What’s Going On At Robie House?

THE BLOG BELOW IS FROM OCTOBER 2008. The issues described below have been fully and completely resolved and the restored Robie House is MORE open for tours than ever before. FOR CURRENT INFORMATION ON ROBIE HOUSE, GO HERE.

October 2008 blog begins here:


Last week, Blair Kamin reported in the Trib on two of the iconic house museums that draw tourists from all over the world. I am involved, through both Landmarks Illinois and the National Trust, in the Farnsworth House. After the devastating flood last month, tours were abruptly cancelled, even as people arrived in Chicago from every corner of the world to see the house. We gathered, brainstormed, and decided to allow tours again, through the restoration. These tours will cost more – a rare chance to see “Farnsworth House with a black eye” as Landmarks Illinois’ Jim Peters said.

Opening a house museum during renovation makes sense. I saw Montpelier during its rehab a couple of years ago and loved it. The rehabilitation action actually ADDS interest to the tour and can, as at Farnsworth House, command a premium. You won’t see it this way again.


The pattern was set more than 20 years ago at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, where a massive restoration to the building’s 1909 appearance – including digging a foundation for the Studio – took place without tours ever stopping.

Which makes the second part of Kamin’s story a massive mystery. Robie House, the iconic triumph of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie School, is undergoing restoration and they are cutting tours to Saturdays only – starting in November, and then shutting it ENTIRELY from November 2009 to April 2010. This makes no sense on the face of it, especially since Robie House is operated by the same group that did the Home and Studio restoration – the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

It can’t be a pure revenue move – you can schedule all sorts of high-end exclusive events without stopping tours. We had Brad Pitt filming a jeans commercial at the Farnsworth House and we had Johnny Depp doing a movie at the Gaylord Building this summer.

Kamin reports that the docents are upset, and this provides the only clue as to the logic behind the move. There is talk of automated tours. Again, given the FLW Preservation Trust’s reliance on docents in Oak Park, this doesn’t make sense. The only plausible explanation is that they want to replace the docents, so they need to shutter the place, just like the Berghoff shut down for a while to ditch its union employees.

The move could backfire – the Wright mania that has driven a commercial empire of Prairie styled goods for the last 25 years can’t last forever. The junk may stop selling, but the tourism draw is permanent – especially European and Asian interest in the origin of modernism. The FLW Preservation Trust knows that – the lion’s share of Oak Park visitors are foreign. Robie House, Unity Temple, Crown Hall and the Farnsworth House are essential for any architecture buff who cares about the last century. Tours on Saturdays only doesn’t make sense on the face of it. Why freeze out Hans from Lubeck and Yukie from Sapporo, not to mention Joe the Plumber?

Maybe the foreigners buy less junk so they need to host more private parties. Maybe the Graduate School of Business is looking at Robie House like the Latin School looks at Lincoln Park. After all, the U of C still owns it. Still, the docent angle remains the most plausible explanation for an illogical move. I’ll try to find out more next week at the National Preservation Conference.

2009 UPDATE: See the update blog from August 2009 Time Tells.

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One Response to “What’s Going On At Robie House?”

  1. kmmc048 Says:

    Vince,

    Thank you for asking what is happening at the Robie House. I have been a volunteer interpreter (i.e., the FLW Preservation Trust’s name for docents) at the Robie House for the last four years, and recent developments are almost as much of a mystery to me and the other interpreters as they seem to you.

    Back in mid-August, we were informed that the four guest services positions at the Robie House would be terminated and the current staff members in those positions let go as of November 1. The Trust’s asserted justification was that tours would be reduced starting November 1 as a result of the accelerated restoration work that had recently started. We were also told that the public tours of the Robie House after the restoration was complete would not be provided seven days a week as is currently the practice and that the use of the building would be significantly different from that of the past.

    The interpreters were concerned that public access was being unnecessarily limited during the restoration and that access for the general public had to be a top priority after restoration was completed in the spring of 2010. We also learned in early September that the Preservation Trust had no plans to reproduce the furniture or textiles that Wright specifically designed for the Robie House. This position is directly contradictory to what we had always been told and what most of us communicated to the visitors to the Robie House on our tours. Moreover, the Preservation Trust was, and continues to be, unwilling to make any type of commitment regarding the furniture and textiles, even if sufficient funds become available.

    In mid-September, we were then told that the schedule of tours during the restoration will be limited to Saturdays from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. starting November 1, 2008, through October 31, 2009. Curiously, the Trust offered no explanation why tours would be limited to Saturdays during the restoration when tours could also be offered on Sunday without interfering with the restoration work. The Trust also announced that the Robie House would be completely closed to the public from November 1, 2009, through April 30, 2010, without explaining why this was necessary due to the restoration work. Limited public access is inconsistent with the Trust’s past practice at the Home and Studio and with the first phase of restoration of the Robie House when the building was open throughout the period of major exterior and interior restoration work.

    The interpreters had requested a meeting with the Preservation Trust back in August to provide us with more information concerning its plans, but such a meeting was not held until October 7. At that meeting, the Trust revealed nothing concerning public access after May 1, 2010, saying that those decisions had yet to be made. Representatives of the Trust spoke in general terms about adopting a “fluid model of interpretation” and using the building for diverse purposes. Despite efforts by the interpreters to obtain a commitment from the Trust regarding the reproduction of furniture and textiles, the Trust declined even the most general commitment to do so.

    Interestingly, on the day following the meeting, four of the more outspoken interpreters, including myself, were terminated by the Trust. The Trust asserts that we were not terminated for expressing our views, but we can find no other explanation for our dismissal. One of the terminated volunteers had been with the Trust for over 18 years and another had volunteered at the Robie House since 1997 when the Trust took over the operations of the Robie House.

    The interpreters have no problems with the use of the Robie House for innovative programs to present the Robie House in the most engaging manner possible. However, we are committed to two goals: (1) maximum public access to the Robie House during and after the restoration and (2) complete restoration, including furniture and textiles, should funds become available.

    Although current plans anticipate the restoration of the shell of the building by 2010, those plans are dependent on a fundraising campaign that is just beginning. The Trust has received a $5 million interest-free line of credit to start the restoration, but the Trust has no intention of expending the full amount of those funds if the fundraising effort stalls or is not completely successful. Thus, the reopening of the Robie House in the spring of 2010 is not assured.

    I do not believe that the Trust intends to dismiss all of the interpreters as your post suggests. It has stated that it wants to involve the interpreters in the planning efforts. However, it has not done so with respect to the decisions made thus far and has announced no process through which the opinions and views of the interpreters will be solicited in the future. Given the Trust’s recent actions, however, it appears that interpreters risk termination if their views differ from those of the Trust and they decide to express those views nonetheless. This is hardly the manner in which I would have expected a nonprofit organization that depends on the efforts of scores of volunteers to operate, but that is unfortunately what has happened.

    David Cameron

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