Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Isabel Roberts House by...Isabel Roberts

Isabel Roberts (May 1871 - December 27, 1955) was a Prairie School figure, member of the architectural design team in the Oak Park Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright and partner with Ida Annah Ryan in the Orlando, Florida architecture firm, “Ryan and Roberts”.

Isabel D. Roberts was born in Mexico, Missouri. She was the younger of two daughters of James H. and Mary Roberts. James was a mechanic and inventor born in New York. Mary, a homemaker and a native of Prince Edward Island. They had been married in 1867 in New York state. They lived for a time in Missouri, where Roberts and her sister Charlotte were both born. Leaving Missouri, the Roberts family moved several more times, including to Providence, Rhode Island.[1] They eventually settled in South Bend, Indiana, where James H. Roberts became Deputy Director of Inspections for the State of Indiana.[2] They were active members of the First Presbyterian Church of South Bend[3] and social and civic groups through which they became friends of Laura Caskey Bowsher (later, DeRhodes). This friendship eventually led to Roberts’ introducing Laura to Frank Lloyd Wright and Laura’s commissioning from Wright's studio the K. C. DeRhodes House.

Isabel Roberts spent three years in New York City, studying architecture in the atelier Masqueray-Chambers, the first atelier (or studio) in the United States established to teach the practice of architecture along the French lines of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It was established by Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, who is best remembered as the architect of the St. Louis Exposition and of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Roberts found herself among an impressive roster of future architects who studied with Masqueray. Starting in 1899, Masqueray made a concerted effort to include women among his architectural students and even opened a second atelier especially for women students at 37-40 West 22nd Street in New York. As was said at the time, "...he has unbounded faith in women's ability to succeed in architecture...provided they go about it seriously."[4]

Isabel Roberts was among Wright’s first employees when he left Louis Sullivan and opened his own studio in Oak Park, Illinois. They were part of a movement that Marion Mahony called The Chicago Group and has come to be known as the Prairie School of architects.

The Chicago Group espoused
Louis Sullivan's credo, "form follows function," which became evident in their work, hallmarks of which include: a close relationship of the building to the landscape, an openness and informality of the floor plans, large overhangs on the exterior structure, a use of horizontal bands and clustered windows and a restrained use of conventionalized forms from nature as a harmonious ornamental theme throughout each building. Also evident were the influences of Japanese architecture and the English Arts and Crafts movement.
A clear understanding of Isabel Robert’s role in the Oak Park Studio comes from Wright’s son John Lloyd Wright who relates the contributions made by Miss Roberts and other figures of the Prairie School. John Lloyd Wright relates that William Drummond, Francis Barry Byrne, Walter Burley Griffin, Albert McArthur, Marion Mahony, Isabel Roberts and George Willis were the draftsmen. He further clarifies that they made up the five men and two women who each were making valuable contributions to Prairie style architecture for which Wright became famous. [5]

Isabel Roberts has been described by Wright scholars as Frank Lloyd Wright’s secretary, bookkeeper or office manager. While Roberts may have fulfilled these functions, she also took an active role in the lively and creative design atmosphere of the Studio. This role has been downplayed or missed by many who have written about her.
For example, Wright biographer Brendan Gill calls Roberts “the office manager of the Oak Park studio”.[6] Similarly, Diane Maddex labels “Isabel Roberts, the office manager of his studio in neighboring Oak Park.”[7] David A. Hanks manages only the term “secretary” to describe Roberts’ role.[8] So, too, biographer Meryle Secrest defines Roberts’ roll simply as: “Isabel Roberts, secretary”.[9] H. Allen Brooks skirts the issue with “Isabel Roberts, on the staff.”[10]

They cannot be faulted too much, having swallowed the red herring presented by Frank Lloyd Wright himself when writing about the Oak Park “…studio adjoining my home, where the work I had then to do enabled me to take in several draughtsmen and a faithful secretary, Isabel Roberts…“[11] Following Wright’s lead, Grant Carpenter Manson had defined her thus: “Isabel Roberts, for whom one of the most celebrated Prairie Houses was built ... was bookkeeper and general factotum at The Studio…”[12]

Giving a bit more credit, Melenaie Birk says Roberts was “a bookkeeper and assisted with drafting in Wright’s Oak Park studio”.[13] So, too, is Roxanne Williamson with this: “Isabel Roberts managed the office but also seems to have done some drafting.”[14] Henry Russell Hitchcock and Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. got nearer the truth when they named “Isabel Roberts, one of the drafters in his office”.[15] Notably, Thomas A. Heinz presents a valid summary of Isabel Roberts’ work while in Wright’s employ, saying, “She was an architect in her own right and her talent and position in Wright’s Oak Park office has been largely ignored and underestimated.”[16]

Isabel Roberts also produced original designs for the leaded art glass windows in the Prairie houses.[17] Isabel Roberts is remembered by her extended family, today, as an architect.
While she was in Wright’s employ, Roberts and her mother commissioned a house from Wright's studio, which is today known today as the
Isabel Roberts House,[18] in the Chicago suburb of River Forest. Some scholars contend that it is based on an unbuilt commission for Joshua Melson in Mason City, Iowa[19]. The Isabel Roberts House was designed by Isabel Roberts, per her own statement, even though it has always been attributed to Wright, out of whose studio it emerged.[20] The house was designed for Isabel and Mary Roberts to share, which they did for a decade before leaving Illinois. Also according to her own statement, while in Wright's employ, Roberts designed the K. C. DeRhodes House in South Bend, Indiana, for her South Bend friend, Laura Caskey Bowsher DeRhodes.[21]

After Wright went off to Europe with Mamah Borthwick Cheney in 1909, Isabel Roberts was among the remaining Oak Park Studio employees working to complete Wright's unfinished and future commissions. Wright had arranged for architect Hermann V. von Holst to oversee the work; he , with Studio employees Isabel Roberts and John Van Bergen, as well as Marion Mahoney and Walter Burley Griffin (who were by this time no longer employees but working under contract), brought what work they could to completion--much of it modified to Marion's designs. Then Roberts literally locked the doors of the Oak Park Studio, thus closing the productive Oak Park years of Wright’s career.
Isabel Roberts and her mother Mary moved to St. Cloud, Florida a decade after the Isabel Roberts House was completed. Mary Roberts was in failing health due to the lingering effects of influenza. Roberts’s sister Charlotte and her husband John B. Somerville were by that time established residents of St. Cloud. Mary Roberts died in Florida, in 1920.[22]

Once in Florida, Isabel Roberts went into architectural practice with Ida Annah Ryan, who was the first woman in the United States to earn a masters degree in architecture, from MIT. As the firm of “Ryan and Roberts”, they were among no more than a dozen architecture firms active in Orlando in the 1920s. Their business is listed under the heading “Architects” as "Ryan and Roberts" in the 1926 and in the 1927 Orlando City Directories, at 240 S. Orange St. and the Kenilworth Terrace address. One of only 10 architectural firms listed in 1926, the others including: Frank L. Bodine, Fred E. Field, David Hyer, Murry S. King, George E. Krug, Howard M. Reynolds, Frederick H. Trimble and Percy P. Turner. And one of 12 firms so listed in Orlando in 1927, which included Maurice E. Kressly.[23]

Ryan and Roberts created landmark buildings in Central Florida, some of which still stand, today:[24]

Veterans Memorial Library - 1012 Massachusetts Ave., St. Cloud, Florida. Isabel Roberts’ brother-in-law, John B. Somerville, served on the building committee, a connection which resulted in Ryan and Roberts obtaining this commission. In 1922, an outline of what was desired was laid before architects Miss Ida Annah Ryan and Miss Isabel Roberts of Orlando. The plans submitted by these ladies were subsequently accepted. The architects insisted on a motto. Carlyle's, "The true university is a collection of books," was chosen. The building, although described as of Grecian style is in fact reminiscent of the designs of many of the Prairie School small bank buildings of the upper Midwest by Louis Sullivan, William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie, Frank Lloyd Wright and others. It is constructed of hollow tile with stained stucco exterior and is well cared for and in daily use today. It now houses the St. Cloud Heritage Museum.[25] The building is currently owned by the City of St. Cloud; however, the museum is operated solely by volunteers of the Woman's Club of St. Cloud.[26]
Amherst Apartments - 325 West Colonial Drive, Orlando, Florida. The Amherst Apartments were, for many years, Orlando’s most prestigious apartment address. Designed by Ida A. Ryan and Isabel Roberts in the Prairie Style and built in 1921-1922, it featured forty-seven apartments situated on the south shore of Lake Concord. The building closely resembles the design for the German Embassy Building (1915) by William Eugene Drummond;[27] Roberts worked for Gunzel and Drummond in 1915. The Amherst Apartments were demolished in 1986.
Tourist Club House - 700 Indiana Ave., St. Cloud, Florida. This club house for the Tourist Club of St. Cloud was opened in the city park on December 3, 1923. Designed by Ida Annah Ryan and Isabel Roberts, it shows the influence of the Prairie School with which Roberts was associated, as a rectangular structure with a barrel-roofed auditorium. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio developed this style with open, airy plans, low-pitched hip or gable roofs, horizontal brick walls, exposed rafter ends, broad overhanging eaves and grouped wood windows. The building was torn down circa 2005.
The Ryan/Roberts Home and Studio – 834 Kenilworth Terrace, Orlando, Florida (private). Ryan and Roberts designed this Mediterranean Revival style home and adjoining studio for their own use in 1920-24. The stucco structure with gable roof is in a simplified Mediterranean revival style. The former studio faces the street. Details of the design include asymmetrical window placements, decorative attic vents, side yard orientation and gently scalloped corner buttresses. It is a very well maintained private residence today.
The Chapel at the Fisk Funeral Home, 1107-1111 Massachusetts Avenue, St. Cloud. A Prairie meets Spanish Revival style building with pointed arch arcades and a second-floor string of grouped windows.[28]
The Pennsylvania Hotel Building, 10th Street between Pennsylvania Ave. and Florida Avenue, St. Cloud, Florida. The building now houses the St. Cloud Twin Theatres.[29]
The Peoples Bank Building, southeast corner of 10th Street and New York Avenue, St. Cloud, Florida. The bank failed in the late Twenties; the building is now used as a cafe and barber shop.[30]
The St. Cloud Presbyterian Church (demolished) was a Mediterranean Revival remodeling of the church building, designed by Ryan and Roberts in the early 1920s. Isabel Roberts was a member of this congregation. Photos of this stylish remodeling may be seen in the St. Cloud Heritage Museum.
The Fraser Residence, Orlando, Florida (private). A spacious, elegant Mediterranean Revival stucco mansion situated on one of Orlando's secluded lakes, the Fraser Residence is well-maintained and remains in private hands.
Unity Chapel, Orlando (demolished). For many years, this charming building, in a stuccoed English vernacular style, was the worship home of First Unitarian Church of Orlando, near Lake Eola. Ida Annah Ryan was a member of this congregation. Some scholars have had a hard time identifying this building, which Roberts listed on her AIA application. It is not to be confused with Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.
Lake Eola Bandstand (built 1924, demolished)[31] Cantilevered hip roof over lozenge shaped deck, with distinctive Prairie Style lamps on the entrance bridge stairs.
Additional residential and commercial structures by Ryan and Roberts continue to be identified as current owners become more aware of the significance of the contributions these women made to the field of architecture.

Isabel Roberts was a member of the St. Cloud Presbyterian Church (another of their commissions, a remodeling of an older structure, it is now demollished) until she moved from St. Cloud to Orlando in the early '20's, at which time she joined First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

Isabel Roberts and Ida Annah Ryan lived and practiced at their Kenilworth home and studio in Orlando for the remainder of their lives. Isabel Roberts died in Orlando on December 27, 1955 at the age of 84, and was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Orlando,[32] alongside her mother Mary Roberts and her sister Charlotte Roberts Somerville.[33][34]

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