By David Rifkind, Florida International University
Isabel Roberts (1871–1955) was one of two women who worked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio during the first decade of the twentieth century (the other was Marion Mahony). In partnership with Ida Annah Ryan, Roberts built a number of civic, religious, commercial, and residential buildings in Orlando, Florida, and the neighboring town of St. Cloud during the real estate boom of the 1920s.
Early Life and Education
Roberts was born in Mexico, Missouri, on March 7, 1871.11Much of the foundational research on Isabel Roberts was conducted by John A. Dalles, a Presbyterian minister in Longwood, Florida. Additional preliminary research for this entry was conducted by Liza Roisman. Jean Witherington and Olive Horning of the St. Cloud Historical Society generously aided my own research. Her father, James, was a mechanic and a native of Utica, New York, while her mother, Mary, was from Prince Edward Island, Canada. They married in New York in 1867 and soon relocated to Missouri, where Isabel and her older sister, Charlotte, were born. The family moved to Providence, Rhode Island, before settling in South Bend, Indiana, where James Roberts took over the position of deputy director of inspections for the state of Indiana. James and Mary Roberts would remain in Indiana for the next four decades.
During their time in Indiana, the Roberts family joined the First Presbyterian Church of South Bend, and Isabel would become an active member of several Presbyterian congregations, including the River Forest (Illinois) Presbyterian Church (1909) and the First Presbyterian Church in St. Cloud, Florida (1916), and, in Orlando, Florida, the First Presbyterian Church (1922) and the Park Lake Presbyterian Church (1925).22Isabel Roberts information file, Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust Research Center at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Oak Park, Illinois. It was through their membership in the church and related civic organizations that the Roberts family came to know Laura Caskey Bowsher, who, as Laura DeRhoades, would later commission Frank Lloyd Wright to design the K. C. DeRhodes House in South Bend (1906) after being introduced to Wright by Isabel Roberts.
In 1899, Roberts began a three-year course of studies at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers in New York, which Emmanuel Louis Masqueray and Walter B. Chambers had inaugurated six years earlier as an atelier based on the program of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. By the time Roberts arrived in New York, Masqueray had expanded the atelier to include a second location, which was later characterized as the first Beaux-Arts atelier for women in the United States.33Grace Hoadley Dodge et al., What Women Can Earn: Occupations of Women and Their Compensation (New York: Tribune Association, 1898), 107. Masqueray was a decorated graduate of, and professor at, the venerable French institution, and had been recruited to come to America by former students. He advocated extending Beaux-Arts education to “serious” female students at a time when institutional discrimination frequently excluded women from educational and professional opportunities in architecture.
After completing her time at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers in 1901, Roberts moved to Illinois to take a position with Frank Lloyd Wright in the studio he had opened in Oak Park three years earlier.44On her 1921 application for membership in the American Institute of Architects, Roberts listed 1899–1901 as the dates of her time in Chambers and Masqueray’s atelier, and 1902–14 as her years in Wright’s studio. It is possible that from 1912 to 1914 she worked for Wright’s former associate, William Drummond. Isabel Roberts, Application for membership in the American Institute of Architects, September 11, 1921. The American Institute of Architects Archives. Roberts joined Marion Mahony (who was just a month older than her) as one of two women in Wright’s office. The precise scope of Roberts’s work in Wright’s studio is a matter of some contention. Wright, who was notoriously reluctant to share credit for designs that carried his name, described Roberts as his bookkeeper and babysitter, and historians have repeated this assertion. Grant Manson, who interviewed Roberts and many of her colleagues while researching Wright’s work during the Prairie School period, described Roberts as Wright’s “bookkeeper and general factum.” Manson minimized her contribution to the office’s work when he wrote that “she did occasionally try her hand at design and certainly worked on some of the detail drawings of her own house.”55Grant Carpenter Manson and Donald D. Walker, Frank Lloyd Wright to 1910: The First Golden Age (New York: Reinhold, 1958), 217. Brendan Gill’s hagiographic biography of Wright refers to Roberts as the “office manager of the Oak Park studio” and speculates on whether the two engaged in an affair, without explaining why a trained architect would not have participated in the design and construction activities of a small office with a large number of commissions.66Brendan Gill, Many Masks: A Life of Frank Lloyd Wright (New York: Putnam, 1987), 11–12. Yet Gill later notes that Roberts, along with John van Bergen, was entrusted with completing the commissions that Wright left in progress when he left Oak Park for Europe in late 1909.77Gill, 208. The projects Roberts and van Bergen oversaw in Wright’s absence included the Laura Gale residence (also known as the Mrs. Thomas H. Gale residence) in Oak Park and the Stohr Arcade Building in Chicago (both 1909).88Isabel Roberts information file, Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust Research Center at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, Oak Park, Ill. John Dalles, who has written the most extensive chronicle of Roberts’s work, quotes Henry Russell Hitchcock and Edgar Kaufmann Jr., identifying Roberts as “one of the drafters in his office,” and Thomas A. Heinz, who noted, “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.”99Dalles, op cit. Dalles quotes Henry Russell Hitchcock and Edgar Kaufmann, The Rise of an American Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art and Praeger, 1970), 232; and Thomas A. Heinz, The Vision of Frank Lloyd Wright (Edison, N.J.: Chartwell Books, 2002), 140–141.
It is more likely that Roberts was an active member of Wright’s professional staff, while also serving as accountant and nanny. On her AIA membership application, she claimed to have been a draftsman in Wright’s office, and Wright characterized her as “my assistant in the practice of Architecture,” while “recommend[ing] her without reservation to anyone requiring the services of an Architect.”1010Isabel Roberts, Application for membership in the American Institute of Architects, 11 September 1921. The American Institute of Architects Archives. Frank Lloyd Wright, letter of recommendation, August 6, 1920. The American Institute of Architects Archives. Roberts probably played a significant role in two projects, the K. C. DeRhodes House (South Bend, Indiana, 1906) and the Isabel Roberts House (River Forest, Illinois, 1908), in which she played a key part in securing the commissions. Roberts had introduced her longtime friend, Laura Caskey DeRhodes, to Wright, and later asserted that she was partly responsible for the house’s design.1111Sarah Allaback, The First American Women Architects (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2008), 204–13. Bowsher was the surname of Laura Caskey’s first husband, Nelson Prentice Bowsher. In the case of the Roberts House, it was commissioned by Mary Roberts, Isabel’s mother, who intended to live in it with her two daughters.
The Roberts House is a remarkable project, “[b]uilt late in the Chicago period,” according to Sigfried Giedion, “when Wright had found freedom of expression.”1212Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1941), 403. The cruciform plan of the Roberts House radiates outward from the brick hearth, which marks the node where the one-and-a-half-story living room meets the single-story dining room and porch.1313Patrick F. Cannon, Hometown Architect: The Complete Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright in Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois (San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2006), 107. Wright and Roberts located the three bedrooms—for Roberts, her sister, and her mother—behind the chimney on a floor set midway between the first and second floors, using a split-level section to reduce the volume of the secondary spaces in order to maintain the long, low proportions of a Prairie house. Like the contemporaneous Robie House, the Roberts House features continuous gutters that accentuate the horizontal lines of the prominently cantilevered eaves, and a dynamic massing that erodes at the corners to further emphasize the roof’s floating quality. In a playful move that appears several times in Wright’s oeuvre, the porch was built around an existing tree.1414William Allin Storrer, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright: A Complete Catalog (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 148.
When James Roberts died in 1908, Mary moved to River Forest, Illinois.1515The Roberts House was listed for sale in the November 26, 1910, edition of Oak Leaves. The asking price was $9,000. However, it was not sold until May 1923, after Mary Robert’s death. Cannon, 107. Wright relocated to Europe the following year, however, leaving Roberts to conclude his unfinished commissions and close the office. In 1916, she and her mother moved to St. Cloud, Florida, in order to help improve Mary’s failing health; they joined Charlotte, who had already relocated to Florida with her husband, John B. Somerville. Mary Roberts died in 1920.
That same year, Isabel established a practice with Ida Annah Ryan in Orlando. Ryan had earned her master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1906.1616Ida Annah Ryan, Application for membership in the American Institute of Architects, July 10, 1907. The American Institute of Architects Archives. Ryan distinguished herself at MIT, where in 1905 she won the Arthur Rotch Prize, given to a graduating M.Arch. student for achievement in architectural design, and in 1907, the Perkins Traveling Fellowship.1717Eran Ben-Joseph, Holly D. Ben-Joseph, and Anne C. Dodge, “Against All Odds: MIT’s Pioneering Women of Landscape Architecture,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2006, 8. http://web.mit.edu/ebj/www/LAatMIT/LandArch@MITlow.pdf She, too, was an experienced architect who had spent at least eight years in the Public Buildings Department of her native Waltham, Massachusetts, before opening her own office in Boston. Although not the first woman to earn a master’s in architecture from MIT, as has often been claimed, Ryan was a pioneer in the Bay State, where the Boston Society of Architects’ exclusionary policies prevented her from obtaining membership in the professional organization.1818Ryan, letter to Glen Brown, American Institute of Architects, November 4, 1906. The American Institute of Architects Archives. Although Ryan is sometimes credited as the first female graduate of MIT’s architecture program, that distinction belongs to Ellen Swallow Richards, who graduated in 1873.
While Ryan and Roberts officially maintained their practice until 1945, all of their major commissions were built before the 1929 stock market crash. The economy in central Florida expanded rapidly in the 1920s, and Ryan and Roberts joined a relatively small professional community there. Their projects were concentrated in Orlando, where they established their office in 1920, and in St. Cloud, a small town thirty miles south of Orlando that had been founded in 1909 by the Seminole Land and Investment Company as a “home resort” for aging Union veterans of the Civil War who had resettled from northern states (principally New York and Ohio) in search of milder weather. Together, Roberts and Ryan designed a number of modestly scaled civic, commercial, and residential structures.
Their most significant project was the Veterans Memorial Library in St. Cloud, which was commissioned by the town’s Ladies’ Improvement Club in 1922.1919Isabel’s sister, Charlotte, was a member of the building committee that hired Ryan and Roberts. Typed notes compiled by Eva Wright, 1964. St. Cloud (Fla.) Heritage Museum. The Ladies’ Improvement Club would be renamed the Woman’s Club of St. Cloud in 1941. The foundation stone was laid on May 21 that year, and the building was dedicated with much fanfare on February 17, 1923.2020Typed notes compiled by Eva Wright, 1964. St. Cloud Heritage Museum. Built of hollow terra-cotta block finished in stucco, the library is organized around a single large reading room whose large windows facing the street let in abundant daylight. The recessed entry divides the interior subtly into three zones without compromising the unity of the space. Despite the building’s small scale, this spatial richness recalls the planning strategies of some of Wright’s much larger religious and commercial buildings, such as Unity Temple and the Larkin Building. Symmetrical without being classical, the structure’s simple massing roots the building in the ground and relies on linear detailing to lend visual depth and compositional complexity to the otherwise flat façade.
Ryan and Roberts “insisted” on including a motto, “The true university is a collection of books,” though it is unclear whether this sentence was ever inscribed in the building.2121Ibid. The motto is a slightly altered quote from Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 lectures outlining the Great Man theory of historical development, as collected in his book, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.2222The original quote is, “The true University of these days is a Collection of Books.” Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (New York: Frederick A. Stokes & Brother, 1888), 180. The building today houses the St. Cloud Heritage Museum, whose archive includes valuable material about Ryan and Roberts’s involvement in the building’s design and construction, as well as photographs of other completed works.
Perhaps the most interesting project to emerge from the Ryan and Roberts partnership was the bandshell they built in Orlando’s Eola Park in 1924. This small structure achieved dramatic effect by setting the stage in Lake Eola and connecting it to the shore with a gently arched bridge flanked by pylons topped with lanterns. The two-tiered, pagoda-like roof confirmed the East Asian sympathies of the Prairie style, whose lingering influence on Roberts is evident in the roof’s broad projecting eaves and low slope. An elegant composition, the bandshell quickly emerged as a symbol of Orlando’s civic pride, appearing in colored postcards and other tourist ephemera. When Roberts died in 1955, her obituary in the Orlando Evening Star identified her as the designer of the Eola Park Bandshell, presumably because it was her best-known commission in the area.2323“Miss Roberts, Bandshell Designer, Dies,” Orlando Evening Star, December 28, 1955, 1. Unfortunately, the bandshell also became a haven for pigeons—earning the nickname “the Rookery”—and was demolished the year after her death.
The stylistic diversity of their work suggests that Ryan and Roberts were flexible enough to work with clients with a minimum of dogma. A number of their projects competently employed the Spanish Revival forms that were popular during the 1920s boom in Florida. The First Presbyterian Church of St. Cloud was one such building. When Ryan and Roberts renovated the existing church following a fire in 1924, they added new façades that evoked the Spanish Baroque outlines, if not the ornamental flourishes, of Bertram Goodhue and Irving Gill’s work at the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego of 1915. Their chapel for the Fisk Funeral Home added flamboyant Moorish arches, like those used by Bernhardt Muller in Opa-locka, Florida, to the picturesque mix of Mediterranean forms. Yet, as in other projects in St. Cloud, such as the People’s Bank Building and the renovation and addition to the Pennsylvania Hotel, both of 1925, modest construction budgets often limited the revivalist gestures to fanciful parapets on what were otherwise fairly simple façades. It is difficult to assess the quality of their interiors, as most of their surviving work has been altered significantly. Many of Ryan and Roberts’s finest buildings, such as the First Presbyterian Church of St. Cloud and the Amherst Apartments in Orlando, have been demolished.
Unlike Ryan, Roberts never earned licensure as an architect. This gap in her professional qualifications prevented her from obtaining membership in the American Institute of Architects, despite strong recommendations from Wright, John van Bergen, and Hermann von Holst. By late 1929, the Ryan and Roberts Studios stationery described Roberts as being responsible for landscape architecture and “architectural development” after architects in Florida objected to Roberts’s using the title “architect.”2424 Ida Ryan to Florida Chapter of AIA, December 9, 1929. The American Institute of Architects Archives.
Ryan’s first application for membership in the AIA, in 1907, was rejected, largely because of her gender. She reapplied in 1921, after inaugurating her partnership with Roberts, and was admitted to the national organization. She resigned her membership in the organization in December 1929, however, when the collapse of several financial institutions left the firm without funds. According to Ryan, she and Roberts had been without new commissions since 1926—the real estate crash in Florida preceded the 1929 stock market crash by three years—and they could no longer afford their dues. Although the Ryan and Roberts partnership was not formally dissolved until 1945, there are no records of any significant projects by the firm after 1927.
Ida Annah Ryan died in February 1950 after a long illness.2525“Ida Annah Ryan Funeral Notice,” Orlando Evening Star, February 18, 1950. Roberts, who was almost certainly her life partner, cared for Ryan during this time.2626Dalles, op cit. The couple had continued to live in the house they built in Orlando, and Roberts remained there until her own death. Isabel Roberts succumbed to heart failure on December 27, 1955, at Florida Sanitarium and Hospital in Orlando.2727“Miss Roberts, Bandshell Designer, Dies,” Orlando Evening Star, December 28, 1955, 1. She was buried alongside her mother and sister in unmarked graves at the Greenwood cemetery in Orlando.2828Joy Wallace Dickinson, “Roberts Brought Wright Style to Region’s Landmark Buildings,” Orlando Sentinel, September 11, 2011.