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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

Weese’s first office for his architecture firm was the backroom of Baldwin Kingrey. Later, he moved several doors north to 612 North Michigan Avenue, where the firm occupied a 750-square-foot space on the fifth floor. By the early 1950s, the firm had seven or eight associates and was starting to make a name for itself—though not in Chicago. “[The early work] all came from Cranbrook,” says Ben Weese, who started working for Harry as a model builder in the late 1940s. “As soon as Eero got busy, he kept giving jobs to Harry.”

This work included two of the firm’s three largest projects in the fifties—the master plans and subsequent buildings for Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and a variety of buildings in Columbus, Indiana, a town of about 40,000 residents that, improbably, became one of the great modernist showcases. Starting in the early fifties, the wealthy Miller family in Columbus created a foundation that agreed to pay the design fees for all new public buildings in exchange for being able to handpick the architects. The result is that Columbus, which is located about an hour south of Indianapolis, features churches by Eliel and Eero Saarinen, a library by I. M. Pei, schools by Richard Meier and Edward Larrabee Barnes, and a hospital by Robert A. M. Stern, among other glories.

The architect with the biggest imprint, however, is Harry Weese, a college friend of the Millers’ son Irwin. Over the next two decades, Weese would design more than a dozen buildings for Columbus, including schools, banks, a country club, and the creation many believe rivals the Washington Metro as his masterpiece: the First Baptist Church. Crowning a hilltop outside of town, the church has echoes of both a medieval abbey and the Midwestern barns and farm buildings Weese had admired for most of his life. In 2000, it was designated a National Historic Landmark.

In the 1950s, Weese emerged as an advocate for what we would now call sustainable development and as a cultural provocateur. Always in search of work, he spoke to any group that asked him and also wrote for numerous publications. Over and over again, he stressed the importance of low-rise housing (“Most buildings should be no higher than a vine can grow”), individual ownership, and solid public amenities such as parks, squares, and playgrounds. “The best individual dwelling is a house on the ground,” he said. “And the best husbandry is in houses owned by their occupants.”

He seemed to genuinely dislike the suburbs—“No artists set up their easels in Park Forest,” he said in a speech in 1960—and scathingly described the postwar United States as “an overaged infant, unmindful of impending doom, luxuriating in unsafe cities . . . motley parades on Decoration Day, littered parks, defunct zoos, deteriorating monuments, bankrupt railroads . . . a Levittown culture in which the church and [dance instructor] Arthur Murray often play similar roles.”

During this time, his identification with Daniel Burnham deepened. “He aspired to do buildings as big and important as Burnham,” says Robert Bruegmann, the author and historian. “They both believed that the city was in grave danger and wanted to see it remade for another generation.”

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“Man’s desire,” Weese once noted, “Is [a] difficult and elusive matter.” He was speaking about urban development, but he could just as easily have been referencing his own personal life.

“Harry liked the ladies,” says his brother Ben.

In the early years of their marriage, according to one friend, Harry approached Kitty with the idea of establishing a ménage à trois with a current girlfriend. “He wanted the three of them to live together,” says the friend. Kitty nixed the idea.

Over the years, there would be numerous other women, some of whom were clients. In the early days, one conquest was the head of a major cultural institution on the East Coast. “The two of them would take weekend trips to New York to see plays, and they apparently had an extended affair,” says Bruegmann. “That [pattern] seems to have followed him throughout his career.”

Kitty coped mainly by trying to ignore it. “My mother was very tight lipped,” Shirley Weese Young says. “Very see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

Starting in the late 1940s, the Weeses had four daughters. The eldest, Sheila, was born with Down syndrome and institutionalized very early. The other three daughters were Shirley, Marcia, and Kate. Sheila was gradually written out of the family history in a way that seems harsh today but was not that unusual at the time. Harry had almost no contact with her, but Kitty made regular visits until Sheila’s death, in the late 1990s. “It was traumatic for Kitty,” says Ben.

The family lived in several different downtown apartments before settling for good in the late sixties in an Old Town row house designed by Weese. Far more important, however, was the family’s weekend residence in Barrington. Called the Weese Studio and constructed of cedar planks, it was one of Weese’s most eccentric houses. A two-story central space was flanked by asymmetrical wings that resembled giant cat ears and were connected by an interior suspension bridge.

“I favored a comfortable house: a large kitchen with a rocking chair, enclosed garage, storage space for everything,” Kitty wrote years later. “He saw a weekend playhouse, imaginative if not private, well-sited if not copious. We struggled through 30 rounds and, in the end . . . I gave in.”

Weese added numerous whimsical touches, including nautical-looking exterior stepladders leading to the upstairs bedrooms, so that the children could leave and enter at will, without tracking up the downstairs floor.

“The way we interacted as a family,” says Marcia, “was by traveling and by going out to Barrington on the weekends. It was ten acres of wooded hillside with a lake and a little sailboat. Dad would get his chain saw out and just sort of be in the country.”

As a father, Weese was “sparkly,” recalls Shirley, who today lives on the North Side with her husband, the gallery owner Donald Young, and is active in civic affairs. “It was a little hard not to be charmed by him,” she says. “He was maddening and uplifting and very funny. . . . He had a real buck-the-trend, in-your-face attitude about a lot of things. He liked to incite riots.”

Marcia describes him as “a benevolent king. Around the dinner table, it was always about architecture or art or culture. We rarely had discussions. It was more he held court and we were his captive audience.”

All three daughters stress his intense idealism. “He would talk about his dreams and schemes,” says Marcia. “He was such an optimist. He would tell us about how he was going to change the world one city at a time. . . . There was an almost childlike sense of anything is possible and I’m going to do it.”

In Barrington, “there were constant lunches and dinners,” says Shirley. “Very seldom was the house not full of people.”

“It was just kind of commonplace to have Charles and Ray Eames drop in for the weekend,” says Kate, who is now a painter in Berkeley, California.

One guest in the early sixties was Alvar Aalto, now hunched from age and arthritis and walking with a cane. “We sat down to this wonderful lunch—black bean soup with sherry that we ate with special Japanese spoons,” Marcia recalls. Afterward, “we walked him to his rental car, and he and my father embraced.” As he drove away, “I saw there were tears rolling down my father’s face,” she says.

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