By Patrick F. Cannon
Photographer Jim Caulfield – one of the premier architectural photographers in Chicago – and I have collaborated on five books on Chicago architecture and architects (and are working on a sixth). This has taken up a good deal of my time for the last 15 years or so. Because I spend much of my time reading, researching and writing about Chicago architecture, I decided that this blog would be a vacation from those concerns. I’m breaking that rule today, to encourage you to visit two great works of art.
Last Thursday, my wife Jeanette and I attended a reception and viewing in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood of Frank Lloyd Wright’s newly-restored Robie House, his 1910 masterpiece of the Prairie style, this country’s first truly American architectural style. Its reopening for tours came less than two years after restoration was completed at Wright’s other Chicago-area masterpiece, Unity Temple in Oak Park. (That’s Unity Temple in Jim Caulfield’s photo above.)
Harboe Architects was responsible for both restorations. Its client for the Robie House was the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust; and at Unity, the Unity Temple Restoration Foundation. Tours for both, however, can be booked at the Trust’s web site, www.flwright.org. or by calling 312.994.4000. Both buildings will be part of the Trust’s annual Wright Plus housewalk on Saturday, May 18.
While there are literally dozens of Wright designs in the Chicago area – Oak Park and River Forest alone have 27 – these two are the most important. The cost of their restoration, approximately $11 million for Robie and $25 million for Unity, is a bargain considering what far lesser works of contemporary art are fetching at public auction.
Chicago is justly famous around the world as a living museum of modern architecture. None of our great buildings is superior to Wright’s masterpieces. Other great works of art can of course be seen at the Art Institute, the Museum of Contemporary Art and other museums. But architecture is unique among the arts in that you can actually walk into a building and experience its form and space firsthand.
I have given many tours of both buildings and, even in unrestored state, visitors from literally around the world have been awestruck by these spaces. Now, restored as Wright would have wished them to be, they are simply breathtaking.
In 1957, the then owner of the Robie House, the Chicago Theological Seminary, planned to demolish it to make way for a new building. Wright, then 90, came to its defense, as did many others. On a visit, he was quoted as saying (and I paraphrase) that you wouldn’t think of destroying the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, so why the Robie House, which was a greater work of art than any painting could ever be! Typical Wright.
Ultimately, New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf bought the Robie House in 1958 to use as a temporary office while doing work in the area, then donated it to the University of Chicago, which still owns it, although the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust was and is responsible for restoring and operating it.
If you live in the Chicago area, or plan to visit, Robie and Unity should be on your “must see” list. So should the Mona Lisa, but that will cost you more and even then you’ll be lucky to get close enough for a good look. Here, you can not only see great works of art, but walk around in them, and even – in the case of Unity – take a seat.
Copyright 2019, Patrick F.Cannon