Dialogues: Dan Wheeler

October 4, 2023

On February 11, 2023, Iker Gil interviewed architect Dan Wheeler to record his oral history. The interview took place at Wheeler’s house in Chicago, Illinois. During the conversation, Dan Wheeler discussed his upbringing, his education, his ongoing remarkable career, key projects of Wheeler Kearns Architects, and teaching.


Architect Dan Wheeler is a founding principal of Wheeler Kearns Architects and a Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Since 2002, he also has been a consulting architect and educator for the Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama. Dan received his education at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), including two years of study in Rome. After becoming an associate and studio head at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in Chicago, where he worked between 1981 and 1987, he established his own practice. The work of Wheeler Kearns Architects spans project typologies, including private residences, multifamily housing, academic institutions, and nonprofit organizations. In each of them, one can find a unique level of attention, curiosity, optimism, and respect. As a testament to the quality of Wheeler Kearns Architects, the self-defined “collective practice of architects” has received two Chicago Chapter AIA Firm Awards—1996 and 2016—for overall significance and legacy of the practice. Dan’s contributions to the Chicago architectural community go beyond the boundaries of his firm and include serving as Interim Director for both the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the UIC School of Architecture. He also writes, lectures, and mentors a new generation of architects. Dan is the recipient of multiple awards, including a NEA Traveling Fellowship in 1979, the Chicago Chapter AIA Young Architect Award in 1984, the AIA Fellowship in 1998, the Chicago Tribune’s “Chicagoan of the Year” in Architecture, along with Lawrence Kearns, in 2008, and the AIA Illinois Nathan Ricker Clifford Award for Architectural Education in 2017. In a career that spans more than forty years, Dan works to educate colleagues, clients, students, and himself about the never-ending potential for architecture to elevate everyday experience.

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Dan Wheeler drawing at SESC Pompéia, São Paulo. © Dan Wheeler.

IG: Let’s start from the beginning. When and where were you born?

DW: I was born in Norwalk, Connecticut, on June 24, 1957. My parents were living in Westport, Connecticut.

IG: What did your parents do?

DW: My father, Ray Wheeler, was an industrial designer, and he first worked for Peter Muller-Munk in Pittsburgh, then went to New York City, before becoming an industrial designer for IBM. Our family moved to Rochester, Minnesota, where he worked out of the Eero Saarinen-designed plant. He ultimately ran all the industrial design for that facility. My mother, Grace Louise Skeen, was a calligrapher and graphic designer who worked independently for the Mayo Clinic and others. I picked up design, I suppose, from both through osmosis.

IG: Where was your father from?

DW: My father was from Chatham, Massachusetts, at the elbow of Cape Cod. He grew up in a tiny house built in 1774. I remember going there in the summers as a boy and hitting my head on the bottom of the ceiling beams. It was a half cape, which means that there is a door and two windows on one side of the door, not a three-quarter and not a full cape. It was a tiny, taut house, called Coziholm, once the only house to look out over Oyster Pond. We have hand-tinted postcards of it that I still return to. Dad’s father was a fisherman who left the family and Dad grew up with his mother, an only child.

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Hand-tinted postcard of Ray Wheeler’s house in Cape Cod. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: Where was your mother from?

DW: My mother came from Topeka, Kansas, also from a very modest background. She also did not know her father. Thinking about it, my parents never talked about that, that they each came from fatherless homes. My mother taught graphic design at RISD in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and that is how my father met her; he was her student. He was on the GI program after the war. They married in 1953, moved, and Dad worked in Pittsburgh, then NYC, and then Rochester, where I spent my “Kellogg” years. We lived there for about eight or nine years and then we moved back East. But Minnesota is really where I call my home.

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Dan Wheeler with his sister and his first bike, the first of many, Rochester, Minnesota, c. 1964. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

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Dan Wheeler is in the lower row, second from right. Dan's house, designed by his father, is in the background. Rochester, Minnesota, 1966. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: Do you have any siblings?

DW: I have a remarkable sister, Susan Wheeler, who is a poet. She teaches at Princeton University. She is two years older than I am. We don’t have an extensive family, contrary to the family I married into [smiles].

IG: Where did you go to high school?

DW: I went to Lincoln-Sudbury High School, outside of Boston. In 1970, we had moved back to Wilton, Connecticut. My father had taken a job as head of industrial design for General Electric (GE). He then moved on to Honeywell/Bull in Boston. So, we moved, again, to Sudbury, just south of Concord, bicentennial country. The high school had a great arts program, in an addition just completed by Earl Flansburgh. His son Sky(lar) was a classmate.

I was involved in all the arts: woodshop and drafting, ceramics, photography, silkscreen and woodcuts, jewelry making. I went to the deCordova Museum in Lincoln often as well as the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I did not do team sports; we could get out of it by doing an outward-bound program called Nimbus, and I did a lot of hiking in the White Mountains. I spent a lot of time scouring EMS catalogs. My sister graduated from Bennington in Vermont, so I would go up there. She lived in a barn.

IG: Was there anything specific that you liked in those art classes?

DW: I loved everything involved in making; I grew up with that all around. I grew up wanting to please (to this day, and to a fault)—making tangible things and getting acknowledgement of them has always fueled me. I loved ceramics and I spent a lot of time there. I helped build their gas kilns. I was a quasi-assistant teacher, teaching ceramics to the younger classes. But I did everything from photography and silk-screening to jewelry-making and woodworking. They had a shop. I am a very right-brained person. In high school, I also took drafting. In Minnesota, my parents had designed/built a house on what was considered an unbuildable site (a steep hill), hence, cheap. It cantilevered off the top. I remember Dad would have architects come visit; Eliot Noyes was one of them. I grew up making forts with leftovers from local construction sites. I was interested in designing houses and I started looking at architecture books, architects, and made lots of models of geodesic domes (Sue always had the Whole Earth Catalog around). Somehow, from drafting class, a referral from my teacher segued into working for a landscape architect when I was probably a sophomore in high school. I also worked summers for a friend of our family who was an architect. He had a firm in Boston that did medical planning for Harvard University.

IG: What was the name of that practice?

DW: It was Medical Facilities Planning Associates. Very, very dry work looking back, but I was working at an architect’s office!

IG: They were not hiding what they were doing.

DW: Exactly. The architect was Craig Parkhill and the firm was led by Fred, his brother-in-law, and a Germanic woman, Sophie. We would carpool from Sudbury to Boston in the summers. Fred was probably seven-foot-two, and he drove an [AMC] Gremlin. He took the front seat out of the Gremlin so he could have enough legroom. I remember vividly the strangeness to have the driver way behind you, literally backseat driving.

During high school, as I became more interested in architecture, I applied to MIT’s high school studies program offered on weekends. This was a welcomed escape from the suburbs. I did that for two years and I really enjoyed it. It was taught by young architects, and I still have my models, influenced by Pei’s Christian Science Center and Corb. We worked out of what people called the Green Building, the big green domed building. When it came to deciding what to study and where to go to school, I was torn as I was interested in both ceramics and architecture. I applied to Alfred University for ceramics, IIT for architecture, and to RISD, which had both, all sight unseen. It was a very different thing back then, or maybe it was the frugalness of my family, but you never went to visit colleges, you sent your stuff in. I elected not to go to IIT because I got an invitation to join a fraternity before I was even accepted, and that kind of scared me. I ultimately went with RISD as I thought it would give me options. Mom and Dad never suggested or pushed RISD, which in hindsight was great.

IG: Without seeing the schools, what was attractive about IIT?

DW: In high school, I would read a lot of books: Corb, Mies, and so forth. My family rarely traveled, and I had never been to Chicago, so I had no idea what it was or what it looked like. But I knew something about Mies and the campus, so I thought that it would be a good place to study. It was more reputation than counseling or coaching by my family or the school. It was self-directed.

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Dan Wheeler’s student ID at Rhode Island School of Design. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: You joined RISD in 1975.

DW: Yeah. I remember vividly that first day at RISD. Blue sky, and kids from all over, rooming with someone for the first time in my life. For dinner, we all walked up to this kind of chalet-type of refectory. Providence had a cooking school, Johnson & Wales, and their students cooked for RISD. There was this guy in line with no shirt on, completely bronzed, turquoise bead necklace, and long hair. A California potter dude. That was when I first met Tom Rossiter. We go back a long way!

RISD has always had a foundation program, so the first year you are thrown in with everybody. I didn’t know how to draw when I went to RISD. I tell a story to my students of my freshman drawing class taught by Brice Hobbs. There was a young woman in the class who had already done, as an entering freshman, a cover for Newsweek Magazine or Time, I can’t recall. Then you had many of us that didn’t know how to draw at all. Brice had this great thing of taking a seagull feather, cutting the tip off it so it was two uneven, separate strands, a wiggly shaft, and dipping it in ink. That was our tool. It was a great equalizer for someone that could not hold a pencil very well. She struggled as well, and our drawings did not look so bad. RISD’s freshman year was a semester of 2D, then 3D, after which you claimed your major. I decided to go into architecture versus the ceramic program (easy decision, bandwidth of making was greater!), and I was in Providence the next couple of years. I had Rodolfo Machado in my third year, who was my biggest influence. We all have mentors, and Rodolfo was really the one that I call my architectural father. I still call him “Dad.”

IG: Who were other faculty at RISD that you remember?

DW: Judith Wolin and Friedrich St. Florian, Jim Barnes, Peter Cook, Mark Cigolle, Leonard Newcomb in landscape, David Macaulay and Jamie Carpenter (both awesome) for drawing. I think Judith was focused on theory, and Friedrich brought the Viennese/Raimund Abraham/Hans Hollein side of things. Rodolfo really brought a new perspective of turning toward earlier, pre-modern precedents. He and Jorge [Silvetti] had just moved from Carnegie Mellon up to Boston. Jorge was teaching at Harvard, Rodolfo at RISD, and he ended up being the chair of the department. In Rodolfo’s third year studio “Experiencing Functionalism,” we did a public library, and I had an unbelievable experience with that. I produced some large black and white rendered perspectives. Leon Krier was one of the critics at the final and he told me to look at Adolphe Appia and so forth, so I did.

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Drawing for a public library as part of the “Experiencing Functionalism” studio at RISD. © Dan Wheeler.

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Drawing for a public library as part of the “Experiencing Functionalism” studio at RISD. © Dan Wheeler.

After my junior year, I realized my sponge was dry. I had not traveled whatsoever; I felt I was just a sheltered American kid that had moved from suburb to suburb and needed to get exposed to more things. I decided to take a year off and travel. I had worked mowing lawns, had a small handmade candle business, and worked at the planning firm to save up money, which supported my self-directed grand tour of Europe. I started in England and Scotland, and from there flew to Rome as RISD had a program there based out of the Palazzo Cenci in the Jewish Quarter. I had some classmates there, so I continued my pilgrimage there. I was scared to death, landing in Italy without knowing a single word of Italian, but as I tell students, when you are in uncharted waters, your adrenaline is up, you are alive. Rome ultimately became my European base camp. One of the things that people are struck by is that I built a hut on the Tiber River using driftwood. That spring stone workers were on the island rebuilding the paving. Being farmers from Frascati, they were also collecting the driftwood for firewood. At the end of the season, they took it away. Somehow, I managed to ask the foreman if I could use some of it, got the nod, and I wove the driftwood within the stair scaffolding, making a little hut. That is where I would sleep to save money; I would shower at the Cenci. I did that for about three months. Rome was a very different place in the late ’70s. Dirty, traffic, full of life. The Campo was filled with food stalls, not today’s trinkets. There were used heroin needles everywhere. With Rome as my base, I made repeated trips: three weeks in Greece and Crete, a week and a half in Tunisia, then three weeks in Egypt, then given the war I had to go to Cyprus to then get to Israel. I did most of northern Italy, up to Vienna, back to Rome. That was my first year abroad. I was a very, very different person when I returned to the US.

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2023 recreation sketch of driftwood hut in Rome built in 1979. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: Did you contact architects before you started traveling?

DW: The only office that I went to was Léon Krier in London. I went to his house (very much like Jorge and Rodolfo’s) and we had lunch. He showed me around, and how he did all of his bird’s eye perspective drawings. This was well in advance of any digital technology. He showed me how he would take a photograph of a map and then just extrude everything up! Brilliant! He turned me on to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I got my catalog of Appia’s work. He was a master draftsperson and a set designer: stripped down, chiaroscuro, influencing many such as Robert Wilson. Léon was so gracious, and he took me around his neighborhood a little bit. Those things were super memorable; I try to return the same with any young architect that reaches out to me now. In Italy, through Rodolfo and Jorge, I knew places to go to see, places that were a little bit more off the beaten path, like Mantua, Verona, and Rimini. I was just self-exploring, eating good food, sitting outside in the sun, and drawing Villa La Rotonda. Traveling alone, I could focus and I could take all the time I needed. It was all so good.

IG: How long were you traveling in the end, between the time that you spent in Rome and the other locations?

DW: It was basically a full year. I came back in June and worked the summer. My fourth year was back at RISD, where I focused on work, did an independent study with Len Newcomb, a landscape professor, and had a one-man show at Woods-Gerry Gallery, which was primarily landscape interventions, cut and fill. Also shown was my quasi-thesis, the rebuilding of Providence’s main square, a train station, and a large public garden directly feeding off Colin Rowe’s Collage City. Big, large charcoal drawings and architectural projects. I spent that year in Providence and then, for my fifth and final year, I opted to go back to Rome, this time as part of RISD’s European Honors program at the Cenci.

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Announcement for exhibition at Woods-Gerry Gallery, Providence, 1980. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: How was the second experience in Rome?

DW: It was quite different. I was now in a program and I had my own studio space, so I was more buoyed to the city. They didn’t have any architecture faculty, although we had relationships with the American Academy. Colin Rowe came for crits and stuff, so that was helpful. But I knew Rome quite well and the rest of the students didn’t, so I felt a little out of place, more guide than explorer. I did a three-week home stay in Spoleto with the Trincias. Maria’s son Guistino got married when I was there. I was invited to the wedding in the main church, and the celebration that followed was out of a Fellini movie. That year, I traveled south to Sicily, but in the end, I felt I had seen enough, at least in Europe.

I got back from Rome and my parents had built another house, this one underground, in New Boston, New Hampshire. It was during the oil crisis and they were very concerned about fuel. So, they built a triangular house, kind of like Malcolm Wells, into the side of a south-facing hill in the hypotenuse, where the long leg of that triangle was all glass. The two sides were buried in the ground; it was heated by wood. They had a sail that they could open and close for solar gain. I went there, camped out for a little bit, and said, “Well, I’ve seen some of Europe, but I have never seen America.” Breaking Away had just come out and I was inspired; I decided to take a cross-country bike trip. Why not? I bought a Fuji in 1981, a Fuji S12 LTD. Boy, I was naive! I trained a little bit. I didn’t have any cycling clothes, I didn’t have a tent, though I had a little tube plastic thing that was marketed as an emergency “tent,” and that was how I was going to get across country. In hindsight, my parents were remarkably supportive. I started riding in Maine and went down to Providence to see some friends before heading West. Then, one morning in Connecticut, probably around 6 a.m., I was going down a steep hill. My front tire got caught in what I now know as a “road snake,” (a frost heave between concrete and asphalt), and I wiped out. I really screwed up my hands. While nothing was broken, I said, “This is a little bit out there,” and simultaneously chickened out, and wizened up. I sent my bike back to New Hampshire and got on a train to Chicago, where my sister was working at the Art Institute and studying at the University of Chicago. I had never been to Chicago but had already planned to come through Chicago on the bike trip. I looked around and said, “Hey, this might be a place to try out.” Susan was here, I knew Tom Rossiter who was working at Skidmore. So, my parents sent my portfolio out, along with a letter from Rodolfo and Jorge that basically got me in to talk to anybody. It was just a brilliant letter. And well, it worked.

IG: Before you came to Chicago, did you ever work in an office as an intern while you were at RISD?

DW: Yes. I would work basically for money at the medical planning office. Then, during school, I also started doing a lot of work for Rodolfo and Jorge. They probably still had their house on Marlboro Street in Back Bay. Jorge is a concert pianist, so he would be upstairs on the second floor playing the piano or making espresso and bringing it down at 2:00 p.m. It started primarily with myself and them; Jorge had me first do perspectives of his Djerba House. Then, it was Steve Wanta, Charles Crowley, Peter Lofgren, and James Favaro. James was from Harvard, but Chuck, Steve, and Peter were from RISD. We did several competitions, including the DOM Corporate Headquarters and Pioneer Square in Portland. We did the Steps of Providence project that won the PA First Award in Architecture, and I did the cover for PA [Progressive Architecture]. That was in 1980, right before I came to Chicago. We were all honored to be there, speculating and prospecting. We didn’t get paid in compensation other than books. It was enough for me, and I can’t think of any greater experience. It was basically a group of three to five people working out of a house doing this architectural work. Now you look at Machado Silvetti and its legacy, and we were there at the beginning, working out of a sitting room in Back Bay.

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Cover of Progressive Architecture featuring the Steps of Providence project, January 1980. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: When you came to Chicago, what firms did you apply to?

DW: Just backing up, the other thing that was very important is I did both drawings/renderings for Jorge and Rodolfo’s works for the “Late Entries to the Chicago Tribune” competition. Jorge’s was conceived of as a block of granite that was carved into and polished. Rodolfo’s was very much Rodolfo, where various precedents were transformed, cut, sliced, and reassembled. Then, the Venice Architecture Biennale started in 1981, and we did a composition collage drawing that was included at the biennale. Those were examples of other drawings that I did.

I got to Chicago probably in June or July of 1981, in the heart of an architectural depression—Skidmore [SOM] had just laid off 600 people. “No worries,” I said, “I want to work for a small firm.” Armed with the letter, I walked in and talked to Stanley [Tigerman], Larry Booth, Stuart Cohen and Anders Nereim, Ken Schroeder, Tom Beeby, Harry Weese, Bertrand Goldberg, and other smaller firms. All of them were supportive but they all said, “We have no work.” Ultimately, I went and sat in the lobby of Murphy/Jahn and I just waited for Helmut [Jahn]. I told the receptionist that I would take any moment that he was available, and I just sat there politely and in silence. Ultimately, he came out and quickly looked at the work. This was when Dan Dolan was doing a lot of his renderings. Dan Dolan had done the Steps of Providence or the Chicago Tribune rendering for Helmut. Helmut was interested. He gave me a tour and I met Dan. Dan also gave me a tour, and then Helmut offered me a job and said, “But remember, you won’t be an architect for five years.” I said, “What?” He said, “You must learn how the sausage is made. You must get on a project and go all the way through.” I was offered a job there, and I also received an offer from John Holabird at Holabird & Root. Meanwhile, Stuart Cohen had told me to talk to Adrian Smith at SOM. I finally got in and first met with Joe Gonzalez, who then had me sit with Adrian; he offered me a job, sweetened by $5 more a week than Helmut’s offer, $380 a week. Skidmore had just gotten a large planning project in Detroit called Harbortown, 55 acres on the Detroit River with a lot of landscape. Because I was interested in landscape, I elected to do that, and it was a fantastic decision. I just loved my time at Skidmore. I started there on August 10, 1981. I met Julie (Rivkin) the same day! And all because of a frost heave on a road in Connecticut!

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Model plan, Harbortown, Detroit. © Orlando R. Cabanban.

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Harbortown, Detroit. © SOM.

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Harbortown, Detroit. © William Kildow Photography.

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Harbortown, Detroit. © William Kildow Photography.

IG: Was that project being done as part of the planning studio or the architecture studio?

DW: It took place in the planning studio, though Adrian ran it kind of independently. Kim Galuska, Jeff McCarthy, Jim DeStefano, and even Myron Goldsmith looked things over. I was assigned to Peter Ellis’s studio, but I was transplanted up into planning. At that point, they were laying out about 55 acres. And again, I didn’t know what I was doing, but we found our way through it. I remember flying to Detroit and presenting to the two clients, who were the heads of the gas and electric companies. I was twenty-five. I was at Skidmore for about two years. We did the initial planning for Harbortown and I came back into studio. I worked on all the public spaces on the Loop Transportation Building and did the Rowes Wharf competition drawings in Joe Gonzalez’s studio, which we won. But, at a certain point, I was back in Peter’s studio electric erasing mylars, moving parking stalls for a project.

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Loop Transportation Center, Chicago, 1985. © Hedrich Blessing.

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Rowes Wharf, Boston, 1987. © Nick Wheeler.

IG: Did you look for other work?

DW: Because I had interviewed with a lot of the younger or smaller firms, I met several people who continued to reach out for freelance rendering work. I did a number of freelance renderings for Stuart and Skip [Anders Nereim], Roula Alakiotou, and Darcy and Scott. I also did a number of renderings for Rael Slutsky, including SOM’s National Gallery entry. At any rate, Himmel/Bonner offered me a job; things were so slow at Skidmore at the time that I said, “I’ve got to do something.” I worked at Himmel/Bonner, a small boutique firm, for basically a year between 1983 and 1984.

IG: Was it primarily a residential practice?

DW: It was residential and high-end retail. They did Korshaks around the country, and Scott Himmel was well-connected here; his father was a developer. They both had graduated from UIC under Stanley [Tigerman].

IG: Who else was in that office when you were there?

DW: There was a guy named Dan Baigelman who was an older gentleman, and he was kind of the technical guy. Peggy Smolka, a UIC classmate of Darcy and Scott, worked there. Ultimately, I left, and then people like Dirk Denison, Don Copper, and others came through. But anyway, what happened is I worked there for a year and then I got a phone call from Adrian saying, “Harbortown is back, and we want you to come back. Would you please consider it?” I wasn’t getting any clear intellectual direction at Himmel/Bonner. In 1985, Adrian called me and said that the Detroit project had been funded and asked if I would come back to do it. I returned to Skidmore and was made an associate and a studio head. We did Harbortown and then a number of other projects in the studio.

IG: When you went back to SOM, were you already hired as a studio head and an associate, or did that happen afterward?

DW: Good question. I went back as a project architect in Harbortown. Shortly thereafter, I was made an associate and a studio head. I had Harbortown in the studio and worked with people like Paul Hagel, Bob Gross, and Steve Burns, who was a partner with Gary Beryl. Steve is now out in California. Dennis DiCapri and Susan Conger [now Susan Conger-Austin] were in my studio, as well as Kevin Kemp, Brad Erdy, and others. We did Harbortown, then we did a building called Building Nine [Broadwalk House], which is part of Bishopsgate, with Bruce Graham. It is about a 600,000-square-foot building made of precast from Rotterdam that is highly articulated to mimic terracotta that you would find within London. I only went to London twice to see the site and meet the group. After that, everything was done by faxes.

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Broadwalk House, London. © John Davies.

Partners would go, would have a meeting, come back, and say, “We are doing this.” At that point, I started to realize that as a design manager, as a studio head where you are not actively involved in every decision on the project, it is very hard to justify to people spending all their livelihood and time, and then not understanding why a decision is being made. I have made it clear that, in all the work that we do [at Wheeler Kearns Architects], I try to express that while we might not respect the decision that is being made, we at least understand where it is coming from. Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time, just a magical time at Skidmore, in particular being a project architect and collaborating with all the engineers and people there. This said, in a bigger firm like Skidmore, you are basically tracked to be in design, technical, or management. As a studio head, I was certainly on the design path. From a financial point of view, if you were just talking about lifestyle, I would have stayed on at Skidmore. This segues into what was the transition. What other opportunities were there to learn? As a studio head, I was no longer doing construction drawings, working with engineers in the trenches, which I knew I wanted to learn. I started to have a freelance practice doing additions and rehabs, largely through contacts I had made through Julie [Rivkin Wheeler]. I should step way, way back and mention that the most important day of my life was August 10, 1981, when I walked into Skidmore and I was assigned to Peter Ellis’s studio. He introduced me to the twenty-some people in the studio. After doing all of that, he turned to this young woman and said, “Julie, what did I miss?” And right there, I realized that this person had her ear to the ground. That is when I met Julie. We started going out probably six months later, and my life changed for the better in all ways. The web that you knit with all the people that you meet is all in a way happenstance, just like the bike fall. Julie’s sister, who lives in Chicago, had rented an apartment in a complex where Keith Kissner also lived, a young, boutique general contractor. I met Keith at a summer lunch in her backyard. Keith would buy a building and renovate it once he got an interested buyer. In the first project that I did, he had a client that went to him and said, “Do you have an architect?” He said, “I just met an architect at Skidmore.” That was how I did the first big renovation here in Chicago. All by chance, all on the side.

IG: Was that your first job in the city? You were new to Chicago. What was happening outside the office? Were you part of other organizations?

DW: Yeah, yeah. There is a lot to unpack there. I started working at Skidmore and Adrian was part of the Chicago Architectural Club, and he ask me to join him for a meeting. Somehow, he thought well enough of me to introduce me as a potential member, which met monthly at the Graham Foundation. At that time, you had to submit a portfolio and it was voted on. I submitted mine and was accepted. I’ll never forget those meetings, eighty architects from around the city of varying ages. I went in and I sat in the audience. There was one event with two architects, and they were talking about their work. Ultimately, one said something like, “I love you, but not your work.” Shocking, right? It was just a revelation to think that you could be in a community where you respect the talent, the varied work, but you could also be very honest. I met quite a few people through that. I came in second to Tom Rajkovich in the Burham Prize Competition one year and placed high two years running in the Steadman. I obviously had not got the Rome bug out of my system, and the American Academy beckoned… but it was not to be. There was later a group that spun off of the Architectural Club that was called The Null Group. That was Rick Phillips, Margaret McCurry, Doug Garofalo, John Syvertsen, Ralph Johnson, Joe Valerio, and Chris Rudolph. We did a project for the Formica Corporation. Then we did a project of speculative houses called Falling Water, a development in Burr Ridge, that had a big exhibition at Gwenda Jay Gallery. That was an outlet for presenting work in a different format from a specific firm.

IG: Did you work together on the projects you are mentioning or did each one of you present individual proposals?

DW: We each did our proposals, but they were linked. For Formica, we were given access to an amount of Formica. What can you do with Formica? Our office decided to not use the plastic facing, just the core. We contacted the Formica mothership and got some of their backings, just two plies of brown paper used on the back of cabinets. We oiled them and they became translucent. We made a big louver that opened and closed. Mark Weber was heavily involved in that one. For the Falling Water project, we agreed that each house had to touch a continuous stone wall. Ralph did “A House for the Exhibitionist.” Doug’s hugely influential Camouflage House came out of that. We did one that is in our book 10 Houses that was published in 1999, a house with no drywall. Those were great opportunities. There was also a Monuments and Memorials exhibition at the State of Illinois building, where John Syvertsen and I were invited as architects. The exhibition was to think about what a contemporary memorial was/could be. I did five drawings of an enclosed landscape/landform that were basically just huge charcoal drawings. Each was 30” x 60”; I’ve got a big charcoal drawing right over here [pointing]. That was another venue.

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Monuments and Memorials exhibition at the State of Illinois building, Chicago, 1990. © Dan Wheeler.

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Monuments and Memorials exhibition at the State of Illinois building, Chicago, 1990. © Dan Wheeler.

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Monuments and Memorials exhibition at the State of Illinois building, Chicago, 1990. © Dan Wheeler.

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Monuments and Memorials exhibition at the State of Illinois building, Chicago, 1990. © Dan Wheeler.

IG: What were the schools doing at that time? Did you attend any of their lectures?

DW: Not really. One of the things that was unique is that, at SOM, there was no school involvement. You were not allowed to teach. Every large firm was kind of siloed. You never saw anyone from Murphy/Jahn, you never saw anyone from SOM, other than at the Architectural Club.

Some opportunities came about to do these smaller things. I did two houses for people in the SOM promotions department. I did Mary Woolever’s house on Seminary Avenue, and then Sally Draht’s house, also on Seminary Avenue, just further south. I needed a space to work. We were living in a very small apartment, so I rented the very top of 75 East Wacker, which is the pencil tower that was originally the tallest building in the city when it was built. On the very top floor there were washrooms for tourists. Harry Weese’s office had renovated the building to make it into an office building and gutted the washrooms, leaving half an octagon, varying in width from 6’ to 10’ wide looking down due west over the Chicago River, similar to your view from Marina City. The Illinois Center had not been built yet so you could gaze out over Lake Michigan; we could look over to the top of the Carbide & Carbon Building where Chris Rudolph’s office was perched. As an ode to Café Pamplona in Cambridge, I laid a checkerboard of black and white vinyl tile over the stained floor, painted the exposed clay tile and old pipes white, and that was my studio. We would have great parties. Every Friday night, we would invite our friends from SOM and other friends. Ralph Johnson and even Adrian Smith came. The place was jammed, standing room only, and people would go up to the observation balcony, walk outside, and take in the view. You had to take the elevator at the top and then take two flights of stairs to get up to the space.

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Dan Wheeler's studio at 75 East Wacker Drive, Chicago. © Dan Wheeler.

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Dan Wheeler's studio at 75 East Wacker Drive, Chicago. © Dan Wheeler.

IG: Was this when you had already left SOM?

DW: No, I was still at SOM.

IG: You were still working at SOM, but you wanted to have your own office space.

DW: Yeah. We would walk from SOM at 33 West Monroe. We would stop and shop down in the basement, pick up beer, and then just lug it over to 75 East Wacker. I would work there nights and weekends. I remember going to Burger King and getting a Whopper and fries. There were so many nights of this kind of independent work. Then, more opportunities came about while I was at Skidmore. The opportunity that really helped lead to opening the office was one of the houses we did with Keith, the builder. It was a three flat on Fullerton Avenue, which ended up being converted to a house that Roger Ebert, the film critic, bought. It ultimately received an AIA Chicago Distinguished Building Award Honor Award, which was received just after leaving Skidmore. But the way that the office got started was again, serendipity, knowing people. One of the RISD students that I knew, a year ahead of me, was Kate Weese, Harry’s daughter, a graphic designer. Her husband, Will Rogers, who ultimately ended up being the president of The Trust for Public Land out of California, was then working for the development company Horwitz Matthews, founded by Tem Horwitz and Robert Matthews. Tem was known as the most out of the box developer in town at the time. When George Pappageorge and Dave Haymes presented at the Architectural Club, they presented work that they were doing for Tem: Clybourn Lofts, 1800 Clybourn, and a number of other really radical residential projects at the time. Tem had a friend who wrote for the Chicago Tribune, Nancy Adams, and I believe she got cancer. She had found a piece of land in Michigan that she told Tem about. He went and visited it. It was an old Boy Scout camp, 360 acres with a 60-acre lake and a lodge, and it was abandoned. He said, “What can we do with it? I have lots of friends from Chicago.” He decided to hold a competition and Will asked me, because I knew Kate, if I would be interested in entering a competition, just as kind of an afterthought. They had already engaged Gerry Horn from Holabird, Stanley and Margaret, and Tom Beeby. I think there might have been one other firm. There was a competition with these four formal firms, and then myself. I asked Brad Erdy, a talented Ohio State grad that had recently left my studio at SOM, if he wanted to do a charrette. He said, “Sure,” and we did this basically on weekends. We submitted it and ultimately won the competition. I first tried to bring the project to Skidmore. I was an associate and studio head, but I was told by Adrian and by Joe Gonzalez that it was not the associate’s job to bring in work. That was the handwriting on the wall, so I made some inquiries, had lunch with George and Dave to see if Tem was legit, and then asked Harry Weese to breakfast (breakfast was on the recommendation of Kitty and Kate). I just thought it would be good to ask Harry how he got started, and any advice he could offer. I recall him saying “pick your partners carefully,” which I feel we have done.

Back at SOM, Joe Gonzalez privately told me, “Dan, you would be crazy not to set off on your own.” I was thirty and decided, “OK, I’m young enough, I can try to make a go of it, if not I’m still young.” And then you dive into the unknown. I had never written a contract before. It was literally handwritten on an AIA printout; I did not have a typewriter or Word processor. Julie and I had just had Jack, who was three months old. We were learning on all fronts. I opened the office in October of 1987 and literally two days later, the market crashed. It was Black Wednesday or whatever. I thought “OMG, what have I done. I’ve got a young family to support, this is a developer project, which will certainly go away. What have I done?” I was scared to death, shaking. Thankfully, Madron did not go away, but that feeling of helplessness was just the first example of the emotional lows that come with the turf, that beset any new practice. Fortunately, there were complementary highs that helped compensate.

IG: Was the new office located in the same space you were renting before?

DW: No. And this goes into another story. At Skidmore, there were the big dogs: there was Bruce Graham and Adrian, and there was a variety of other ones: Tom Eyerman, Jim DeStefano, and so forth. But it was primarily Bruce and Adrian. Bruce had hired Hanno Weber as a studio head, a rarity as Hanno had not grown up through the ranks. Hanno used to work for Paul Schweikher during his time at Carnegie Mellon out East. Hanno went to Princeton and ultimately taught at Wash U. I am not sure how or why Hanno was hired, but Bruce was Colombian and Hanno grew up there too. Hanno is very Germanic with strong principles, another alpha male. He thought—and I am told voiced—that the operation of Skidmore was essentially one of “pimps and whores.” That opinion obviously didn’t sit well with the partners and he was fired. Hanno opened his office and he did the Leesburg Town Hall in Virginia. He is an exceptional architect. He also has original drawings of houses that he and Paul Schweikher did. All of that said, well before I left Skidmore, Hanno and I began collaborating on competitions. We won first prize in the West Palm Beach waterfront plan, more of a planning thing. We won that, went down and collected a bunch of money, which we split. We did Chandler, Arizona, and we did the Roger Williams University Architecture School competition. We have had a very respectful relationship. When I left SOM and we had to open an office, Brad and I looked all around for a space. Hanno had been at 417 South Dearborn Street, but he had just moved his practice into a bigger office space in the building. Hanno said, “Why don’t you just take mine? It’s all set up.” That was a godsend. There were just four workstations. We basically were there for the first five years of our practice looking out, watching Beeby’s public library being built, all the caissons, sheet piling, etc. That was another experience. Brad left about six months after we opened the office. When we finished the construction drawings, he said “I am really not interested in architecture any longer.” He became a ceramist with his wife Karen.

IG: Were you the only two architects who started that office?

DW: Yes. When Brad left, I was quite alone and scared; thankfully that was short lived. Larry Kearns, who had been at Skidmore in the planning department in Leigh Breslau’s studio, was working on Canary Wharf. Larry was chomping at the bit because he had worked on all the planning documents and all that had been done was a few caissons. He came in and interviewed, and his work was great. Larry had been a partner in a firm in Miami with Jan Hochstim; he did an addition to the architecture school there. Larry has an amazing story of his interview with Bruce Graham, but we will save that for his own oral history! At any rate, Julie ran the SOM computer department and was involved in all the training of the young staff, so she knew Larry, and Leigh and I knew each other from doing Objects Gallery on the side. He had played piano at our wedding. In any event, I had never met Larry before.

IG: You hadn’t worked at SOM together.

DW: That’s right. After Larry joined me, we took on Liza Bachrach, then Mark Weber. Mark was a recent grad from UIC. Mark had grown up in the trades and we needed someone to help manage the Camp Madron project, which Mark did admirably. We were finishing up the Fullerton House and were just starting up on the Arlington House. But it wasn’t enough work. Hanno reached out and asked, “Do you want to teach?” He was teaching up at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and he helped land me a position called the Chicago Chair, where you would go up once a week and there would be a complementary faculty member. I did that for two years. That was 1988 and 1989. After that, I didn’t teach for probably three years as the office was getting going. And then, in 1992 or ’93, I got a letter from Ken Schroeder asking if I would consider applying to be the director of the School of Architecture at UIC.

IG: Was he the interim director after Stanley?

DW: Correct. As for Ken’s request, I thought, “What?? That is crazy,” but I responded by saying I would be interested in teaching. UIC was close to the office, and I was interested in the school, that it was a public school. There were a lot of practitioners there like Stuart [Cohen] and people that I had come in contact with, such as Doug [Garofalo]. So, in 1993, I started teaching there as an adjunct professor.

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Liza Bachrach, Larry Kearns, and Frank Mullen (intern), Chicago, 1988. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

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Dan Wheeler at first office on the 5th floor at 417 South Dearborn Street, Chicago, 1990. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: Your office at that point was called Daniel Wheeler Architects. Did the project in Michigan ever get built?

DW: Actually, we changed the name in 1990. But yes, Camp Madron was built; we did three prototype houses, which were based on Shaker precedent. There was a one-room schoolhouse, there was a cruciform house, and there was one that was more of a telescoping form. It was very much based on Shaker principles: simple construction and simple detailing. We renovated the lodge as the social hub for the community. With Dan Weinbach, who was the landscape architect, we charted all the roads and then parceled out fifty home sites. It became a test bed for much of our early work.

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Camp Madron, Michigan, 1988. Competition drawing by Dan Wheeler. © Dan Wheeler.

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Camp Madron, Michigan, 1988. Drawing by Dan Wheeler. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Camp Madron, Michigan, 1988. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Camp Madron, Michigan, 1988. Drawing by Dan Wheeler. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Camp Madron, Michigan, 1988. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

We did custom homes so that people didn’t have to build a typical house. The LaPoint House, for example, the one that is the Redwood Box with the floating glass, was a custom home that we did as part of that. Bohan-Kemp was also a very well-published residence, channeling Glenn Murcutt while attending to our site and climatic constraints. These were all in the early 1990s.

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Front elevation, LaPoint House, Michigan, 1989. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: What other projects were you going after at that time? You mentioned the Arlington House. Can you talk more about that project?

DW: Sure. The Arlington House was a house that was a three-flat that we gutted and repurposed for Adele and John Simmons. Kissner was the general contractor. Adele was moving from being the president of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, to Chicago to run the MacArthur Foundation. That was a fantastic relationship, and many people came through that house and saw it. We did some retail work, but very little. At 1800 Clybourn, Tem Horwitz got us engaged with John Hall, founder of Goose Island, to design their brewery. We did their banquet hall, which is up on the second floor. We did a small stationery shop there. We did a build-out for the Catherine Cook School, which is a small school just off Wells Street. We would do anything that was coming through the door. We didn’t really do any competitions because we were too busy trying to figure out how to run a practice and keep the boat afloat.

IG: You have mentioned that, at the time, it was you, Larry, Liza, and Mark in the office. Did you have more people?

DW: We did. We had a couple interns. When we were doing Camp Madron, we hired a guy named Frank Mullen as an intern from Ball State. He was a wonderful guy who was a painter before studying architecture. He developed a palette for all the materials for Camp Madron, which are still painted the same. We had interns from UWM that would come down and work. Tem Horwitz knew an accountant in Manhattan, a family friend. Through Jewish geography, he knew the accountant’s kids and introduced them to us. Sue Aeder had just graduated from Yale. She interviewed with us, and we hired Sue. Sue is still a practitioner. They had four kids, and ultimately, she had to become a mother for a while. She has a practice up on the North Side, up on North Ravenswood. We have done several projects for Sue’s brother, Jeff. At a certain point, we had four people plus maybe an intern, and we were just out of space. We then moved to the front half of a floor at the 417 South Dearborn Street building that we built out, and we were there for probably another ten years. We subsequently moved into the Fisher Building.

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Sequential office layouts on the fifth floor at 417 South Dearborn Street, Chicago. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

IG: The office called Daniel Wheeler Architects lasted for three years, and then it was renamed.

DW: Yep.

IG: Did it change to Wheeler Kearns Architects then?

DW: Yes. I had left SOM without knowing what the future would hold. Once I realized how gifted Larry was and that he wanted skin in the game, I said, “OK, let’s make this thing work.” We became 50/50 partners. We split everything half and half. The office was to be a flat organization, that was one of the things that was important to both of us: no pecking order. We clarified on our mark who we were, Wheeler Kearns: A Collective Practice of Architects. It was really meant to be something where everybody had a say. We didn’t—and still don’t—care where the ideas came from. A good idea is going to stand on its own and people contribute to an idea. If one person takes ownership, it is tough to contribute, so we have always valued the idea that authorship is shared. We did that rather than having something like Booth Hansen. Larry Booth is an amazing guy; I was fortunate that he sponsored me for a Fellowship in 1998. But we saw all the spinoffs from Larry’s office, whether it be David Woodhouse, Tannys Langdon, Jeanne Gang, John Eifler, Max Underwood, Jaime Torres or whomever. Talent is going to leave if they don’t get due recognition, see opportunity, and the possibility of advancement. We didn’t want that to be the case. We decided that if we found an individual that was able to do everything, was interested in writing letters and contracts, technical and design, and just general involvement, and we liked them and wanted to spend our life with them, then they would be offered partnership. That is how we have built the subsequent chapters in our development. Our first partner was Tom Bader, who is a Cincinnati and Yale grad, and he was directed to our door through Leigh Breslau, who couldn’t hire him at SOM. Leigh said, “You should go check out their work.” Tom was gifted in all realms. He was/is a great designer, draftsman, and historian. He came to Chicago because his wife, Sarah Bader, went to UIC to the graduate school through Stanley and Bob Somol. Tom was particularly important as he was prematurely grey, and that helped give a sense of gravitas to the skeptics! Tom became partner, and then shortly thereafter, Mark Weber did too. Mark’s father was a general contractor; Mark worked his way through school laying tile. He can talk turkey with any sub, and he has an intuitive knowledge of materials. Joy Meek (GSD) and Jon Heinert (UVA) have led some of the most critical projects in the office while anchoring the office in more ways than I can describe, starting with completely restructuring our website. Chris-Annmarie Spencer (UIC) led Inspiration Kitchen, Mansueto High School, and The Alice. Calli Verkamp (UArk), who led The Chicago Children’s Theater and The Momentary among other things, is our most recent partner, with more to come as ownership expands.

IG: Are all these partners in charge of finding projects? Who is going after clients?

DW: At the outset, it was myself and my connections complemented by Julie’s network as well, and just involvement in different things. As time has gone on, a lot of work has come through Mark Weber through his contacts and the trades, as well as contacts in Michigan. Larry has worked hard developing contacts, particularly in education. Frankly, we have never “marketed” as most work comes through word of mouth, and everyone, partners and staff alike bring in work. We do work hard when we get RFPs, particularly when we are going after things we have never done before. When we did the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier, that was a strong proposal; it had to be as we were up against Tom Beeby. The Old Town School of Folk Music was also an RFP, and we had never done an art school or a music school. That is where, as a small firm, you have to prove your energy and your fresh perspective because you don’t have the street cred. There was one project, the North Avenue Beach House, that had to be replaced. Ed Uhlir was the head of the Chicago Park District at the time. The North Avenue Beach House was built in 1937 by Emanuel V. Buchsbaum, who did a lot of buildings up and down the lake. Larry Booth had put in a proposal and Globetrotters had put in a proposal, and Ed told Globetrotters: “You really need a designer or a design firm.” They reached out to us. We ended up doing that project and did all the CA [construction and administration] work. It was obviously a very visible project. That has a long story, the nutshell being we were in the mayor’s office at City Hall and Richard Daley told Ed and myself: “I want a boat.”

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North Avenue Beach House, Chicago, 1999. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Elevation, North Avenue Beach House, Chicago, 1999. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Elevation, North Avenue Beach House, Chicago, 1999. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Elevation, North Avenue Beach House, Chicago, 1999. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Elevation, North Avenue Beach House, Chicago, 1999. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: Going back a little bit after the office becomes Wheeler Kearns Architects, can you talk about some of those early projects, such as the Eimer House?

DW: Sure. Nate Eimer somehow found us. He was an attorney and he had bought an old building on Hazel Street, just north of Hutchinson. It was an existing brick residence with an awful concrete block studio building out in front, so we needed to somehow link them together. We reclad the studio and threaded a link up into the old house, creating a courtyard around an amazing oak tree. There was a landscape architect that was brand new to town who had come to our doorstep to say, “Hey, I’m open for business.” He had a space right next to John Syvertsen at the time in the Fine Arts building. His name was Peter Lindsay Schaudt. We got Nate to hire Peter to do the garden, and he did a little recirculating concrete fountain within that space. It was Peter’s first commission in Chicago.

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Eimer/Roach House, Chicago, 1991. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Eimer/Roach House, Chicago, 1991. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Eimer/Roach House, Chicago, 1991. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: That year, you also had a project in Indiana called the Mussman House.

DW: Yes. These are all in the 10 Houses book. The Mussman House was a very, very low-cost building for a family with someone in a wheelchair. This “constraint” led to the breakthrough: given that the lot area had to be two stories, why not go three? It became a compact three-story cube that lifted the public space to the top. It had a clear gash through the middle of it that became a straight-run stair that brought you all the way up, and up to the roof. It was made of industrial materials and brought daylight down through a ridge skylight that runs along the edge. We pushed the engineer to use a high tensile-strength cement-board cladding to serve as the shear walls. In all our projects we are very interested in the constructability. We had designed the original LaPoint House that was based on Villa La Rotonda and Rodolfo Machado’s country house, where you had a specific room for each corner of the building. That was part of the Camp Madron competition that brought the LaPoints to us. We did complete construction drawings for that. We bid it out, and it was $20,000 or $30,000 over budget. They said, “Our budget is $200,000, so you have to do something.” We completely scrubbed the decks and said, “Well, you can’t afford the screen porch now. The building has to become the screen porch.” Everything was a system. Concrete floor and all load-bearing walls. It was a moment frame connected LVL structure. I remember to this day, 12’-3 ½” for the rough openings, for the eagle sliding glass doors, because that was the cheapest sliding glass door we could get. Shallow foundations, 52 feet-long TJI floors, single-slope, top-chord hung open web trusses, Redwood sided. The steel plates behind the fireplaces were part of the shear wall analysis, as well as being the non-combustible surface. That building was published in Architecture Magazine in 1992, where we were named the emerging firm in the Midwest. That was the project used to represent our work, even though it never received an AIA award. Go figure.

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Axonometric, Mussman House, Indiana, 1991. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Exploded axonometric, Mussman House, Indiana, 1991. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.

The Bohan Kemp House was a building that was basically designed as a kit of parts. It was definitely channeling Glenn Murcutt. After we finished a project and everyone was like limp from energy, I would go to Prairie Avenue [Bookstore] to get juiced and I would bring back ten books and put them on the table. I looked at Murcutt very carefully and then we developed the Bohan Kemp House in our climate. The entire structural package for the glulam beams, the tongue and groove structural decking for the roof, and fittings came in at something like $26,000, all sent from Manitoba, and that sits up out of grade. Water can rush underneath the building. That was a great project. In the 10 Houses book we tried to emphasize the way we were thinking about making things; each project had exploded axons showing the pieces and parts.

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Bohan Kemp House, Michigan, 1997. © Steve Hall | Hall + Merrick Photographers. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Bohan Kemp House, Michigan, 1997. © Bohan Kemp House, Michigan, 1997. © Steve Hall | Hall + Merrick Photographers. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

The Essex House was a similar project. That was for Joseph [Michael] Essex and his wife and design partner Nancy Denney Essex, graphic designers working for Horwitz Matthews. We had worked with them on all the Camp Madron materials. They were looking for a live-work situation and they found a double lot on North Avenue. It was in a fire district, so it had to be non-combustible. There was a zoning issue, and we got the City to agree that the graphic design studio could be on the front of the building taking up two floors and the residence could be on the back. That way, it would not be seen from the street frontage, but that was again, just a rock bottom budget. We didn’t have the budget to take out all the spoils of the site, compact the grade, and do spread footings. We studied that and we priced it out, but ultimately that became a system of six caissons, precast grade beams upon which we erected pre-insulated concrete panels. It was erected in three days after the caissons were capped. The front of the building is the shear wall, the lateral bracing that allowed all glass on the back. Everything was just left raw and exposed. You close the entry door, and the place is silent. That year [1998], we won Chicago Chapter AIA Distinguished Building Awards for it, the Astor Street Residence, and Bohan Kemp. The three awards that year helped place us on the map.

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Essex House, Chicago, 1993. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Wall detail, Essex House, Chicago, 1993. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: It is interesting that you were doing renovation or additions to historic houses as well as ground up houses. And then you did other projects like the Ancona School in Hyde Park. You were simultaneously working on residential and educational projects. What was the split between the type of work that you were doing around that time, let’s say mid-90s?

DW: I would say that probably, at the time, our general percentage was two-thirds residential and one-third institutional. That’s the thing that we really have always had to work on. Many people saw and still see the office as being more of a boutique residential firm. We never have. We have tried to promote the Old Town School and all the schoolwork that we have been doing, and nonprofits such as Marwen, Inspiration Kitchen, and the food pantries. We have always had that foot in the door. The press is going to pick up what they want to talk about. You are kind of typecast, but at this point it is probably more 50/50 in terms of institutional/nonprofit work and residential work. It ebbs and flows.

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The Ancona School, Chicago, 1993. © William Kildow. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: I want to talk about something that you mentioned before about going to Prairie Avenue, the great bookstore that was in Chicago and that closed in 2009. The idea of reference and learning from other architects. Can you talk about how you think your work looks at the work of others and how you reinterpret it?

DW: Sure. I have done a little bit of writing about this as well on our website. I wrote an essay for the AIA called “Reflections on Practice.” I think one of the things that I have always been very concerned about in architectural education is an interest in and an understanding of what went before, this idea of evolving things as part of a continuum. It is very rare that an architect is going to have a completely revolutionary idea. How do you learn? You learn by getting engaged in the city. In the early 1990s, Larry Booth got me involved as the Chair of the Architecture Alliance at the Chicago Historical Society. We were looking backward, what went before. I had Bill Keck [of Keck & Keck] come and talk about their entire history, what they learned from Watertown, Wisconsin, what they did and learned from their work at the Century of Progress, and how this led to their passive solar homes. In looking at a designer, you need to look at a bandwidth of knowledge and not just a specific project. Obviously, books are a means of gaining an understanding beyond an image from Pinterest. Monographs are important; we have an extensive library of them in our office. I go to our library often and try to get young members of our studio into them as well. To supplement this “book learning” for thirty years, we have taken office trips where we go to a different city or countries to see work, meet different architects, and we bring that into our knowledge base. It is a collective knowledge, whether it is in a book or whether we have all seen it together and say, “Remember when we saw that? How can we work that in?” As architects, we are each generalists, emergency room doctors. We have a responsibility to read a situation and make judgements in a very short amount of time that are going to change the world for a period of fifty years, a hundred years, or whatever. We have but a very limited amount of time to use our generalist understanding to orchestrate a bunch of specialists, which might be a mechanical engineer or lighting designer, as well as bringing in other sources that we each carry. I carry certain ones, Larry carries other ones, and so forth. We are bringing different points of light to a project to try to make magic happen, like a little laser beam, and trying to keep it pretty focused. But essentially an architect, as a doctor, ultimately must decide. The patient thinks they are sick. Do they need electric shock therapy or open-heart surgery? Do they need a new graft or do all they need is aspirin and say “relax”? Ultimately, we need to determine what that is.

In a similar way to a cook, an architect has ingredients. I could see Mies saying, “We have brick, we have steel, we have concrete, and these are the proportions that you put down in different relationships.” Lewerentz had a very different way of using brick than Mies. In our work, we need to determine if it is going to be comfort food or if we are going to have the thing turned way up. Generally, the way that we work is we try to bring in different sources. The poster child, for me at least, to point to, would be the house we did at 1875 Orchard, which essentially channels four or five different projects very, very, very, very consciously. We have the Irwin Miller House by Eero Saarinen with a deep overhang on the south. We have Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto with the wood ceiling and the acoustic ability to absorb sound. We have Maison de Verre by Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet, where the bookshelves run from the basement all the way up to the top floor. From one of our office trips to Mexico City, there is Barragán’s house with the small courtyards. Each one of the bedrooms has an exterior courtyard that is not seen from the public way. Taking those sources, reinterpreting, and recombining them into something that is new is something that is interesting to us. If someone comes in with a photograph of a project and says, “I want one of those,” that is a technical exercise. You can get anybody to do that. We are interested in developing a narrative that creates something new, acknowledging that it comes from things that came before. We have generally focused on small buildings with program, with owners vested in maintaining a building long term, and investing the time to find a solution that is based on precedent but is reconfigured into something new.

IG: I am interested in this idea of looking at references. Are these sources discussed as an office? Are the sources brought by the person in charge of the project and then shared with the rest? Is there a shared library or is it just the personal experiences?

DW: Our process is very fluid, and it often comes from happenstance: who we are working with, or what the team brings to the table. For 1875 Orchard, I remember having a series of images. There is a classic photograph of our first client meeting with four schemes, along with one wall with a series of precedent images that could be drawn from. We present multiple schemes to clients, and we have pros and cons from a diagrammatic point of view. Similarly, we have a series of sources for a client to respond to. “Do you like to see exposed structure or not?” We felt we could weave in those images. Sometimes it is clients that come with things, and we say, “If you know that, look at Lewerentz or look at Jacobsen.” We first get educated by our clients on where they want to get to. We then educate them, providing the roadmap of the different paths they can take associated with the pros and cons. Hopefully they enjoy the process of joint discovery and, in the end, land someplace new. These are the decisions we make together as we find the form. We are not form makers; we are form finders.

IG: Let’s pause on the 1875 North Orchard House. I think this house was a critical project that the firm was doing in the early 2000s. I think it is also going to help to talk about the high-end projects and how you balance those with other work. Perhaps you can explain what this house represents in the firm and how, if it did, help define consequent projects. In my mind, it was a very important project.

DW: Agreed. For some context, we received this commission following a lecture I gave at the Graham Foundation in the spring of 2001. I had just been involved in the Chicago Architectural Club’s edition called Positions in Architecture (I think it will be a standout reference for our peers at the time), and my talk was how you position yourself, a practice, and come to terms with doing work. It was entitled something like “The Search for the Appropriate Struggles in the Grey Zone.” It was highly emotional for me, relaying the issues with weighing positioning yourself and the work between what are at times polar opposite positions. It was probably the most important talk I have ever given. Shortly afterward I was tenured at UIC (Dean Judith Kirshner attended that talk), I began teaching at the Rural Studio and after watching the video, the owners of 1875 hired us. They frankly could have hired anyone in the world, and they chose to work with us. An unforgettable experience.

I often relay that the house was a gift and was my/our graduate school. I learned through that process so much of what the office did on all different levels. While a home, it was to be basically a museum setting where people were able to live in, as well as a social place where 150 people could convene. The owner specifically said that they wanted it to convey what we could do that was “of our time,” so together we were looking to push boundaries. It was the first geothermal house in Chicago. We understood that there was a lot of glass, so how do you make an envelope high performing? Much of the construction is really at the upper end in terms of means. It also is something that is going to age quite well. It is a self-healing building and everything in there is operating at the absolute limit. You couldn’t take anything out of that house and still have it perform. Structurally, it is right on the edge. Joe Burns and Werner Sobek were involved in that project. It is a unique project, it was a great opportunity, but in another way, it probably bolstered this sense of our work being unattainable for the general public. When I present it, I always need to address the ethics of it, the cost, the materials, etc., particularly when speaking with students at the Rural Studio. It is a project that operates on the edges, the palette was stripped down to essentials, and while there was cost, it was built well, nothing was extraneous. This said, I have often been asked what I gain the greatest satisfaction from. It is really the projects that have no budget, where the skill of a designer is best shown in making something out of nothing. Mario Gandelsonas will say the most underrated material in an architect’s quiver is paint because you can’t value engineer paint out of a project, and it can be meaningful. I get as much, if not more, joy out of doing a nonprofit, whether it be Marwen, Care for Real, or the food pantries that we do. We operate on both ends of the spectrum, being a Robin Hood where we can basically keep mouths fed at the office, but then also feel connected socially and emotionally. I am proud we are able to do fulfilling places for those with expensive shoes and those in hand-me-downs.

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1875 North Orchard House, Chicago, 2007. © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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1875 North Orchard, Chicago, 2007. © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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1875 North Orchard, Chicago, 2007. © Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: I have heard you explaining your firm as a Robin Hood in a way that working on high-end projects allows you to do other projects that might not have an adequate fee. Do you look for those clients that have less resources? Do you search for those institutions?

DW: Architectural practice is a balance, and to stay in practice, to have commitments to each other, we need to remain solvent. We are conscious of the need and responsibility to work for patrons, just as we have the need and responsibility to work for those less fortunate. Our work is very much through word of mouth. If you do a nonprofit, and we have done three projects for Nourishing Hope, you are approached by others. We have done numerous charter schools and work for universities. I also enjoy doing work for artists and arts organizations. We have worked for the Richard Gray Gallery for probably twenty years.

The quality of the work that we do is commensurate to the people that we have and who we choose to work with. All these people have a network of connections and are involved in things outside practice: schools, travel, and lectures. That is an important aspect of the office, as is the word of mouth. For example, we would not have done The Momentary unless I was teaching. It is probably fair to say that we would not have half our staff if I was not teaching.

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Richard Gray Gallery Warehouse, Chicago, 2017. © Tom Rossiter. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Richard Gray Gallery Warehouse, Chicago, 2017. © Tom Rossiter. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns.

IG: I’d like you to walk us through the work that you have done for two nonprofits over the years and how your relationship with them has evolved: Marwen and Lakeview Pantry, now Nourishing Hope.

DW: As you know, we have been involved in nonprofit and institutional work from the outset, starting with the Chicago Children’s Museum, then the Old Town School of Folk Music, etc. Marwen and Nourishing Hope were like many of our nonprofit clients: shoestring operations at the outset that grew as they invested in the creation of a physical presence, an embodiment of their missions. Both projects have proved how architecture can build momentum, optimism.

Marwen was at first an interior build-out of a loft building, where we cleaned out and established a clear rigor to the space. The goal was to achieve a safe and dignified space for high-school students with no access to art instruction to come, from every zip code, to make art. It was also directed at their parents, for them to understand that this was serious work. We channeled Donald Judd in the approach of intervening on the space, intending the space to implicitly teach. The one “premium” was the use of a concrete floor, used to both level and deaden the sound of footfall. I recall to this day: $29 a square foot, with lots of groundwork for donations, plumbing fixtures, drywall, window-treatments, etc. The building established its presence, the board developed around it, and that ultimately lead to Marwen purchasing the building and the subsequent addition to the north, creating a true art campus.

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Marwen expansion, Chicago, 2000. © Steve Hall | Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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Marwen expansion, Chicago, 2015. © Steve Hall | Hedrich Blessing. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

Lakeview Food Pantry was a disjointed organization operating out of two undersized locations, and they were looking to consolidate. With the help of IFF [Illinois Facilities Fund, a community development financial institution], they found an old dog kennel and we submitted a proposal that established the organization in plan and section. It was a diagram of the community handshake. As with all nonprofits (and I’d like to think all our projects), every material was chosen to do a job beyond itself: the floor, wall treatments, acoustics, lighting (by Lux Populi), graphics (by Jason Pickleman / JNL Graphic Design). Good daylight, good plan, good proportion. Since then, we have done two new projects with them, and have gone on to work with at least six other food pantries.

The office is exceptionally proud and invested in this type of work, which is too often overlooked. It truly affects our bottom line, our salaries, but makes us very happy.

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Lakeview Pantry, Chicago. © Tom Harris Photography. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: You have many recurrent clients that you do two or three projects for them. Do those projects always go with the same architect-in-charge in the office or does the client work with different people?

DW: It depends. Typically, if you know the individual or entity, you are always going to be involved to some degree. For example, I have worked with one individual for twenty-five years, but at this point, other partners and other people in the office are dealing with the client and I am only tangentially involved. One of the things that is important socially and experientially in a practice is to not do just one thing, to continue to rotate and shake things up, and to look at things afresh. We are doing a project right now up in the northern suburbs and the project architect just spun everybody on their heels. It is a fantastic scheme. I would have never thought of that. That is a joy to see.

IG: Are some of the people in the office working solely in the high-end projects or do they get the chance to work on both sides?

DW: We purposely try to assign people so, if they are doing high-end residential, they also work on other type of projects. Right now Manny is working on his first residence, but he is also doing a food pantry. Each project is going to inform the other. Frankly, anyone would shoot themselves if they were just doing high-end residential, or just doing schools. It is just too flat of a landscape. I mentioned Harry Weese earlier. I always have respected Harry’s work because of the diversity of program type: the tiny houses, the institutional, the schools, and the churches. You also never knew what was going to come out of Harry’s brain or out of Harry’s office. Whether it was Harry or whether it was the group that he was working with, you were always surprised. Hopefully, as the dust settles and you look at the overall work of Wheeler Kearns, there might be a consistency in the thread of proportion and light, the resolution, the detailing. But there is a diversity in terms of program type, of cost, of vernacular vs modern. Those are the knobs that we always are adjusting and discussing in the office.

IG: It is remarkable to see the diversity of work and the type of clients that you have. But I think the common thread is that there is a care about the project at hand, regardless of the budget. There is a care in the way you resolve the project. Sometimes the project might be more exuberant, like the project that we were talking about on Orchard Street, but in other projects it might be a much smaller detail, but the care comes through. Looking at the renovation of the Krause Music Store, the last Louis Sullivan project, that was taking place at the same time as the project on Orchard Street, is a testament of how you approach two very different projects.

DW: You are always trying to figure out what you want to protect, what you want to comment on, or relate to. So much of it has to do with a place and a history. We would not be a good firm to land something in Korea or in Lincoln, Nebraska, because we just don’t have a relationship there. We are more of a Murcutt type of office: work locally and get a sense for what happens where you are. One other point in terms of the spectrum of work that has influenced me personally is working with Rural Studio. In 2002, basically at the same time of the commission for the 1875 North Orchard House, Andrew Freear invited me down to consulting the students in Hale County, Alabama. I have done that now for over twenty years. It is this idea of making something out of nothing, making a house for $20,000, where $12,000 is used for material and $8,000 is “labor.” Knowing how many windows you get and that all you get to do is move them around. Knowing how many screws you need and all that stuff. It is sobering and it is an exciting thing to go down there. Have you been yet?

IG: No, I haven’t.

DW: We must get you down there. It is an amazing place. It reinforces how difficult architecture is and the students down there don’t wear a design cape. They live the entire process: listeners, designers, fundraisers, builders. My experience there has influenced my work at UIC and the office. We did several design/build projects at UIC, guerrilla style, to clean the Art & Architecture building out of forty years of neglect. We would go to Walter Netsch’s house and the students would ask about the history: “Walter, what would you do?” After listening and then doing, we ultimately had the honor of Dawn and Walter coming back after forty years of saying, “No, I don’t want to go in the building because the state put up all those cabinets.” And we said, “Walter, they are gone now.” Introducing those students to that history and that voice. History is so important. Every Wednesday I have my students go to different spaces in Chicago and they draw in silence. I explain a bit where and why they are there. I have seventeen students in my studio this semester and probably three have been to Crown Hall, but none of them have been to the rest of IIT. None of them had been to the Graham Foundation or the Charnley-Persky House. None of them have been to the Fine Arts building, the Mies post office, 190 LaSalle, or the Rookery Building. None of them had been there. The importance of going out. Instead of taking a year off and going to Rome, we take an afternoon and go to Chicago.

IG: You have an incredible history available in Chicago. You started teaching in 1993 at UIC and then, a decade later, you also started to teach at Rural Studio. I am interested in your academic career and how UIC was when you started teaching. How was your teaching there at that time, and how has it evolved? What has the influence of Rural Studio and UIC been?

DW: I started teaching at UIC when Ken [Schroeder] was the acting director. I taught first with Bruno Ast and Doug Garofalo. Ultimately, Katerina [Rüedi Ray] got Xavier [Vendrell] and me connected by teaching a studio; Xavier is from Barcelona and brought a new perspective to the school. WKA’s library expanded threefold after I met Xavier, traveling with him, and also jointly spending time running the Rome program. UIC was really the place of practitioners back in, probably, the ’70s and ’80s. Stanley [Tigerman] changed the trajectory. You could argue it was in a good way or not. When I got to UIC, there was Doug, Sidney Robinson, Dana Buntrock, Stuart Cohen, Lloyd Gadau, Phil Kupritz; a cameo by Zaha Hadid, by Paul Florian, etc. There was a variety of people that were teaching, and proportionally more in practice then than there has been in the last twenty years.

IG: Had they been teaching when Stanley was the director or did they join afterwards?

DW: They had taught when Stanley was at UIC. Ken Schroeder, for sure was part of the group that really questioned the direction of the school. I had no overlap with Stanley when he was teaching, so I have no perspective that I can offer there. I do think Stanley was an amazing educator, just top-notch in terms of what he did for the city. As time has gone on, the school has lost, by attrition or by age or whatever, many of those voices. I am the last person standing of that generation, which is ironic to think of because you still think of yourself as a thirty-year-old kid. I think Katerina brought a different point of view and was involved in getting myself involved in going for a tenured position; Xavier was directing that search. I became a tenured professor in 2001. In 2008, I became a full professor. Probably in 2006 or 2007, right after the 1875 North Orchard House was completed, I became interim director because Daniel Friedman suddenly left. I had some administrative exposure, but I am not built as an administrator. I told that to Judith Kirshner, the dean at the time, and Doug Garofalo. Doug and Judith took me out to lunch and bent my ear and said, “You’ve got to do this,” and I said, “I’ll do it for the benefit of the school, not by choice but by duty.” I’m frankly not an “academic” but I do feel I’m a critical practitioner and have tried to bring that voice into the school.

IG: Did your teaching change between Katerina and Daniel Friedman’s tenures as directors or were you always able to teach consistent classes?

DW: As an adjunct, you are teaching studio classes. I taught both undergrad and grad studios. When Katerina arrived, she had me teach primarily in the grad program. I taught with Doug and then with Xavier. Ultimately, I became chair of what was called the Graduate Technical Studio or the Comprehensive Studio. That was my charge, what I was hired to do, so I became known, unfortunately, as the nuts-and-bolts guy. As a RISD-trained architect, a nuts-and-bolts guy is a scary thing to think of. When Daniel came, he understood the potential of leveraging design-build and what I was doing at the Rural Studio. That is when we started to do the work on the building itself, cleaning it out, revealing it, looking at it, what to keep, what to transform.

IG: You were doing the installations across the Art & Architecture Building, like the metal and wooden benches.

DW: A former student, Travis Nam, owned and operated Crosstree Studio, so we would have students go and work in their architectural metalwork studio. That was, again, trying to bring the spirit of the Rural Studio, but being guerrilla. We couldn’t do any built things in Chicago because of unions. I felt very good about transforming the building as much as we could with the limited means we had, clarifying, and cleaning it out. Just give it some acoustic love and lighting love and you could really transform it because it is a special building. Daniel got me involved in more one-to-one detailing as well as the core grad tech stuff. Since Bob came on board, I have been primarily teaching the undergrad technology classes as well as undergrad studios. This is the first semester, probably in ten or twelve years that I have taught grads. It is nice to be back in that.

IG: There is a new director now, Florencia Rodriguez.

DW: Correct. Again, we have a very interesting, very bright faculty, one that Bob has said “is coming into middle age.” Early on, a lot of the new faculty members looked me at askance given the perception of me being a practitioner. Many of them are, as they develop their practices, starting to understand that there is some meaning there and complementary mindsets. That is, I think, a natural evolution of a school as a faculty matures. It will be interesting to see how Florencia will take the rudder, tap it, and set a new course for the school. As you know, I look at evolutionary change optimistically.

IG: Do other people from your practice teach?

DW: I did not read this until recently, but Stanley claimed that an architect must teach as well as build. I think the question is where you teach, in practice or in academia. We did have people teaching with me in 2001. Tom, Larry, Joy, and Jon all did lectures. Ultimately, we have tried to find a balance in managing the time away from practice, beyond the typical jury requests for any staff member. As the office evolves, it will be interesting to see who will have that foot in the door I leave open. Joy Meek has taught probably for the last five years up at Northwestern University with Larry Booth. They started a small program within the Civil Engineering department there.

IG: You mentioned before that, when you moved to Chicago, you were involved with the Chicago Architecture Club. That was forty years ago. What is the state of the current architectural community from your point of view?

DW: It is a very different landscape. Right now, we have the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which has primarily brought in outside voices to stir up the mix. The Chicago Architectural Club was an exclusive club upon entry. That transformed to a point where it was more of an open call and maybe there was a portfolio, but people that were interested in joining could do that. I have seen many of the iterations through the years from Steve Wierzbowski to Elva Rubio. I think, right now, Alison [Von Glinow of Kwong Von Glinow] is involved. All of that bodes well, and I think the more voices, the better. Frankly, the world and Chicago are so alive with information, not only in the universities but also at the Graham Foundation, the Society of Architectural Historians, the Biennial, and the Chicago Architecture Center. In a way, it is almost like watching The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. You are gorging yourself when there are too many courses of stuff. You must pick and choose. I have purposely found one place to focus my energy, which is through the AIA Bridge program, which I think is probably the best thing the local chapter does. It basically connects young architects, let’s say three to five years into the practice, with people that are mentors or guides or lifeguards or whatever, to open up their perspectives. I have done this probably for the last fifteen years. Craig Reschke, Tom Lee, and Danielle Beaulieu are recent mentees; I have high hopes for each of them. I know Stanley had group meetings late in life with young architects. That is what I think we all want to do: to dump all this knowledge into others so they know the history, why things were the way they were and are now, and what needs to change.

IG: Let’s go back to the practice and look at the projects in the mid-2010s. There were other important projects that your office was doing at a time that the city of Chicago was changing. They were trying to introduce Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs), and Wheeler Kearns Architects were working on two projects along Milwaukee Avenue and the CTA’s Blue Line. Let’s talk about how the 1611 West Division project came to be and how the architectural goals intersected with these new city goals.

DW: We might want to put the owner in context as these were developments, a business/building type we are not interested in. We have done several projects for Rob [Buono of Henry Street Partners]: a number of residences, an organic vegetable farm, and a number of site-specific coffee shops. He is an enlightened individual in architecture and in development, the only true “developer” that we have ever worked with. The idea was that these were apartments and that he would own and manage them. While obviously part of the equation, he is not into it for the money per se. Rob had an opportunity to purchase the corner of Division Street and Ashland Avenue, and the initial thinking was to do a rather simple low-scale building. When that was proposed, the community got a little bit ruffled, saying that they really felt that it should be a bigger building. He leaned into that criticism and what was, let’s say, a three- or four-story building ended up being an eleven-story building. It was a very tight site. The only way of optimizing it was to rethink the relationship of the scale of the bulk of the building to its parking component. At that time, there was a new loophole within the city to look at reducing the parking component if you were in proximity of major transportation, which we were as we were by the Blue Line and two major bus routes, and that made the project work. Out of that came the first project that has no residential parking on the property whatsoever. The only parking that is there is for the commercial space on the ground floor. Scott Rapp and Studio Gang were involved in the community meetings because their offices were in the area. They were extremely supportive of what we were doing. Rob said, “As long as we have the community support, let’s move on this.”

For us, architecturally, the issue was how to make a stubby building look a little bit taller than it was. There was a chamfer on the corner so, instead of just doing a chamfer, which would be the easy route, we inflected/folded the public facades to bow in, wrapped the building’s fabric all the way around, and then expressed the core as a punctuation. We were looking at Inland Steel Building and we were looking at some recent European work. I think Sauerbruch Hutton was one office that we were looking at in terms of a pixelization that would allow a randomness that was intentional. In terms of their plan, the apartment units are identical per tier but are different given the fenestration. The building program was basically very small apartments that were meant to be for people that used the Blue Line. It turns out that a lot of flight attendants live in the building. That was really the first large high-rise that we did. Power Construction built it, and it was at breakneck speed. It was spectacular to see what two people, in this case Jon Heinert and Michael Kendall, could do to put together a building so quickly. Construction took thirteen months; houses are built in that time or more. It is a post-tension concrete building (Chuck Anderson was the structural engineer) and we learned quite a bit. It created quite a stir and led to a lot of buildings going up along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor.

That was the first one, so you could say that it was the precedent. As Rob looked to build upon that knowledge, he found an additional property up at California Avenue and Milwaukee Avenue, literally across the street from the Blue Line California stop. In that project, called MICA, the key for us was that the Department of Planning had determined that the long stretch of property was to be a four-story building, with commercial on the ground floor and four stories of residential above. That was their published, prescriptive solution to be followed. Our critical position was that Milwaukee Avenue was a very tough commercial street, with no public open space. We argued that if we could take the prescribed four stories, cut the building in two, and turn them on end, you could open up a public space that both buildings and the community could enjoy. You would have a higher volume, which is what the city had been promoting and make a landmark similar to the [Robey] hotel at North Avenue and Damen Avenue, that signals where the L is. This is something that we are proud of, the making of an unexpected public exterior space while increasing density. A win-win.

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1611 West Division, Chicago, 2014. © Tom Rossiter. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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1611 West Division, Chicago, 2014. © Tom Rossiter. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

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1611 West Division, Chicago, 2014. © Tom Harris Photography. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: How much dialogue was there with the city or how was the feedback exchange?

DW: They were pretty open about it; city planners are open to creative solutions. I think that the number of units that we had at Ashland and Division were not seen as onerous, and they were looking at it as a test fit to see whether it made sense while getting rid of the parking plinths. At Ashland and Division, the size of the piece of property literally would not allow for any structured parking; it was just too small of a site.

IG: The site was a Pizza Hut before. The building didn’t replace a previous housing development.

DW: No, it didn’t. It started out being more a commercial office above retail. That was the three-story scheme, and we were not all that excited. Rob was not all that excited, but at a certain threshold, you pay for all the foundations. To pay for the deep foundations, caissons, and so forth, you must have more program. We could do a three-story building and make the economics work, but given the feedback of the community—which we totally appreciate that they did so to make a bookend to enter onto the Division Street corridor—that was what really made it happen. That is a project where community feedback made a better project. On MICA, the primary concerns were shadows. We did an exhaustive light study to show that there would be less shadows and more dynamic sun on that particular site with a taller building. There is a bit of residential parking on that project versus just all commercial. We then got Thomas Kelley and Carrie [Norman from Norman Kelley] to do some graphic murals within both lobby spaces. It was nice; I have always liked to try to engage and feed work to younger practices. Whether it was John Ronan when he was starting out, or Future Firm and other offices now, giving them work is a way of supporting young practices as they are getting going.

IG: Can you talk more about that? Are other younger offices part of your projects or are you giving them work that you might not be able to take in your office?

DW: More so the latter. At Ashland and Division, we collaborated with the artist Antonia Contro and Intelligensia Coffee, both previous clients, to do the first commissioned art mural. At MICA, we wanted to do something in the lobbies that would be unique to that project. There was a big building and a small building, so we introduced Thomas and Carrie to Rob with their interest in site and perspective. They picked up on the gabions and Mimi [McKay]’s trees and ran with it. If you go in the buildings, at a certain position, the murals look fully three-dimensional; from another vantage point, when you come off the elevator, it is completely flat and abstract. Now Rob knows Thomas and Carrie and a lineage begins. If we are too busy, and oftentimes we are, we refer projects to others coming up. I referred several clients to John Ronan when he was starting out years ago, and I am thankful as they were in great hands, and John was able to expand his network. You try to build the community to get work to the people that you feel are going to give it the care and respect that you would want to give it yourself.

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Milwaukee Belden T.O.D., Chicago, 2017. © Tom Rossiter. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architects.

IG: You talked earlier how you are a practice that operates within Chicago or nearby areas, but there is a project called The Momentary that is in Arkansas. That was also an important project in the office. Can you talk about how you got involved in the project and what that entailed.

DW: We received an RFP for the project, and I think we were probably one of maybe twenty-five firms around the country that received it. I can’t say for sure, but it may have been in part due to our reputation. But frankly, looking around in Chicago, why would they send an RFP to Wheeler Kearns? It probably had something to do with our relationship with Marlon Blackwell whom I met years ago. After following our work and reaching out, he subsequently asked me to speak down at the school. In our office, we have hired three exceptional architects from the University of Arkansas in large part because of recommendations from him and his colleagues that we should hire these people. That gave us a reason to go after the project. I am not one that just wants to land somewhere, but I want to be respectful of where we work. Given the opportunity of doing work in Arkansas where I have a close colleague, plus that we have three people in the office that are from Arkansas and know the place, the climate, and the culture really cemented our interest. When we interviewed and presented to Alice Walton, there were two other well-established firms vying for the commission. The El Dorado, out of Kansas City, and Scherer Rockcastle out of Minneapolis. We were hired because Alice and the two nephews said, “This is the young firm.” We had Calli Verkamp and Danny Wicke (a Rural Studio alumn) there, young architects from our office, as well as Joy Meek, Larry, and me. We had two landscape architects from Washington State that were there because they had a relationship with Joy. That was the foundation for getting that project.

IG: What was the project about?

DW: If you know of Bentonville, this is the headquarters for the Walmart Corporation. Alice Walton had engaged Moshe Safdie to design a museum called Crystal Bridges, a very elaborate, very notable museum and campus. If you want to put it in a nutshell, it is for “dead American artists, no touch.” They were also very conscious of trying to bring in culture like what Irwin Miller did in Columbus, Indiana: bringing in architecture and a certain type of culture into a place that didn’t necessarily have it. They have a vested interest in elevating the food scene, the cultural scene, and so forth within the community to attract people. It was self-serving in a way, but they felt that they needed to supplement Crystal Bridges with “living American artists that was high touch.” An existing building that Alice worked in when she was a young woman was the Kraft cheese plant, south of the original Walton drugstore by maybe two blocks. It was a 70,000 sf-building complex that was built with probably four or five different construction materials, whether it be an insulated metal panel or brick or a precast concrete. The only notable thing is that there were no windows, it was a factory. The narrative we developed dictated that anything that we interacted with or added to was glazed. The glass provided a window to the exterior to enliven this space. There is a large landscape component now, with a festival hall and music venue. Directly to the east of The Momentary, there is a cooking school. They are not part of this project, but they are trying to implement Bentonville as the Cordon Bleu of the American Southeast. Any art that is active in high touch, that includes the culinary arts, the sound artists and music video, and obviously the more typical arts, were totally fair game for it. Our work there was very much channeling Scarpa’s or Sverre Fehn’s approach of intervention, where you very purposely explore and explain what is new and what is left by clear juxtaposition. That was the tactic that we took with a great collaborative team: Lux Populi from Mexico City did the lighting, Carl Giegold’s group Threshold did the acoustics, which were quite challenging given some of those spaces we had to work within, and others. As you know, architecture is a team sport.

IG: Had you worked with this team in the past or was it put together specifically for this project?

DW: Some of it was specifically for the project, and with some, we have a working relationship, for example the lighting designer and the acoustician. The client brought to the table FÖDA, which is a graphic design and marketing or positioning firm. They were also quite instrumental in clarifying that, yes, glazing is a very clear way of understanding how we approached the site. Ultimately, we worked with a local landscape architect [Howell & Vancuren Landscape Architects], and we have recently completed a ground up parking garage. For the parking garage, we worked with Chad “Nish” Earles, a visual artist and designer, and member of the Caddo Nation, to develop signifying elements within the fluted glazing that were taken out of the culture of the landscape where they originally originated [For the main project, WKA worked with Addie Roanhorse, a Native American artist]. Hopefully, we will continue relationships with the foundation. We are part of their core groups, so when they have new projects, we occasionally will get notified.

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The Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2020. © Tom Harris Photography. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architecture.

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The Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2020. © Tom Harris Photography. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architecture.

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The Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2020. © Tom Harris Photography. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architecture.

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The Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2020. © Tom Harris Photography. Courtesy of Wheeler Kearns Architecture.

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Initial sketch for The Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas. © Dan Wheeler.

IG: Can we use this project to talk about your design process? How do you approach a project of this type and scale?

DW: The project was developed as an office. We spent a lot of time with our proposal and the interview was quite anxiety driven because we wanted to do the right thing. And again, I was told late in life that you pick your client. You pick your client, you don’t pick your project, and in this case, we felt we had a great project, but also a great client because of the relationships that we had with Arkansas. The interview was a suitcase, and within the suitcase, we opened it up, and each person took out of a foam box, an item to talk about, and why that item had relationship with the potential of the project. That is why we formed a narrative of the importance of things. We then led into the presentation of what we found promising and problematic, so part of being a doctor is to figure out what your observation is. What do you think is wrong with this? And what do you think some of the possibilities are? Within that, all the images that we had were all hand drawn. Some were in collage, using photography as a basis, but the idea of hand drawn illustrations is important in our work, and for me, because I am an old goat. Many of the others in the office are fully Revit-ized and Enscape-ized. Most of the work in schematic design that we do is by hand, oftentimes in perspective, three-dimensional. It has the ability of not telling something all that quickly, but to give a nuance or an inclination of what lies ahead. You basically get into the experiential aspect, not through axonometrics and kind of clinical specificity, but really what the experience is going to be. Oftentimes, we will do watercolors, which again, are purposely imperfect. People understand that it is not fully cooked, and we also understand it, so we can kick it around. We have a term in our office called “make it, break it, fix it.” You make something to then break it, and say, “I made it, I don’t like it, how do we fix it?” You tear it apart. And again, it is the form finding versus just purely a form making.

IG: I know drawing is an important aspect for you. Can you talk more specifically about the role of drawing? How do you use drawing? Is that part of your teaching?

DW: Yeah, yeah. I often say that the pencil is the most powerful tool that an architect has. Obviously, you could draw with a pen or whatever, but your brain, your head, is the thing that makes you draw. The pencil in hand has infinite line weights, can turn on a dime. Drawing is very, very different from photography or from Enscape, where everything is fully rendered equally. A drawing isolates what you want defined in a landscape. If I am sitting here with you, what do I draw? Do I draw your face? Do I draw your hand? Or this bowl of clementines? What is the focus? I teach a drawing workshop down at the Rural Studio. I have a talk that I call “Drawing to See,” and that is what I do: I try to draw something to see it better and clarify it. One of the images I like to use is a photograph of a castle with a camera next to it, because that was what photographed that. Then, I have a drawing of the castle, which is just a bunch of circular lines. Who drew that? Well, it was Louis Kahn. The idea is that you distill down what you want to see, out of something that is so real, to something that is more conceptual in a way. The first year, the year I took off from RISD and traveled, I started out carrying a very large Canon camera with lots of different lenses and lots of rolls of film. This was back in the late ’70s. I quickly realized that it was the most cumbersome way to travel, just in terms of processing, stacking, and getting stuff developed. It was just ridiculous. I quickly jettisoned that and started drawing in a sketchbook and documenting it. Everyday drawing became a graphic diary.

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We did the thing with the archives at the Art Institute [MAS Context Tracing / Traces 2019] and Harry Weese had a similar approach. He drew every day and everything, whether it was the cost of the lumber that he bought for his house that he built, or whatever else. It is all there. I probably do more drawing than notation, but if you come to the office, there are probably a hundred Moleskine’s, 3.5” x 5” Japanese albums, that you can pull apart and you can see a filmstrip of a trip to Bangladesh, Berlin, Arkansas, or wherever. That is a mode that I use. I apologize to my partners, my staff, and my students that I don’t draw with a computer. I broke my jaw in typing class in Minnesota in fifth grade. I was playing hooky and, while I was playing baseball, I broke my jaw. I still don’t know how to type, so I use a single finger/hunt/punch. It would take me eons to be as facile and productive as those that are digitally trained, but I do think and draw three dimensionally, I turn corners. Architecture is not one material and another material hitting in elevation or in plan; it is conceiving things volumetrically, in light. The ability to take a pencil and sit with a contractor on site and draw on a piece of drywall what your ambition is is critical. If there is a concern, you can address it then and there, versus saying, “I’ll get back to you, and I’ll do an RFI, and then I’ll do an ASK.” Hand drawing is just so much more speculative and immediate. At UIC, after students are introduced to Rhino their first week in school, they don’t pick up a pencil after. That is one gift that I know I personally can give the students, so every fourth-year studio I teach, one day is out exploring the city and teaching them to see, and draw. I know I am a dying generation. I asked Stanley [Tigerman] at Volume Gallery when he put all his drawings up, and he said, “Well, that is my generation,” In a way, I’m closing out that generation, but hoping to extend it any way I can.

IG: Are these drawings a way of establishing a quick conversation as well as a way of personal note keeping and a diary? Do you also use the drawings as a final presentation or at what point does it change into computer generated images?

DW: I have done houses where the drawing sets are all hand drawn, freehand, full size or half size or three inches equals a foot, but everything is detailed to the nines. I remember one of our expeditors, they reported back that, “You won’t believe what happened. They put down the drawings, and they said, ‘God, what program is that?’” It is not to say that the information is not able to be conveyed. Oftentimes, what we’ll do is we will scan the drawings and then put them into a set. That becomes a part of the digitized Revit set that we typically produce. Most of our marketing drawings for nonprofits are generally done with watercolors. Again, to not force that this is literally what it is, because oftentimes in that fundraising phase it is not fully cooked, and you don’t want to commit to it. I’ve had people in the office and outside the office say that there is much more life with the hand drawn drawings than the ones that everyone expects now, the ones that you just get out of the box.

IG: It has been almost four decades since you started your practice. I am interested in hearing how time, for example in terms of weathering, has affected some of the early projects. Can you reflect on some of those projects?

DW: I think there is a project that I have used as an example. So often, there is this sense that buildings are only as good as when they are first built, especially now with the computer, precision, and materiality. There is a great book called On Weathering, which basically describes a building aging as a continuation of the building process. If you look at the gothic cathedrals, one of the reasons why they are so incredible is that the coal in the air has fallen back into the crevices, all the bleaching of the buttresses, the effects of the sun, and so forth. The three-dimensional character is accentuated by this aging process.

Two of our projects come to mind. We did a house in Lincoln Park several years ago. We got all the photographs back and it is all perfect, a nice thing, but the landscape wasn’t fully flushed out, and all the woodwork was just perfect. Our friend Xavier Vendrell is doing a book where he is going back fifteen years and photographing how people have domesticized his work. If we had a choice, I would far prefer to send photographers out ten years after you complete the project, because everything has found its place. The landscape has come forth, the people have found where the chairs want to be, and there is some fading on the wall. Everything has found its place. It is that patina of time, which Julie often describes as the fourth dimension, this idea that the richness of inhabitation is there.

In the 1875 North Orchard House, one of my favorite recent photographs is of the front door. The front door has a textured cast bronze pull, which started out with a perfectly even finish. But fifteen years later, you now see the bronze has gone to green, where all the oils and the oxidation has taken place, and then a variety of shades of bronze. In the Mosque of Córdoba, there are hundreds of columns, and all the columns are very clean above about four to five feet. Below that is the patina of centuries of people holding onto them and leaning up against them. It gives you this sense of imperfectness, of being messed with. There are certain buildings that must be that perfect vitrine, but those are unique examples and not the norm.

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Bronze pull of the 1875 North Orchard House, Chicago, 2020. © Dan Wheeler.

IG: As a practice, do you make a conscious decision about how to document those aspects, whether it is with photography, drawings, or talking to the owners?

DW: We talk to the owners about their expectations of what they want the finish to be, and we counsel them that, in essence, we’d like it to weather naturally. Just from a sustainability point, the expense of maintaining a building in a perfect state is too much. We have gone back to certain projects and photographed them. We recently had the Bohan Kemp project out of Camp Madron rephotographed by Steve Hall thirty years after it was built. We have the original photographs, and we have the new ones, so we can see a little bit of the moss, the checking of the wood, etc. It has aged, and it has got a little bit of graying in the hair, but it looks far better because of that. Sometimes you go back, and you say, “Jeez, I didn’t do too well with that, we weren’t smart enough, we didn’t think about the maintenance.” This is stuff that is hard to teach young staff members. You just try to articulate it to students, pointing out examples where it is clear it is aging well, getting better.

IG: I want to shift a little bit. We are conducting this oral history in your and Julie’s house. You have a conscious interest in collecting different items, so there are several collections here. I am curious to learn more about the idea of collecting memories and collecting objects. How does that world then come into your own house?

DW: First, I must say you are being very polite. We do have a crazy house. It is a house where we took the reins from a dancer and weaver, Madge Friedman (who worked for Frank Lloyd Wright), and her husband John Alschuler (Alfred’s son), an architect who did the working drawings for Mies for 900 and 910 [Lake Shore Drive Apartments]. It is a creaky old house listing to port, built in 1876. In 1959, the spinster Madge hired the architect Arthur Carrara to renovate it, complete with hanging fireplace and walnut-outlined architectural soffits. It reminds me of RISD, where you would live in a house on Benefit Street. It is just an old house, and you can’t make excuses for it because it is all you could afford. We lived at 910 [Lake Shore Drive Apartments] for probably seven or eight years when we first started out at SOM. Everyone wore black belts and suits, and we had two Corb couches, a Ficus tree, a Japanese mat, and that was it. There was emptiness. Having two kids, life accrues stuff, soccer trophies, and whatnot. I think what we have tried to do is collect things that have connections with stories specific to Chicago, like Paint by Numbers. We have probably over 2,000 from the late 1940s to the early 60s, none of which we have done. They cover the cracked plaster walls, so we don’t have to paint the walls. I should mention that it also helps with acoustics, with all the nooks and crannies. It’s also reflective of the architect as the shoemaker of not having/spending money on shoes, so on our budget we go to a lot of Goodwills and flea markets and ebays. At any rate, Dan Robbins was a Chicago commercial artist and he originated Paint by Numbers right after the war, in the late 40s, so there is a history there. It is of interest from that time, and frankly, it is somewhat about memory. It is a memory for me of the postwar baby boom years when I was growing up, though my parents would roll over in their graves at the notion. There is also something about being surrounded by thousands of hours of human activity, trying to make something, much like a brick wall is so different from a drywall wall.

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Objects in Dan and Julie Wheeler’s house, Chicago. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

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Objects in Dan and Julie Wheeler’s house, Chicago. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

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Objects in Dan and Julie Wheeler’s house, Chicago. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

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Objects in Dan and Julie Wheeler’s house, Chicago. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

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Objects in Dan and Julie Wheeler’s house, Chicago. Courtesy of Dan Wheeler.

We have a number of things by the designer known as Georges Briard. That is actually a pen name for a Ukrainian student from the School of the Art Institute in the early1940s named Jascha Brojdo. He became General Patton’s interpreter during World War II, and then he ended up doing paintings to make money. All of these serving trays are handmade, and like the paint by numbers, they had modular sizes and themes. They are all kind of utilitarian, not expensive, not precious things. Generally, I feel comfortable when I am in an unpretentious, modest place, versus something where you say, “Oh my God, they spent $40,000 for this.” You walk into a Prada showroom, and you think, “okay, it’s beautiful, but I am not worthy.”

Probably, the most pertinent collection that I have—Julie has others—is the collection of utilitarian household objects by the designer Jens Quistgaard. He was the designer for the American company Dansk Designs. Quistgaard was Danish and practiced outside of Copenhagen, but he was very prolific, like Arne Jacobsen, in terms of the bandwidth of designing buildings, furniture, objects, cutlery, and whatnot. On one wall in the living room, you have our pepper mills. In 1948 he had one revolutionary idea: to combine a pepper grinder, and then on the top, a saltshaker, into one device. You had one element on your table that did both things. That was his revolutionary contribution to tableware. Some architects will have a revolutionary idea that people will pick up and run with, but meanwhile, for the next thirty years, Jens Quistgaard basically did a new pepper mill every year, with a different proportion, and so forth. Mies had a 21-foot bay, and the 21-foot bay was based on a traffic aisle for two cars to run in, and you could park two cars between it, and you could put two bedrooms in between a 21-foot bay. Whether it be 900, 910, or 2400, he was still evolving curtain walls, but whether it was concrete or steel, it was a 21-foot bay. Pepper mills are the same thing, a basic element that can be tuned, perfected. Like [Giorgio] Morandi, you will have four vessels on a ledge, and then you spend three years just moving those three, four vessels, and doing different things.

I also have a number of bikes, which are truly beautiful, utilitarian tools. Part of this might have come from growing up as a kid riding bikes, and I still feel the same. I stopped riding after my fall in 1981, then resumed riding in 2001 when I started teaching regularly at UIC and grew impatient with wasting time parking or waiting for buses and trains. I am very impatient, to a fault. At any rate, the bike became my 365-day efficiency and stress-release tool, no carbon footprint well ahead of the hybrids and electric cars. With my interest in evolution, I have a bike from 1899 (Columbia), one from 46 (Holdsworth), 54 (Claud Butler), 72 (Vitus), 81 (my old Fuji), 2005 (Whitney Moyer), and 2020 (Seven and a Godzilla). Most are steel, fixed-gear bicycles, where things are just reduced to the essentials, stripped of logos, etc. Just as Mies had his twenty-one-foot bay, the bike frame has not really changed in 125 years. It is just getting lighter, simpler, and faster.

This theme of evolutionary refinement segways to this here, underneath our stairway, where I have collected what now are 601 garden brass and bronze hose nozzles, each different. The earliest examples start around 1875, and the collection goes on until the invention of plastics. The idea is that every year, you as an architect, or you as a company that is making hose nozzles, are trying to make something better. You are trying to make it cheaper, stronger, better throw, or whatever. That is what our lives are spent with: learning from what we have done in the past and what other people are doing, and then trying to push it forward, in our own particular way. My father, as I had mentioned earlier, was an industrial designer and the book on his shelf was Never Leave Well Enough Alone by Raymond Loewy. That really is the directive that I have taken to try to understand that, yes, we could leave it well enough alone, but what could we do to tweak it and kick it down the road a little bit?

IG: You are talking about the idea of evolution and continuum, that everything just picks up from somewhere else.

DW: Yep.

IG: You tweak it, it gets better in some way.

DW: Yep. In France, you have these water glasses that you get in cafes. They are typically octagonal, and they are heavy. I oftentimes put one of those in front of a student, and say, “Tell me how much history is in that?” Deer in headlights, they don’t know. And you say, “There are thousands of years of history in that. How do you make glass? How do you make it clear? How do you cast it? And then, why is it octagonal on one end and why is it circular on the other?” That has been formed not by form making, but form finding. The dishwasher in France says, “I am taking all this stuff out, and if I am stacking round glasses on top of one another, you are going to capture all the humidity between the cups, and by making it not fit so well, you allow it to breathe and dry on its own.” All these things have a reason, so if we just look around and study stuff, and say, “I understand that now, that’s a good idea.” Then, you tell the student, “Now come back tomorrow and tell me how you are going to make that better.” That is an optimistic endeavor; that is what architecture or design is all about.

IG: I think this is interesting also when thinking about the continuum of the architectural community, or the work that has been done in Chicago in the past. Understand the genealogy of architecture. Stanley Tigerman had an initiative focused on that, and then it was continued with the Society of Architectural Historians. It is a very useful tool.

DW: Very much so.

IG: To learn about where people came from, where they trained, and where they have gone. Is the idea of the genealogy of the architects something that you think about?

DW: Absolutely. We have won numerous awards and citations, but one of the things I am most proud about the office is that we have won the AIA Chicago Firm Award twice, once in 1996 for being a flat organization, a collective practice, and again in 2016, for not only being good citizens in terms of architecture, but also for being able to be teaching our staff to take over for us. One of the things I really have taken to heart is something that Bob Somol once said—that we are all snowflakes. We are just here for a moment in time, and we have our form, a crystalline nature, and at a certain point we are going to go away. Essentially, what we are trying to do is give people, our students and the people that are in our offices, enough background so they can have their time as a crystallized, mature doctor of space, and then can pass that history along as well.

IG: What you have been sharing is very important: the way you have supported those working in your office, but also the younger generation, giving them projects or involving them in a project, as well as your students. You have also been involved with institutions that they are operating in the city, for example the Graham Foundation, an organization that supports work and thinking in Chicago and abroad. You were the interim director and you are also part of the board. Can you talk about that experience?

DW: This fell out of the blue, but back, probably, in the late 1990s, I was invited to join as a member of the trustees of the Graham Foundation. That essentially is a great group of people of varying backgrounds that were asked to read grant proposals on a quarterly basis and help guide the Graham Foundation in terms of funding different areas of architectural research. It is great to be educated of all the research taking place in the different little buckets, whether it be in the arts, architecture, or architectural history, and how we can support it. They don’t give tremendous amounts of money, but this support allows a cachet of having a Graham Foundation grant, which then leverages other grant making. Every time you sat down, you were just overwhelmed with the breadth of intelligence that the people were bringing to the table, as well as meeting several of the different trustees. If you ever want to go see the Irwin Miller House, you must have Henry Kuehn walk you through and give you the tour. And then learning the history of how the Graham Foundation came about. That Ernest Graham wanted to build the École des Beaux-Arts here in Chicago, but the money fell out after the Depression, so they couldn’t build a school, but they started the foundation. John Entenza, who was the director from 1960 until 1971, leveraged early publications like Learning From Las Vegas. Rick Solomon [director from 1993 until 2005] unfortunately succumbed to illness and I became the interim director at the Graham Foundation. Like at UIC and that directorship, I wasn’t made for this, but I did the best job I could. Being able to stand on the podium at Rick’s memorial event and ask Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown to come up and talk about the importance of the Graham Foundation grant in supporting their work and book was humbling and unforgettable. It is always paying things forward and then you get stuff back in return. The Graham Foundation is a fantastic organization, as you know. It is the only real architectural funding for research here in the US, so it is a great thing to have that in Chicago.

IG: You were the interim director until Sarah Herda was hired as the new director in 2006.

DW: Yep. Tom Beeby was the head of that search. We are fortunate to have Sarah join us from the Storefront for Art and Architecture, and her legacy is also being established now. She has been particularly instrumental in evolving how the Graham Foundation building could be used, and bringing on a broad spectrum of exhibitions and happenings that interact with its history.

IG: What have I forgotten to ask?

DW: I am occasionally asked if I have any regrets, any advice I would offer. I would say my only true regret is the recognition of the toll we take on our families. Fortunately, Julie is an architect and knew what she was getting into. Having run the office for thirty years, she knew what was going on. She truly has given me the space to do what I love, a huge sacrifice on her part. I remember there was one year, early on, when I worked every day, not even a holiday or vacation. This said, starting a firm while you have young kids is tough on everyone, but particularly on them. I am one that has always wanted to please, be it my parents, professors, clients, colleagues, or students. All said, the ones you are closest to sometimes gets the short end, which I am trying better to serve as time goes. As for retirement, not happening.

IG: Thank you Dan.

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Wheeler Kearns Architects offices on the second floor of the Fisher Building, 343 South Dearborn Street, Chicago. © Wheeler Kearns Architects.


Daniel Wheeler Architects 1987–1990

Unruh-Rowley Residence, Addition (unbuilt; published on the CAC Journal)

Camp Madron Masterplan, Site development and Lodge restoration
Buchanan, Michigan, 1988

Simmons Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1989

Harrold Coachhouse (unbuilt; published on the CAC Journal)
Chicago, Illinois, 1989

Lapoint Residence I, Camp Madron (unexecuted)
Buchanan, Michigan, 1989

Kapnick Residence
Winnetka, Illinois, 1989

Rawls Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 1989

Lunchroom, RTC Corporation Offices

Ferris Duplex
Chicago, Illinois, 1989

Lobby Renovations
Chicago, Illinois, 1989

Camp Madron Prototype Houses (one-room schoolhouse)
Buchanan, Michigan, 1989

Chicago, Illinois, 1990

Reba Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1990

Schroeder Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1990

Lazar Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 1990

Rosenbaum Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1991

Lapoint Residence II (Camp Madron Lot 2)
Buchanan, Michigan, 1991

Eimer-Roach Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1992

Saul Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1993

Wheeler Kearns Architects 1990–Present

  • Non-Residential Commissions

The Ancona School, Addition
4770 South Dorchester Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 1992

Great Plains Software Headquarters (unexecuted)
Fargo, North Dakota, 1992

Sandburg Village, Lobby and Management Offices
1455 North Clark Street, Chicago, Illinois, 1993

Stationery Station (demolished)
1800 North Clybourn Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 1994

Goose Island Banquet Hall (demolished)
1800 North Clybourn Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 1994

Essex II Live/Work
2210 West North Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 1994

Petrick Design Live/Work
1246 West Grace Street, Chicago, Illinois, 1996

Management Offices
900-910 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois, 1994

Chicago Children’s Museum, Navy Pier
700 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 1995

Associated Pediatrics, Interiors
1310 North Shermer Road, Northbrook, Illinois, 1995

Pamela Wilson Art Studio (demolished)
West Cornelia, Chicago, Illinois, 1995

John Hart Fine Wine Ltd, John Hancock Center
875 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 1996

Old Town School of Folk Music
4544 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 1998

North Avenue Beach House, Chicago Park District
1603 North Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, Illinois, 1998

Beverly Art Center
2407 West 111th Street, Chicago, Illinois, 1998

Marwen 2000 Green Homes for Chicago (awarded; unexecuted)
833 North Orleans , Chicago, Illinois, 1999

California Park Pool Structure (unexecuted)

Bachrach Clothing Design Studios and Expansion
610 North Fairbanks Court, Chicago, Illinois, 2001

Lost Chicago Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2001

SWWT (Southwest Women Working Together)
6854 South Western Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2003

Unbuilt Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2004

Chicago Tribune Tower Printing Press Room Repurposing Competition Proposal (unexecuted)
Chicago, Illinois, 2005

Studio V (former Krause Music Store by Louis Sullivan)
4611 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2007

Trinity Christian College Theater and Arts Center
6601 West College Drive, Palos Heights, Illinois, 2008

Granor Farm Farmhouse, Addition
3480 Warren Woods Road, Three Oaks, Michigan, 2009

Midewin Tallgrass Prairie (unexecuted)

Granor Farm Long Barn
3480 Warren Woods Road, Three Oaks, Michigan, 2010

Lobby Renovation
642 West Wellington Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2011

Photography Galleries, Art Institute of Chicago (unexecuted)
111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2011

Sukkot Shalom Synagogue
1001 Central Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois, 2012

Antonia Contro Art Studio
1800 West Grace Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2012

Granor Farm Big Barn
3480 Warren Woods Road, Three Oaks, Michigan, 2012

Intelligentsia Coffee Shop
3123 North Broadway, Chicago, Illinois, 2012

The Wolcott School
524 North Wolcott Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2013

99 Apartments and Retail
1611 West Division Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2014

Henry Street Development Offices
1611 West Division Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2014

Wolcott Academy
524 North Wolcott Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2014

Intelligentsia Coffee Shop
1609 West Division Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2014

Marwen, Expansion
833 North Orleans Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2015

Mylayne Pavilion
Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago, Illinois, 2015

Bosworth Housing: Design Development Spring (unexecuted)

Julia Fish Studio, Expansion and Restoration
1848 North Hermitage Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2016

Lakeview Pantry (now Nourishing Hope)
3945 North Sheridan Road, Chicago, Illinois, 2016

MiCA Apartments
2733 West Belden Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2016

Alice Center, Goodman Theater, Phase I
170 North Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2016

Tinley Creek Interpretive Center, Openlands/Cook Country Forest Preserve
Cook County, Illinois, 2017

Our Saviors Lutheran Church
1234 North Arlington Heights Road, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2017

Richard Gray Gallery, Warehouse, Gallery, and Garden
2044 West Carroll Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2017

Mansueto High School
2911 West 47th Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2017

IMAN (Intercity Muslim Assistance Network), Regenerator Project at Woods Academy (unexecuted)

9 Unit Mass-Timber Apartment Building (unexecuted)
537 West Fullerton Parkway, Chicago, Illinois, 2019

North Shore Congregation Israel, Intervention (unexecuted)
1185 Sheridan Road, Glencoe, Illinois, 2019

Care For Real Community Food Pantry
5339 North Sheridan Road, Chicago, Illinois, 2019

Lakeview Food Pantry Warehouse, “The Hub”
5151 North Ravenswood Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2019

Bernard Zell Day School, Expansion
3751 North Broadway, Chicago, Illinois, 2019

Theaster Gates Warehouse, Renovations
5929 South State Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2019

West Suburban Community Pantry
6809 Hobson Valley Drive, Woodridge, Illinois, 2019

The Momentary
507 Southeast E Street, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2020

Ryan Learning Center, Modern Wing, Art Institute of Chicago
111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2020

Witkowsky-Myleaf Garden Structure
853 West Wellington Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2020

Broadway Youth Center (Howard Brown Center/LGBTQ)
1023 West Irving Park Road, Chicago, Illinois, 2021

Corner Market, IMAN (Intercity Muslim Assistance Network)
Racine Street and 63rd Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2021

Chicago Great Lakes Academy
8401 South Saginaw Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2021

Granor Farm, Farm to Table Learning Center and Greenhouse Structure
3480 Warren Woods Road, Three Oaks, Michigan, 2021

Nourishing Hope Headquarters
1716 West Hubbard Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2022

Common Pantry
3908 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2023

Gray Gallery, Expansion
2046 West Carroll Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2023

Art in Motion Charter High School
7415 South East End Avenue, Chicago, Illinois, 2023

IMAN Corner Park “POP”
Racine and 63rd Street, Chicago, Illinois, 2023

Lupine Montessori School (concept design)
Lockport, Illinois, 2023

  • Residential Commissions

Harrington Residence (heavily altered)
Chicago, Illinois, 1991

Wheeler Residence (alterations)
Chicago, Illinois, 1992

Joni Holinger Residence (Camp Madron Lot 39)
Buchanan, Michigan, 1992

Mussman Residence
Ogden Dunes, Indiana, 1992

Wilson Ryckman Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 1992

Chicago, Illinois, 1992

Manilow Residence
Winnetka, Illinois, 1993

Chicago, Illinois, 1993

Crosby Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1994

Lane Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1994

Bruce Tizes Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1994

Rod McMahon Residence (Camp Madron Lot 36)
Buchanan, Michigan, 1995

Baird Residence
Winnetka, Illinois, 1995

Berry-Goodman Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1995

Teinowitz Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1995

Beck Residence
Lake Forest, Illinois, 1995

Gerald and Sandy Eskin Duplex Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 1996

Kurzman Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1996

Bohan Kemp Residence (Camp Madron Lot 41)
Buchanan, Michigan, 1997

Jacobs Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1998

William Plummer Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1998

Ruhaak Residence
Valparaiso, Indiana, 1998

Sachs-Rappaport Residence
Winnetka, Illinois, 1998

Pritzker Retreat
Monroe, Wisconsin, 1998

Schorsch-Berger Residence (Camp Madron Lot 45)
Buchanan, Michigan, 1999

Barbara Bluhm/Don Kaul Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1999

Perry Residence
Kiawah, South Carolina, 1999

Andy and Amy Bluhm Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1999

Alberding Welsh Residence (design consultant)
Chicago, Illinois, 1999

Warden Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 1999

Summer Rieff Residence
Wilmette, Illinois, 2000

Aeder Levine Residence
Galien, Michigan, 2001

Perlman Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2001

Lipson Residence (design consultant)
Chicago, Illinois, 2001

Gray Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 2002

Weinberg Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 2002

Brewer-Blumenthal Residence (Camp Madron Lot 35)
Buchanan, Michigan, 2003

Jan Feldman Residence (Camp Madron, Lot 14)
Buchanan, Michigan, 2003

DePaul Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2003

Alberding-Welsh Residence, Alterations
Harbert, Michigan, 2004

Barbara Goodman Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2004

Koch-Leibman Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2005

Ed Bachrach Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2006

Gray Residence, The Montgomery
Chicago, Illinois, 2006

Rokatz-Lichtenstein Residence (design consultant)
Chicago, Illinois, 2006

Field Residence and Gallery
Chicago, Illinois, 2006

Eisenberg Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2006

Burgum Residence (unexecuted)
Horace, North Dakota, 2007

Urban Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2007

Bruce Graham Residence, Renovations
Chicago, Illinois, 2007

Harris Garg Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2007

Goldberg Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2008

New Buffalo Residence
New Buffalo, Michigan, 2008

Klutznick Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2009

Aubrey Residence, Alterations and Addition
Lakeside, Michigan, 2009

Northbrook Residence/Nine-Square
Northbrook, Illinois, 2010

Caldwell Residence
Laramie, Wyoming, 2010

Tanner Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2011

Goodman Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2011

Koch Residence, Alterations
Lakeside, Michigan, 2011

Tuthill Residence
Hinsdale, Illinois, 2011

Vukosavich Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2012

Orchard Willow
Chicago, Illinois, 2012

Marquardt Farm/Residence
Spring Green, Wisconsin, 2012

Fizdale Residence
New Buffalo, Michigan, 2013

Knox Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 2015

Martin-Kelso Residence
Wilmette, Illinois, 2015

Wicker Park Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2015

Lazar-Diermier Residence, Alterations
Chicago, Illinois, 2016

Butcher-Picard Residence
Union Pier, Michigan, 2016

Residence for Two Collectors
Chicago, Illinois, 2017

Ravine House
Highland Park, Illinois, 2017

Sachs Residence
Winnetka, Illinois, 2017

Chicago, Illinois, 2018

Price Residence
Highland Park, Illinois, 2018

Penthouse Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2018

Fish-Rezac Residence, Renovations
Chicago, Illinois, 2018

Cohen-Gross Apartment
Chicago, Illinois, 2019

Koch Residence Guest House
Lakeside, Michigan, 2019

Chicago, Illinois, 2020

Snowmass, Colorado, 2020

Bramson Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2021

Lakeside, Michigan, 2021

Graboys Residence (Two Gables)
Glencoe, Illinois, 2021

Warden Residence
Sawyer, Michigan, 2021

Moog Residence
New Buffalo, Michigan, 2022

Hixson-Goulish Residence, Kitchen and Gallery
Chicago, Illinois, 2022

Dewbecker-Fitzpatrick Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2023

Teer Residence
Park Ridge, Illinois, 2023

Warden-Ryan Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2023

Abdelrazac Residence, Alterations
Chicago, Illinois, 2023

Davis Residence
Sawyer, Michigan, 2023

Stultz Apartment
Wilmette, Illinois, 2024

Desser Residence
Chicago, Illinois, 2025

Chen Residence
Rogers, Arkansas, 2025

Carberry-Wright Retreat
Bridgeman, Michigan, 2025

Kozin Residence
Highland Park, Illinois, 2025

Koch Residence Alteration/Additions
Lakeside, Michigan, 2025


Thanks to Beth Garneata, Studio Coordinator at Wheeler Kearns Architects, for her help providing photographs of WKA projects. Thanks to Karen Widi, Manager of Library, Records and Information Services at SOM, for her help providing photographs of the SOM buildings included in this oral history. Thanks to Julie Wheeler for the help reviewing the interview and to Molly Hanse for the help copyediting the interview.

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