#841: The Business of Beauty

September 11th, 2017

She shifted foot to foot as she spoke to the 10 of us.

Her talk was inflected and genuine, but as lunchtime became afternoon she was getting tired being on her feet. An active 50s in dyed red hair and white hoodie, she wanted us to turn down cellphones, sheath our umbrellas, check any bag that might knock over one of the artifacts should we turn too quickly and unwarily.

Then she could turn us over to the tour guide. Then she could walk the five meters back to the gift shop in the converted car garage where she could rest, chat with co-volunteers and get off those aching ankles that made her shift as she talked.

The Robie House in Hyde Park is gorgeous. The first non-UChicago building on that particular strip of Woodlawn Avenue, it’s a Frank Lloyd Wright from the waning days of the master’s first act.

Wright had just turned 40 when he started designs on Frederick Robie’s house in 1907. A few months after work started in 1909, Wright would leave his wife, six children and architecture practice to travel Europe for a year with translator Martha “Mamah” Borthwick, who had left her own husband and two children to be with Wright.

When the lovers — or heartbreaking cheating bastards, depending on your sympathies — returned, they hid from the national scandal in an estate Wright designed in Wisconsin. It was called Taliesin. That’s where Martha Borthwick, her 11-year-old son, her 9-year-old daughter, a gardener, a draftsman, a workman and the 13-year-old son of a carpenter were murdered in 1914 by a mentally unstable servant. He killed Mamah and the children with an axe, then set their bodies on fire, attacking the employees as they fled the burning building.

Wright was changed, of course. Who wouldn’t be? But his designs were too. The Robie House where the lady shifts foot to foot prepping crowds for the tour was one of the last examples of Prairie Style Wright would ever produce.

It’s a stunning home. It’s an organic space made of sharp, Wrightian angles and inhumanly flat lines. How such a jagged place appears so friendly and warm is a stunner to me.

Over the decades, the Robie House suffered the calamity that claims all homes — use. A seminary bought it in the ‘30s to use as a dorm. Rooms were chopped, fittings replaced, demolition constantly considered. In the 1950s, two fraternities gave up their frat houses so the seminary would have space to expand, sparing the Robie House.

The house went to the U of C in the ‘60s and the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in the ‘90s. The trust is trying to restore the house. They’re re-building built-ins from old designs, re-matching paint colors from black-and-white snapshots, re-fabricating fixtures the Robies loved but the seminarians didn’t. They’re getting things back to 1910.

It’s a full-time job saving beauty from the free market. It involves politics, signs, chanting, expensive books in the gift shop, expensive tickets for tours. By rights, the Robie House should be a parking lot, a tower-block dorm, a fast-food joint for hungry college kids or some other temple to the muse Economy.

But it’s not. It’s a beautiful place surrounded by beautiful places, a spot of joy protected by a gift shop, ticket sales and a woman in her 50s shifting foot to foot.

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