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Frank Lloyd Wright and the Excelsior

Published on 11/23/2019
By Robert Turek

No, Frank Lloyd Wright did not design the Excelsior, although he is said to have had a hand in designing his personal automobile, a Stoddard Dayton. However, the famous architect did have an interesting connection to Excelsior.

The son of a German immigrant, George T. Robie started the Excelsior Supply Company in Chicago in 1876. The company was a distributor, specializing in sewing machine parts. During the 1880s, as the popularity of the bicycle grew, the company branched out into cycle parts, supplies, and accessories. Excelsior became a major supplier of bicycle equipment and bicycles in the United States and was one of the earliest importers of the safety bicycle.

When automobiles came on the scene, Excelsior again expanded its business to include automotive and machinery supplies. By 1905 it was one of the largest distributors of automobile supplies in the United States, advertising that they handled everything but the motor.

George Robie had one son, Frederick Carleton. In 1895 Frederick attended Purdue but, by the turn of the century, returned home to Chicago to join Excelsior. Frederick met Lora Hieronymous at a University of Chicago dance. Lora was the daughter of the president of the Illinois National Bank. They were married in 1902.

Frederick was interested in manufacturing complete vehicles, motorcycles and cars, but his father did not want the headaches of manufacturing, preferring to remain a distributor. However, Excelsior did become involved in the motorcycle vehicles, an easy extension of their bicycle business. They started selling some built-up machines, then debuted their newly designed single cylinder motorcycle in late 1907. The new motorcycle sold so well, the company had trouble keeping up with the orders.

With the business going well, Excelsior motorcycles were making their mark. The younger Robies had been living in an apartment in a residential hotel, but with a new family member on the way, decided to build a house. Lora wanted to live near the University of Chicago for the cultural events, so they purchased a lot in Hyde Park. Frederick contacted Frank Lloyd Wright to design the house that he had in mind. Lora Robie might have been the impetus for choosing Wright, as he had designed the library at the school where she taught before the Robies were married.

The architect and the manufacturer seemed to hit it off immediately. Robie had a clear idea of what he wanted. Among other requirements for the house were a walled yard for safety and privacy, overhangs to provide shade, and a three-car garage with a built-in car wash and a pit for working on his vehicles. Construction began in 1909 and the house was completed in 1910. By the time the Robies moved in, Wright had already left to study in Europe, with the wife of another client, leaving his family behind.

Although the Robies only lived in the house for about two years, it is still known as the Robie House. Today it is considered the epitome of Wright's Prairie House style and is ranked as one of his most important designs. The manufacture and sale of Excelsior motorcycles helped to make possible this masterpiece of American architecture.
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