Harry Robinson


Harry Franklin Robinson was born on November 2, 1883, in the town of Alliance, Ohio, to George and Frederica Robinson. His father was an engineer with the Illinois Central Railroad. In the late 1880’s the family moved to Matoon, Illinois. He attended the local Matoon High School, and graduated in 1901. He was offered a scholarship to attend the University of Illinois, but instead took a job as a draftsman for an architectural firm in St. Paul, Minnesota. The job was short lived as he returned to Illinois to begin his studies at the University of Illinois in September of 1902. He studied under Nathan Clifford Ricker, who earlier taught Prairie School architect Walter Burley Griffin.

Robinson was member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity and president of the Architectural Club while attending college. As president of the Architectural Club it was his duty to procure speakers for club functions and as a result he had his first encounter with an already famous Chicago architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. After his graduation in 1906 he turned down an offer to teach architecture at the University of Texas and immediately went to work for Wright in his Oak Park studio as a draftsman. He worked alongside and became good friends with William Drummond, Barry Byrne, and Marion Mahony.

Robinson left Wright’s studio in July of 1908 to take the job as chief draftsman for Walter Burley Griffin in his office at Steinway Hall. While at Griffin’s office his work consisted of mainly residential commissions. Robinson was also involved with the design drawings submitted by Griffin for the Canberra, Australia capital competition.

In 1911 he decided to leave Griffin and return to manage the Chicago office for Wright, located in the Orchestra Hall building at 216 South Michigan Avenue. Robinson was the only member of the original Oak Park studio to return to work for Wright, though there is evidence that Marion Mahony had done the rendering for the 1913 William Heald house in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. This commission has been credited to Robinson though it was executed while he was working for Wright. Robinson was mainly responsible for the supervision of the construction of Wright’s projects in the Chicago area as most of the design work was done by Wright at his Taliesin home & studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin. It is thought though that the design of the smaller projects in the Chicago area are actually the designs of Robinson. While under the employ of Wright, Robinson had executed a number of “bootleg” buildings in Naperville, Glen Ellyn and River Forest, Illinois. The largest being a group of 24 houses in the 700 block of Williams Street in River Forest, designed for developer Henry Hogan & Sons. While at Wright’s Chicago office Robinson met the office secretary Ethel Josephine Ross and they were married in December of 1913. They had one son, Joseph, who was born in Oak Park in 1915 and whose godfather was the architect Barry Byrne.

Robinson left Wright’s office for ever in 1916 over a dispute in Wright’s failure to pay his salary. This was a common reason for several young architects to leave the employ of Wright over the years. He then joined the firm of Dean & Dean as its chief draftsman, supervising a workforce of 20 draftsmen. Brothers George and Arthur Dean started the firm in the early 1900’s, with older brother George being a former occupant of the Steinway Hall group of architects. At Dean & Dean, Robinson’s work was primarily focused on industrial housing projects, with two of those being for the U.S. Steel Corporation and another for the Minnesota Steel Company in Morgan Park, Minnesota. After the death of George Dean the firm went out of business and in 1923 Robinson started his own private practice.

Robinson had offices in both Chicago and one of its’ suburbs, Riverside, Illinois. His private practice focused on single family residences, apartment buildings, churches and schools. His practice was very prosperous until the untimely death of his wife Ethel from injuries suffered in an automobile accident in 1925. A stained glass window memorializing her appears in St. Mary’s Church in Riverside, Illinois, which he designed in 1925. By 1930 Robinson had met and gotten remarried to Rebecca April.

The Robinson family had lived in several houses in the Chicago area over the years, residing in Oak Park, River Forest and Riverside. From 1919 until 1923 they resided in the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Isabel Roberts house in River Forest. Isabel Roberts was Wright’s secretary and a friend of Robinson whom he met while he was employed by Wright at his Oak Park Studio.

The Great Depression of the late 1920’s caused a serious decline in commissions for residential work and Robinson closed his office in Chicago early in 1932. In the summer of 1932 he relocated his family to the University of Chicago neighborhood and enrolled at the university to pursue his masters degree in history. After obtaining his degree he sought a teaching position but before obtaining any offers he joined the Public Housing Administration. He worked for the P.H.A. until 1955 in various capacities. He started as a title searcher for the Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells and Black Hawk Gardens housing projects in Chicago. He was then promoted to the position of project manager for the Trumbull Park housing project, also in Chicago. In 1938 he was then transferred to Youngstown, Ohio, as an advisor to the Westlake Terrace housing project construction, then on to Omaha, Nebraska in 1940 as a construction advisor to the Logan Fontanelle federal housing project. His next assignment took him to Warren, Ohio in 1941. There he was assigned the position as senior project engineer, where he supervised the construction of housing for civilian employees at the Ravenna Ordinance Plant during World War II.

Finally in April of 1942 Robinson returned to Chicago to be with his wife and two year old daughter Elizabeth. He was assigned to the Chicago office of the P.H.A. and stayed there until his retirement in 1955. He died at age 75 on August 15, 1959 and is buried at Mount Mayriv Cemetery, in Chicago.