Thursday, March 17, 2016

Isabel Roberts at Greenwood Cemetery - Orlando

Yesterday there was a ceremony honoring Isabel Roberts at the historic Greenwood Cemetery in Orlando, Florida.

Civic leaders, architects, historians, and many others who have an admiration for Ms Roberts and her life's work came together to dedicate a new grave marker at the site where she was buried alongside her mother Mary Roberts and her sister Charlotte, in 1955.

As a part of the program, I shared a talk called "Remembering Isabel Roberts".  It was a brief biographical sketch about her life, education, and work, in the Oak Park Studio and as one of the two partners in the Orlando architectural firm, Ryan and Roberts.  The next photo shows me with the grave marker.

For 61 years, Isabel Roberts' final resting place has gone mostly unnoticed.  Which parallels what happened to the awareness of her contributions to the architectural environment in the Chicago area and in Central Florida.

While in Frank Lloyd Wright's employment in his Oak Park Studio throughout its creative years, Isabel Robetrs is known to have designed the prairie style windows in a number of Wright's homes.  She was one of two of his last employees who kept the Oak Park Studio open as work that was on the boards was completed, after Wright went off to Europe with Mrs. Cheney.  In her application for membership  in the AIA, Isabel Roberts listed her own home and the K C DeRhodes Residence in South Bend, Indiana, as her work.  Isabel was an architectural designer.

There is no reasons to doubt the truth of her claim, as her fellow architects from Chicago state in letters of recommendation written on her behalf.  Hermann Von Holst (who oversaw the work at the Oak Park Studio after Wright departed) and John Van Bergen (a noted Chicago architect who was the other continuing member of the original Oak Park staff, after Wright had gone), both offered clear reference to Isabel's gifts as an architect.  Most importably, so did Wright himself, in a letter that begins with a breezy "To Anyone, Anywhere" and goes on to say that Isabel is an architect.

In 1920, Isabel moved from River Forest, Illinois, to St. Cloud, Florida.  There, she entered into an architectural practice with Ida Annah Ryan, the first women in the USA to receive a masters degree in architecture (from MIT).   Throughout the 1920s, they created some of the most notable buildings in the Orlando area, in both the Prairie Style and in the Mediterranean Revival idiom.  Some are now gone, some are still there, including the partners' own home and studio, and The Matilda Fraser Residence, one of the finest homes from their hands, built for a educator and women's suffrage friend of Anna Idah Ryan's who, like Ryan, moved from Boston to Orlando in the 1920s.

There are other fine examples of their work in St Cloud, including this Prairie Style house:

Most of this was long forgotten, because no one was around to tell the story.  Some of it was forgotten because as time progressed, the accomplishments of all of the Oak Park Studio draftsmen (five men and two women) were subsumed into the celebrated genius of Wright himself.

It is still a challenge for women in the field of architecture.  Think what a challenge it was for Isabel Roberts and Idah Ryan a century and more ago.  Their work - although still there as a reminder of their creativity - became obscured over time.

The placing of the grave marker on Isabel Roberts' grave is one step in helping our collective memory.  Another would be to identify those works of Ryan and Roberts which are still standing, and gracing our communities, so that they receive the recognition they deserve.  If you know of such structures, please contact me.