On the Life and Work of Chicago Architect Harry Weese

RECONSTRUCTING HARRY WEESE: At his peak in the sixties and seventies, Harry Weese was arguably Chicago’s preeminent architect, a visionary whose ideas helped revive the city’s fraying downtown and whose projects won worldwide acclaim. But his final years were marked by a sad, booze-saturated decline, and in time his reputation faded. Now a forthcoming examination of his architecture could restore him to the place of honor he deserves

Harry Weese in front of the eccentric Barrington residence he designed as a weekend retreat for his family.   Photo: Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

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Weese and his works

The commissions kept coming—more houses, more churches, more schools and dorms, an addition to the Newberry Library, an office building for IBM, and a collaboration with the landscape architect Dan Kiley on the Art Institute’s South Garden. “He was the enfant terrible—the architect who’s always in the news doing clever buildings,” says the architect John Vinci.

“He got a lot of work,” says Ben Weese. “But we were not internally organized at all. The firm never had any structure. He thought he could control everything.”

Weese basically had two modes of design—full immersion and limited collaboration—and he never stopped sketching. “When he was doing a house,” recalls Jack Hartray, “he would fly out, have dinner with the client, and then, on the way back, start sketching on the plane.” Hartray remembers that on more than one occasion Weese handed him an airsickness bag covered with scribbles. “Everything would be there,” Hartray says, “the site plan, the wall section, the plan elevation, details of the cabinetwork. We would take the bag and turn it into 20 sheets of working drawings.”

The office was chaotic, with people continually coming and going and a hierarchy that began and ended with Weese. “Those of us who were more successful with him,” says Doug Tilden, who worked at the firm in the sixties and seventies, “were the ones who could read his sketches and translate them into something where—when he came by your drawing table the next day—he’d say, ‘You’re pretty close.’ ”

As a boss, Weese was laissez faire at best. “He didn’t like to fire anybody,” recalls Hartray. “We had an interior designer on staff that he [tried to fire] three or four times, but she just never left.”

Even as Weese’s business thrived, however, drinking was starting to be an issue. “He told me once that he started drinking because it loosened him up and made him more relaxed when he was around important people,” says Shirley.

Well, maybe. But lack of bravado does not really seem to have been Weese’s problem. More likely is Hartray’s explanation: For men of Harry’s generation, “it was part of their working system. That’s the way they lived.”

The normal pattern was to adjourn to lunch at Riccardo’s—a leading hangout for artists and writers—imbibe three or four martinis, and wander back to the office. “Harry had many of his [best] ideas on the way back from Riccardo’s,” says Hartray.

No one was exactly in the dark about the situation. “I knew my father was an alcoholic when I came home from college in 1968,” says Shirley.

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In the mid-1960s, the federal government decided to move ahead on a project for the nation’s capital that had been percolating since the New Deal—a state-of-the-art subway system to rival those in Paris, London, and Moscow. The dimensions were Burnham­esque, to say the least: 100 miles of track punctuated by 86 stations, many of them underground. Seventeen architects submitted proposals. The commission went to Weese.

He spent more than a year researching the project without ever touching pen to paper, traveling around the world to inspect various systems. Finally, the time came to present his ideas. “We had our first presentation on July 6, 1966,” says Stan Allen, a Skidmore alumnus who joined Weese’s firm in 1964 and became the point person for the Metro. “The weekend before that, Harry and I were out in Barrington. He sat there for three days drawing nonstop—the vaults, the signage, the station design, the plan. There were 19 drawings in all, done in Magic Marker and ink. Not a single drawing went on the floor. He drew it and it was finished.”

The highlight was a series of jaw-dropping subterranean stations with soaring vaulted ceilings molded from cast-in-place concrete. Some saw Piranesi, others Brunelleschi, still others L’Enfant, Daniel Burnham, and even the director Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. In other words, the Metro was an enormous, game-changing hit. “If you were going to do one job in your life, that would be the job to do,” says Hartray. “It changed an entire city for the better.”

Everything got bigger after the Metro—the projects, the budgets, the egos. By the time the first phase of the system opened in 1976, Weese’s firm was one of the largest in Chicago, with about 250 associates. There would eventually be additional offices in Washington, D.C., Miami, and Los Angeles.

Weese was increasingly preoccupied with a series of visionary schemes for downtown Chicago. “I’m a man ten years ahead of a time that never comes,” he noted wryly.

In 1968, Esquire published a feature article on the problems of half a dozen American cities and invited Weese to outline his ideas for improving Chicago. Among other things, he suggested raising Lake Shore Drive seven feet, to the level of Buckingham Fountain, and creating a new waterfront commercial district underneath the resulting viaducts. More ideas would follow: building a third airport three miles offshore on an island in Lake Michigan; glassing over Wabash Avenue for a retail arcade; creating a world’s fair to rival Burnham’s 1893 Columbian Exposition.

“He used to send Mayor Daley a sketch of something Chicago should be doing every two weeks or so,” says Hartray.

Weese also moved into the forefront of the preservation movement through a number of groundbreaking restoration projects and a campaign to save the Loop’s elevated train system. In the 1970s, the el was widely regarded as an outmoded Victorian monstrosity, and there was talk of replacing it with a subway line running under Franklin Street. Weese’s response was unequivocal: The el was Chicago’s Eiffel Tower. Replacing it was unthinkable.

Weese also decided to become a developer—disastrously, in terms of his family’s finances. “He was a terrible businessman,” says Robert Bruegmann. “He was hugely risk prone. There was a gambling mentality there. In much of what he did—especially in his own real-estate deals—[his actions] more than bordered on the reckless.”

“He wanted to turn every project into a demonstration,” says Ben Weese. “He wasted more money than you can believe.”

Still, Weese’s approach ultimately had a profound impact on Chicago. In the 1970s, for example, Printers Row was a bleak landscape of crumbling industrial buildings when he decided to turn it into a Chicago version of New York’s SoHo. Over time, he renovated a number of the buildings and also persuaded the city to upgrade the neighborhood’s amenities. The project was the first step in the revitalization of the Near South Side.

Early on, he also saw the downtown riverfront as an underused asset. In 1976, he acquired a sizable tract of land on the west bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River, across from the Apparel Center, and announced plans for Wolf Point Landings: an elaborate residential development consisting of nearly 1,000 new apartments and townhouses, plus an expansive marina. Though the area has rapidly grown in the past decade, Weese’s project ultimately stalled. In the end, the only parts that came to fruition were the conversion of an old cold-storage warehouse into condominiums and the construction of four exquisite row houses—each with its own boat dock—that seem to cascade down the river­bank to the water line just south of Kinzie Street.

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