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
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. They eventually settled in
where James H. Roberts became Deputy Director of Inspections for the State of
Indiana. They were active members of
the First Presbyterian Church of South Bend 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
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
who is best remembered as the architect of the St. Louis
and of the Cathedral of Saint Paul in
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."
Isabel Roberts was among
Wright’s first employees when he left Louis Sullivan and opened his own studio in
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.
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
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
Francis Barry Byrne, Walter Burley
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. 
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.
example, Wright biographer Brendan Gill calls Roberts “the office manager of the
Oak Park studio”. Similarly, Diane Maddex
labels “Isabel Roberts, the office manager of his studio in neighboring Oak
Park.” David A. Hanks manages only
the term “secretary” to describe Roberts’ role. So, too, biographer Meryle
Secrest defines Roberts’ roll simply as: “Isabel Roberts, secretary”. H. Allen Brooks skirts the
issue with “Isabel Roberts, on the staff.”
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…“ 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…”
Giving a bit more credit,
Melenaie Birk says Roberts was “a bookkeeper and assisted with drafting in
Wright’s Oak Park studio”. So, too, is Roxanne
Williamson with this: “Isabel Roberts managed the office but also seems to have
done some drafting.” Henry Russell Hitchcock and
Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. got nearer the truth when they named “Isabel Roberts, one of
the drafters in his office”. 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.”
Isabel Roberts also produced
original designs for the leaded art glass windows in the Prairie
houses. 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, 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. 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. 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
South Bend, Indiana, for her South Bend friend, Laura Caskey Bowsher
After Wright went off to
Europe with Mamah Borthwick
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
oversee the work; he , with Studio employees Isabel Roberts and John Van
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,
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.
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.
Fred E. Field, David Hyer, Murry S. King, George E. Krug, Howard M.
one of 12 firms so listed in Orlando in 1927, which included Maurice E.
Ryan and Roberts created
landmark buildings in Central
of which still stand, today:
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
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. 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.
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; Roberts worked for Gunzel and
Drummond in 1915. The Amherst Apartments were demolished in 1986.
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.
The Pennsylvania Hotel
Building, 10th Street between Pennsylvania Ave. and Florida Avenue, St.
Cloud, Florida. The building now houses the St. Cloud Twin Theatres.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bandstand (built 1924, demolished) Cantilevered hip roof over
lozenge shaped deck, with distinctive Prairie Style lamps on the entrance bridge
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.
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, alongside her mother Mary
Roberts and her sister Charlotte Roberts Somerville.
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