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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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Harry Weese Photo Gallery

Weese and his works

” They didn’t get along.” With those brief words Ben Weese describes Harry’s stormy relationship with his father, Harry Sr. The father grew up on an 80-acre farm in Indiana and was the first in his family to go to college. In 1903, right out of Northwestern University, he joined Harris Bank and never left, eventually rising to the position of company treasurer before he retired in 1941.

Harry Sr. married late—to the much younger Marjorie Mohr, daughter of a steel company executive—and had five children, of whom Harry Jr., born in 1915, was the eldest. (Ben, born in 1929, was the youngest.)

By the time the Depression hit, the family was living two blocks from the lake in Ken­ilworth, in a spacious house with “a basement where we shoveled coal and an attic where we kept all of our indigent relatives,” recalls Ben. He adds, “My father was a domineering type. . . . I remember huge arguments between him and Harry about politics. My father was such a Republican that he turned [all of his children] into Democrats. He ended up being a John Bircher.” As a staunch Methodist, he also forbade all drinking and smoking. “He didn’t party well,” says Ben. (Three of his five children would ultimately become alcoholics.)

In contrast to his father, Harry was “profligate from the beginning,” Ben says. “He was hyperactive, ADD, whatever they call it today. He was liable to do loony things that required spankings and other forms of discipline. . . . But my father saw precosity in my brother. . . . He was the family genius.”

From an early age, Harry also displayed a fascination with nature, a quality that would come to play a leading role in his architecture. He kept bees and at one point taught a crow to speak and perch on his shoulder.

For all his discipline, Harry Sr. often indulged his eldest son’s artistic nature—at least to a point. “My grandfather was a pragmatist, very left-brain,” says Marcia Weese, who is now an interior designer in Colorado. “When my father told him he wanted to be an artist, he said, ‘No—you will not be an artist because you will be miserable and poor. You will be an architect.’ ”

After graduating from New Trier High School in the early 1930s, Harry spent four years at MIT and one at Yale before emerging with an architecture degree in 1938. Aside from meeting and studying under Alvar Aalto, the visionary Finnish architect who would become one of his most important inspirations, Harry rarely mentioned the education he received at those institutions. Far more important, evidently, were the friends he made and his exposure to the general intellectual ferment—both cultural and political.

The friends included the future architects I. M. Pei and Eero Saarinen, as well as J. Irwin Miller, scion of the family that owned the Cummins Engine Company in Columbus, Indiana, and a man who would become one of Harry’s most important patrons. As for the intellectual ferment, “he got in with a Communist cell,” recalls Ben, “and my father got wind of that, and they had a horrible argument. I remember the vividness of this knock­down-dragout, get-out-of-my-house fight.”

Stylistically, Weese began to come into his own during a long bicycle tour through northern Europe in the summer of 1937. “[It’s] what opened his eyes to the fact that modernism is an actual living thing. He saw Scandinavian and Nordic society living that dream,” says Robert Bruegmann.

For most of his life, Weese recorded his ideas, observations, and appointments in four-by-six-inch notebooks, which he generally kept in his shirt pocket and that eventually came to number more than 100. (The Weese family has donated them to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Ryerson Library.) The flyleaf of the first one is dated “Paris 6/37,” and the notebook includes dozens of sketches of the people, buildings, and monuments he encountered during that critical summer. Next to one hasty sketch, dated August 1st, he wrote in an excited scribble, “This is the life!”

Interspersed with these sketches are stray facts and details (“[Swedish workers are] 95% unionized in the trades”), reminders and comments (“Debussy ‘Iberia’ Potent!”), addresses of friends, and various lists, including one headed “To be seen in New York Thanksgiving 1937.” The latter begins with the Museum of Modern Art and ends with “Slums” and “Greenwich Village.”

After college, Weese—through his friendship with Eero Saarinen—was offered a fellowship in urban planning at the Cranbrook Academy of Art for the 1938–39 academic year. It turned out to be one of the most pivotal years of his life. “I think Cranbrook shaped his entire career,” says Kate Weese, his youngest daughter. “It was a magical time, and he reminisced about it with great feeling and awe that it all came together.”

There is something undeniably paradisiacal about Cranbrook, the 315-acre estate of the newspaper publisher George Booth located in what is now the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. In the 1920s, Booth recruited the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (Eero’s father) to design and administer an arts academy for the estate. The grounds ultimately included studios, housing, a library, and a museum, and the faculty boasted such eminent artists as the sculptors Carl Milles and Marshall Fredericks, the metalsmith Harry Bertoia, the weaver Marianne Strengell, the potter Maija Grotell, and the painter Zoltan Sepeshy. Many—like Eliel Saarinen himself—were northern European immigrants on the run from the continent’s ever-darkening political climate. Gradually the school came to be known as the Scandinavian Bauhaus.

The faculty was more than matched by the roster of students. In addition to Harry and Eero, the list included the furniture designers Florence Knoll and Charles and Ray Eames; the urban planner Edmund Bacon, future father of the actor Kevin; the architect Ralph Rapson; the sculptor Lilian Swann, who eventually married Eero Saarinen; and the designer Benjamin Baldwin. All went on to acclaim, and all became Harry’s lifelong friends.

Cranbrook was “a luxurious and beautiful place,” Baldwin wrote in a memoir he published toward the end of his life. “Each of us had his own studio, and we were not on any kind of schedule. We had no responsibilities whatever as far as the school was concerned. If we wanted advice or criticism from Saarinen—or ‘Pappy,’ as he was called by the students—we could ask for it, and he would give it. Otherwise, we didn’t have to see him at all if we didn’t want to.”

Judging from the photo he submitted with his application, in those days Harry Weese was a slim, handsome young man with dark, wavy hair and an engaging, almost elfin, grin. By all accounts, he was a popular student.

One of his closest friends that year was Baldwin, a wealthy young Southerner—his family had founded the city of Birmingham, Alabama—who had recently graduated from Princeton with a degree in architecture. Baldwin would go on to have a distinguished career as a designer of interiors, furniture, and gardens. In 1939, however, he was in love with Harry Weese.

After Harry’s death, the Weese family donated a cache of Baldwin’s letters to the Cranbrook archives. All are from the latter half of 1939, when the students had scattered to their respective homes—Weese to Chicago and Baldwin to Kintray, his family’s country estate outside Montgomery. The letters—none of which have heretofore been published—chronicle Baldwin’s intense infatuation. On November 5th, he wrote: “Dear Harry, I’ve thought about you so much & missed you so desperately. . . . Thank you for being what you are—which is everything.” On December 17th: “My dear Harry, You have saved my life again and I’m so happy just to know you exist and that I breathe the same air you do. Your letter made me so happy. . . .”

In a lifetime of fairly well-documented heterosexual promiscuity, there is little to suggest that Weese was gay or bisexual. Still, his response to these letters is curious. The next year, he invited Baldwin to relocate to Chicago and become his professional partner—the only one he would ever have. He also married Baldwin’s younger sister Kate.

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