OAK PARK, Ill.
Karen Sweeney loves to have her morning coffee in the living room of Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. Curled up on a reproduction of a sofa by George Mann Niedecken, who designed the furnishings for the classic prairie-style home completed in 1910 for businessman Frederick C. Robie and his wife, Lora, she basks in the sunshine pouring through the art-glass windows and savors the room's open yet intimate feel.
"It's all about the light," says Sweeney, the director of restoration and facilities for the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust. "Wright designed the house, inside and out, to take advantage of the changing light throughout the day."
Soon visitors will be able to appreciate the architect's masterpiece as it was meant to be. Sweeney is supervising a massive $10 million-plus restoration by the trust, which took over the building's operations for the University of Chicago in 1997. Work began in 2002 and is slated to be finished by May 2010 in time for the building's centennial.
The first phase, finished in 2003, included stabilizing the structure and making sure it would support its public use, modernizing the infrastructure and life safety systems and redoing most of the exterior, from conserving the gutters, soffits and concrete decks and balconies on all four sides to repairing the roof, bricks and mortar.
"Hiding state-of-the-art mechanicals so they wouldn't disrupt the interior architecture was one of the major challenges," Sweeney says.
Interior restoration started in 2006-07 with the dining room "prow" and pantry. Relying on archival photos, among them a series taken by a photographer Wright hired, the trust is aiming to re-create the home's appearance in 1910, right down to the sand-finished walls, and the paint analysis is being done by specialists in Wright's colors. Though cabinets can be reconstructed, Sweeney says "finding missing turn-of-the-century pieces such as bathroom fixtures and kitchen sinks is like a treasure hunt." She adds that she's searching for a 1910 stove with the broiler, oven and warming oven stacked on the left. As for 70 brass light fixtures throughout the house, they're being custom manufactured — as funding allows.
In fact, Sweeney admits the biggest challenge of all, especially in these tough times, is raising the money and explaining why the restoration costs so much. "But the reward is being in the building, because I'm always finding things I didn't notice," she says. "And when people come from around the world to see it, their excitement is contagious."