Chicago is a beautiful city stretching elegantly along the western shores of Lake Michigan. The city grew rapidly in the 19th century. It’s location on the shores of the lake made it an important port and shipping centre. As the railways expanded across North America Chicago became the hub for the Mid-West and the whole of the Mississippi Basin.
Businesses thrived here, jobs were numerous and immigrants arrived in their hordes. Chicago was a melting pot of humanity, every nationality represented in this vibrant and dynamic city. In this atmosphere of optimism anything was possible. It was the city of Chicago that Frank Lloyd Wright gravitated towards as a young man. This was a city of opportunity, a city of dreams. The Sears Roebuck Company was started in Chicago and expanded with the development of the railways. Through the Sears Mail-Order Catalogue people living in rural areas, no matter how remote, could purchase anything they wanted. I’m still trying to track down an amazing piece of film from the early 1900s of a piano being delivered to a school teacher living in rural Oklahoma. The piano was dispatched from Chicago by rail and made the last part of the journey loaded onto the back of a horse-drawn cart. Sears grew into one of the largest corporations in North America. For many years the Sears Tower, the company’s head-quarters, was the tallest building in the world and it remains the tallest sky-scraper in the US. It is still a very prestigious building and was recently renamed The Willis Tower at the insistence of its principal tenant.
This feeling of dynamism in Chicago permeated every sector in the city. Even the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871 was seen as a catalyst for renewed growth and modernisation. When Frank Lloyd Wright designed and built his family home in Oak Park he built it partly for himself but also to demonstrate to affluent business owners what was possible. An example of how they too could live if they commissioned him to design their homes. In 1909 Frank Lloyd Wright built The Robie House for just such a client. Mr Frederick Robie wanted an impressive house where he could entertain guests and generally impress visitors. His stay at the house was brief – just about a year – before debts and a crumbling marriage forced him to sell.
The Robie House is so interesting. It is located in Hyde Park, south of the downtown area and is surrounded by campus buildings of the University of Chicago. It is the first house built in the ‘Prairie Style’ where the home is integrated into the local surroundings. Lines between inside and outside are blurred. Roof angles are gently sloping, balconies and outdoor terraces encircle the building. Extended eaves offer protection from the weather. Lloyd Wright designed every aspect of the house, external elevations, internal spaces and all the furniture, lighting, fixtures and fittings. Inside the house all the windows are magnificent stained glass providing a light, bright interior and offering the occupants privacy at the same time. Window frames, staircases, skirtings and cupboards are made of American Oak. The house exudes geniality and offers a welcoming ambiance.
Several times a year The Robie House is open in the evening. For about $ 30– per person you can buy a ticket and experience the house as a home. Guests can sit on the chairs, enjoy music in the main reception room and have a glass of wine. So civilised. Enthusiastic volunteers (often students) explain the house in great detail. Even the carpet design, for example, mirrors the layout of the lighting above. The attention to detail is impressive and clearly the work of a man obsessed with his craft.
In fact in 1910 Frank Lloyd Wright headed off to Europe to complete a monograph of his work and more importantly to introduce his work to the Europeans. Always a colourful character he left his wife and children in Oak Park and departed for Europe with a client’s wife instead. I smile to myself when I think of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a man of his times and Chicago was certainly his city. The man was a first class self-publicist and always had an eye on the main chance. This approach fitted perfectly with the go-getting attitude of Chicago and its people at that time. In 1956 a distinguished Mr Lloyd Wright appeared on What’s My Line. Simon & Garfunkel wrote a song called, ‘So Long Frank Lloyd Wright’ released in 1970. This was in the days before the real notion of ‘celebrity’ had developed. I think this tells us that here was an exceptional man, charismatic, brilliant and almost certainly ruthless.
There is so much more to say about Chicago and Frank Lloyd Wright. But for now have a look at the links below. It certainly helps to build a bigger picture of Mr Lloyd Wright and the influence he had on popular culture.
- Simon & Garfunkel released the song “So Long Frank Lloyd Wright’ in 1970 https://youtu.be/gKwrx5dm81o
- In 1956 a rather charming FLW appeared on ‘What’s My Line’ as a mystery guest. https://youtu.be/jbZliXx8kIQ
- The book ‘Loving Frank’ is a novel written by Nancy Horan, published in 2007. It explores the illicit love affair between FLW and Mamah Borthwick. I haven’t read it but I hear it is a good read.
With thanks to:
- Paul Murphy for telling me about the Simon & Garfunkel Song
- The ladies of ‘Women on Fire’ for wanting to know more!
- Debbie Phillips, without whom I would never have been in Chicago.
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