Frank Lloyd Wright is justly regarded as one of the greatest architects in history. But it wasn’t always so. Early in his career, as with most artists, he struggled for recognition and commercial success. After some initial popularity, for decades afterward (as a result of scandals and changing tastes), he was largely ignored. But genius is irrepressible. That talent is more than hinted at in Wright’s own home and studio, constructed in 1889 and 1898.
Wright borrowed $5,000 from his employer and mentor, Louis Sullivan, another great Chicago architect, in order to build the home. In short order, he had installed himself and his wife, and before long there were six children to raise. His career blossomed as he developed his distinctive style and by 1898 he was ready to add a studio.
At the studio, as with the house itself, Wright experimented with every aspect of architecture here. The result: his world-renowned Prairie Style. That style – low roofs, cantilevers, and the numerous other unique Wright design ideas (now commonplace, with their origins unknown to many) – developed into 125 buildings.
Many of those structures are in Chicago itself. The Robie House, now used (in part) as offices by the University of Chicago, is one of the outstanding examples.
Tours are available that allow visitors to experience the beginnings of the revolution that Wright wrought. The house and studio have undergone extensive renovation, ending with the site as it existed in 1909 (the last year Wright lived there). The restoration took 13 years and over $3 million to complete, but the results are open to the public to enjoy.
Here is the drafting room, near the front of the house on the second floor, where Wright first conceived many of his groundbreaking ideas. In 1895 the architect added a two-story polygonal bay on the south side. Here you’ll see the dining room, containing dining tables and chairs that are early examples of a style any Wright fan will recognize.
In the same year, another extension was added to the east side of the house, this containing the children’s playroom. The windows and skylight are excellent examples of Wright’s use of outdoor light to complement and complete the interior design.
On the north face of the home, Wright added the studio annex, completed in 1898. A rare example of the use of octagonal light frames is one of the highlights of a visit. Under these lights, the master and his apprentices labored to produce some of the 20th century’s most outstanding works of art in wood, glass, and stone.
Though unpopular, both personally and professionally, for much of the middle portion of his life, Wright’s early commitment to excellence never faded through storybook adversity. His life and work were both the stuff of legend. Come see where it all began.