Who was Barry Byrne?

Vince Michael returns to OP to promote his book on a Prairie church architect

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By Lacey Sikora

For over 15 years, local architectural historian Vince Michael worked on his opus on the architecture of Barry Byrne. Once an employee of Frank Lloyd Wright and a construction engineer on Unity Temple, he went on to a long-lived career in modern architecture, inspiring Michael's book, The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe. The book features photography by Felicity Rich, Michael's wife and Byrne's granddaughter.

Michael, who is the John H. Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and executive director of the Global Heritage Fund, called Oak Park home for many years and looks forward to returning on Sept. 17 to introduce his book at an event at Oak Park's Unity Temple.

Diehard modernist

Barry Byrne did not have a grade school diploma. But he studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, working at his studio from 1902 until 1908. He went on to become what Michael calls a "diehard modernist," focusing on Catholic churches and buildings around this country, in Canada and Europe. Byrne lived briefly in Seattle, California and New York City, but spent the majority of his life in the Chicago area.

According to Michael, "Byrne has the distinction of being the only Prairie School architect to build in Ireland." He first saw Byrne's 1931 Church of Christ the King in Cork, Ireland in 1997 and views it as the culmination of Byrne's work, choosing to highlight it on the cover of his book with a photograph taken by his wife in 1998.

Byrne designed St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Hyde Park in 1922, and Michael tells a story to show how avant-garde Byrne was considered at the time. "After seeing the church and its modern design, then-Cardinal Mundelein said Byrne could not work in the diocese again. I couldn't verify whether or not the story is true, but it is true that Byrne did not design another church in the Chicago area until Cardinal Stritch came to town."

While Byrne is primarily known for his church designs, Michael believes his other designs are equally important.

"I argue that his multi-functional buildings, such as schools and seminaries are very significant," Michael says. "A lot of these buildings include multiple areas, such as living quarters, gyms, eating areas, and chapels. What Byrne got from Wright is the importance of planning. When you have to plan a place with almost every type of human use, it takes a lot of planning."

Michael notes that Byrne is one of the few architects to have had a career that spanned almost an entire century. "He lived to be 84. When he started out, his style was inspired by Wright and was influenced by the Prairie style, but by the 1950s, he was designing much more in a mid-century style, using steel and other contemporary elements. It's interesting to see someone carry on as a committed modernist."

Family connection

In spite of his obvious connection, Michael says his interest in Byrne began before he met and married Byrne's granddaughter, Felicity Rich. Michael was first exposed to Byrne's work when he lived in Hyde Park while attending the University of Chicago, where he obtained his bachelor's and master's degrees, and frequently walked past St. Thomas the Apostle Church.

Later, he encountered Byrne again while working in historic preservation.

"During the 1980s," he recalls, "I was working for the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. Byrne's Kenna Apartments in Hyde Park were coming up for Landmark status, so he was definitely an architect I was aware of. When I met my wife at a bar and told her I studied architecture, she told me her grandfather was an architect I'd probably never heard of. Low and behold I had, so my interest in Byrne preceded meeting her."

Michael went on to research Byrne's long career at the Chicago History Museum and he and Rich, now his wife of more than 20 years, traveled the world visiting Byrne's buildings, with Rich taking photos for the book. Other family members also contributed photos from their trips to Byrne's buildings, and Rich's family also provided archival photos for the book.

Unity Temple event

On Sept. 17, the Society of Architectural Historians will host Michael at 6 p.m. at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St. in Oak Park. Michael plans to discuss his book, giving an overview of Byrne's career and relating some of his designs to Unity Temple.

"I will talk about how his work as an engineer in the construction of Unity Temple led to his designs of Catholic churches," Michael said. "The church in Ireland is a concrete church like Unity Temple. On the outside, it looks like it doesn't have any windows, and on the inside, it looks like it doesn't have any walls. There are a lot of similarities there."

Michael also plans to discuss parts of the book focused on what he calls "divine discontent."

"It's the idea that Byrne, watching Frank Lloyd Wright design, watching him solve a problem in a way you couldn't imagine, it's almost like watching an angel come up with a divine solution."

Admission for the event is $15 for adults and $5 for students with a valid ID and includes a reception. Reservations are requested and can be made by e-mailing wlocke@ameritech.net.

Later in the week, on Sept. 18, Michael will discuss his book on WTTW's Chicago Tonight. On Sept. 19, he'll present a discussion about the book at the Chicago Cultural Center, and on Sept. 21, he'll lead a Chicago Architecture Foundation bus tour to Hyde Park to St. Thomas the Apostle, highlighting the work of Byrne and his contemporaries.

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