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.