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Isabel Roberts Helped Shape Early Orlando Architecture

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One of Orlando’s architects in the early 1900’s, was a woman, and a Prairie School figure. She was not the only female architect in town. Isabel Roberts practiced architecture in Orlando for over 30 years.

Born in the mid-west in 1871, the family had settled in South Bend Indiana before she went to college. Isabel studied architecture for 3 years in New York City at the first studio/atelier established along the French format of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It was established by Emmanuel Louis Masqueray , who is most remembered as the architect of the St. Louis Exposition and the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Minnesota. Roberts studied under an impressive roster of future architects, including William Van Alen who designed the Chrysler Building. By 1899, the school was actively seeking female students, opening a second atelier especially for women students.

Isabel was one of the first employees hired when Frank Lloyd Wright opened his office in Oak Park, Illinois. John Lloyd Wright, his son, relates that the draftsmen in the Oak Park studio included five men and two women, William Drummond, Francis Barry Byrne, Walter Burley Griffin, Albert McArthur, Marion Mahoney, Isabel Roberts and George Willis. He further stated that they all made valuable contributions to Prairie style architecture, the style which is most notably associated with Wright.

Wright went off to Europe in 1909 with Mamah Borthwick Cheney, arranging for architect Hermann V. von Holst to oversee Isabel Roberts and John Van Bergen complete the projects on the boards, along with Marion Mahoney and Walter Burley Griffin who, having left to open their own practice, were working under contract. When they completed all the works they could, Isabel literally locked the doors, closing the chapter on Wrights Oak Park years. She then worked in Chicago for about a year for William Drummond, who left Wright’s employ as well, and now had his own practice.

She moved to St. Cloud Florida with her mother, after wintering there a few seasons starting in 1915. Her mother continued to suffer from lingering effects of influenza, and died in Florida in 1920. Her sister and brother-in-law Charlotte and John B. Somerville were established residents of St. Cloud, by that time.

Ryan-Roberts home-studio Kennilworth

By 1926 she was listed with Ida Anne Ryan in the Orlando City Directory under the “Architects” heading, as “Ryan and Roberts” at a downtown location and also their Kenilworth home location, pictured above. The Mediterranean Revival style home, 1920-24, is turned sideways on the lot, the front of the house faces the side yard, and the studio fronts toward the street (the two car garage built by later owners, blocks the approach to the front of the house.) Ida Ryan was the first woman in the U.S. to earn a master’s degree in architecture, graduating from MIT in 1907. See my post on Ida Ryan on this Blog:

Isabel Roberts was known to keep the books for Wright, and also much of his correspondence, and is often only considered a secretary in many biography’s on Wright. But soon after arriving in Florida, Roberts petitioned to become a member of the Florida Association of Architects (later to become a chapter of the American Institute of Architects) Her application was accompanied by letters of recommendation by John Van Bergen, Hermann V. von Holst and Frank Lloyd Wright, all who clearly considered her to be an architect.  Unfortunately she was not admitted. Ida Ryan with whom she collaborated did manage to gain entrance to the Association. At this point in Florida, licensing for architects was new, testing was initiated in 1915 after a great effort by the new Florida Association for Architects, who had organized in Jacksonville in 1912 and were chartered by the state in 1914.

Roberts and Ryan created many early landmark buildings in the region.  One of their best preserved is the Veterans Memorial Library, circa 1923, in St. Cloud, now the St. Cloud Heritage Museum. Roberts’ brother-in-law, John B. Somerville, sat on the building committee which resulted in Ryan and Roberts getting the commission. The building is constructed of hollow tile with a stained stucco finish. Described as a Grecian style albeit due to the many of the roman grill details on windows and soffits, it is more reminiscent of many small Prairie School bank buildings in the upper Midwest.

RossEJeffries Elementary School

The Ross E. Jeffries Elementary School in St. Cloud, circa 1926, is a Mediterranean Revival style school attributed to Ryan and Roberts. The building has a main arched entry porch in an offset tower, the low profile accentuated by a curved parapet bay on the roof. The fenestration has large tri-part Chicago style windows, with small accent  windows at the ends, still well maintained today.

The Amherst Apartments, were another of their excellent works, and evidently a prestigious address for many years (photo at top of post). Located at 325 West Colonial Drive just off downtown, the building closely resembled the German Embassy Building by William Drummond (1915 while Roberts was in his employ). The Prairie Style building built 1921-22 featured forty-seven apartments on the shore of Lake Concord. Beautiful gardens which sloped down to the water behind the apartments were a popular feature. The structure was demolished in 1986. These photos were posted on Facebook in Historic Orlando.

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There were many commissions in their career. The Lake Eola Bandstand downtown has been replaced, but built in 1924 it had a cantilevered hip roof over the lozenge shaped deck, and distinctive Prairie Style lamps on each side of the entrance stair. The Unity Chapel was also on Lake Eola, built in a stuccoed English vernacular style, it was the home of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando. Ida Annah Ryan was a member of this congregation. The church was demolished in the 1960’s, when the congregation relocated east to a larger property.

In St Cloud there were many commissions, quite a few still standing. The Pennsylvania Hotel Building, at 10th and Pennsylvania now houses the St. Cloud Twin Theatres. The Peoples Bank Building, at 10th and New York Ave. is now used as a café and barber shop. The Chapel at Fisk Funeral Home at 1107-11 Massachusetts Ave, is a mix of Prairie Style and Spanish Revival with pointed arches on the first floor and a string of grouped windows on the second floor.

Isabel Roberts died in 1955 at the age of 84, and is buried along side her mother and sister in Greenwood cemetery in Orlando. You can read more about her interesting career in her bio on Wikipedia:

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