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
Two years before her father, the visionary architect Harry Weese, died in 1998, Marcia Weese made a last lonely trip to visit him. After a spectacular alcohol-fueled crackup in the 1980s, Harry Weese had been committed to a dreary downstate veterans’ hospital, where he spent his final years drifting in and out of consciousness. “It was fall,” Marcia recalls, “and I found this gigantic sycamore leaf—probably 15 inches across. My dad loved trees, so I brought it down with me.” Her father by then had become a spectral figure, confined to bed and increasingly unresponsive after a series of strokes. “I know he recognized me,” she says, “but he didn’t—probably couldn’t—speak. So I laid the leaf on his chest.”
It was an oddly peaceful ending to a relationship that had both nurtured and wounded her over the years. No encounter with Harry Weese was without drama, and the closer you were to the bonfire of his outsize personality, the more likely you were to be singed.
Throughout his long life, Weese’s obsession never varied. As his wife, Kitty, recalled, “It was architecture all the way.” He often seemed close to flying off the tracks, both emotionally and intellectually, and eventually he did. But before that happened, Harry Weese had one of the wildest rides in the history of Chicago architecture. Over the course of his career, he designed almost a thousand buildings. These range from single-family houses, churches, schools, and small-town community buildings to Washington, D.C.’s enormous—and mind-boggling—Metro public transportation system, which opened in 1976. In his obituary of Weese, the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp ranked the Metro as “among the greatest public works projects of [the 20th] century.” The vaulted spaces where stations intersect, Muschamp wrote, “induce an almost religious sense of awe.”
In Chicago, Weese’s many commissions include the Time & Life Building, the Latin School, and the Metropolitan Correctional Center, as well as such groundbreaking restoration projects as the Auditorium Theatre, the Field Museum, and Orchestra Hall.
At his peak in the 1960s and 1970s, Weese represented Chicago’s most sustained and successful alternative to what was then the overwhelming dominance of Mies van der Rohe and the International style. “When I joined Harry’s office [in 1961], it was like giving up the Church of England and becoming a Christian Scientist,” says Jack Hartray, who had previously worked as a designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, then and now the foremost proponent of Miesian modernism in the city. “Harry was a [modernist] architect who was doing very interesting buildings, but they weren’t like anyone else’s.”
Beyond specific buildings, Weese wielded influence with visionary planning schemes for transforming downtown Chicago. These ultimately included the creation of Printers Row, the city’s first loft district, as well as the redevelopment of the downtown riverfront as a residential and recreational area. “He talked more about the physical fabric of Chicago and what had to be done with it than any other architect of the period by a huge margin,” says the architectural historian Robert Bruegmann. “And this was during the very worst years—the late sixties through the early eighties—when it looked like central Chicago could go under the same way Detroit and St. Louis did. One of the reasons that didn’t happen is Harry Weese.”
Bruegmann is the author of The Architecture of Harry Weese, a new critical study that Norton will publish in September. The book is the first about a man who once commanded international attention but is now rarely mentioned. Part of this, of course, relates to the eternal tides of taste and fashion. The postwar generation of architects, of which Weese was a leading member, went severely out of style in the eighties and nineties.
But part also relates to the King Lear–like grandeur of Weese’s fall. Over the last stormy decade of his life, he went from a man at the pinnacle of his profession to a raging, disheveled figure who could often be found wandering the city’s streets. “It’s something you say wasn’t a part of Harry Weese,” says Ben Weese, an architect and Harry’s adored younger brother. “You have to separate yourself from it.”
“I don’t think he ever wanted to quit drinking,” says Shirley Weese Young, his second-oldest daughter. “He liked being badly behaved. He was a rebel.”
"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.
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.”
* * *
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.”
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.”
* * *
“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.
The commissions kept coming—more houses, more churches, more schools and dorms, an addition to the Newberry Library, an office building for IBM, and a collaboration with the landscape architect Dan Kiley on the Art Institute’s South Garden. “He was the enfant terrible—the architect who’s always in the news doing clever buildings,” says the architect John Vinci.
“He got a lot of work,” says Ben Weese. “But we were not internally organized at all. The firm never had any structure. He thought he could control everything.”
Weese basically had two modes of design—full immersion and limited collaboration—and he never stopped sketching. “When he was doing a house,” recalls Jack Hartray, “he would fly out, have dinner with the client, and then, on the way back, start sketching on the plane.” Hartray remembers that on more than one occasion Weese handed him an airsickness bag covered with scribbles. “Everything would be there,” Hartray says, “the site plan, the wall section, the plan elevation, details of the cabinetwork. We would take the bag and turn it into 20 sheets of working drawings.”
The office was chaotic, with people continually coming and going and a hierarchy that began and ended with Weese. “Those of us who were more successful with him,” says Doug Tilden, who worked at the firm in the sixties and seventies, “were the ones who could read his sketches and translate them into something where—when he came by your drawing table the next day—he’d say, ‘You’re pretty close.’ ”
As a boss, Weese was laissez faire at best. “He didn’t like to fire anybody,” recalls Hartray. “We had an interior designer on staff that he [tried to fire] three or four times, but she just never left.”
Even as Weese’s business thrived, however, drinking was starting to be an issue. “He told me once that he started drinking because it loosened him up and made him more relaxed when he was around important people,” says Shirley.
Well, maybe. But lack of bravado does not really seem to have been Weese’s problem. More likely is Hartray’s explanation: For men of Harry’s generation, “it was part of their working system. That’s the way they lived.”
The normal pattern was to adjourn to lunch at Riccardo’s—a leading hangout for artists and writers—imbibe three or four martinis, and wander back to the office. “Harry had many of his [best] ideas on the way back from Riccardo’s,” says Hartray.
No one was exactly in the dark about the situation. “I knew my father was an alcoholic when I came home from college in 1968,” says Shirley.
In the mid-1960s, the federal government decided to move ahead on a project for the nation’s capital that had been percolating since the New Deal—a state-of-the-art subway system to rival those in Paris, London, and Moscow. The dimensions were Burnhamesque, to say the least: 100 miles of track punctuated by 86 stations, many of them underground. Seventeen architects submitted proposals. The commission went to Weese.
He spent more than a year researching the project without ever touching pen to paper, traveling around the world to inspect various systems. Finally, the time came to present his ideas. “We had our first presentation on July 6, 1966,” says Stan Allen, a Skidmore alumnus who joined Weese’s firm in 1964 and became the point person for the Metro. “The weekend before that, Harry and I were out in Barrington. He sat there for three days drawing nonstop—the vaults, the signage, the station design, the plan. There were 19 drawings in all, done in Magic Marker and ink. Not a single drawing went on the floor. He drew it and it was finished.”
The highlight was a series of jaw-dropping subterranean stations with soaring vaulted ceilings molded from cast-in-place concrete. Some saw Piranesi, others Brunelleschi, still others L’Enfant, Daniel Burnham, and even the director Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis. In other words, the Metro was an enormous, game-changing hit. “If you were going to do one job in your life, that would be the job to do,” says Hartray. “It changed an entire city for the better.”
Everything got bigger after the Metro—the projects, the budgets, the egos. By the time the first phase of the system opened in 1976, Weese’s firm was one of the largest in Chicago, with about 250 associates. There would eventually be additional offices in Washington, D.C., Miami, and Los Angeles.
Weese was increasingly preoccupied with a series of visionary schemes for downtown Chicago. “I’m a man ten years ahead of a time that never comes,” he noted wryly.
In 1968, Esquire published a feature article on the problems of half a dozen American cities and invited Weese to outline his ideas for improving Chicago. Among other things, he suggested raising Lake Shore Drive seven feet, to the level of Buckingham Fountain, and creating a new waterfront commercial district underneath the resulting viaducts. More ideas would follow: building a third airport three miles offshore on an island in Lake Michigan; glassing over Wabash Avenue for a retail arcade; creating a world’s fair to rival Burnham’s 1893 Columbian Exposition.
“He used to send Mayor Daley a sketch of something Chicago should be doing every two weeks or so,” says Hartray.
Weese also moved into the forefront of the preservation movement through a number of groundbreaking restoration projects and a campaign to save the Loop’s elevated train system. In the 1970s, the el was widely regarded as an outmoded Victorian monstrosity, and there was talk of replacing it with a subway line running under Franklin Street. Weese’s response was unequivocal: The el was Chicago’s Eiffel Tower. Replacing it was unthinkable.
Weese also decided to become a developer—disastrously, in terms of his family’s finances. “He was a terrible businessman,” says Robert Bruegmann. “He was hugely risk prone. There was a gambling mentality there. In much of what he did—especially in his own real-estate deals—[his actions] more than bordered on the reckless.”
“He wanted to turn every project into a demonstration,” says Ben Weese. “He wasted more money than you can believe.”
Still, Weese’s approach ultimately had a profound impact on Chicago. In the 1970s, for example, Printers Row was a bleak landscape of crumbling industrial buildings when he decided to turn it into a Chicago version of New York’s SoHo. Over time, he renovated a number of the buildings and also persuaded the city to upgrade the neighborhood’s amenities. The project was the first step in the revitalization of the Near South Side.
Early on, he also saw the downtown riverfront as an underused asset. In 1976, he acquired a sizable tract of land on the west bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River, across from the Apparel Center, and announced plans for Wolf Point Landings: an elaborate residential development consisting of nearly 1,000 new apartments and townhouses, plus an expansive marina. Though the area has rapidly grown in the past decade, Weese’s project ultimately stalled. In the end, the only parts that came to fruition were the conversion of an old cold-storage warehouse into condominiums and the construction of four exquisite row houses—each with its own boat dock—that seem to cascade down the riverbank to the water line just south of Kinzie Street.
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.”
“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.”