Burnham and Root, with a good dash of Wright

Architectural archives reflect storied past

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

In many ways, Charles Roberts was quite the progressive Oak Park resident in the late 19th century. 

While he may have been the first U.S. inventor to manufacture an electric car – which is carefully cared for and rumored to still be running in Rhode Island -- he was a bit too ahead of his time to make his fortune in the automobile industry. 

His electric car and dandelion rake proved disappointments in monetary terms, but his patent for a machine that could create a screw in a single operation made him a rich man. 

Roberts founded the Chicago Screw Company with some financial backing from fellow Oak Park resident James Scoville, and in 1904 sold the business for a cool $1 million.

You might not know it to look at his house today, but the Queen Anne-style home on Euclid Avenue was also a bit progressive for its time. According to Frank Lloyd Wright Trust research captain Sue Blaine, the home represents a progressive stage for architects Burnham and Root. 

Famous for their work on the Field Museum and the Chicago Main Post Office spanning the Eisenhower expressway, their Rookery Building in Chicago also was considered progressive at the time. 

Blaine says that researching the 1885 Roberts house reminded her that the era shaped the architecture. 

"It helped me put the house in context," Blaine said. "I hadn't thought of the Queen Anne style as being progressive, but it is in comparison to the elaborate Victorian style that preceded it."

Wright remodel

In 1896, Roberts hired Frank Lloyd Wright to remodel the house. Roberts was friendly with Wright and a big proponent of his work. In 1905, when Roberts was head of the building committee for the Unity Temple, he pushed to have Wright named as head architect. 

Roberts also convinced his nephew to hire Wright to design his house in Kankakee. The B. Harley Bradley House is today considered the first Prairie Style home that Wright designed. On the heels of the Bradley commission, Bradley's brother-in-law, Warren Hickox, also hired Wright to build his home next door to Bradley's in Kankakee.

Not all of Wright's plans were immediately implemented by the Roberts family. For example, his drawings proposed a new front porch that would span the front of the house, and it wasn't until the late 20th century that owners followed Wright's drawings when they rebuilt the older porch. 

The current owners rehabilitated much of the house, including the exterior, and Blaine says the restoration was incredibly sensitive to the architectural history of the house, down to the details.

"Between the second floor and third floor gable, there is a band that is painted green," Blaine said. "On Burnham and Root's drawings for the home, that band is labelled 'green.'"

Many of Wright's changes were implemented and remain to this day. He added a Palladian window on the second floor, a window so large it actually served as a door leading out to a porch. 

The decorative glass resembles a Louis Sullivan pattern, perhaps reflecting the influence Wright still felt from his former employer. Wright also created a library with a fireplace flanked by windows in the same pattern.

Wright remodeled the staircase, adding wooden screens to allow light to shine through, and on the first floor added a horizontal band of wood to give the house a sense of continuity. Wright added two fireplaces to the three already put in place by Burnham and Root and used similar enamel tile to tie the designs together.

On the first floor, Wright designed a bedroom for the Roberts, with a full bathroom, closet and pull-down bed. The current owners use the room as a music room.

Blaine notes that researching the early changes to the house was a treat, because she had Wright's drawings for the project.

"Wright took Burnham and Root's drawings and, in colored pencil, he marked what he was doing that was new," Blaine said. "Unfortunately, as is typical of Wright, what was drawn and what was built didn't always match. They gave the house a bit more functionality in the building."

From full house to single-family home

Blaine's research showed that for much of its history, the Roberts House was often full of inhabitants. 

All three of the Roberts children lived in the home with their spouses and children at various times. The second owner lived in New Jersey and likely rented out the house. 

After World War II, village records show that the owners, the Atherton family, had three boarders living in the house, and the subsequent owners also lived in the home with extended family. 

Not until 1979 did it become a true single-family home. A family who purchased the home in 1981 began some restoration work, adding the Wright-designed porch and stripping paint from some of the interior woodwork. The current owners continued the restoration work, hiring a Wright expert, architect John Thorpe for several remodels.

In the kitchen, they incorporated what had been a rear porch into the space. Thorpe put in a wall of age-appropriate windows on the rear wall to recreate the porch-like feeling. Four 100-year-old light fixtures hang over the island and in the breakfast room.

In the stairwell, the owners found another vintage light fixture and sought out vintage glass to restore the period-appropriate piece.

Back on Wright Plus for the first time since 1988, the Roberts House, Blaine says, offers a lot to enjoy, with insight into the work of several important architects as well as stunning architectural details. 

"It's had a couple of remodels since it was on in 1988," Blaine said. "The current owners have been meticulous in terms of their renovations. People are in for a real treat."

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