Ronnie Lottz, you darling huckster supreme: your Berwyn barbecue lounge, Cigars & Stripes made it into this week’s The Weekly Yelp! for metro Chicago in its review “Laugh Out Loud – Chicago Burbs Style.” Congrats!!! We hope you’re tweeting the hell out of this on your Twitter feed (we gave you a head start on that – wink!). And of course, all your friends and fans should check out our previous blog post about your venerable institution on Ogden Avenue, aka Route 66.
The lounge is certainly holding its own these days: it’s got 4-1/2 stars on Yelp! with 78 reviews to date. Nice going! We certainly appreciate Ronnie’s ribs, rib tips and other smoked BBQ creations, and craft beer lovers certainly have a haven there. Not to mention that Ronnie makes – and sells – his own incendiary sauces, the hottest one being his Route 666 Sauce (the Heavenly Sauce From Hell). And I can personally vouch for the Margaritas. You can’t go wrong at a place that has its own mummy (Comedy Night is just a bonus, Yelpers). For those who are unacquainted with Yelp!, it’s the common man’s Zagat reviews of darn near anything and everything having to do with food and fun. We regularly check it when we’re rolling on down the route to see what’s new and who rates well, then we compare our dinner notes to those of the Yelp! reviewers. Never hurts.
Spring is known in these parts as the start of the local house tour season, and Chicago certainly has its share of famous and architecturally significant homes, just as we have architecturally significant public buildings. And next month there’ll be a rare opportunity to have drinks and a tour in a very special building: The Prairie-School style Robie House in Hyde Park on the University of Chicago campus. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908 and completed in 1910. A thorough structural restoration of the home was recently completed by Harboe Architects, a leading historic preservation firm, under the direction of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust, so you’ll be seeing the house in all its glory.
What’s the connection with Route 66? Well, it’s ol’ FLW himself. Many Wright scholars think the F.F. Tomek House in Riverside was a dry run or rough draft for the Robie House, as if Wright had sketched out some ideas in the Tomek House that finally gelled and found ultimate expression in the classic Prairie style of the Robie House (and, soon thereafter, in the Avery Coonley House and outbuildings on the estate, including the Coonley Playhouse). And of course, the Coonley buildings and the Tomek House are just a few blocks north of Route 66, across the Des Plaines River from the Hofmann Tower in Riverside, IL – which is one, big National Historic Landmark architectural district by itself. In fact, Riverside (and the Coonley Playhouse in particular) is the closest that any Wright-designed home comes to Route 66 in all eight states. As for his commercial buildings, the Anderton Court Shops in Beverly Hills come closest to the route, being only a block and a half away from Santa Monica Boulevard – but that’s on a later alignment. In 1926, Route 66 ended in downtown Los Angeles, not in Santa Monica near Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean. That came later. The Robie, Tomek and Coonley houses, in contrast, all predated Route 66 and were there to see it born. They are also all individually designated as National Historic Landmarks. There’s your Wright connection to the Route: Robie to Tomek to Coonley, like Tinkers to Evers to Chance for you baseball fans. How’s that for a springtime simile to make Cubs fans smile? ;D
The Robie House has been designated one of the most important buildings of the 20th century by the American Institute of Architects. In 1956, Architectural Record selected the Robie House as “one of the seven most notable residences ever built in America.” It may soon be a World Heritage Site, too. Now you can see it up close and personal – every Friday night in April, the historic home at 5757 S. Woodlawn Ave. will be open from 5pm to 8pm for drinks, light hors d’oeuvres and live music (plus you get to look around and do your own tour), courtesy of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust and its After Hours open-house program. It’s an architecture lover’s dream come true.
If you’re going to be in Chicago during April, this would be a great opportunity to see one of the treasures of world architecture up close. Robie House is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places in addition to being a Chicago landmark. Together with Wright’s Fallingwater and the Avery Coonley House and estate, the Robie House is among Wright’s best and most famous work (and two of those three are in metro Chicago – yaaaaaay!). Yes, we know it’s not directly on Route 66, but this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of us, even the Chicagoans. There’s usually plenty of parking a block south along inner Midway Plaisance near Ida Noyes Hall. Tickets are limited for each night, so sign up soon; this may never happen again! Tickets are $30 for trust members, $35 for non-members. Consider it a bargain.
Whether it was a bargain for young Frederick C. Robie is less clear. Robie was only 28 years young in 1908 when he and his wife Lora Hieronymus Robie bought the lot in May 1908 to be close to campus (she was a U of C graduate, class of 1900). Robie was assistant manager of his father’s firm, the Excelsior Supply Co. Construction began in April 1909 and was completed the following year, but when the house was finished, the Robies lived in it for only 14 months. Their marriage quickly deteriorated, for reasons unknown, and financial problems arising from his father’s death in July 1909 forced young Robie to sell the house and all of its Wright-designed contents in December 1911 to ad agency exec David Lee Taylor, president of Taylor-Critchfield Co. Taylor fared no better in the home and died less than a year later; his widow Ellen sold the house and contents to Marshall D. Wilber, treasurer of the Wilber Mercantile Agency, in November 1912.
The Wilbers stayed in the Robie House for 14 years, but in 1926 – the year Route 66 became official – they sold it to the Chicago Theological Seminary (which was located right next door on the north side of the house). The seminary then proceeded to use it as a dormitory for its seminarians (lucky guys!! But OH, what a mistake to put college boys in that house). The seminary mostly bought the property with an eye towards future expansion, which would have meant tearing down the house. In 1941, the seminary might actually have done so had not a grad student at IIT gotten wind of it and told his instructor, famed architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Well! That aroused considerable outraged protest all over town, and because of that and WW II (and, presumably, a shortage of construction materials), the seminary had to cancel its plans.
But really, they were just on hold. The more serious threat came 16 years later in 1957 when the school announced demolition plans (the seminary wanted to build a real dormitory in place of the house). When the architect heard about plans to demolish one of his masterpieces, Wright supposedly quipped, “It all goes to show the danger of entrusting anything spiritual to the clergy.” A pretty nervy comment, that, considering that Wright’s surrogate father, his uncle the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, was a famous Unitarian minister and his father, William Wright, had been a Baptist minister but had joined the Unitarians when he married Anna Lloyd Jones. Then again, perhaps FLW knew whereof he spoke.
An international furor followed this time when Robie House wan threatened again, and demolition was repeatedly delayed. Even the local frat boys raced to the house’s rescue. It seems that while briefly attending the Univesity of Wisconsin, Wright had been a member of Phi Delta Theta fraternity — and the frat’s chapter house at U of C was two doors north of the seminary on Woodlawn Avenue. The Zeta Beta Tau chapter house was one door north. The Phi Delts and ZBTs offered to vacate their chapter houses, so that the seminary could expand onto that land instead (it only made sense, since the seminary already owned the land between its own building and the ZBT house). Temporarily mollified, Chicago Theological Seminary canceled its demolition plans and bought the two frat houses. But that didn’t mean the Robie House was out of the woods yet.
The following year, in August 1958, developer William Zeckendorf, a New Yorker and friend of Wright’s who was working on several real estate projects on the South Side, settled the matter by buying Robie House – at Wright’s urging – through his development company Webb & Knapp and donating it to the U of C. The university used the house first for its Adlai E. Stevenson Institute of International Affairs and later as offices for its Alumni Association. Eventually, the university moved out and turned the house over to the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust in February 1997 for tours, operations, fundraising and restoration. The trust has been in charge of keeping the house in shape ever since and is still evaluating how much more needs to be restored.
On September 15, 1971, the newly formed Commission on Chicago Landmarks declared the home a Chicago Landmark with the approval of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who sort of liked the city holding onto its historic treasures, as long as others did all the work (he was a big supporter of designating the Jackson Boulevard Historic District on Route 66, too, but only after the residents did all the heavy lifting and when he wasn’t busy being Boss of Chicago). More recently, Robie House was nominated along with nine other Wright buildings to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (we figure it’s a shoo-in). Since all these people broke their backs making sure the house survived and is being preserved, the least you can do is go look at it and donate your visitors’ fee. Thus endeth today’s sermon.
Until next time,
your architectural road trip guide, Marie