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

Hartray left the firm in 1976, followed by Ben the next year. “We both got to the point where we were heading Harry off on the way to the petty cash drawer, and it just wasn’t worth doing anymore,” says Hartray.

“We all left in discord with Harry’s management,” says Ben. “Harry was glad to see me go. I was a thorn in his side.”

Weese was getting older—he turned 65 in 1980—and didn’t like it. “He was feeling a certain displacement of power,” says his daughter Marcia. “He became more cynical.”

In the late seventies and early eighties, a sharp recession curtailed new construction. By the time the economy recovered, the architecture world had undergone a significant transformation. The gods of modernism were passing away, and Weese mourned them: “No silent brooding Mies over us. [Le Corbusier] almost forgotten, no Aalto to emulate or be inspired by,” he wrote.

Architectural tastes had moved on to post­modernism, which favored a return to traditionalism as well as the freedom to mix and match historical styles. “The younger people turned away from the grand notion that design was going to change the world,” says Robert Bruegmann. “They thought that was overreaching.” The arbitrary quality of the new work—the sense that design could be anything you wanted it to be—“really got to people like Harry,” Bruegmann says.

Weese began an odd little rear-guard campaign that involved sniping at the post­modernists at every opportunity. “We live at last, and perhaps alas,” he wrote, “in the age of the Common Man. He lives in a three-piece suit, he jets, conglomerates, occupies a different dwelling or another city, usually a suburb, on the average of every four years. . . . He has panache, a powerful instinct for the bottom line, but does he have taste? But does anybody? It’s a long haul from the Medicis and along the way came such dillies as the preposterous Pompidou Center and pompous Albany Mall. Compared to Palladio, we are muppets.”

His bête noire was Helmut Jahn, Chicago’s newest star, whom he referred to—long after it had stopped being funny—as “Genghis Jahn.” Jahn’s controversial State of Illinois Building (now the James R. Thompson Center) in the Loop seemed to drive Weese crazy. “Futurism surfaced in the public sector of staid Chicago the other day, the Palace for Peons, otherwise known as the State Office Bauble (SOB),” he wrote in one of the many articles and letters he published during this period. “The aforementioned shapeless, and some would say tasteless, jellyfish sprawls off the site. . . . The gossamer SOB is an expression of one fleeting moment in time . . . a piece of cake more suited to a Parisian department store.”

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“If you’re designing your life as an aesthetic statement, you probably want to plan on dying a little early.” –Jack Hartray

Weese was losing control. After a lifetime of always seeming like the youngest person in the room, some inner discipline was crumbling. For a while, he maintained a precarious balance. Doug Tilden recalls meeting Weese in Atlanta for a presentation the two were giving to design the new High Museum of Art, a commission that ultimately went to the architect Richard Meier. “In those days,” Tilden says, “you never wanted to get Harry at the end of a long flight, because you knew what he had been doing on the plane. He came in from Seattle that day and I thought, Oh, God.”

Weese was plastered and proceeded to get more so at the hotel bar. “I finally managed to get him up to his room, take off his shoes, and that was that,” says Tilden.

Hours later, however, a loud knocking awakened Tilden in his room. “It was 4:55 in the morning,” he says. “I opened the door and there he was, all spit and polish: ‘Douglas, get up. We have to go look at the site.’ I’ve never seen anybody recover like that.”

Those were the good days. Far more common were the bad ones—the blackouts, the blown commissions, the crazy and embarrassing scenes. “There were all these things that were grossly disturbing, and there was a lot of denial within the office about what was happening,” says Ben Weese.

The Chicago Historical Society, for example, became a major disaster. In the late eighties, the society (today the Chicago History Museum) decided to construct an addition to its building on Clark Street, just across North Avenue from Weese’s well-regarded Latin School building. Because of this proximity, Weese’s firm was the front-runner for the commission. With significant backup from his office, Weese managed to pull together an impressive presentation.

He got the job, says Ben. And then he lost it several hours later at a celebratory dinner during which he became so drunk and disruptive that the society reversed course and awarded the commission to another firm.

A certain lawlessness that had always been part of his personality was starting to take over. The architect Stanley Tigerman, who early in his career worked briefly for Weese, remembers walking with him in River North one day when a car alarm went off. Weese’s response was to pick up a rock, bash in the car’s window, and continue walking.

Kitty was at the end of her tether. “She loved him, but she couldn’t stand going to these events anymore where he was drunk,” says John Vinci, the architect. Evidently she considered divorcing him but never went through with it. She also worried about finances. Weese’s participation in the firm was winding down. (The remnants of the business eventually would be sold to Gensler, which today is one of the largest architecture firms in the world.) At the same time, there were now three houses to maintain—in addition to those in Chicago and Barrington, the family had acquired a third residence in Aspen, Colorado. “Throughout their lives, Harry and Kitty had very serious money problems, and this was even more true at the end,” says Robert Bruegmann.

Finally the family tried an intervention. Relatives and friends confronted Weese about his drinking. The results were disconcerting. “I think Daddy really enjoyed that,” says Shirley Weese Young. “He was the center of attention.”

From the mideighties on, Weese was in and out of rehab more than a dozen times. “He kept getting kicked out for being violent,” says his brother Ben.

During one such stay, he had a stroke that robbed him of his ability to draw. Shortly afterward, the family decided to have him committed to the Illinois Veterans Home in Manteno. “We’d been struggling to find a way to take care of him because everything we tried, he would end up escaping and start wandering the streets,” says his daughter Marcia.

The notebooks track his decline. He still kept them, albeit with less regularity. During the eighties, the brief, staccato entries about business and projects started to be replaced with the language of rehab: “Three things that might make you relapse: 1. Feelings of entrapment. 2. Euphoria. 3. Frustration.”

The final notebook is undated but is almost certainly from 1988. On the flyleaf is a Post-It note from Kitty: “Harry—start filling this book with your next 5 year plan.”

There are a handful of shaky notes, and then suddenly, defiantly, Harry Weese wrote what would be his final words: “I’m OK—the world’s all wrong.”

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