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How Gunny Harboe is Restoring Frank Lloyd Wright’s Most Notable Works

Chicago sits down with the noted preservation architect to account for his recent work with Wright, Mies, and more.

Architect Gunny Harboe

Chicago named leading historic preservation architect Gunny Harboe a Chicagoan of the Year in 2010. Work was good then, and it’s good now—in the five years since Harboe earned that honor, he’s been mostly focusing on Frank Lloyd Wright restoration.

Involved in restoration of the city’s early skyscrapers (the Reliance and Marquette buildings, for instance), department stores (Marshall Fields and Carson, Pirie, Scott, and Co.), and a dozen or so Mies Van Der Rohe structures, Harboe made his name under McClier Corp. and architectural giant AECOM. In 2006, he made an amicable split from AECOM and was able to bring clients along to the new Harboe Architects. “We continued a big commission in D.C., restoring Holabird & Root’s Lafayette Building,” says Harboe. “The hardest thing for a small firm is getting the work, so this was key.”

Earlier work on The Rookery’s lobby and the Frank Lloyd Wright Room at the Met set up a career in preservation and a special aptitude for Wright renewal. Now Harboe is in the deep end with Wright on four major restorations: Unity Temple, Taliesin West, and the Emil Bach and Robie houses. Only the Emil Bach work is complete, thanks to a client with deep pockets. The others exist in the public or not-for-profit domain, reliant on foundational support and persistent fundraising.

I sat down with Harboe Monday to discuss his recent work and his need to restore.

What’s the root of your interest in preservation architecture?

I was a history major at Brown in the 1970s. Internships in Providence made the connection between history and material culture a focus for me, and buildings were the largest repository of that. My mother’s side goes back to the 17th century in Lancaster, PA, and I grew up with references to the French Huguenot experience and with furniture in our house from that era. This still resonates with me.

After college I went to the woods of Vermont to be a post-hippie carpenter for a couple of years. I decided I wanted to know more about old houses, so I went for a master’s degree in historic preservation at Columbia University. My best buddy from the program got a job rebuilding the Frank Lloyd Wright Room at The Met, and I joined in. That was really an epiphany for me, so I enrolled in MIT for my architecture master’s.

There wasn’t any work in Boston in the late eighties, during the last significant recession. Being from Northfield, I returned to the Chicago area and got a gig with McClier Corp., where I spent the next 18 years.

How does the preservation scene in Chicago measure up to that of Boston, Providence, or the East Coast generally?

Well, there’s a lot more competition back east. But we’re embarking on two restoration consultations for large estates in Westchester, both with ties to old New York money and one with 130 acres and 20 outbuildings. That one’s a public park called Merestead with a 28-room Georgian mansion. The other estate, Caramoor, hosts a 1930s mansion that’s an assemblage of imported rooms from 17th- and 18th-century Europe. The place is a museum of classical interiors, and hosts a Ravinia-like music and theater festival.

What’s the lion’s share of your work these days?

We just finished the Bach House. It came out great. A wonderful client and a great little house. They did what they set out to do, and the whole thing was done in two years. Also, we just completed 16 months of research and writing for the Taliesin West master restoration plan. In many ways, that plan was the most interesting and challenging thing I’ve done. Its (desert) setting is unique and it’s a campus not a lone building.

Is there a special kind of pressure that comes with working on these universally admired architectural works?

I’d say we put more pressure on ourselves than any outside forces put on us. I think we’re known for and stake our reputation on being real sticklers about doing it correctly, whether it’s Wright or Mies.

Speaking of Mies, what’s going on with the Farnsworth House? It’s having kind of a rough time in the flood plain.

I’m involved with that from a technical advisory standpoint. The National Trust for Historic Preservation is trying to figure out the best way to mitigate potential flood damage. It keeps flooding and certainly won’t get better on its own. There are two potential solutions. Either we put it on sophisticated hydraulic lifts that hide from plain view until floodwaters rise. Or, we move it to a different part of the site. A lot of us believe that, as quirky and complicated as the hydraulic solution sounds, it’s preferable because it leaves the house in its direct relationship to the river, which if you’ve seen it is quite mindboggling.

When did you start work on Unity Temple?

The restoration campaign began in 2000 after a set of cantilevered eaves failed. I got involved in 2003. The Unity Temple Restoration Foundation hired me to consult on the architectural aspect, which is really about getting everything to look correct. We were chosen to do the total restoration analysis and report.

Then they got this unbelievable grant from the Alphawood Foundation for $10 million that has to be matched. They’re making good progress on that, and just need a few more big donors to step up.

Unity Temple in Oak Park. Photo: Courtesy Unity Temple Restoration Foundation

What are the costliest components of the restoration?

Concrete remediation is a big part. And all the art glass is being removed and shipped to a conservator’s shop in California. All the surfaces inside are going to be redone because they’ve been painted and patched so many times in the last 100 years. The quality of this space is really determined by the surfaces you see. Textured plaster originally had delicate paint coats that were partially rubbed off to get the sand of the plaster finish reading through. It’s a very subtle visual texture that changes in different light. Well, that’s been lost for a long time, given coats of latex paint for at least 40 years now. After a ton of testing, we determined the latex layers can’t be fully removed. The leaky concrete roof also mandates that we remove the old plaster, re-pour concrete, and re-layer a thin veneer of plaster and paint to recreate the surfaces.

The original had subtle variations in surface texture, but our mockups ended up looking like a skin disease. It was a very hard discussion to conclude that an authentic replication was best. At the end of the day, it’s better than trying something in-between that won’t produce the desired effect.

I imagine there’s a lot of improvisation as you move through these lengthy projects.

I don’t want to call it improvisation, but there’s definitely trial and error and debate. We put the same amount of care and thought into our approach to each job, whether it’s a National Historic Landmark or an IIT substation. We worked on the Lake Forest train station, which was a slow project with a lot of passionate involvement from the community. We stayed patient and tried to treat it with a level of importance fitting the town’s reverence for the building.

A big part of what we do is ascertain the physical realities of a building. Preservation projects tend to be heavy on the pre-design phase, just so you have enough knowledge of the subject. It’s kind of like when you have an ailment you can’t identify and the doctor does a workup to figure out what’s wrong with you. Some clients aren’t envisioning that, they just think I’ve got this building that needs work—go fix it. So there has to be a period of understanding, of the nuances of the project and between client and architect. Every client is different. The government certainly understands studies and reports are what’s needed up front.

The completely restored Emil Bach House in Rogers Park. Photo: Ian Spula

How do you determine the merit of a project? You have to set the bar somewhere.

Pretty much anything goes if it’s historic by someone’s definition, or a landmark in someone’s locale. The client has to want to do right by the building. If the outcome is going to be good for the building, then we’re usually on board. If they’re interested in doing something that compromises the design integrity or proper use then we decline the job. You know that right away based on what they’re asking for. I got an email this morning from a guy in Wicker Park who wants to convert a two-flat back to a single-family. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but strict rehab and conversion is not what we do. It’s better to find the right fit for everyone.

What’s the latest with Robie House and Unity Temple, and when is work supposed to wrap?

Robie, like Unity, also received a significant grant years ago. They did a lot of work, including all the exterior and mechanical work, but had to pause for a new funding campaign. Recently, Robie was awarded one of the first rounds of Getty grant money. Those grants were planning grants for the creation of conservation management plans to preserve and protect the world’s most important works over the long haul. The intent is to look holistically at the site over time, which is different from a diagnosis of pressing restoration needs. The report we just finished for Taliesin West is quite similar.

Unity’s Getty Foundation grant is the first of its kind, part of the “Keeping it Modern Initiative.” It’s a $200,000 implementation grant for concrete work. It should go a long way in repairing the north façade, which gives you a sense for the overall scope of the project.

As for project timelines, early 2017 completion is a reasonable guess for Robie assuming the necessary money is rounded up. Unity is much more set. They’re supposed to be done by late fall 2016.

What’s next for Harboe Architects?

We’re working on a Mies bank building in Iowa owned by the Diocese of Des Moines. I also have smaller things going at a Gothic Revival church on Dearborn and at The Powhatan in Hyde Park, restoring stairs and elevator cabs. And we have those two Westchester projects.

Is there anything you’re dying to take on, where the opportunity has yet to present itself?

We just want to continue to work on these great buildings. There’s a gravitas to restoring buildings of central importance to the city’s past, but we also look out for the little guy. Our heritage is important, understanding who we are. It helps put us as people in the context of our society. I think it really does matter. Not everybody cares, but a lot of people do. The cultural tourism curve is huge, and that will only continue to grow. There’s really no better place than Chicago to do what we do in architecture.

Unity Temple interior. Photo: Courtesy Unity Temple Restoration Foundation


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