The research that you do, compiling historical photographs and original drawings, seems like a lot of work but also a lot of fun.
Learning about the building, in many ways, is the most fun part. It’s also where you begin to pose all the questions about what should happen. What is its condition? What is its history? What is its story? What does it want to be?
Were you always interested in older buildings?
Well, I guess I should give you the two-minute Gunny Harboe story.
Including where the name Gunny comes from.
Gunny comes from my older brother—my father was Danish. He passed away last fall at 95 and a day, and he died a Danish citizen. He’d lived here since 1948 but never became an American—that’s how Danish he was. My mother was American as apple pie, with very deep roots going back to late 17th- and early 18th-century Pennsylvania and Virginia. And those two things actually had a very powerful influence on me, even though I wasn’t overtly conscious of it growing up. We had a lot of stuff in the house: artifacts and furniture and stories. My maternal grandmother was very interested in genealogy and family history, and my father was very proud of his Danish heritage, so there was an awareness about who I was, related to the past.
Then I got to college and studied history. I didn’t know what to do when I graduated, so I went off to become a carpenter in Vermont, building post-and-beam houses for $3.50 an hour. I did that for about two years and decided that I didn’t want to wake up when I was 40 years old and be breathing sawdust all the time. So, I applied to Columbia [University] and got into their preservation program. My best friend from that program, Vince Lepre, had gotten a job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and when I was done with school, they happened to need another guy to help build the Frank Lloyd Wright Room. And that changed my life for many reasons. It made me want to become an architect, and I ended up going to MIT, where I received my MArch degree. After that, I came back to [Chicago] and got a job at McClier. Six months into that job, the Rookery project came into the office.
Were you aware of the Rookery Building before that?
When I was in architecture school, I tried to go see the building while home on break, but it was closed down. Continental Bank had bought it, and they were going to renovate it, but they went bankrupt. I remember sticking my nose against the windows, trying to see what the light court looked like because I’d read about it.
You restored the building to what it had been like in 1910?
Yes, although I really don’t like the limitations that are set by picking a specific date because the building never lived like that. Yeah, there was a brief moment in time—January 31, 1910, or whatever date you choose—but the next day, something else happened. The “period of significance” for the Rookery was chosen because it allowed the Burnham and Root spaces and the Frank Lloyd Wright alterations to coexist.
We’re working on Taliesin West right now, and that one is extremely complicated. Frank Lloyd Wright lived there, worked there, and taught there. It was his living, working laboratory, and every winter when he would return from Wisconsin, he would change things. The story goes that he would point with his cane and say, “Boys, I need a window over here!” He moved stuff around all the time. So, what date do you restore it to?
You also restored Crown Hall, which was designed by Mies van der Rhoe as the home of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture. What was the state of the building when you began work there?
This was Mies’s first true expression of what he called “universal space.” The concept is that you have this big open space that’s incredibly flexible. Sort of like a one-room schoolhouse of steel and glass. There’s a famous story about how shortly after the building was completed, they had Duke Ellington play here. They built a big platform, and they were up on that and played all night. They had this big, wild party.
Mies was very interested in the beauty of a simple detail. Whether or not he actually ever said it, everyone always credits him with saying, “Less is more.” But, when you’re interested in reducing things down to an absolute minimum of what it can be, until it’s almost nothing, sometimes you end up with a physical reality that isn’t enough. So, “Less isn’t always enough” is my joking retort.
By the time we were brought on, along with Krueck and Sexton, a lot of the glass was breaking because of the corrosion. When steel rusts, it expands to roughly nine times its dimensions, so it doesn’t take much rust to create an incredible pressure and crack the glass. That wasn’t happening everywhere, but it was occurring in a lot of places and was only getting worse.
How does preservation differ when you’re talking about terra cotta and brick versus steel and glass?
I don’t think it does differ. For us, whether it’s a 150-year-old building or a 50-year-old building, we approach it the same way. We want to understand the building, we want to know why it is the way it is, and we want to know what’s wrong with it. Many feel there is more leeway with a more recent building, but I don’t think that there is. I think the same basic principles hold true.
Why do you think we’re drawn to older buildings?
When we’re talking about existing architecture, you bring some things to that architecture, and it brings things to you. And what it brings to you is something of the past. It could be a building that’s 50 years old, or it could be a building that’s 500 years old. When you go to the Pantheon in Rome, you’re walking into a space that people have been walking into for almost 2,000 years. It is a shared experience with people long gone and those who are right next to you. When you walk into Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple, you’re walking into a building that’s basically been that way for over 100 years. When you go in there, you can’t help but be moved by the space.
Coming back to the name Gunny …
Oh, how we digress. So, my father was Danish, and the common family middle name was Gunnersen. My older brother’s name is Hans Henry Gunnersen Harboe, and when he was three, my mother was pregnant with me, and he started referring to the bump as “Gunnery,” which came from Gunnersen and Henry. And it stuck, basically—it just got shortened to Gunny.