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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Isabel Roberts

Posted May 07, 2018 4:30 PM by lmno24

Isabel Roberts was one of two women who worked in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio in the early 20th century. She built a number of commercial, residential, civic and religious buildings in the Orlando, Florida region during the real estate surge of the 1920s.

She was born in Missouri in 1871. Her parents moved there and had two children; they moved soon after to Providence, Rhode Island then later settled in South Bend, Indiana where her father took a job as deputy director of inspections for the state.

The family became active members of the church in town. They became friends with Laura Cahsey Bowsher who would later commission Frank Lloyd Wright for the K.C. DeRhodes House in South Bend after being introduced to Wright by Roberts.

In 1899, she began studies at the Atelier Masqueray-Chambers in New York, which had been inaugurated just six years earlier, inspired by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. She studied at the second location, which was later determined to be the first Beaux-Arts Atelier for women in the U.S.

In 1901, she moved to Illinois to work with Frank Lloyd Wright along with Marion Mahony as the only two women in the office. Wright’s hire of these women did come with some contention. He was known for being stingy with sharing his name on designs, so he hired Roberts as his bookkeeper and babysitter. Many sources refer to her as an office manager or “she did occasionally try her hand at design and certainly worked on some of the detail drawings of her own house.”

However, she actually oversaw many projects in Wright’s absence including 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).

Her other two most notable works include the K. C. DeRhodes House (South Bend, Indiana, 1906) and the Isabel Roberts House (River Forest, Illinois, 1908). The Roberts House was commissioned by her mother, who intended to live there with Isabel and her sister.

The Roberts House features continuous gutters that accentuate the horizontal lines of the prominently cantilevered eaves. It also featured dynamic massing that erodes at the corners to further emphasize the roof’s floating quality and the porch was built around an existing tree.

Roberts moved to Illinois to care for her mother, while wrapping up Wright’s commissioned projects and closing the office because Wright moved to Europe. In 1916, she and her mother moved to Florida where her sister already lived until her mother died in 1920.

Later that year, Roberts went into practice with Ida Annah Ryan, an architect from Massachusetts. They maintained the practice through 1945, luckily finishing most projects before the 1929 stock market crash.

Most of their projects were in Florida, the most significant being the Veterans Memorial Library in St. Cloud. It was built of hollow terra-cotta and finished in stucco with large windows to let the sunlight in for reading. The pair had different styles that made them appealing to many clients.

Roberts never earned her licensure as an architect, so she was not able to be a member of the American Institute of Architects despite her mentors pushing for her. Ryan died in 1950 after a long illness. Roberts, who was said to be her life partner in some sources, cared for her during her final years. The couple lived in Orlando and Roberts died in 1955 from heart failure. She is buried next to her sister in Orlando.

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