OPRF Tradition of Excellence Award recipient Alvin Holm started his career as a modernist but shift his focus to more traditional styles of American architecture in the 1970s. | Photo provided

For most of his professional career, Alvin Holm has worked as an architect in Philadelphia, but he says, “I’ve never really left Oak Park.” As a 1954 graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School, he grew up in the village and believes his formative years in Oak Park set him on the path to becoming an architect.

A few weeks ago, OPRF invited Holm back to bestow him with a Tradition of Excellence Award, an annual award recognizing OPRF alumni who have made outstanding contributions to society through their personal and professional pursuits.

Holm grew up on the 900 block of North Kenilworth Avenue and notes that although Wright’s Home and Studio and Ernest Hemingway’s homes were not museums at the time, everyone in the community was familiar with the two famous villagers.

 “Everybody in Oak Park knew about Frank Lloyd Wright and his infamous dalliance,” Holm said. “I grew up five blocks from his Home and Studio and down the street from Hemingway’s boyhood home. ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ came out in 1954, the year I graduated from Oak Park High; we were very excited about it.”

Holm picked up drawing at a young age from his artistic older sister and says that the two of them were influenced by the historical buildings in Oak Park and by the wealth of cultural opportunities in Chicago. 

Locally, he says that Unity Temple was a major influence on his appreciation of Wright’s work. Playing tennis at the Wright-designed River Forest Tennis Club cemented the famous architect’s designs in Holm’s architectural lexicon.

The Thorne Miniature rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago were a favorite weekend stop. Holm recalls standing on the top step to get a better view into the rooms, with his sister standing behind him. The family also visited the Field Museum, and Holm says that from a young age he loved the old buildings, even though they were not considered historic at the time.

He remarks that a family connection to the 1893 World’s Fair created an early interest in architecture. 

“My grandfather came over from Norway to erect the Norwegian monument at the fair,” he said.

In high school, Holm didn’t have a plan to become an architect, but he says many of his lessons from high school have stayed with him. 

“My four years of Latin stayed with me the rest of my life,” Holm said. “It’s a part of the continuity of culture that informs my work.”

While at OPRF, he also edited the Crest literary magazine, and developed a lifelong love of the work of Edgar Allen Poe. As a junior in high school, he made an unplanned stop in Philadelphia during a train trip to New York to see the Edgar Allen Poe House because he was such a fan of the writer’s work.

Choosing a path

Holm attended Yale University after graduating from high school and at first, thought he might become a doctor or lawyer. Instead, his studies led him to architecture.

 “I studied under Vincent Scully, and I was so sucked in my freshman year,” Holm said. “I followed him for four years and met Louis Kahn through him.”

 Holm studied under Kahn at Yale after graduating in 1958, and when Kahn moved to the University of Pennsylvania, Holm followed along. He earned his master’s degree from there and ended up staying in Philadelphia.

“I worked half time while getting my master’s at architectural firms in Philadelphia,” Holm said. “Architectural projects usually take two to five years, and there was never a convenient time to leave Philadelphia.”

Like many architects working in the post-World War II era, Holm originally worked in a modernist fashion that had spread from Germany to America. At that time, he said, that there was a decided shift away from classical work and towards modernist.

In 1976, with the nation celebrating its bicentennial, Holm says that there was widespread interest in examining the history of the country, including its architectural traditions.

“I was long out of school and at that point, re-evaluated the history of architecture,” Holm said. “I was impressed with the continuity of the American culture. In 1976, I went out on my own. I was a card-carrying modernist before that and had a really big shift at that point.”

He now counts himself among a contingent of American architects working to restore the American classical tradition. Since 1976, he has focused his work on restoration and historical architecture. Today, he continues to work and teach on the East Coast, and has been a recipient of numerous awards for his work in architecture and historic preservation.

In a tie-in with his high school love of Edgar Allen Poe, when the poet’s house was given to the National Park Service, Holm thinks his lifelong love of the poet helped him win a commission to work on a historic renovation of the home. 

He became the founder of the Friends of the Edgar Allen Poe House and says that serving on the board of the group was a great pleasure that brought his life full circle. 

“I take my early interest in Poe back to my early enthusiasm for the poetry I learned in high school,” Holm said. “So much of me is really indebted to what I learned at Oak Park High.”

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