SAVING ROBIE HOUSE
BY Marylou Hadditt
This is the story of how Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House was saved for posterity. I have no proof of what follows although much of it is probably documented in the Committee to Save Robie House papers on file at the Chicago Historical Society. Other people may have different memories. Mine is the recollection of a seventy-two year old woman about a series of events which happened forty three years ago.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School masterpiece, Robie House, located at the corner of Woodlawn Avenue and 58th Street, is immediately adjacent to the Gothic towers of the University of Chicago campus. Its side windows overlook an impressive Rockefeller Chapel and from it’s front loggia one can see the towers of the Oriental Institute, a museum of Egyptology and Syriology. Further west on 58th Street is the main quadrangle. In essence, an ideal situation for an important architectural landmark.
To the North, along Woodlawn Avenue, are several ordinary brick buildings, which belonged to the Chicago Theological Seminary, a consortium of various Protestant ministerial schools affiliated with the University of Chicago. In 1957 the Seminary decided it needed more dorm space and, naturally, more parking space. Robie House was slated to become a parking lot. Although today, Robie House is considered the cornerstone of modern architecture, at that time some thought it was “ugly”. It “looked like a boat”. Or maybe it like a “tank”. And the only people who cared about it were a bunch of architects.
Robie House. Flickr image by Wildcat Dunny
There was nominal publicity in the newspapers, some voices were raised in protest, but not many and not loudly. My husband, Tom Stauffer, grew up walking to school by way of Robie House. An aficionado of the arts, Tom was distressed at the pending demolition and immediately began to look for ways to preserve the architectural gem.
Several events happened in fairly rapid succession. Frank Lloyd Wright called a press conference in Chicago to announce a proposed Mile High building., Wright displayed plans for a five thousand foot high building which would be anchored on the Laurentian shield on which Chicago sits. All facilities would be within the building. High speed pressurized elevators would take people to schools, restaurants, entertainment and so on. The prairie would revert to its natural state for all the people who live in this mile high hi-rise to enjoy. came to Chicago, to announce a proposal for a mile high building. (Ken Burns never mentioned the Mile High proposal on his program about Wright.)
As a staff member of the community newspaper in which Robie House and the University were located, I attended the Wright press conference, taking my husband, Tom, along. Tom, Bill McDonald from the PBS-TV station, WTTW finagled our way through the mob to speak to Wright about Robie House. He had no prior knowledge of the threat and immediately called another press conference to be held that afternoon at Robie House. His old friend Carl Sandburg joined him. It was sparsely attended, but given good coverage by WTTW. This afternoon that Wright made his much quoted quip: “Isn’t is just like a man of the cloth to destroy a work of art for a parking lot”. The Chicago Sun Times carried a story by Ruth Moore, who later became an enthusiastic fan for Chicago architecture.
A few weeks later, a young architectural photographer and preservationist, Richard Nickel, read Tom’s name in the newspaper, called and asked “what can we do about Robie House?” Although Dick’s major interest was documenting and saving Louis Sullivan’s work, he joined the Robie House battle. Tom, Nickel and I became a Committee to Save Robie House , complete with official looking stationery. The Chicago Theological Seminary laughed at our efforts, but gave us a key to the house,. We planned to open it on weekends, hopefully to raise to enough money to bring it to public attention.
Late autumn, cold and blustery as Chicago can get, we opened Robie House to the public every Sunday afternoon, There was enough heat only to keep the pipes from bursting. We had a bridge table n the foyer with petitions and pamphlets – For those two or three people who stopped by out of curiosity we led “tours” through the deserted rooms of the abandoned house. Tom, Dick and I wore mufflers, woolly hats, heavy jackets, and mittens to keep from freezing on those winter afternoons at Robie House. Part way through the winter an architect, Bill Hasbrouck wandered into the Robie House lobby with a bundle of exquisite little magazines “The Prairie School Review”. Bill and his wife Marilyn researched, wrote and printed it in their Park Forest basement with hand set fonts and an antique press. This gem of a publication was filled with drawings, photographs and information not only on Wright and Louis Sullivan but Maher and other Prairie School architects. One of those magazines today is, I am sure, is a collectors item, but as I recall, Bill wanted to sell it for $2.00 – one dollar to the Committee to Save Robie House and one dollar for the Hasbroucks. Thus our trio committee because a quartet, and sometimes a quintet when Marilyn joined her husband. We struggled along during the winter of 1957. Ruth Moore from the Sun Times gave us an encouraging boost with articles on architectural preservation. We tried, but were not able to enlist Ada Louise Huxtable, the New York Times preservation expert, until much later in the struggle.
The break-through came about in a series of extraordinary circumstances that at first had nothing to do with Robie House or architecture. Tom decided that our nine year old son, Steve, should have a pen pal from another country . He located a ten year old boy from Italy. The Italian boy’s letters were translated by our neighbor. Steve’s letters to the boy were translated by his teacher. Tom and the teacher began to exchange letters, ultimately becoming pen pals while Steve’s and the Italian boy’s interest waned. When Tom heard that the teacher’s fiancee was an architecture student at the University of Milan, he initiated a complex campaign to create an international press for the Robie House . He wrote press releases for the Milan newspaper which the teacher translated for his non-English speaking fiancee, She, in turn, obtained signatures on a petition from the faculty and student body to save that American treasure, Robie House. The fiancee took it to the Milan press. The Milan newspaper headlined the “travesty ” of the eminent destruction of that world famous architectural monument, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House located on the University of Chicago Campus.
Upon receiving a tear sheet, Tom immediately translated the Milan article into French, sent it to his WW II buddy, Jean Pierre who placed the story in Le Monde critical of the University of Chicago’s threat to demolish a great work of art. The Milan and Paris articles were parlayed into a Parliamentary Question, raised by another war-time buddy, Tom Driberg MP. . Ada Huxtable at The New York Times published a story on “the disgrace of the University of Chicago.’ Ruth Moore from the Chicago Sun Times did much the same, Fifth Ward Alderman, Leon Despres ,an anti-Daley independent, joined the struggle to save Robie House. (At a later date, Despres was responsible for the appointment of the Chicago Architectural Commission,. Today, forty years later, a vocal and important voice in Chicago architectural preservation.)
The administration of the world- class University of Chicago was embarrassed by the pending demolition of Robie House. The University manipulated its way out by convincing New York real estate developer, William Zeckendorf, to purchase Robie House from the Chicago Theological Seminary for use as a field office for his nearby Hyde Park Urban Renewal project. In 1963, at the completion of the renewal project, Zeckendorf deeded Robie House, sadly in need of repairs and restoration, to the University of Chicago.
At this writing, the building is a museum, open to the public under the protection of the Frank Lloyd Preservation Trust. Much restoration has taken place over the years, and now, again more restoration is being done. At one point Robie House served as offices of the University of Chicago Alumni Association displaying Wright-designed dining table, chairs, lounge chairs, sofas and other examples of Arts & Crafts furnishings.
Post cards of Robie House are ubiquitous in Chicago. Sightseeing buses stop at the corner of Woodlawn and 58th Street. Prairie School theme silk scarves umbrellas, shopping bags, stained glass windows, gift cards and lamps use Wright designs are available in almost every mail order gift catalog. The initial restoration, was carried out under the aegis of the noted architect and preservationist, Bill Hasbrouck one of the first Save Robie House volunteers.
Marylou Shira and grandsons (L to R) Ryan, Ben, David. Robie House Lego