painting over original finishes, and making repairs with inappropriate materials. Throughout the restoration, estimated to cost between $8 million and $10 million, the Trust's conservators have discovered evidence of original details and materials that had been covered up or removed. Photos, drawings, and archaeological remnants found in the house helped the team recreate elements that no longer existed.
Led by architect Karen Sweeney, director of restoration and facilities, the Trust's in-house architectural team has consulted with curators and Wright scholars from around the country to ensure the accuracy of their work. The Trust first tackled exterior conservation: stabilizing termite-damaged areas, shoring up the structure, insulating and sealing the roof deck, re-roofing, restoring the brick and mortar cladding and courtyard wall, and restoring the concrete porches to their original condition. All 174 art glass panels have been conserved and their frames stabilized. The three-car garage has been returned to its original condition, complete with mechanic's pit.
Restoration work on the Robie House interiors is one-third complete, according to Sweeney. Because the house will serve as a museum, Chicago's assembly occupancy codes apply and require additional structural support. So the restoration team added a steel support beam to prevent deflection and stabilize the structure for increased traffic. Wright-designed light fixtures must be reproduced; original room configurations restored; rooms repainted according to Wright's color choices; wall and ceiling plaster replaced; flooring refinished; built-ins refurbished or replaced; and mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems updated.
The building's new life as a museum sets the bar higher for the Trust's restoration and conservation efforts, Sweeney says. "We tightly follow the national standards for restoration and completely document everything we do," she says. The high level of documentation adds costs and slows the process, but Sweeney says, "It also makes that information accessible to people in the future. We can show how we did all the work."
An interactive map of the Robie House with photos and details of the restoration work are available on the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust's Web site at www.gowright.org/robiehouse/robiehouse.html.