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MAS Context donates Robert L. Wesley’s oral history to The Art Institute of Chicago

June 21, 2024

MAS Context is pleased to announce the donation of Robert L. Wesley’s oral history to the Chicago Architects Oral History Project at The Art Institute of Chicago. This follows the donation of Margaret McCurry’s oral history to the institution in 2023.

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

“I have had the pleasure of getting to know Bob Wesley over the last four years thanks to our work at the SOM Foundation, where we created an annual award named after him that supports BIPOC students,” said Iker Gil, founder and editor in chief of MAS Context. “His four-decade career, strong ethics, unwavering generosity, and remarkable commitment to education are a reference to all of us. It is important to have his life and career represented in the Chicago Architects Oral History Project, along with many other architects who have left their mark on Chicago.”

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.

For more than twenty years, the Chicago Architects Oral History Project (CAOHP) documented the contributions of architects to Chicago during the twentieth century. The CAOHP was begun in 1983 under the auspices of the Art Institute’s Department of Architecture to record the life experiences of architects who shaped the physical environment in Chicago and surrounding communities. It was intended not only to fill an existing void in the literature but to go beyond the facts to explore motivations and influences, behind-the-scenes stories, and personal reflections. This collection of oral histories contains comprehensive life-review documents as well as shorter, focused interviews. These narratives explore the development of Chicago’s architecture and planning from the early 1900s to the present day. Included in the collection are Skidmore, Owings & Merrill partners and associates, students and colleagues of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, members of the Chicago Seven, principals of second- and third-generation architectural and engineering firms, and architects who defy classification.

In addition to conducting the interview, Iker Gil prepared a 74-page PDF transcription of the conversation, including related images, to match the design and format of previous oral histories included in the CAOHP. Funding to conduct Robert L. Wesley’s oral history was provided by Iker Gil and Julie Michiels.