More to Chicago architecture than Wright and Mies

Riverside professor teams up on book spotlighting residential modernism in the city and suburbs

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Michelangelo Sabatino may live in Riverside, but his path to the Midwest took a circuitous route. A professor and director of the Ph.D. Program in Architecture and the inaugural John Vinci Distinguished Fellow in the College of Architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology counts other countries and cities among his many influences.  

Sabatino moved to Chicago in 2014, a city that he playfully refers to having been built by Mies - in reference to iconic architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. He later studied architecture in Italy and at Yale and Harvard and then settled for a time in Houston before putting down roots in the Chicago area.

For Sabatino, it has been thrilling to be in Chicago, a city with such an extensive architectural history. He enjoys the robust interest in architecture in the city and the suburbs.

"The general public has been trained to be aware of architecture, because there are so many good examples," Sabatino said.

Inspired by the modernist architecture of the area, Sabatino partnered with historic preservationist Susan S. Benjamin to pen "Modern in the Middle: Chicago Houses 1929-1975." The book looks at modernism through the lens of Chicago and suburban architecture. 

From his vantage point at the IIT campus, which was designed by Mies van der Rohe, Sabatino says we live in a city dominated by the narrative of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. 

In considering the influence of both of those masters on modernist architecture, Sabatino says the relationship of Wright and Mies van der Rohe is an interesting study. 

The simplistic take on their relationship is that Wright introduced Mies van der Rohe to the scene, and that as the younger architect started garnering more and more attention in the 1950s, Wright soured on him. According to Sabatino, there's more to it than that, and the two shared more than some may think.

The book includes Mies van der Rohe's Edith Farnsworth House in Plano. Sabatino points out that the glass and steel masterpiece with a flat roof differs from much of Wright's work, which often emphasized natural materials and pitched roofs. 

But, he says there is some commonality at work between the two architects, including the significance of bringing in the natural world. He also points out that "the fireplace is the central part of the home. The two architects were different generations, but still sharing a lot of common interests."

Both architects struggled to adapt organic and rationalist architecture to their clients' needs. In fact, many modernist architects of this era were having to tack to the middle rather than extremes, says Sabatino.

The use of the word middle in the book's title has many interpretations. Sabatino says it could be seen as a play on the Midwest as a geographical area with its own architectural identity. 

He also says it captures the essence of the Midwest, noting that there can be a snobbery that nothing of culture exists outside the coasts or the big cities, but the homes in his book prove that to be a misconception. 

"A lot of these towns outside of Chicago became the places where a lot of experimentation was going on," Sabatino said.

He says the middle also refers to many of the clients these homes were originally designed for.

"Most of these clients were middle-class professionals," he said. "These homes were sophisticated but not ostentatious."

The homes featured in the book continue to resonate today, according to Sabatino. For instance, the Dorothy Miller and Paul Schweikher House in Schaumburg was designed by Schweikher as his own home and the base of his architecture practice. 

"Years after Wright's Home and Studio, the idea of a home and studio goes with the whole live/work idea," Sabatino said. "Paradoxically, this is on everyone's mind yet again."

Similarly, the Lucile Gottschalk and Aaron Heimbach House in Blue Island was designed by architect Bertrand Goldberg to serve as the family's residence and the offices for Heimbach, a physician. When it was designed in 1939, few architects were being asked to design mixed-used live/work buildings, but today those spaces are once again in demand.

Sabatino also highlights the Riverside design of IIT architect John Vinci in collaboration with Lawrence Kenny -- the Ruth Nelson and Robert J. Freeark House. Sabatino says that Vinci, is both a preservationist and a modernist. 

"He designed a house that wasn't a copycat modern," Sabatino said. "He's someone who goes between preserving Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and also creates modern buildings." 

That dialogue between the giants of architects of the past and the more contemporary is what Sabatino says make Chicago and its surrounding suburbs the perfect subject of the book. It also made Benjamin the perfect co-author. She brought to the project a lifetime of experience in preservation, which paired well with his own interest in modernism.

At home, Sabatino practices what he preaches. When he and his partner Serge Ambrose moved to the Chicago area about six years ago, Sabatino said that they were blown away when they visited the village of Riverside.

"The idea of living in a town that was designed as a park? This house was on the market, and it was kind of perfect in its need of tender loving care," he said.

He calls the home, the Sylvia Valha and Francis J. Benda House, the perfect place where he could join forces with his architect partner. 

Designed by architect Winston Elting in 1939, the home's flat roof and load-bearing brick perimeter wall marries the modern and traditional Chicago style. Sabatino calls himself and Ambrose "self-taught" preservationists, who are enjoying the process of breathing new life into their own modern-in-the-middle house.

On Oct. 15, the Mies van der Rohe Society will host a virtual launch party for the book, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. The book presentation will be followed by a panel discussion moderated by Reed Kroloff, dean of the College of Architecture at IIT. 

Special guests include Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Margaret McCurry, who grew up in houses designed by their fathers, both IIT architecture graduates.  

Information and registration are available at miessociety.org/events/mies-society-book-launch.

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