Chicago’s skyscraper modernism—the Hancock, Marina City, Sears/Willis—is the city’s treasured calling card. What’s less known and much less appreciated is our area’s parallel cache of modernist residential architecture. Modern in the Middle, a new book by historian and preservationist Susan S. Benjamin and IIT professor Michelangelo Sabatino, sets out to fix that.
Published this month by the Monacelli Press, it offers a portfolio of 53 modern houses built in the city and suburbs between 1929 and 1975, along with the story behind each house, more than 300 stunning period photos (many of them from the Chicago History Museum’s Hedrich-Blessing archive), and essays by the authors that provide broader context.
Modern in the Middle originated with Benjamin, the co-author of two previous books on Chicago architecture and the researcher-writer responsible for numerous national and local landmark nominations. She says she’s been thinking about writing it since she worked on an exhibition on the same subject in 1976. Co-author Sabatino is an architect, preservationist, and historian.
The word “middle” in the book’s title, with its potentially sleepy connotations, was a deliberate choice according to the authors, locating this architecture smack in the middle of the century, middle of the country, and middle class.
At a time when great urban centers were considered the hubs for everything serious and sophisticated, “What we tried to show is that these clients were perfectly fine with living in the suburbs,” Sabatino said in a phone interview last week. “And that, even for those who could afford more, there was a sense of being frugal, but elegant.”
“We’re not talking lifestyles of the rich and famous here,” he said. “This is cosmopolitan informality.”
The title also points to a middle ground between the opposing philosophies of the two towering figures of Chicago modernism, Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic approach to design and Mies van der Rohe’s more abstract focus on structure. The authors say that despite their differences, the two shared an appreciation of nature: while Wright used natural materials and designed buildings that melded into the landscape, it’s Mies’s massive expanses of glass that bring the outside in.
“If you lie down on the bed in the Farnsworth House,” Sabatino told me, “the architecture disappears, and you’re basically in nature.”
Many of these houses will be a revelation. While a few, like Farnsworth and the Mies house that’s now a part of the Elmhurst Art Museum, are open to the public, and a number of others are familiar—the glass box garage from the John Hughes film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Adlai Stevenson’s country house—most are functioning private homes scattered anonymously through suburbs from Flossmoor to Waukegan, and even further afield.
A smaller number are in the city, where vacant land was sparse, but they include the only house in the book by a Black architect—the compact Miesian home John W. Moutoussamy (who studied with Mies at IIT) designed for his own family in the Chatham neighborhood, before he went on to bigger projects, including the Johnson Publications Company headquarters.
There is also only one house by a woman architect in the book—Jean Wiersema Wehrheim—another reflection of the fact that the profession was, for so long, notoriously short of opportunity for anyone but white men, Benjamin told me. On a more positive note, while the houses those white male architects built have traditionally been identified by the names of their male owners, every home in this book that was commissioned by a couple is labeled with the names of both partners.
Modern in the Middle ends in 1975, when high modernism began to wane and people were moving from the suburbs back into the city. Now, both authors think that trend may be reversing. “Even when this pandemic disappears, people have learned that they can actually work from home,” Sabatino says. “I’m imagining that there’s going to be increased interest in having access to nature and in this kind of elegant but informal space.”
That could help preserve Chicago’s stock of these midcentury modern residences. It’s the authors’ hope that this book will, too. The front cover bears an interior photo of the long, low, flat-roofed, open-plan Highland Park home designed by Keck & Keck for Maxine Weil and Sigmund Kunstadter and built in 1952. It was demolished and replaced with a larger house in 2003—a fate too many midcentury modern homes met when the land they stood on became more valuable to the marketplace than the house itself. “We really hope this book serves as a catalyst,” Sabatino says. “We hope the positive examples of preservation will encourage folks that might want to take a project like this on.”
The book closes with a glimpse at the authors’ own homes—suburban houses in the modernist mode, built in 1939 and 1941. It’s an impressive scholarly work, but also, clearly, a labor of love. v