Charles Roberts had many interests and activities: inventor, manufacturer, educator, and musician to name but a few. Of these wide ranging activities, his role as chair of the building committee following the 1905 fire that destroyed Unity Church may be the most historically significant activity of his life. Roberts was instrumental in the selection of Frank Lloyd Wright as the replacement building’s architect. So, who was Charles Roberts?
Professionally, Roberts was an inventor, manufacturer, and businessman. As a fourteen year-old Roberts learned machinist skills which he applied to numerous mechanical devices. Before turning thirty, he invented and patented a machine that would make the top and bottom of a screw in a single operation, a decided advantage over the existing two-step process used elsewhere. With capital from fellow Oak Park resident James Scoville, Roberts founded the Chicago Screw Company. Roberts sold the business in 1904, for $1 million, so that he could focus on other inventions (the company is now part of Stanadyne). Roberts continued inventing, receiving patents for a rather eclectic range of products. Of these, his electric car was probably the best known and is believed to be the oldest working electric car in the world (only one car was actually made).
Roberts and Wright had a long relationship, beginning with Wright’s 1896 remodel of Roberts’ home. The two men collaborated extensively about the design and ornamentation for the home. Wright’s use of wood trim in the Roberts home became a standard Prairie feature and is also seen in Unity Temple. Roberts introduced Wright to his wife’s nephew, B. Harley Bradley, resulting in what many consider to be the first Prairie style home, the Bradley House in Kankakee, Illinois. In 1901, the two men collaborated on an eight home planned development for Oak Park (neighbors objected so it was never constructed). During the review process for Unity Temple, it was Roberts who suggested Wright make a model of the building: Roberts was quite adept at envisioning three dimensions from a drawing but realized many committee members were not. With a bit of persuasion, led by Roberts and Wright, the building committee accepted Wright’s design and Unity Temple as we now know it was born.
In Roberts’ obituary, the relationship between the two men was summarized: “Mr. Roberts proved to be the friendly appreciative critic who, recognizing the young architect’s genius, could give him the encouragement he needed.” Unity Temple is the most significant legacy of that relationship.
by Sue Blaine
Frank Lloyd Wright researcher and architecture docent