When the Chicago Magazine shared Robert Sharoff’s piece on the late Harry Weese with us, it piqued our interest and we began to took a closer look at the life and work of this talented architect. As Sharoff notes, at Weese’s prime, he was the leading architect of Chicago – a man focused on historic preservation and focused on manifesting Miesian principles in a new light. Sharoff’s and our deeper look into Weese’s work is an attempt to infuse the architect’s reputation with positivity, not letting his architectural achievements become clouded by his later struggle with alcohol. More about Weese’s life and projects after the break.
As Sharoff reported, “ Throughout his long life, Weese’s obsession never varied. As his wife, Kitty, recalled, ‘It was architecture all the way.’ ” An extremely learned man with a fruitful career, Weese studied under the likes of Alvar Aalto at MIT and was influenced Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen while attending Cranbrook Academy of Art. After working in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Weese reopened his own practice in 1947.
Over the course of his career, which spanned from the 1940’s-1980’s, Weese designed nearly 1,000 buildings. Locally, Weese’s commissions for Chicago include his Time and Life Building (a 30 story Cor-Ten clad skyscraper that changes with age), the Metropolitan Corrections Center (a federal remand center with a triangular footprint and exercise roof for the inmates), and the supervision of the restoration of the Field Museum of Natural History and Orchestra Hall. Weese’s most notable Chicago project is the renovation of the Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium Theater in Chicago in 1967. Weese transformed the performance hall back to its original splendor by replacing all the ornament/stencil work, cleaning the murals and the glass…for no cost.
Weese’s most popular work, however, does not occupy Chicago soil, but rather Washington D.C.. It is in our capitol where his 100 mile long Metro system is still highly considered one of the “greatest public works of this century,” according to Herbert Muschamp of the New York Times, decades after it was conceived. “With their soaring vaults of coffered concrete, unencumbered by columns, these stations recall the visionary designs of Piranesi,” Muschamp added.
As a powerful post-war visionary, Weese’s talent could be applied to small and large scale projects anywhere from dense urban contexts to open suburban environments. Those who are not familiar with his work may find it surprising that the architect had his hand in such a multitude of projects (Weese was even on the jury for Vietnam Veterans Memorial and selected Maya Lin’s work). His contributions to the city, public life and architecture should not go unnoticed.
Sharroff notes that, “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 , 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 architect who was doing very interesting buildings, but they weren’t like anyone else’s.’ “