Posts Tagged ‘Robie House’

Chicago is Coming

July 22, 2010

The number of international tourists to Chicago has been climbing visibly in the last decade or so. Sure, this is more noticeable to me because I live in Oak Park, where the devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright are as likely to be German or Japanese as they are to be North American, but the shift is visible. It is clearly visible in Millenium Park, at age six the new symbol (s) of the city and a guaranteed attraction for visitors (the Bean) and locals (Crown Fountain) alike.

But in the last couple of months there have been more significant clues. In May, we learned that Chicago has the seventh best restaurant in the WORLD (Alinea), beating out New York City, and a couple of weeks ago Michelin announced it will finally do a Chicago red guide (that means restaurants – as many of you know, I used to write the green guides for Michelin, which are the cultural and historical ones) this fall. The number of five-star hotels has grown significantly, and despite low polling numbers in the city, Mayor Daley has lots of suburban and out-of-town fans thanks to his street plantings, graffiti abatement and thing for wrought iron. The city looks good.

We also have somehow become the center of summer music festivals, with both the established alternative (oxymoron check) festival Lollapalooza and the newer alternative alternative Pitchfork festival in Union Park, which is a part of the West Side that was not frequented by out-of-towners in the 1980s. They are filming Transformers 3 downtown right now and Batman took advantage of some of the cities iconic landmarks and streetscapes a couple of years ago.

We also have (again, despite recent poll dives) the President’s house, something every tour bus I have taken around in the last year has demanded. And we will have it for at least another two and a half years, if not longer. I think the city’s time is coming. We’re over 500 feet above sea level next to the fifth largest fresh water lake in the world, so we are in decent shape for global warming. We have a reasonably diversified economy and remain a vital transhipment point for every kind of good on every kind of vehicle. Our airports fly directly to China, India, Russia and most other places daily, and today Virgin America announced it will start hipster service to London (fixie planes?)

We have the longest and greenest lakefront of any world city (I didn’t fact check that but you would need a hell of an estuary to beat it) and a slew of cultural attractions and you don’t need a car to enjoy any of it. Plus, we have all of this famous architecture, which is what green guides (and iPhone guides, etc.) are made of.

the recently restored ironwork at Louis Sullivan’s famed Carson Pirie Scott store.

Robie House – restored and more interiors visible than ever!

Speaking of Chicago architecture, you MUST dash right over to the Chicago Cultural Center to see Tim Samuelson’s fantastic Louis Sullivan show – comprised of artifacts, drawings, photographs, big chunks of stone and iron and terra cotta, and a brilliant design by one of Chicago’s greatest artists, Chris Ware. Not only does the show offer a wonderful overview of a magnificent artist, but it offers new and intriguing perspectives from a man who has spent a lifetime studying Sullivan. Do. not. miss. it.

Chicago is coming. It is becoming the destination it always could be, and it is getting the recognition. And it isn’t just downtown. The transformation of the near south and west sides over the last decade is pretty stunning.

Yes, you could complain about political corruption and government budget crises, especially if you live in one of those cities known for clean government and bountiful budgets.

(Hello? Anyone?)

August 17 UPDATE: Chicago just rose to 6th in the global cities ranking. Read about it here.

What’s Going On At Robie House II

July 29, 2009

Well, many months have passed but people are still looking at my blog last fall about Robie House so an update with the status is in order. First, the exciting news is that the latest phase of reconstruction is just about complete so you can visit Robie House – in Chicago’s Hyde Park – without the distractions of major construction work going on. PLUS, there are now available – in limited numbers and by reservation ONLY – a private tour that includes the long-sought, almost-never-seen third floor, where the bedrooms are. Yes, Robie House is a three-story building, despite all that dynamic steamship horizontality.
robie08 vw seS
Most importantly, the aspect that originally got me hot and bothered about the rehab – closing up for tours – is gone. Robie House is accessible to tours FIVE days a week – Thursday through Monday. You can also still get tickets for tours just by showing up. There are also tours that pair Robie House with the neighborhood. Find out about all the tours at: http://www.wrightplus.org/robiehouse/tours.php.
robie 08 straightS
They also have tours based on some of the popular books out about Wright and Robie, including Boyle’s The Women, which raises questions to me: Why is Wright – with three wives and one major mistress – such a big deal? Have you catalogued the marriages and liaisons of Mies and Gropius? They were at least his equal, as was Charlie Chaplin. Ah, but they have an advantage when it comes to liaisons that Wright didn’t – they were European, not American, and certainly not Midwestern. Pity the Plains Puritan.

House Museums and Ultimate Use

October 24, 2008

During the National Preservation Conference for the last many years, Fridays are the busiest day, beginning at 7:15 AM with breakfast with the Site Council Chairs and Trust President Dick Moe. I represent both the Gaylord Building and the Farnsworth House. The former has a decent endowment while the latter does not, and of course the economic climate was at the top of the agenda for all 29 of the Trust sites.

Gaylord Building 2004

This is always a fascinating meeting, especially since the Kykuit Conference, where the Trust sites took the “beyond the velvet ropes” step, encouraging Boards and staff at historic sites to go beyond the “museum” model for historic houses. This is of course a great interest of mine as readers of this blog will know. I have been proposing to the Trust for several years the idea of a national database of all historic sites that could be used for corporate meetings, institutional retreats, filming, and a whole variety of events. These things all happen of course on an individual Trust property level, but a national database – perhaps licensed to other sites as well – could be a powerful funding tool.

The historic house museum, based on tourism and ticket sales, has NEVER made sense in all of history, unless the tickets are very high in price (Biltmore), or an incredible number of tourists are pushed through (Fallingwater), or a gift shop regularly trebles the income per visitor versus ticket sales (Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio). The Gaylord Building has relied on its endowment, even though it has a paying tenant (the Public Landing Restaurant). The Farnsworth House is working on merchandising, as well as offering more expensive “restoration tours.”

Speaking of which, Joan Mercuri explained to me the thinking at Robie House, which is taking the strange and unusual step of closing completely to try to complete the last $5 million of their restoration. Joan explained that many visitors were upset that they couldn’t see certain things during restoration. She also stressed that some of the decisions regarding how many tours would be available – once a week this coming year, and none from November ’09 to April ’10 – were not final and they would possibly open more. She also talked about cell phone tours, which are a growing media for heritage tourism and interpretation. So that made some sense, and obviously there are lots of hard feelings among docents, but I haven’t read the Hyde Park Herald so I don’t understand the infighting. If it were up to me, I would still be more open during the restoration – that is what we are doing at Farnsworth – but it isn’t up to me. I suppose you could do exterior tours during intensive interior renovation. That will essentially be the situation at the Farnsworth House during certain points in the rehab. At Robie House that is an even more obvious strategy, since like Farnsworth, much of the design brilliance is visible from the exterior.

The other fascinating aspect of being at the Site Councils meetings at the National Trust is the Trust’s wise commitment to recognizing the end of the house museum as we know it. They have changed Boards who couldn’t see that end, and they will continue to do so. Sites will look for new types of community outreach and development and measure success not based on visitors but a more comprehensive assessment. Most importantly, we hope to show the rest of the nation that some sites have to transition – become private sites again as they once were. There are too many house museums, a fact the Trust recognized almost a decade ago. I’m glad we are being creative at the Farnsworth House and I am glad the Gaylord Building was ALWAYS an adaptive re-use project with a commercial component. Because that is the only preservation that is sustainable.

What’s Going On At Robie House?

October 18, 2008

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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