Compared with world-famous contemporary Wright designs such as Fallingwater, the first Jacobs House and the Hanna House, the Abby Longyear Roberts House in Marquette, MI, is relatively unknown. The project was first proposed in late 1935 and is dated 1936, at the same time Wright was working on these other projects, but the Roberts House, sheltered in the north Michigan woods, has remained comparatively unstudied.

On Wednesday, August 10, 2022, Conservancy preservation programs manager John Waters made a visit to the house, also known as Deertrack, to meet with Abby Roberts’ descendants who currently own the house. They discussed the future of the house and much was learned about its past. John made a thorough photographic record of the house and investigated its current condition. Approaches to restoration and renovation were also discussed. The house has been much altered over the years, but once one starts exploring it, Wright’s original design becomes easily visible. Following up on the visit, John shared a written assessment of the house. This assessment included a preliminary analysis of the house as built and an outline of subsequent alterations, as well as a review of primary areas of the house that need attention.

Early photos of the Roberts House shared by the owners, and John Waters photographing its living room

One of the particularly significant aspects of the house is that it includes several features that would become important design elements in Wright’s Usonian houses. These include a “gallery” that acts as a spine for layout of the house’s rooms, his first built use of the “butterfly” roof in the living room and Abby Roberts’ bedroom, and the angling of significant portions of the plan (here the living room and south terrace). At the same time, the house is a transitional building in its use of traditional 2×4 framing. Plaster covers the wall framing on the interior and exterior of the house. Later Usonian houses have a unique wall construction of horizontal exterior and interior boards sandwiching a center layer of vertical boards (later, plywood was often used for the center layer). The horizontal boards would be exposed on the inside and outside. Ceilings of the early Usonians were also covered with wood, whereas the Roberts House ceilings are plaster.

Important contributors to the Deertrack design

Along with Wright, the house and the adjacent 100-acre property are the creation of three other important contributors:

John Lautner: Roberts’ son-in-law, who served as on-site supervisor for the construction of the house. He also was the middle man between Wright and Roberts, who didn’t always agree on the direction of the house’s design.

Jens Jensen: Roberts worked with this important figure in the history of American landscape architecture on the development of the Deertrack property.

Abby Longyear Roberts: The client for this project was a prominent figure in her own right, who had a clear vision for her property.

 

To aid understanding of the house. John Waters developed a computer model of it, using original drawings available online and on-site investigation. Construction photos shared by the owners were also critical in understanding the house in its original state. Here is an animation of the model:

Much research needs to be done on the Deertrack property. It’s been said that Wright disowned the house after it was built, due to the changes Roberts made during construction, but comparison of the design drawings and the house as constructed suggest that, aside from the extension of the dining area, those changes may have been relatively minor. Its position as a pivotal design, during an important phase of Wright’s career, calls for additional investigation.

Deertrack remains a private home, and, as with all Wright properties not explicitly open to the public, respect for the owners’ privacy should be maintained.

Posted September 4, 2022