Chicagoans of the Year 2010: Gunny Harboe

Past Perfect

SULLIVAN CENTER

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On the southeast corner of State and Madison, it’s as if the 20th century were dawning anew. Looking better than it has since a Roosevelt—Teddy—sat in the White House, the Carson Pirie Scott building gleams in the afternoon sun, its lush ornamentation swirling around the LHS monogram of its creator: Louis Henri Sullivan.

Duck around the corner to Wabash Avenue and peel a few more decades off the calendar. North of Monroe Street, the recently refurbished Atwater Building—designed by John Mills Van Osdel, Chicago’s first architect, in 1877—manifests a muscular swagger, while next door, the Haskell and Barker buildings (both dating to 1875) have shed the bland countenances they assumed after a 1920s makeover, revealing the ornate cast-iron façades Sullivan gave them in 1896.

The man most responsible for rejuvenating these treasures is Gunny Harboe, who over the last 20-plus years has helped restore some of Chicago’s most iconic structures, including the Rookery, the Mies van der Rohe apartments at 860–880 Lake Shore Drive, and the Reliance and Marquette buildings. “Preserving our collective cultural heritage is important to society,” says Harboe, “particularly in Chicago, where it has international significance. We need to give it a life that will extend beyond us.”

Harboe’s fascination with the past began in boyhood, when he lived in a Revolutionary War–era house in New Jersey and unearthed colorful 18th-century glassware. After high school, he spent a year in Denmark (his father’s homeland) before earning a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in historic preservation from Brown and Columbia universities respectively. Having worked as a carpenter, he possessed the requisite skills when a spot opened up on the team restoring the Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “That’s where the epiphany happened,” he says. “I realized that the key decisions about what got done had already been made by somebody else: the architect.”

Armed with a master’s in architecture from MIT, Harboe landed a job in Chicago at McClier Corporation just as that architecture firm was preparing to restore the Rookery, the Burnham & Root building from 1888 that featured a 1907 lobby by Wright. Harboe was only an architect in training at the firm, but as he says today, “I was the guy who knew something about preservation.” He took a lead role in the Rookery rehab—completed to rave reviews in 1992—and subsequent restoration projects at McClier.

One of those involved replacing the long-lost cornice to the Carson’s building. “We were over there all the time working on the cornice, and we knew the storefront was in bad shape,” says Harboe, who started his own firm in 2006. With $23 million in tax increment financing from the city, Joseph Freed and Associates had embarked on the $190 million restoration of the nine-building Loop complex it dubbed Sullivan Center. The project included rehabilitating the Carson’s façade—an elaborate, oversize puzzle that required breaking down, restoring, and reassembling thousands of cast-iron pieces—and resulted in the exciting discoveries on Wabash Avenue. (Though Harboe spearheaded the Sullivan Center restoration, he is quick to credit the contributions of his colleagues Doug Gilbert and Bob Score; the city’s cultural historian, Tim Samuelson; and Bob Siorek of Custom Architectural Metals.)

With Carson’s completed, Harboe, 55, has turned his attention to other projects, among them the Illinois Supreme Court Building in Springfield, an overhaul of the elevator cabs at Hyde Park’s historic Powhatan Apartments, and an assessment of Wright’s Beth Shalom Synagogue in Pennsylvania. (Harboe had earlier prepared the master plan for the ongoing restoration of Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park.) With each of these undertakings, says Harboe, it’s essential to “honor the building that’s there, to remain true to the aesthetic that created it. They each have something to say about who we are now, about where we came from—and where we might go.” 

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