Dialogues: Robert L. Wesley

February 11, 2023

On March 12, 2022, Iker Gil interviewed architect Robert L. Wesley to record his oral history. The interview took place at Wesley’s house in Naples, Florida. During the conversation, Robert L. Wesley discussed his upbringing, his education, his remarkable career, and the importance of education.


A native of Memphis, Tennessee, Robert L. Wesley, at the age of twelve, attended the grand opening of a new office building where his mother worked as a stenographer for the African American-owned Universal Life Insurance Company. The building had been designed by McKissack and McKissack, an African American-owned and operated architectural firm located in Nashville, Tennessee. It was then that he knew that he wanted to become an architect. Wesley joined the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in 1964 and became its first Black partner in 1984. During his nearly four decades with the office, he worked on an impressive range of civic, commercial, entertainment, master planning, and infrastructural projects in the US and internationally, including Algeria, Australia, Canada, Mexico, and the UK. Wesley retired from SOM on September 30, 2001. Over the years, Wesley has continuously contributed his professional expertise and experience to numerous civic organizations, including the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Chicago Area Council, the Central Region of the Boy Scouts of America, the Private Sector Resource Council, and the Newhouse Architecture Foundation Inc., for which he was a founding board member. In 2020, the SOM Foundation created the Robert L. Wesley Award to support BIPOC undergraduate students enrolled in architecture, landscape architecture, interior architecture, urban design, or engineering programs in the United States. Each year, three students receive a $10,000 award in addition to a yearlong mentorship program that connects the students with leading BIPOC practitioners and educators.

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Robert L. Wesley, Naples, 2022. © Julie Michiels.

IG: You were born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. I would like to know about your experience growing up in the city and your family.

RW: The times when I grew up in Memphis are quite different than they are today. My father, John Wesley, was born and raised in Memphis. He graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis. My mother, Freddie L. Wesley, was born in DeValls Bluff, Arkansas. She moved to Memphis as a young teenager with her father, who was a Baptist minister. My paternal grandfather, John Ed Wesley, was born in Mississippi in 1872, seven years after the freeing of slavery in America. He moved to Memphis and worked on the railroad until retirement. He actually babysat me when I was the last of the four children in the house to be left at home because both my parents were working.

I was born in 1937, in Memphis, Tennessee, and the South was obviously all segregated and operating under Jim Crow laws. That was a different era and times. Unless you lived there, you don’t have a good knowledge of what it was about. It had its really unfair and unjust structure. You had no knowledge of a just environment, so this was, in a strange way, the normal. I didn’t have an environment of racial, nationality, or religious inclusiveness but, in our own way, we had our own environment. We had our own Black doctors, we had Black lawyers, we had Black school teachers, Black ministers, and so forth and so on. As a youngster, I didn’t know any different. To me, that was the norm.

IG: Did you have a close relationship with other neighbors?

RW: Yeah. Compared to today, in many ways it was a stronger community. Due to the isolation of the races, families felt close to each other. As a youngster, if I did anything out of place, it didn’t have to be a relative [who told me]. A neighbor would see me, and it would be reported to my parents that day. I am sure it was that way across America.

My involvement in the community started when I was about eight or nine, which would have been the third grade. I started to throw local papers, and there were two Black papers. One was the Memphis World, which came out two days a week, and the other one was the Tri-State Defender that came out one day a week. I was always good at my math because I had to collect from my paper route each week. First day it was five cents, and the second day was six cents, so for a week it was a total of 11 cents. I knew my elevens backwards and forwards because of these weekly rates: 11, 22, 33…. They could not get away with it when the customer owed me for three weeks and told me it was 23 cents. No, it was 33 cents. That allowed me to buy things that I liked to eat, like ice cream, sundaes, candies, and cookies. We also had a place I could buy comic books and model airplanes; I loved to draw the comic book characters, and construct and fly model airplanes. This paper route gave me some independence and pocket change, which I worked for until I went off to college.

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Robert L. Wesley (left) and John Edward Wesley (right), Memphis, 1941. Courtesy of Robert L. Wesley.

IG: Had any of your siblings had that paper route before you?

RW: This paper route was passed down from my two older cousins, who lived two doors over, and my older brother. A family business. I remember the first time taking the paper route alone, folding the papers, putting them in my Red Radio Flyer Wagon, and pulling that around the neighborhood. That is how I got to know the neighborhood and the people who lived in it.

IG: Did you live close to your cousins and other family members?

RW: Yes. My mother’s house, that had been bought by her father, was on one lot. There were two vacant lots to the east of us and those were owned by my grandfather who lived just three blocks away. That was where we had our family garden. On the other side of the two lots was my aunt, which was my father’s sister, and her family. We had these two siblings and their families, that lived on the outside of these two lots, and they, along with our grandfather, helped to develop the garden, grow vegetables, and develop the land for fruit and pecan trees. I had three older siblings and there were four older cousins on the other side. It was very nicely set up. There were two boys in my family and two in my aunt and uncle’s family. Of the eight children, I was the youngest.

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Robert L. Wesleys family home located at 1083 Capital Ave, Memphis, TN 38107. Courtesy of Robert L. Wesley.

IG: What was the name of the neighborhood that you grew up in?

RW: New Chicago, in the north area of Memphis.

IG: Did you go to school around the neighborhood?

RW: The school we attended was about a mile and half from our house and we walked to and from school each day, regardless of the weather.

IG: What was the name of the school?

RW: The school was named Manassas High School, in the Memphis Public School system, segregated, and it was actually first through twelfth grade. I remember going to the first grade. My older siblings would always tease me, as you can imagine, because I was the baby, and they thought my mother had a preference for me. When I was in the first grade, my teacher was a lady who was a member of our church. They said to me, “Oh, you are having it easy this year because she knows mom and the family, but Mrs. McWilliams….” She was very tall, not the most attractive person, and wore loud clothes and was a tough taskmaster. “You are going to get her next year, and you are not going to enjoy school like you are now,” is what my siblings were telling me. Well, I was kicked out of school in the second grade because I was so frightened of her. I would walk to school with my siblings, and they would take me to the classroom. I would see the teacher and then, I would turn around, go back out, and go home. They would ask me, “What did you do?” I just hung out in the neighborhood. I saw people I knew, and I would spend time with them until school was out for the day. They warned me about it and my second-grade teacher was talking to someone out the window, so I went out again. They wrote my mother a note saying, “He can’t come back to school until we have a meeting.” It came out that I was kind of frightened of her. She said I was dumb, but every problem she put on the board, I was able to answer. She was not too happy with me.

Also, there were other things that were part of my life when I was growing up, such as the strong and caring residential community that I lived in. And a major part of that community was the church. The church played an important role in my childhood. On Saturday, I would go to our church with my mother, who was the church secretary, and she would type the Sunday Church Program on stencils. I would draw the church or other images on the cover that were appropriate for that particular Sunday pictorial representation. Our church had a Cub Scout troop I was a member of, and later, I was a Boy Scout. I think I had all the requirements to become an Eagle Scout except I couldn’t swim. I was one of the first Black members of the Boy Scout of America, Order of The Arrow society in the South. I loved scouting. I loved it because again, it is that environment you are part of. Memphis may have had one or two parks for Blacks, and they were segregated. Being of some distance, I couldn’t get to them. There was no way I could get to a pool to learn to swim in my neighborhood. But scouting gave you activity. Once a week, I would go to the meeting and we could make things in “craft” activities. During the off-season of the school year, we would go overnight camping on weekends and then, in the summertime, I would go to a stay camp. I would stay for two to three weeks at the Boy Scout camp, and I loved it. I had a nice uniform, loaded with Merit Badges, and we would march in a parade. All the things—the paper route; the church activities, which included the youth choir; Cub, Boy, and Eagle scouting—kept me busy. All those things were part of my youth that were very healthy and quite wholesome.

IG: Were there classes in your high school or other activities that were guiding you to architecture?

RW: Well, in school you could take auto mechanics in the ninth grade, or you could take mechanical drawing. Obviously, I took mechanical drawing. I think that was the second year you could take mechanical drawing. I loved it. At the end of the second year, I didn’t know what kind of elective I wanted to take. By that time, I had met a Black architect at McKissack & McKissack who had designed my mother’s office building. I went to my mechanical drawing professor and said, “Could you teach architectural drawings?” He said, “Well, we don’t have that kind of a course here, but I could teach it. I’ll inquire around if anyone else is interested.” He inquired around and we had about three or four of us who were interested. I took architectural drawings in the eleventh and twelfth grade as an elective rather than other things. That was part of that whole background of building towards what I wanted to be. I remember when we got on a train going off to Tennessee State University, most of my classmates said, “Well, Bob, he is the only one. He wants to be an architect.”

IG: Can you talk a little bit about meeting the architect that had designed the new building for the company that your mother worked for? What was your impression of going to the building and meeting the architect?

RW: McKissack & McKissack was, I think, the first Black office to get its architectural license to operate in Nashville, Tennessee. It was founded by Moses McKissack and Calvin McKissack, who were brothers. Their clientele were mostly Blacks. There was a Black society of people that had money and businesses. Dr. J. E. Walker was a medical doctor, but he went into business and founded the Universal Life Insurance Company (ULICO) in Memphis, where my mother worked. They outgrew their space and they wanted to get a new building. This new building was designed by the firm McKissack & McKissack that was in Nashville. They had a big week of dedication, and I attended the opening ceremony. I was taken on a tour of the building, and I was obviously very impressed with it. My mother introduced me to the architect. There he was, Moses McKissack, a Black architect. He was well dressed in a nice suit, very presentable, very articulate. He talked to me about the design of the building and the profession of architecture. I was in awe of the architect and his building. I said to myself, “That is what I want to be.” And that was it. Somehow, I knew that I had an interest in it from the earlier years, but I didn’t realize that there was a profession like that. I remember one of my third- or fourth-grade teachers would always tell us, “You all have to fan out and do things.” She said, “There are 20,000 professions that are around, and Blacks are only going to about 20 of them. You have to broaden your knowledge and get curious about things. There are other things you might want to do and that you might be suited for.” That was the beginning. My first job in a registered architect’s office was at McKissack & McKissack Architects in Nashville when I was a student at Tennessee State University, the summer after my third year.

IG: Before we talk about Tennessee, let’s talk about your teachers. It seems that you had great teachers in high school, that they were guiding you, responding to your interests.

RW: Yeah. I don’t know how to put it into words, but in some ways, when you have that close society, those who were the leaders, the professionals, and adults felt a much stronger relationship with the youth that they were responsible for guiding. Obviously, an integrated and diverse environment is much better as you learn more, but I guess that is where they made up for the deficit of not having access to things like parks or going to museums. We had no museum; I couldn’t go to the museum. And in most parks, you couldn’t even sit down. You could go one day a week to the zoo. The other six days were for white population. But they didn’t distinguish between the taxes you paid; Black people paid the same amount of taxes. That was the Jim Crow system at the time. I guess, in some ways, the caring that you received from those who were educated and those who did have a good experience was closer and tighter. If you look back in history during that time, a lot of Black leaders existed due to oppression. They got a good support system from others in the community.

IG: You finished high school in 1955 and you went to Tennessee State University.

RW: Yeah. I went in the fall of ‘55. That was about a year after the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka.

IG: How did you select which university to attend?

RW: My father was a chauffeur and he ended up working as a driver for a cigar company, so his income was very moderate. My mother had a very modest income as a stenographer. She had a two-year degree from a community college. They didn’t really have a lot of money to spend on four kids’ college education. However, they sent all four of us off to a university.

IG: What did your other siblings do?

RW: My oldest sister, Helen Deberry, went to Tennessee State University for one year and then she became a housewife. My second sibling was my brother John Edward Wesley. He was an educator, a teacher, and a high school principal in the Memphis school system. My youngest sister, Irma C. Brookins, was also a teacher.

I had tried to get into the University of Tennessee in Knoxville because that was the only accredited school of architecture program that I knew about, but they were not allowing Blacks at that time, even though it was right after the 1954 decision. I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Tennessee State University and we’ll see what they have.” That was the first year that they had an architectural program and they called it architectural engineering rather than architecture.

IG: Was it a dual degree?

RW: That is the way it was established and stated because they wanted to make it clear that it was different than the University of Tennessee. I really don’t know, maybe it was legal, or issues related to segregation, or perhaps another Jim Crow law.

IG: Was it a five-year program?

RW: It was a five-year program.

IG: How was your time in the program and your relationship with both the faculty and the other students?

RW: Well, it was almost like the neighborhood. L. Quincy Jackson was the chairman of the department, because it wasn’t a school of architecture. He had gone to Kansas [State University] and then he went to the University of Oklahoma. He got a master’s degree from Oklahoma in city planning. I think he was the first Black person to get a license in the state of Oklahoma. He had gone to school there when Bruce Goff, a well-known architect, was there. Frank Lloyd Wright came out a lot to lecture. Herb Greene was there, but I think Herb Greene was a student when L. Quincy Jackson was there. He started the program at Tennessee State University and had very, very little to work with outside of himself. He was the guy, so he was the one who mentored us, the class. We only had about four or five students to graduate in the class of 1960, our first class.

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Robert L. Wesley as a senior at Tennessee State University. Image from the university newspaper The Meter, October 1959. Courtesy of Robert L. Wesley.

IG: Did he model the program after the one at the University of Oklahoma?

RW: Yeah, definitely. We had several good teachers, but nothing like L. Quincy Jackson. After I finished, I had a talk with him and he said, “I have been able to run the program without the tools that I really think are appropriate. To test yourself and to get your master’s degree, you really want to go to a first-class, accredited school of architecture, like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or MIT with excellent faculty and inclusive students.”

IG: He encouraged you to go to grad school and continue your education.

RW: Yes. Grad school and continue with education. I knew I needed money to go to graduate school, so I worked for McKissack & McKissack in Nashville after graduating from Tennessee State University. I worked for about a year. Then I said, “Well, let me try to send off to schools now and see if I can get into a graduate school program.” I sent applications to universities from Harvard on down. It was a mixed response, but basically, I didn’t get accepted into any graduate school program. A few integrated schools said, “Yeah, you can come here but you’ll have to start off as a freshman.” I had studied five years already and had an undergraduate degree.

IG: Was it because the universities were not recognizing your degree?

RW: They didn’t know anything about the university or the degree, as it was new. I was in the first graduating class, and we didn’t have what you would call a full faculty. It had a small architectural staff, but we had L. Quincy Jackson, who was extremely talented, hard-working, and very dedicated. Our architecture library was small. However, considering the above, we had excellent instructions, lecturing, and tutoring.

IG: There was no way for them to evaluate the program.

RW: They had no way to evaluate it so they just simply said, “We could accept you, but this would be out-of-state tuition and you would have to come in as a freshman.” Number one, if I had gone that route, I would have had to have added five more years on top of the five years I already had. I would have had to go ten years to get an undergraduate degree. Plus, the state of Tennessee denied giving me any out-of-state money. The educational laws, governing tuition with the state of Tennessee residents, was that if there was a program that you couldn’t get access to or they didn’t have for you in-state, they would offset any out-of-state fee that you would have to pay, but they wouldn’t give me that.

IG: What do you think the reason was?

RW: Again, it was the Jim Crow system. Tennessee State University, where I went, is a land-grant university. A land-grant university gets so much from the government to subsidize them. The state of Tennessee didn’t give it to them. They kept it for the University of Tennessee, the white school. Now they owe them millions of dollars and are suing for it. Again, that was the Jim Crow system.

IG: How did you address this issue?

RW: I told my professor L. Quincy Jackson about my graduate school situation, and he said, “Well, why don’t I call the University of Oklahoma? Would you like to go?” I said, “Of course. Yeah.” He talked to the chairman about me, and the chairman happened to be a fellow by the name of Mendel Glickman. He was Frank Lloyd Wright’s structural engineer. A very nice gentleman and very smart structural engineer. He and [Felix] Candela were very good friends. It is said that Candela designed a thin shell boat!

IG: I didn’t know that.

RW: It was made of thin-shell concrete.

IG: Interesting. Candela was a Spanish architect who emigrated to Mexico.

RW: Right. So, Glickman said, “Well, we would love to do it and we take your word for it, but we think he may have to go to undergrad school for at least a couple of years, maybe three years, and then get him into the graduate school. We can try it to see how it goes. If he shows up and gets good grades, he can attend graduate school.”

IG: They were willing to try out.

RW: They were willing to try it out. Maybe after two years they would say, “You can get in.” I spent a semester there and, after the first semester, I was on the dean’s list, I must have made pretty good grades. They said, “We’ll enroll you in the graduate program at the school of architecture.”

IG: Did you know anything about the school before you attended it?

RW: Quincy told us about all the programs by Bruce Goff, and Quincy taught the same way that Goff did, with music, and he had all kinds of seminars. He took us to different places, field trips like the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit that was held at the Art Institute of Chicago and a visit to the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

IG: How was that period of testing?

RW: It was interesting. None of the students had seen any of my work since I started at the second (winter) semester of the school year. When my projects were exhibited on the boards, everybody would pass by and say, “Who is this Bob Wesley guy?”

IG: Who were your professors during that early time there?

RW: Mendel Glickman, construction and structural engineer. Herb Greene was my design instructor. There is an interesting story about the landscape class. In that class, they would take a trip to see some landscape projects during the year. One of the trips that we were going to take was going to go down to Texas to see some landscape and garden projects. I was all happy to do it. Then I realized, “Texas is a segregated state. What am I going to do? What hotel am I going to stay in?” I went back to my professor and said, “I think I will have to pass on this trip because there is a problem. If I can’t stay in their hotel and eat together then this trip will not go well.” And he said, “I don’t want you to do that. I’ll talk to the students and see what they say.” He came back and said, “We can’t let you drop out. If they won’t let you stay in the hotel, we go to your hotel, and we’ll stay there. If they will not serve you, then we go to eat where you eat.” That was the kind of experience I had.

IG: That is a great understanding from the students of the importance of the situation.

RW: Yeah. They were very supportive.

IG: Were there any other Black students in your class?

RW: No, I was the first Black student to graduate. I was the first Black student to get a master’s degree in architecture from the University of Oklahoma.

IG: Was it a three-year master’s degree?

RW: It was a two-year program.

IG: I see. How was your experience during the master’s program different from your undergraduate experience?

RW: I would say the level of tutorial was much better, in that I had more professional discipline instructors. The professors had more experience, they had better practices, the library was much, much larger, and it was more advanced. The pedagogical program was much more significant. It was a much better run program than at Tennessee State University, even though at Tennessee State they did an excellent job with what they had. That was due to primarily one person, which was L. Quincy Jackson. He had gotten his experience from practicing in the state of Kansas, and they didn’t want to give him his license. They didn’t want to let him practice. You go to school, get your education, and then try to get experience. Where are you going to get the experience from in the segregated and Jim Crow South?

When I graduated, I had at least two degrees, and some might say I had a third. I couldn’t get a job in Memphis because they wouldn’t hire me, so I couldn’t get the experience. You’ve got to have the experience. A lot of kids get the experience during the summertime, in between academic studies during the year, and this helps to broaden the student’s knowledge. You can be curious about certain things, but if you do it all on your own… Some people have done it, but it’s difficult, nearly improbable.

IG: It is important to have that structure.

RW: You could do it yourself, but that is a difficult way of doing it. They get books, they read, they stay very curious, and that is how they educate themselves.

IG: Did you ever try to have internships while you were doing your master’s, the same way that you did at Tennessee State University, or did you concentrate on education?

RW: Because the money was so short, I was trying to get out as soon as possible. I didn’t work when I was at the University of Oklahoma, but it was a very nice experience. They were all extremely, extremely nice. I stayed on campus that first semester and then, the next year, I stayed at a private home with a couple of guys. I have been back a couple of times and it is a nice university. I am very appreciative of the opportunity because, otherwise, I don’t know where and how I could have continued my education.

IG: When your class graduated, did other students get accepted in some of the practices that you applied to?

RW: I had a year and a half of my master’s program, and I came out in the summer. Just two of us graduated in that summer class.

IG: What year would that have been?

RW: 1963. My classmate was a very nice guy from Alexandria, Egypt. He went back home. I kept up with him for a while. After graduation, I came back to Memphis right away to try to get a position with a firm. I had a difficult and unsuccessful time getting work.

IG: Could you have gone back to McKissack & McKissack where you had been an intern?

RW: McKissack & McKissack was primarily doing Black institutions, whether they were religious or educational, and I wanted to broaden my experience. As I couldn’t get work after getting back home in Memphis, I thought, “Well, I’ll go and visit my sister who lived in Joliet, a suburb of Chicago, and see if I can get work there.” I think it was a slow time for hiring architects when I first got there in ‘63. I had a couple of offers of temporary work. I did one and then I said, “This isn’t working out.” I didn’t want to continue to stay with my sister after about three months. I went back home to Memphis and tried to figure out what I was going to do. Then, I got a call from the state of Illinois unemployment office. I left an application there for work and they said, “We have two positions we think you should interview for.”

IG: When they called you, were you already back in Memphis?

RW: I was back in Memphis. They said, “We cannot tell you anything about these interviews, because you are out of state. You have to come back to the state of Illinois and then we can tell you. Come to the office, we’ll tell you about the interviews.” When I got back, they told me that one was at the GSA [General Services Administration] and the other one was at SOM. I obviously decided on SOM.

IG: That would have been 1964.

RW: It was fall of ‘64 when I started.

IG: Do you remember who interviewed and hired you?

RW: I was hired by Ed [Petrazio], head of the production department, and Robert (Bob) Diamant, senior designer. Ed said he liked my thesis project, which was a cultural center in Lagos, Nigeria. I was trying to get a grant from the government to go over there during part of my studies, but it was taking too long. They called me about three years later and said, “We think we can do something.” I said, “I am working now, I have my degree.” The design scheme consisted of a three-pavilion motif. When Petrazio saw that, he said, “I got the right place for you to work.” That was with Walter Netsch, because Walter had designed the Core and Research Laboratory Library at Northwestern University. It was an addition to the Deering Library with the three parts.

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Core and Research Laboratory Library at Northwestern University, Evanston. © SOM.

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Core and Research Laboratory Library at Northwestern University, Evanston. © Ezra Stoller | Esto.

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Core and Research Laboratory Library at Northwestern University, Evanston. © Richard Mack Photography.

IG: How was that experience?

RW: Oh, that was unbelievable.

IG: I can imagine the difference going from the University of Oklahoma to working with Walter Netsch and his Field Theory work.

RW: Well, he wasn’t quite into the Field Theory yet. It was sort of in between the Air Force Academy project and the Field Theory. It was interesting. The guys in the drafting room, they tricked me into looking for “sky hooks,” in the Sweets Catalog, and that was funny, and I will always remember it. I worked with Alan Hinklin and Dick Schiffels. The three of us were the main staff doing the drafting and detailing because we were members of the production department. Our job captain was Baron Whateley, and senior designer was John Hartman, who worked with Walter Netsch. The production department was on the 5th floor and the design department was on the 4th floor of the Inland Steel Building at 30 West Monroe Street. If you see my drawings, there was no space on the sheet. Everything was filled with drawings or letters. Everything was graphic or written word. I detailed everything. It was amazing. There was no space left on those drawings. That is where I learned how to put a building together.

Dick Schiffels, of German heritage, was very detail oriented. He was so proud of his detailed approach to everything. It had to be exactly right, exact inches to the 16th and 32nd. He said how the Germans make things perfectly. One time, his mother sent him a pair of scissors and he said, “Look at this package. I got these scissors. Look how fine they are made.” He tried to cut something, and they fell apart. Alan and I just said, “It is a little mystique. We think they are pretty good, but they are not that good.” The three of us put everything back together and we had a good laugh afterward. We were all great friends.

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Drawing by Robert L. Wesley, Core and Research Laboratory Library at Northwestern University, Evanston. © SOM.

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Drawing by Robert L. Wesley, Core and Research Laboratory Library at Northwestern University, Evanston. © SOM.

IG: Was the job captain from the design department?

RW: No, the job captain was with the production department.

IG: I see.

RW: The three of us detailed buildings. We worked on five buildings because Walter’s sister, Nan Netsch Kerr, was married to the vice president of Northwestern University, William S. Kerr, so we were getting most of those projects.

IG: I believe there were several projects being done for Northwestern University. If I recall correctly, eleven projects throughout Walter Netsch’s career.

RW: Oh yeah. And not only for Northwestern University, but also for the University of Chicago, University of Iowa, Grinnell College, Miami University in Ohio…. We did so many. I really learned how to put a building together working on those projects.

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Isometric, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. © SOM.

IG: Did you work one project at a time or were you working on multiple projects?

RW: In the beginning, primarily one project at a time. But then, as I became more senior in the group, I had more responsibility, so I worked on multiple projects.

IG: When you worked in the drafting group, would Walter come by?

RW: I didn’t work with Walter much at the beginning. I worked with other departments such as structural, mechanical, electrical, and plumbing department engineering staff. All of us worked together. That is why they call it production, because we were the ones who coordinated and put everything together.

IG: What was your next step once you got out of the production or the drafting?

RW: I became a job captain.

IG: Did you still work with Walter Netsch at that time?

RW: I still worked with Walter. Most of my work was with Walter. The last project I worked with him was the University of Blida and the University of Tizi-Ouzou before he retired. Walter designed both in Algeria. It was complicated because all documents were contractually required to be in metric and in French.

IG: Did you ever travel to Algeria for these projects?

RW: Oh yeah. I went there, got sick, and came home sick as a dog. The family wanted to see smiles and I just wanted to go to bed.

IG: Was that your first international project?

RW: No, I worked on a project in Mexico [Grupo Industrial Alfa in Monterrey]. It was an industrial building and I worked with Bruce there a little bit. Most of my work was with Walter until he retired in 1979, and then I started to work with Bruce.

IG: How was that transition between two people who were very different in their approach to design?

RW: Oh yeah. Bruce wrote in here [he points to a dedication in a book], “To Bob. I didn’t know you early on, but I knew you all along. I believe you now know I knew you all along.” Interesting. What he was saying is that he didn’t know me from a standpoint of working with him directly on a project, but somehow now he was aware of what I was doing. I thought that was interesting. I worked with Bruce during my last ten to fifteen years. I also worked with Adrian [Smith], who was a partner.

IG: Were you still working as a job captain when you worked with Bruce Graham?

RW: When I was working with Bruce, I became senior technical coordinator. I was not assigned direct responsibility to produce the working documents of the job. I was over several job captains who were responsible for individual projects. I probably was an associate partner when I started to work with Bruce Graham.

IG: You joined the office in 1964. You became an associate in 1970 and an associate partner in 1975.

RW: Yeah. Something like that. We had about five senior technical coordinators. They were not job assigned; they were over several jobs as well as administrators and mentors of the technical coordinators group that were underneath them. All the individuals who worked underneath them were mentored by the senior tech group, educating them, giving them experience, and responding to technical issues or problems. Those five senior technical people worked with the technical partner, Richard Lenke. Lenke was terrific. We went to lunch with him at least once a week and he would always say, “You guys are just like me, you are really partners.” We would discuss issues. If we had a problem, we would just call him up or go to his office. That was a very, very strong and tight group relationship.

IG: Did you work directly with clients at that point?

RW: In some cases, yes. If they had major presentations, we would be in the room and make sure everything went well. We were there in case there was a technical issue that a partner needed explaining. They felt that a senior person would be there to explain it, then a job captain, and so forth.

IG: SOM is unique in having so many disciplines within the office. It was part of your job to coordinate the different disciplines.

RW: Absolutely. We met once a week with all the architectural technical staff because we wanted to get feedback from them. Their issues could be shared with other technical people and the solution would also be shared. It was a very good, strong group. We also managed the manpower to make sure that jobs were properly manned, got out on time, and the details were right. It was a major responsibility and it worked very well.

IG: It seems that it was a great education for you too, from having to draw everything for the university library at Northwestern University and learning how everything was put together, to then understanding how to assemble teams.

RW: Yeah. We had very strong educational programs for the technical staff below us. We would bring certain vendors in or, if something was new regarding a testing system, we would explain that to all the technical people. We met at least once a week with the technical staff.

IG: You have mentioned before too how SOM at that time was not only a place that you worked for, but it was like a school too.

RW: Yes, like a university. A teaching and learning environment as well as a research center. We, the “Senior Technical Coordinators,” were like freewheeling linebackers; you have to watch out because if we find out that something you have done was wrong… We would just roam around and make sure that everything was correct. We would just hammer “Design and Technical Excellence” home and then it becomes part of the culture. When someone is detailing something, they may not see you, but they realize, “Well, Arthur Muschenheim or Bob Wesley may come by. I better ask this question before I draw this thing in a stupid way.” We developed a culture or DNA of curiosity, inquisitiveness, and togetherness, which I think in some ways the design group was a little jealous of. They thought we were running things, which we were, because the details that came out during that time were just excellent and exquisite. They worked very well, for “Design Excellence”!

IG: Did that tight relationship within the office translate outside the office?

RW: Oh yeah. The senior guys were very close, and in one way, it was good that we kept the one technical partner, and we didn't see ourselves going anywhere. We just saw ourselves working for him. If you had promoted another one, then you would have rattled things a little bit because then there may have been some jealousies of, “Why did this person get that?” We were all equal, but we all had our own personalities though. We all had our own personalities.

IG: You said you got together outside the office.

RW: Yes. We would go for lunch with Lenke, at least once a week. We would go outside sometimes, discuss things, and say, “This has happened here, what do you think is going to happen?” We were very close. It was like five brothers.

IG: Where did you meet for lunch? Was there a specific place?

RW: We would go to the University Club or the Italian Village on Monroe Street. I think we had two places in the Italian Village. We didn’t go much to the third floor, but we would go to Vivere, the restaurant that is at the main level. Then, there was the one downstairs [La Cantina]. We would stay down there for two or three hours because that is the dark area and allowed for a real good conversation. It’s like a cave. The restaurant knew all our first names.

IG: Did you ever get together with people who were working in other SOM offices?

RW: There was a little bit of that. But I think the Chicago office was the strongest by far then, certainly the technical group was.

IG: Do you remember some of the people that you would meet?

RW: Leon Moed was the guy in New York responsible for the technical group, but he wasn’t a Dick Lenke.

IG: Do any of the projects from that period stand out? For example, what was the project your worked on when you went to work for Bruce Graham?

RW: Morgan Stanley Headquarters in Canary Wharf.

IG: Canary Wharf was obviously a huge project at that time for the office.

RW: It wasn’t a huge project. Not Morgan Stanley. Because when you think of a huge project, it would be a big high-rise, like John Hancock Center, Sears Tower, and that kind of project. But Morgan Stanley was like 15, maybe 20 stories tall. But it was complicated because of all the software and hardware in it required for trading. We had a language problem, because with the English the first floor is ground level, second level is first floor, the boot, a muffler… all kinds of things like that.

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Morgan Stanley International European Headquarters, Canary Wharf, London. © John Slater | SOM.

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Morgan Stanley International European Headquarters, Canary Wharf, London. © SOM.

IG: SOM already had an office in London at that time. How was the relationship with the London office?

RW: Most of it was occupied by staff that came from Chicago or New York, so we knew everyone, except the few Brits.

IG: Did the office have design capabilities or were they more focused on administration?

RW: Well, it varied based upon the project. They had both, but not nearly like in Chicago or New York.

IG: Were they independent?

RW: They operated independently. Jim DeStefano, who was in Chicago, went over there and ran the office for a while. Gordon Wildermuth ran it for a while. Those were the two that I remember that the firm sent over to London to run the office at the very beginning.

IG: I believe Nancy Abshire was one of the people who was sent to London early.

RW: Yes. As a project manager.

IG: Did you work on other projects in London during that period?

RW: Yeah. I had two projects with Bruce over there. I was working on other projects with Adrian [Smith]. I did the Canary Wharf project with him.

IG: Do you remember when you started working with Adrian Smith?

RW: Probably 75 State Street in Boston in the late ‘80s. It may have been back on the Lake Cook County project with Richie Stein. All of Stein’s projects (Lake Cook Office Buildings, Transportation Office Building, AT&T, and USG office tower) were done with Adrian. I did all Stein’s projects with Adrian. Richie had several suburban office buildings.

IG: I believe the Morgan Stanley project in Canary Wharf was completed in 1991.

RW: Yeah. Bruce retired around that time.

IG: Soon after, you were also working in other international projects. I know you worked in Canada and in Australia. How was that experience? Because SOM did not have offices in Canada or Australia.

RW: No, we just did them back in Chicago.

IG: Did you work with a local architect?

RW: No, we didn’t have a local architect. We did it through our developer friends, through the Reichmann Wharf Canada.

IG: Do you remember how you got those clients?

RW: Through the partners. Bruce had worked with the Reichmann’s. I don’t know who did the one down in Australia. I am not sure how that came through.

IG: You obviously did a lot of work in Chicago, including civic projects like the State Street renovation. It is interesting to see a lot of feasibility studies about urban projects taking place at that time. Can you talk a little bit about the work in the 1990s?

RW: I brought work as a managing partner with the connections that I had with people in the city. During that time, I probably had the biggest and best contact with civic projects with local clients. Richie was one of the local clients. In the city, I brought projects in from civic and cultural institutions. I was on some of boards of directors, like the Field Museum, YMCA, and Boy Scouts of America.

IG: How did you get involved with some of these institutions?

RW: I had worked with the Orchestra Hall for years before we received the large commission for the major renovation and addition for Orchestra Hall. Thomas Eyerman was a member of the board of directors and when they needed something done, he would call me and say, “Bob, can you help them out? Don’t charge, just do what you can do and, can you get the work done for almost nothing?” I worked on small projects for them for twenty years. When they came up with the big job, they had interviews and Tom said, “Go for it.” The board asked me why I should get this job. I said, “Well, you have been using my pro bono services for twenty years now. Will you deny me the work for a fee?” They laughed and we got the project.

IG: They couldn’t deny that.

RW: I hoped they wouldn’t.

IG: Can you talk about how Chicago was at that point, which would have been the ‘90s? I am sure that it was very different to what it is right now, in particular the role of civic projects being discussed.

RW: I don’t know much about what is occurring now. I think because of my background in the South, I always felt like I was denied opportunity to participate in these civic activities, of just being able to attend them, sit in the park, go to a museum, or go to the zoo. For some reason, the civic and institutional projects I was attracted to were more complicated. They were not the kind of projects that typically had large fees, due to the nature of their revenues being primarily based on donations and fundraising. Your fees have to be commensurate with that type of money source in addition to very complicated programs per square feet of space. Some of the partners may not have really wanted to get involved in these kinds of projects. To me, these projects were very challenging because they were not cookie cutters. You couldn’t establish the 34th floor like the 35th and the 36th floor like in other projects. Every space was different and unique. I tried to get involved with a lot of the upfront, with a lot of the boards and the volunteers. I worked on the board and committees as a member and got to know many of the board members as civic leaders for the city and metropolitan area of Chicago. It helped to build relationships and it paid off. I know Bruce Graham had done that, Bill Hartman had done that, Walter Netsch had done that, and so forth. I worked on projects at the Lincoln Park Zoo, State Street, CTA, the airport, Millennium Park, Art Institute of Chicago… We were commissioned to do about six or seven projects at the Art Institute.

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Master plan, Art Institute of Chicago. © Hedrich Blessing Photographers.

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East Wing, Art Institute of Chicago. © Hedrich Blessing Photographers.

IG: It was an ongoing collaboration.

RW: It was ongoing. We did the textile department renovation. They had these fabrics that they would have to clean and restore, and we had to work with the curatorial staff to design a washing table. I mean, these are really kind of scientific technical innovations. They are very complicated and difficult small projects. However, you gained a lot of knowledge and expertise. The Orchestra Hall and Lyric Opera projects were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to design and be involved with two very significant performing arts centers for the city of Chicago. Two really complicated and difficult projects. Lyric Opera House had a problem. They had a very small backstage because they were up against a high-rise building. We had to add our backstage structure into the floor space of the adjacent high-rise office tower for several floors, removing columns and beams, transferring the load of the tower columns above to a new transfer girder to new reinforced columns and structural caisson below. [SOM’s structural engineer] Stan Korista, a contractor, and I were the only three that were in the building underneath it at the time. These are unique projects, one of a kind.

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Section, Civic Opera House, Chicago. © SOM.

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Civic Opera House, Chicago. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.

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Civic Opera House, Chicago. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.

IG: Did you ever get any pushback from the other partners for taking those projects that would bring less profit than some of the high-profile buildings?

RW: Not directly, but you could imagine it. They didn’t care about you taking the projects, they just wanted to make sure you could get it done. Adrian and I did this scheme for the Chicago Bears. Did you ever hear about that scheme when we covered the stadium?

IG: I have not seen it.

RW: They never paid us. These guys never paid us. That was because of Mike McCaskey. The guy is a snake in the grass. Unbelievable. They blamed me for it. We got great publicity and we had a great scheme. Mike ended up giving the job to one of his classmates who was an architect. But you have to take a risk. That was a big high-profile job to renovate Soldier Field and bring it into the twenty-first century. Adrian and I took it, and we had fun. We had a great scheme. With Richie, we did competitions too. I don’t know if you know that we participated in the [Harold Washington] library competition.

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Soldier Field proposal, Chicago. © James Steinkamp | Steinkamp Photography.

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Soldier Field proposal, Chicago. © James Steinkamp | Steinkamp Photography.

IG: I have seen the library proposal.

RW: We had a good design scheme and a great team. We had Ricardo Legorreta on our team, a nice and talented man. He came to town in the middle of winter with a suit coat. We had to go buy him an overcoat.

IG: What was the connection with Legorreta that helped establish the collaboration?

RW: We designed the Banco di Roma with Adrian Smith and he did that work, I think, together early on with Bruce Graham. Bruce had the connection with Legorreta too. Bruce was a big collaborator.

IG: I remember he later did projects with Frank Gehry and other architects.

RW: Yeah.

IG: You made partner in 1984 and you became the first Black partner at SOM. Can you tell me what that time was like in the office and if you were aware of the significance of that moment?

RW: By then, I had been with the firm for twenty years. At that point, if you really believe in what the firm is all about, you are just becoming merged. You don’t look at yourself as a skin color. You just look at yourself as “I am one of the architects, expected to work in a group practice of talented professionals to produce excellent architecture.” I only had one guy who didn’t want to speak to me, and that was when I first started at SOM in the production department. I never had anyone give me the impression that they felt differently about me because of my race.

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Robert L. Wesley (top), Open House, Santa Fe building, Chicago, 1992. © SOM.

IG: Was that the case also with the clients?

RW: I never sensed it. I tried to always respect people. I had some tough clients. I mean, Richard Stein was a nice guy, great personality, but he could be pretty tough. We got along like peas in a pod, and there are some things about Richie that I’ll respect to this day. I think I had a very, very good relationship with all my clients. That is the one thing about SOM that I respect so much. That the diversity that existed working in the firm was not based on your background of race, religion, nationality, or ethnicity. It was based on what you could bring to the table regarding your talent, your ethics, your work habits, and your creativity. There may have been something, but I just never once sensed it, not at all!

IG: What was your relationship with other Black architects practicing in other offices in Chicago at the time? Do you know if they had a similar positive experience like you had at SOM?

RW: Most of the Black architects that I knew had their own practice. They started out working for a firm like SOM, C.F. Murphy, Holabird & Root, and Harry Weese. For some reason, they may have felt that they did not want to continue working for a firm like SOM and were not going to make it to the top. They went off on their own and started their own offices. Moutoussamy ended up with Dubin, Dubin and Black [then renamed Dubin, Dubin, Black & Moutoussamy], and Leo Frazier ended up at Mann, Gin, Ebel, & Frazier Ltd. He had been a structural engineer at SOM. But most of them, for some reason, they would go off on their own. A lot of them just wanted to get an internship and apprentice from SOM. Some leave because they just don’t think they are going to make it to the top. I was just enjoying what I was doing. I got several offers and thought about it. Norma Merrick Sklarek asked me to come out and work with her. I met with her once on the West Coast, but I decided not to do it. She worked for Victor Gruen and then she had her own office. Several universities asked, if I would like to teach, like the University of Tennessee, that wouldn’t accept me in their undergraduate program. They tried to hire me. I even had Memphis firms that called me and said, “We’ve got your information here. We don’t know why we didn’t hire you.”

IG: Were you ever interested in teaching?

RW: No. because working at SOM is such a great firm and a wonderful experience. You are with the best in the world, that’s what I felt anyway. Just in Chicago, there was Walter, there was Bruce, there was Myron. In New York you had Gordon Bunshaft. And you had Chuck Bassett and Marc Goldstein out in California. You had all these very talented design architects. Once you became associate, you could meet some of them. You had other talented people like Natalie de Blois, who was an associate partner. My first experience with her, she was all over me because one of my lines went over and past the intersecting line and you are supposed to stop! [laughs] That was the design floor I was on when they were working on the Hancock project. Myron was on that floor. He had a desk, like a regular drafting desk. Bruce was on one side of the room next to the drafting room. Walter was on the other side of the room next to the drafting room. Myron was in the drafting room, and he would pace back and forth, back and forth. He would sit down, he would draw something, and he would pace back and forth again. Myron was such a great guy. Let me tell you a couple of stories about Myron. We were on the fourth floor of the Inland Steel Building and our lunch hours were, I don't know, 12:30 pm or something, at the same time as the Inland Steel lunch hour. So, when you leave the floor for lunch, sometimes the elevator would be full or near capacity, it would just go past our floor. Myron’s hair was typically not “brushed down,” and he would come dressed a certain way. One day, I got in the elevator with Myron and this female architect, who apparently kind of liked Myron. Myron and I got on. Then she runs up and pushed her way into the elevator as the doors were closing. I mean, the elevator was just packed with the people from Inland. Myron and her and I were just squeezed at the door in the front of the elevator cab. The elevator starts down from the fifth floor and hits four, and she said, “Myron, look at you. Just straighten your collar, comb your hair, do something about yourself.” [laughs] And everybody in the elevator was shocked and quiet. Myron had a little bit of speech impediment. And he started saying, “And, and, and…” We got to the third floor. He says, “And, and, and…” and then he got to the second floor and then to the first floor. And just as before the door opened, he said, “And you don't look so hot yourself.” The whole elevator just blew up with laughter. That is how he was, he was so cute and very talented, a brilliant designer and a nice man, who I enjoyed working with on the CTA Dan Ryan project. I mean that Ruck-A-Chucky Bridge, have you seen that design, outstanding, ahead of its time!

IG: Yes, it’s beautiful.

RW: And way before some of these other so-called luminaires had designed that.

IG: It is a very elegant design.

RW: Very elegant. He designed a very modern detail printing press project in Columbus, Indiana.

IG: Yes, the Republic Printing. Next door, SOM’s Chuck Bassett did the City Hall.

RW: Oh yes! Yes.

IG: I believe they also did some master planning for the main street and downtown.

RW: And I think Walter did the IIT projects.

IG: Myron did the gym.

RW: That’s right. Myron did the gym, with all the glass. Did you know Myron worked on the [Edith] Farnsworth House with Mies?

IG: I did not.

RW: Mies was kicked off, because apparently his relationship with the owner, Edith Farnsworth, went south and she kicked Mies off the project and Myron had to finish it. He gave a seminar several times when I was there, and that was one of the interesting stories he told about how he had to finish that design. Myron was very bright. You don’t hear much talk about him, but that is why I said that it is almost an honor, you were certainly very fortunate, to work there with all these talented people. They didn’t just have one great designer, they had lots of great designers.

IG: One of the last projects that you worked on at SOM was Millennium Park in Chicago. It was project that really changed the nature of Chicago’s downtown and the city in some sense. Can you talk about the project?

RW: There must have been at least three attempts to do that park project. Are you aware of that? Do you remember Bob Hutchins, who was a partner? He was the managing partner on the Arlington International Racetrack, Arlington.

IG: The grandstand of the racetrack was designed by SOM, correct?

RW: Yes. Bob Hutchins worked on an earlier design for Millennium Park. My knowledge of it is that Adrian got a call from the mayor [Mayor Richard M. Daley] who said that everybody in the city and Larry Fuller, who was the chairman of Standard Oil and whose building [now Aon Center] was facing that area, kept complaining to him. Larry was one of the corporate leaders of the city. The mayor got pushed around a little bit about getting rid of that eyesore down there at the Illinois Central track level. He could get better rent and everything else if they did something with that open blight. I think Adrian got close to the mayor when Adrian was the design partner on the State Street renovation project. The mayor called Adrian and said, “can you do something about it?” And that is how that project started. But it got to be very political because everybody wanted to have a piece of it, especially the heavy hitters and political donors that the mayor had known for years. Once he made the commitment to Adrian to design it, I mean, he couldn’t kick us off. Not only did we have the city’s so-called donors and people who wanted to get involved, then we had John Bryan, CEO of Sara Lee Corporation, and chairman of the board of directors of the Art institute of Chicago. He was a well-established city and civic leader and a very nice man. He assembled the donor group for donations from private individuals to help fund the project. This private donor group, together with the City of Chicago, was finally successful in funding the project, primarily with large private donations.

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Lakefront site, Chicago. © SOM.

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Millennium Park, Chicago. © SOM.

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Millennium Park, Chicago. © SOM.

IG: Was that always intended to be like that? I remember seeing some of the proposals that included a series of rooms but the artwork pieces were not part of it.

RW: Right. Certain donors could pay for certain things like the Crowns who paid for the fountain, pool, and ice-skating rink. There was a lot of pressure on who was going to take part, but the firm held on to the overall design of the park. Then, Cindy Pritzker got Frank Gehry involved.

IG: To design the bandshell.

RW: The original proposal was to have Frank Gehry team up with Adrian Smith for the bandshell pavilion and great lawn design, but Gehry didn’t want to do that. Our structural engineering group was the engineers of record. Through Bruce [Graham]’s effort, Gehry got to do the Fish Sculpture and commercial area in Barcelona as part of the Arts Hotel. Bruce supported him in many ways.

IG: SOM had a longstanding relationship with Gehry, because right after the Arts Hotel in Barcelona, SOM worked on the structural design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, so there was an ongoing relationship.

RW: Yeah. There was that collaborative relationship, but he didn’t want to work on the bandshell design with Adrian.

IG: But SOM did the structure for the pavilion, correct?

RW: The structural department did the structure for both. The project was complicated, but we held on as the lead architect for it and it turned out to be a well-designed and iconic Chicago project.

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Robert L. Wesley, Chicago Summer Outing, 2001. © SOM.

IG: You retired on September 30, 2001, and Millennium Park hadn't open yet.

RW: No. Adrian and I met about six months later out on the West Coast and got an AIA award for the design of it. That was probably the last time I saw Adrian.

IG: After you retired, did you stay involved with the office in any way?

RW: No, not really. I could have been a consulting partner, but I had worked for nearly forty years and that was enough. I had a family and I wanted to enjoy and spend more quality time with them. I think the rule of retiring at 65 is a good rule. In some cases, I think it is probably a good idea to keep consulting partners on, but I am a believer of just getting out of the way and let the younger people who have an opportunity to inherit the firm and do that work. To have that retirement rule in place and to have people retire at 65 is probably one of SOM’s strengths.

IG: Did you stay involved in any of the other civic committees in the city?

RW: No, I just gave up on all my ties. I was the commissioner of the Chicago Council of Boy Scouts of America. I was a trustee at the Field Museum, and they made me a lifetime trustee at the museum, which is a great honor. I was on lots of boards, including the YMCA and the Newhouse Architectural Foundation.

IG: Did you stay in Chicago after you retired?

RW: No. The next day I moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, and put my Flossmoor house up for sale. It is quite an investment you make when you get to the partnership level and my family had suffered enough without me being around. The firm had seen enough of me, and they had many other talented professionals that could pick up the traditions and continue the legacy of design excellence. Now, I hear from them more than when I first retired. Some of them are retired themselves now.

IG: How long did you live in Scottsdale, before moving Naples?

RW: I was in Scottsdale for nine years. I built a house out there. Did you see it?

IG: I did not.

RW: You need to see that. Oh boy!

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

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Wesley House, Scottsdale. © Robert L. Wesley.

IG: I will make sure to look it up. You stayed in Arizona until 2010 and then you moved to Florida?

RW: Yeah. I had a small house there already, built in 1996 or 1997. We moved into that house and, as we had that property, we built the new house. The idea was to design and develop the property, live in it for a couple years, sell it, take the one-time tax credit, and make a little profit to then buy a small retirement home. Unfortunately, the terrible real estate market of 2007/08 caught me, and I had to practically give it away. I sold it and my wife Wilma and I decided to move back East to be closer to our family. A New Yorker that had tons of money offered me half the price. Alan Hinklin said to me, “why don’t you, instead of buying a place out there, come here to Naples, Florida?”

IG: To Naples.

RW: Naples. We rented for the first year or two after I moved out and sold that house. I came down here to visit Alan and I liked it.

IG: You have talked about the importance of education and how relevant your education, the faculty you had, and the opportunity of studying were in your life. In 2020, the SOM Foundation created a new award, the Robert L. Wesley Award, to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Color students in their education, not only economically but also with a mentorship program. Can you talk about how you see your role now as providing the support that you received growing up?

RW: Education is the key, no matter what. You don’t have to get it in a formal sense, but you do have to get it. That is the key to the SOM Foundation scholarship for these students, especially with university costs being so expensive. An obvious way to help is to provide this kind of scholarship. I don’t know how else you survive in life if you don’t get a very strong background education. My parents always taught us that. They sent all the siblings off to university. When I was in Chicago, the one thing that I worked on was Newhouse, which is one of the programs I was most proud of. The program was geared to public high school students, and it was a very comprehensive program. Now, the Chicago Architecture Center is running it. I guess it has been forty years now. Forty years is a long time.

IG: It is a great program that has a great presence.

RW: I don’t know if you know how it got started. Dick Newhouse, who was a Black state Senator, was overseeing the education committee for the Senate in Illinois. I don't know how he got Bruce [Graham]’s name, but he came to Bruce and asked him if he had a couple of his young architects to judge a home building competition that the Chicago Public School system had been working on and that he had started a year earlier. Bruce said, “Of course,” so he called me, Diane Legge Lohan, and Adrian [Smith] in and said, “Would you guys go down to the Museum of Science and Industry? They are going to have the exhibits and you judge these models of home buildings by these high school students from the Chicago Public School system.” And we did it. We selected the winning projects and afterwards, Dick Newhouse came and asked us, “how did it go?” We said, “Terrific. It’s a great program, but it could use some more work by professionals.” And he said, “Well, when are you going to get started?” Diane and I sat down and tried to figure out what was the best way to do it, what projects could be selected for model making, and expanded it to include drawings and design categories. We had three categories. During our jury work, we found out that a lot of the kids didn’t know what an architect was. So once a month we would have lectures, tours, and mentoring programs. Those lectures could also include visiting the site. We would select a tour date and they would meet the architect, let the architect explain to them how this building was designed, and who the major team members were: the developer, the architect, the engineers, the contractor... They would take them in the building, explain to them what they mean by mixed-use, parking, retail, commercial office, and residential. We would take them to the airport, where we had a project going at the time, and explain to them the project, explain how you get from the building to a plane, and so forth. We would also take them to a place that made light fixtures to explain how the fixtures were made. It wasn’t only just being an architect or an engineer or a developer; you could be making building components, or you could be a drywall contractor. We were trying to explain to them the various professions and applications that go into the building industry and how those people make a living. They had never been exposed to that. It was very, very comprehensive. We had something going on all the time.

IG: The competition was one of the components, but the program was much more comprehensive.

RW: It was much more of an educational effort. We had tutors that they could come in and ask questions to about their progress on their project, say how they could do this and how they could do that. We went around to the professionals, architects, engineers, and got them involved so some of them gave internships during the summer. We made it very broad and that was the seed for the competition. Diane and I used young architects and engineers from other firms throughout the city, who were interested in helping.

IG: It is fantastic to see that the Robert L. Wesley Award continues that support in different ways, focusing on undergraduate students in college. As executive director of the SOM Foundation, I have been involved with the award and it has been interesting to read not only about what the economic support and mentorship would mean to them but also the importance of learning about you, your career, and your contributions.

RW: It is important that if you have a knowledge of something, you should pass it on. You should set up institutions where the governance of your profession continues, and it has been done like that for centuries. That is why you had the Renaissance period following the dark Middle Ages. You had Michelangelo, you had Leonardo da Vinci, you had Brunelleschi who did the Duomo, you had Raphael; you had all these really brilliant people. They learned from one another. You also had the Medici family, supporting architecture, art, and sculpture and being sponsors of those Renaissance projects. This thing built on itself, and you can do the same thing today. That is what SOM kind of is: a microcosm that has people that look further than themselves. You can be fortunate like myself to come through the system and learn from it.

IG: It is great that you acknowledge the benefit of everybody who has supported you and that you have continued that support in different ways.

RW: It is important to make your own contribution. At a certain age, you get out and let the other contribute!

IG: Thank you, Bob.

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Robert L. Wesley, Naples, 2022. © Iker Gil.

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From left to right: Tracy (daughter), Skylar (granddaughter), Robert L. Wesley, and Tammy (right), Clam Pass, Naples. Courtesy of Robert L. Wesley.


Long Center for the Performing Arts
Architectural services for the renovation of performing arts facilities
Austin, Texas, 2004

The Art Institute of Chicago
Master Plan; remodeling of the Photography Department; reorganization of administrative space; remodeling of the Textile Department; School of Art, restorations of the Sullivan Arch and Trading Room from the Old Stock Exchange building; centennial expansion program; McKinlock Court Terrace Galleries; Remodeling of prints and drawings gallery
Chicago, Illinois, 1973–2002

Toledo Museum of Art
Feasibility Study and Master Plan for redevelopment and expansion
Toledo, Ohio, 2000

Elmhurst College Performing Arts Center
Master planning, architecture, and engineering for performing arts and educational complex
Elmhurst, Illinois

O'Hare Collateral Land Planning
Planning, development, marketing, financing, management, and disposition of property at O'Hare International Airport
Chicago, Illinois, 1999

Lakefront Millennium Project
Master planning and architectural design
Chicago, Illinois, 1998

Orlando Naval Training Center Redevelopment Project
Conceptual master planning and architectural design
Orlando, Florida, 1998

Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Orchestra Hall
Long-term maintenance and renovation program, master plan, and implementation
Chicago, Illinois, 1997

CTA Red Line
Renovation of the State Street subway continuous platform
Chicago, Illinois

The Field Museum Master Plan
Development of growth strategy and clarification of public areas
Chicago, Illinois

Chicago Transit Authority
Design of six new stations on Green Line
Chicago, Illinois, 1996

North Loop Redevelopment
Master planning and infrastructure improvements
Chicago, Illinois, 1996

Sioux City Art Center
Architectural design and engineering
Sioux City, Iowa, 1996

Soldier Field Renovation and Expansion
Program, master planning and conceptual design in support of lease negotiations for the Chicago Bears
Chicago, Illinois, 1996

Jazz Museum of Chicago
Feasibility and alternative site study
Chicago, Illinois, 1995

State Street Renovation
Urban design and renewal of “that great street”
Chicago, Illinois, 1995

Lyric Opera Renovation Program
Renovation of current performance facilities for the Chicago Lyric Opera
Chicago, Illinois, 1993

The New Oasis Resort
Master plan concept for resort/ entertainment complex
Michigan City, Indiana, 1993

St. Louis Riverfront Entertainment District
Master plan concept
St. Louis, Missouri, 1993

Station Square Entertainment District
Riverboat casino facility, entertainment facility, hotel, and parking
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1993

Sydney Harbor Casino
Hotel, casino, and entertainment facility
Sydney, Australia, 1993

Windsor Casino
Master plan and architectural design
Windsor, Ontario, Canada, 1993

Chicago International Entertainment District
Master planning and feasibility study
Chicago, Illinois, 1992

Lake Calumet Airport
Third Chicago area airport, construction and feasibility study
Chicago, Illinois, 1992

The USG Building
Office tower, Phase ll of the AT&T Corporate Center
Chicago, Illinois, 1992

111 West Wacker Drive
Office building
Chicago, Illinois, 1991

Holy Angels Church
Church and community center
Chicago, Illinois, 1991

McCormick Place Long Range Planning Study
Master plan and architectural design guidelines for exposition center expansion, domed stadium, and retail arcade
Chicago, Illinois, 1991

Morgan Stanley International European Headquarters
Office building
London, England, 1991

University of Chicago
Oriental Institute Museum addition and renovation
Chicago, Illinois, 1991

Chicago Place at 700 North Michigan Avenue
Retail complex and apartment residential tower
Chicago, Illinois, 1990

Chicago Transit Authority
Madison/Wells/ Washington Station
Chicago, Illinois, 1990

FC-2, Canary Wharf Development
Office building on waterfront property with retail space on lobby level
London, England, 1990

Fox Valley Presbyterian Church
Schematic design
Geneva, Illinois, 1990

AT&T Corporate Center
Office tower
Chicago, Illinois, 1989

Rowes Wharf
Multi-use complex consisting of office space, retail, hotel rooms, residential condominiums, underground parking spaces, a marina, and ferry terminal
Boston, Massachusetts, 1988

Arthur Andersen & Co.
Center for Professional Education, classrooms, residence, and dining hall additions
St. Charles, Illinois, 1987

Residential and commercial complex
Detroit, Michigan, 1986

Harris Trust and Savings Bank
Evaluation and analysis of the existing building's electrical system; replacement of main switchboard; building analysis of UPS system and emergency generator; and elevator improvement program
Chicago, Illinois, 1986–1989

222 North LaSalle
Addition to and renovation of the 1927 Builder's Building designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White
Chicago, Illinois, 1986

McCormick Place Exposition Center
Chicago, Illinois, 1986

General Motors
Office buildings
Parsippany, New Jersey, 1983
Naperville, Illinois, 1982

Orchestra Hall Remodeling
Chicago, Illinois, 1981

University of Chicago
Remodeling of Goodspeed, Classics, and Mandel Halls
Chicago, Illinois, 1980

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AT&T Corporate Center, Chicago. © Orlando R. Cabanban.

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AT&T Corporate Center, Chicago. © Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing.

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AT&T Corporate Center, Chicago. © Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing.

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AT&T Corporate Center, Chicago. © Nick Merrick | Hedrich Blessing.

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AT&T Corporate Center, Chicago. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.

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Façade, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago. © Hedrich Blessing Photographers.

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Section, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago. © SOM.

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Model, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago. © Jim Hedrich | Hedrich Blessing.

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Rendering section, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago. © SOM.

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Rendering, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago. © SOM.

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Orchestra Hall, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago. © SOM.

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Stair, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago. © SOM.

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Heritage Mutual Insurance, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. © Gregory Murphy.

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Heritage Mutual Insurance, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. © SOM.

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Heritage Mutual Insurance, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. © Gregory Murphy.

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Heritage Mutual Insurance, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. © Gregory Murphy.

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Heritage Mutual Insurance, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. © Gregory Murphy.

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McCormick Place Exposition Center, Chicago. © Orlando R. Cabanban.

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McCormick Place Exposition Center, Chicago. © Ben Altman.

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McCormick Place Exposition Center, Chicago. © SOM.

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McCormick Place Exposition Center, Chicago. © Abby Sadin | Barbara Karant Photography, Inc.

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First floor plan, Northwestern University, Biological Science Building, Evanston, Illinois. © SOM.

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Northwestern University, Biological Science Building, Evanston, Illinois. © ESTO.

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South Lawn, Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, Illinois. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.

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Pavilion, Ravinia Festival, Highland Park, Illinois. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.

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Sketches, Sioux City Art Center, Nebraska. © SOM.

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Model, Sioux City Art Center, Nebraska. © Hedrich Blessing Photographers.

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Sioux City Art Center, Nebraska. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.

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Sioux City Art Center, Nebraska. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.

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Sioux City Art Center, Nebraska. © Jon Miller | Hedrich Blessing.


Thanks to Karen Widi, Manager of Library, Records and Information Services at SOM, for her invaluable help providing photographs of the SOM buildings included in this oral history. Thanks to Julie Michiels for the help copyediting the interview.