Architectural experts say that of the more than 75 buildings that Frank Lloyd Wright designed in the Chicago area, none of them is more famous or influential than the Robie House at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave. in Chicago’s Hyde Park.

So now as the Prairie School-style masterpiece approaches its 100th birthday, the folks that run it will be offering a retooled roster of programming and expanded public access to it from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Thursday through Monday, says Joan Mercuri, president and CEO of the Oak Park-based Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust.

“There has been a lot of research done in the field, and we are finding that visitors to museums are looking for a different experience,” Mercuri says. “And with us having two very important architectural sites which are also resources, the Robie House and the Home and Studio which are known worldwide, we wanted to be on the leading edge of the change.”

Mercuri’s hope is that the more diverse and in-depth educational outreach will give visitors to the architectural museum a greater opportunity to personally connect with the history of the place and the families who resided in it. Additionally, what the preservation trust is doing beginning this month is a precursor to the centennial celebration for the Robie House, which will formally kick-off in April 2010. For more details, or to purchase tickets, check out

In recent years, while the Robie House has undergone a multi-million dollar exterior and interior restoration, the preservation trust has been busy using the opportunity to develop a different direction for the historic space.

One stand-out is the Private Spaces In-Depth tour. It is 90 minutes of docent-led access to the entire building, including the kitchen, servants’ wing and the third floor. The tour proffers more personal nuggets related to the back stories of the Robie family, and interior photography is allowed.

Still in place for the more casual observer will be the traditional 45-minute guided tour, which provides less detail. To encourage self discovery of the confines, a new independent audio tour experience will allow visitors to walk freely through the refurbished interior, as will the continuing self-guided tour, Mercuri says.

Another offering, adds Cheryl Bachand, vice president of museum programs at the preservation trust, will be Engaging with Artifacts. It is an in-depth curatorial examination of Wright’s designs and objects from the group’s extensive collection. Also being offered is the Picturing Architecture tour, which is being led by a professional photographer and will guide guests through the investigation of architecture via the use of photography. Designing Spaces Workshop is an intimate and interactive session in which the participants will be working at a drafting table with an architect/teacher to design their own house plan.

“We will be using the building as a jumping off point to talk about investigating spaces, and the participants will have the opportunity to almost act as amateur architects,” Bachand says.

More hands-on fun will come with Redrawing Wright, which is targeted to the young-adult audience. The aspiring artists will examine the Robie House via their free exploration of the space and creative drawing of it. Whereas After Hours at Wright’s Robie House is a special event that will treat adult guests to cocktails and hors d’oeuvres against a backdrop of spectacular art-glass windows, Bachand says.

Continuing by popular demand is the Wright 3 Tour, an educational romp for kids based on the Blue Balliett novel. A new program available once a month from August through December 2009 will be Lego Architects. Young kids can build a 3D model of their own design (with a guardian in tow) using LEGOs for $5 a session. They will be given instruction in scale, proportion, as well as window and door placement to create a floor plan. The completed models will be photographed, arranged in a display at the museum and participants will be allowed to take home their photo and floor plan drawing.

“Our series of educational programming is often a guest’s first exposure to the concept of the ‘built environment’ as an art form, and we have found that architectural resources are an effective tool for educating people of all ages in understanding design within an international context,” Bachand says.

Thralls of new and experienced local and international architectural buffs visit the Robie House. For them, the iconic structure still reverberates as a modern day work of architectural art in Chicago, with its low, overhanging roof and a long wall around its base that gives occupants a sense of privacy. The residence also has a roof that horizontally sweeps, making the house seem longer and lower than it actually is.

With the home having been acquired by the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust from the University of Chicago in 1997, it is a noteworthy companion piece to the group’s Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio at 931 Chicago Ave. in Oak Park. Both buildings are preserved, restored and managed by the not-for-profit organization.

Additionally, over its 10 decades the distinctive Robie House design has sparked an international revolution in residential architecture. Probably related to that, recently the trust received a $250,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which will be doled out over the next five years. Past recipients of the prestigious award have included the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Chicago Children’s Museum.

“It is fair to say that during Wright’s long career the impact he made on architecture was significant and international, for sure,” Bachand says. “For him it is the quality of the space, rather than the square footage of it. Those were ideas that Wright proposed over a century ago and ones that still have an impact on designers and architects today.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....