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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

Several years before she died in 2005, Kitty, as she was known, talked to me numerous times, ostensibly to probe her husband’s creative processes. The interviews usually devolved into remembrances of her own privileged—if troubled—childhood.

The second youngest of five children, Kitty was born in 1917 and grew up in an imposing Italianate mansion several blocks from the state capitol building in Montgomery. Her father, Morris Baldwin, was heir to a banking and real-estate fortune. Her mother, Kate, was descended from several generations of lawyers with prominent government connections. “It was a very close family,” Kitty remembered. “Lots and lots of cousins, aunts, and uncles. Lots of big dinners.” Her brother Ben, who was four years older, was “by far my closest friend,” she said. “He was always teaching me things and was totally responsible for my interest in art.”

Less happy were Kitty’s memories of her father. “My father was an alcoholic,” she said. “He never drank at home. But he would go on these binges and be gone for days. My mother would have to go around to the different hotels to find him.” In and out of what we now call rehab, he died the year she turned 14.

After studying child psychology under Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna at King’s College London, Kitty—by then a willowy, dark-haired beauty—became a psychologist for Alabama’s welfare department.

By her own account, she did not really get to know Harry until the fledgling partnership of Weese & Baldwin broke up when both Harry and Ben joined the navy in 1942. “Ben called me and asked if I would like to drive up to Illinois and help him move,” she said. “So I did. I stayed a few days at Harry’s house and fell in love with him and his family. After that, I saw him whenever I could.”

They married in early 1945 when the navy destroyer on which Harry was stationed stopped in New York. “We got a license from city hall and went down to the ship,” said Kitty. “The ship was tied up at the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s a chapel in the bridge, and that’s where we got married. Then we went across the street and had a cup of coffee.”

This matter-of-fact quality was characteristic of both Kitty and Harry. Neither was especially sentimental. “It was kind of a marriage of convenience,” says Ben Weese. “Kitty had a certain suave way about her. . . . She had connections. She always had money.”

And Harry needed all of those things. Kitty, for her part, was nearly 30, living at home, and eager to break out of her upper-class cocoon. “I didn’t want my life to be the Junior League,” she told me.

All during the war, Harry had continued to write in his notebooks. “He was writing about the things he wanted to do when he got out,” said Kitty. One was to come back to Chicago, start an architecture firm, and complete Daniel Burnham’s famous Plan of Chicago. Another was to open a design store featuring the kind of innovative modernist furnishings that he and his Cranbrook friends were designing.

“All these dreams and schemes,” said Kitty. “Most came true.”

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In the late forties and fifties, there was no more exciting place for an architect than Chicago. The city that had invented modernism in the late 19th century was reinventing it for a new generation, and the results would rivet the world for the next three decades.

The major names in architecture then were mainly steel-and-glass modernists, such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s to become the head of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “Chicago was Mies’s city,” says Jack Hartray, Weese’s former colleague. “He had his school going and was turning out large numbers of architects who were devoted to what he was doing. That was the orthodox architecture of the time. It was what everybody did.”

Weese initially fell in step by securing a job with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the most prominent avatar of Mies’s minimalistic “less is more” style. He left after only a year to found his own firm. It was the last time he ever worked for anyone other than himself.

Mies’s severe, rectilinear minimalism would play little part in Weese’s work. In fact, he disliked it. “He was always nudging the IIT guys and trying to embarrass them,” recalls his brother Ben. “He wanted to carve out his own middle ground.”

His influences would always be eclectic—Aalto and the Saarinens, certainly, but also early Chicago architects such as Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham. Nothing, however, was out of bounds. At the beginning of a project, says Hartray, “we never had the slightest idea what a building was going to look like.”

In 1947, Weese—together with Kitty and a new friend, Jody Kingrey—founded Baldwin Kingrey, the city’s first modernist design emporium. The store was located in the old Michigan Square Building at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Ohio Street. (Thirty years later, the building—and its famed Art Deco lobby, the Diana Court—would be razed for what is arguably Weese’s worst building, the Marriott Hotel.) The store carried furnishings by eminent Cranbrookians, such as Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, and Charles and Ray Eames, and by Harry’s old MIT professor Alvar Aalto. According to Kitty, it was profitable from the day it opened.

Many years after she sold the business in 1957, Kitty was asked why she had traded psychology for retailing. “My husband didn’t believe in psychology,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2004. Rather, she added, he wanted her to do something that involved design. “I’m from the South, and we did what our husbands told us.”

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Photo gallery


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