Carol Ross Barney
I remember the exact moment I met Nancy Abshire. It was forty-seven years ago. It was 1974 and I was a true Chicago architectural scene newbie. I had just returned from Peace Corps service and I knew absolutely no women architects. A postcard sent by architect Gertrude Kerbis came to Holabird & Root where I was working at the time, inviting women architects in Chicago to her office. So I went. Gert’s office wasn’t that big. It was really just a single room above Michigan Avenue [664 North Michigan Avenue]. We all had to sit on the floor and women trickled in. I was waiting for the meeting to start when the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) contingent arrived, Nancy and Natalie de Blois. Everything got really intense from that point on. For example, Nancy and I worked together on the inaugural CWA show, the 1978 Chicago Women Architects: Contemporary Directions, which we literally built by hand. I have learned from experience that Nancy may be quiet, but when she says to do something, you better go do it. I watched her as she built a stellar career.
Nancy came to Chicago from Dayton, Ohio, to study interior design at Northwestern University and was seduced by Chicago’s architecture. She never left. She received her Bachelor of Architecture from UIC and joined Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in 1968. During her 51-year career at SOM she wore many hats: design architect, senior architect, sometimes exhibit design coordinator, construction coordinator, and for most of her career, senior project manager. She worked in Chicago and the UK where she helped establish SOM’s London office. Her portfolio includes an absolutely amazing array of distinguished projects. In the lesser-known projects though, and this is where I really grew to know Nancy, is where she provided leadership and resources for generations of young architects, culminating with her service for more than ten years as Executive Director of the SOM Foundation. There is no way that I can do justice to her accomplishments in this introduction. Nancy is a true pioneer, who has been there for women architects in Chicago, essentially forever.
In 2017, the Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation created the CWA Lifetime Achievement Award. The idea was to honor the distinguished women, architects, and those who contribute to supporting women and the issues they confront in their careers. Previous winners include Chicago architects Cindy Weese, FAIA, Roula Alakiotou, FAIA, and Linda Searl, FAIA. Last year’s recipient was UIUC professor and the 2021 AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, Kathryn Anthony. It is with great pleasure and immense personal honor that I introduce this year’s CWAF Lifetime Achievement Award winner, one of our founders, and my long-time friend, Nancy Abshire.
Presentation delivered on Sunday, May 23, 2021
Thank you very much. I am speechless and honored to receive this award. Preparing my presentation was very interesting because I had a chance to go through photographs of all my projects. I was fortunate to receive assignments to a diverse collection of projects that I was able to stay on from beginning to end. Today, I would like to focus on the projects that were most meaningful to me and were a learning experience in one way or another.
I attended Northwestern University as it had an interior design degree at that time in the College of Liberal Arts, which focused on the work of well-known twentieth century architects as part of our architectural history. We were taken on a chartered bus around the Midwest, looking at Frank Lloyd Wright’s work and other notable early architects and designers as a foundation for our studies.
When I began working in 1961 at C.F. Murphy Associates, my first employer, I worked on interiors for large commercial projects. I will not spend time talking about those projects in detail. The first one I worked on was O’Hare Airport. C.F. Murphy had been commissioned to do all the Phase 1 buildings at O’Hare. I was able to work on the interiors of what was then the restaurant building, now known as the Seven Continents/O’Hare Airport Rotunda Building (1963), a circular building, still existing, connecting two terminals. The building was designed by Gertrude Kerbis, who worked at C.F. Murphy at that time. Next, I worked on the University of Illinois Circle Campus, doing the interiors on the Illini Union building (1964). While at Murphy, I came to realize that there were some women in architecture and that intrigued me. While continuing to work on the UIC project for C.F. Murphy, I had the opportunity to meet some of the new architecture faculty, who would be teaching the fourth-year design studio, including a design principal with Atelier 5 in Bern, Switzerland. I decided to attend UIC to earn my Bachelor of Architecture degree and began my studies in 1965, in fourth-year design. In a studio of approximately fifty students, three of whom were women.
At that time, I was able to work at C.F. Murphy thirty hours a week and hop on the CTA Blue Line or bus and ride out to the UIC campus to take my courses. I had received two and a half years of credit from Northwestern University applicable to the five-year Bachelor of Architecture program. In 1968, I joined SOM, and they allowed me to also work thirty hours a week and go to classes during lunchtime and two afternoons per week. I received my Bachelor of Architecture from UIC in 1969 while working at SOM.
The first major SOM project on which I worked on was for W.D. & H.O. Wills, a major UK company located in Bristol, England, whose business was the manufacture of tobacco products. As I was an Anglophile and loved history of European culture and architecture, this was a wonderful assignment for me. London-based Yorke Rosenberg Mardall was the local associate architect [SOM had worked with them earlier on the Boots Building in Nottingham]. “Wills” was located in central Bristol and the project was to design a new facility located on the outskirts of the city, in a place called Hartcliffe. We designed a new manufacturing facility and a headquarters building connected to the manufacturing complex by a walkway that spanned across a valley. I remained on the project for five years.
When that first project was completed, I was assigned to the First Wisconsin National Bank project in Madison, Wisconsin. This was occurring at a time when the student protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention were taking place around the Conrad Hilton, a hotel just down the street from the SOM office on Michigan Avenue. Students started protesting out on parkland in front of the hotel and causing quite a disruption. As a result, these protests spread to campuses around the country. It was a period of turmoil.
SOM was asked by the First Wisconsin National Bank to do a building for them that could serve students, as the city is home to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bruce Graham, the design partner in charge, decided that we should not build a building like a fortress as some buildings had started to be designed then. We should show that we weren’t afraid and that we would have a very open and attractive building. The building, facing the center square where the Capitol is located, had an all-glass façade with interiors that were open, featuring primary colors and big trees. SOM commissioned Italian painter Valerio Adami to create a mural that spanned three façade bays, floor to ceiling, on the ground floor. It was a very successful project, and we never had any problems with students damaging the building. The design put out the message that we wanted to have a relationship with the students, that this building was for them.
The next project is the one called Chicago Tribune Company (1982), located on the North Branch of the Chicago River, near Goose Island. For the project, we underwent extensive research on how newspapers were made in the old days, which was still the way they were doing them in the Tribune Tower, five floors all below grade. We toured the space to understand how they were doing it at the time, but they wanted to move into an electronic process. There were examples of that new process already in use, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Times. They had already started doing their newspaper preparation for printing electronically and their printing locations were offsite. For example, the Los Angeles Times had its office downtown, but they printed in Orange County. We toured the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Times to observe how these two newspapers were using modern technology to print newspapers, like the way that the Chicago Tribune wanted to change over to. That resulted in offices remaining at Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue with all the printing taking place remotely but not far away.
After that project was completed, the Middle East became an active location for new work. A terminal at the airport in Jeddah was built for the Hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, where Muslims travel from all over the world to visit at least once in their lifetime. There were something like eight million people coming during a ten-day period. To accommodate that amount of people, they built the Hajj Terminal designed by Fazlur Khan and Gordon Bunshaft. It is an iconic big tent-like roof structure that has become famous and published widely. Hotels and other accommodations for visitors began to be added to the city. SOM was commissioned to design a hotel in Jeddah that became known as the Red Sea Palace Hotel. It was a partnership between a Swiss hotel operator, Gustar Hoteliers and Restaurateurs, and a client interested in a prefabricated system of concrete modules that were built in Mobile, Alabama. The company in Mobile, International Systems, Inc., could build hotel rooms quickly, fully furnished, and ship them from Mobile to Jeddah. I was assigned to work on concepts exploring how to stack these rooms after visiting their factory in Mobile and understanding their technology. We had to create a way to incorporate their prefabricated room boxes onto a base that was built in Jeddah. We stepped part of the hotel, building terraces for some rooms, and creating outdoor spaces facing the sea for the premium rooms.
When the Red Sea Palace Hotel was completed in 1981, I began work fitting out the public areas of the Quaker Tower (1987), located on the Chicago River between Clark and Dearborn Streets. It was unique at that time because it was an international style building at a point where there was very high interest in doing postmodern architecture. We designed a glass and steel building, which got dismissed by the local scene because it wasn’t postmodern. It was located right on the water, and had a basement that looked out, so we encouraged them to create a restaurant. We built an exterior elevator tower to resemble the bridge tender’s tower and stairs so that people could come from the outside and go down to the restaurant. We extended some of the walkways that existed partially along the river but that were not fully connected. We connected them to the next-door hotel [Hotel Nikko, designed by HOK] in the same block so that they also had a riverwalk area.
My next projects in the late 1980s were in London. One of our managing partners in the New York office, Gordon Wildermuth, knew developers in the London market. Two projects that I worked on took place during that time: the Broadgate development, which was an air rights project over Liverpool train station, unheard of in England at that time; and the project at Canary Wharf, which was a development of derelict land [the docks in the area were closed in 1981]. Margaret Thatcher had declared that if people would take derelict land and develop it, they would get tax breaks for ten years on their development.
One of the buildings in the Broadgate development is the Exchange House, an arched building that spans about a dozen tracks emanating from Liverpool Street Station and that became the symbol of the development. What was interesting was that train stations in London are located on a circular route that is connected by the elevated and the subway. They fan out to all directions in England so that trains in the Victorian era and earlier would not pass through central London and smoke up the air. Because the Broadgate development project and the Canary Wharf project took place at the same time, SOM was able to open an office in London. I went there in 1987, with about a dozen people from the Chicago office to begin to staff the office and then develop it. The office was initially located in the New Zealand House on Haymarket Street. We had two teams: the Canary Wharf team and the Broadgate team. Those projects both took about the same length: five years, from 1987 to 1992.
During that time, I also worked on a business park in the suburbs of London, near Heathrow Airport. It was on derelict land that was contaminated, so the client hired a large team to decontaminate the land. There were numerous projects at Stockley Park with different architects designing each of the buildings defined in the master plan. There were probably twenty or thirty parcels in this master plan and each of these parcels was ultimately leased or purchased by different companies. SOM designed a group of three buildings for a prominent pharmaceutical company in the UK. They were three three-story buildings grouped together. The SOM Chicago office designed the shell and core and I worked with the London office to develop the layouts, the core facilities, and site work. The entrance to the site for those three buildings was a circular drive. Sculptor John Raimondi came to show me his work as he wanted to do something as part of the project. He designed a 41-foot-tall corten steel sculpture titled Artorious that sits in front of the center of building. It is the grand entrance to the three buildings.
We finished that project in 1990. The buildings in downtown London, Canary Wharf, and Liverpool Station went up very fast and things slowed down after that. Some of us came back to Chicago in 1992, and everything was slow in the United States too, so we had a small number of projects in the office.
Upon my return from London, the first project in the downtown Chicago area on which I worked on was for Arthur Andersen. Their world headquarters was in Chicago, and they rented about 200,000 square feet in two Miesian buildings in the Illinois Center located on Michigan Avenue [225 North Michigan Avenue], just along the bridge over the river. On that project, I focused on space planning and the interior build-out. The project was finished in 1996.
During that time, a project type that I found to be a very interesting subject matter was performing arts centers, which seemed to be gaining traction with universities as well as towns and cities of different sizes. We submitted multiple proposals to different requests, and we were lucky to get the commission for a project in Dallas. It was called the Dallas City Performance Hall, now known as the Moody Performance Hall. There were a lot of multicultural communities in Dallas as the computer businesses, Texas Instruments and some of the early companies in technology design that were in Texas, brought a lot of people to the city. In Dallas you had a lovely Central City Opera House, the Nasher Sculpture Center, and the Symphony Center. The local communities, particularly the Latino and the Asian communities, had their own little cultural spaces for dance, music, and other things, but they had no place to perform that was really adequate. They couldn’t afford to rent the Central City Opera House or the Symphony Center. The city recognized that donors who had supported the largest art venues were not picking up on the need to provide a performance hall for other local communities. The city of Dallas became the client, and funding for the project was included on a city bond along with sewer and other infrastructural efforts. It was a small part of the improvement package, and it was approved.
When we began the project, we interviewed about seventy representatives of multicultural groups and organizations for a year to define the requirements. We scheduled a monthly trip to Dallas, and we would interview ten or so groups at a time scheduled for about an hour. We developed a questionnaire and we gathered statistical data that could be put in a computer easily and collate all this information. We also hired a cost estimator who specialized in estimating performing arts projects. He sat in on all our meetings with the community groups to understand what they wanted as well. And then we put a final program and budget together. The program exceeded the city’s budget initially identified in the city bond, so we explored building the structure in three phases. We designed it in a way that you could build the center piece first and it would function adequately. We built the centerpiece in the center of the property and the other two phases could be built on each side on subsequent city bonds. They would all work together so that it wouldn’t look like the second phase was stuck onto the building. They all worked together, and we built a little model to show it. We moved ahead with construction of phase one in 2006.
We put everything in the most professional way and invested the money in the best equipment, not expensive finishes. We did not put velvet seats on chairs or marble on walls. Everything is concrete. The stage had a balcony and catwalks above the ceiling so they could change the lighting. As a team, we were able to provide something that was not as expensive as performing arts halls typically are so they could afford it. We had everything that a professional theater had and then some. It turned out that it was so good acoustically that the Symphony Center across the street rents the City Performance Hall for smaller quartet concerts, because it has better acoustics than theirs. We felt really good about that because we said we were not going to put all the money into expensive finishes but have a design that really functioned. I love this project and I am so proud of how it came out.
In the early 2000s, SOM began to work on the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. I was back on foreign work again. I worked on programming, which we spent a good deal of time on. It is not just looking at the exterior of the building but analyzing all the things that take place in it and really satisfying all the needs. The structure is very unique, and our structural team did a fabulous job. It had us put a tall building on a sand base. It has a huge 10-foot-deep concrete pad at the bottom of all the piles that spreads way out to give the building stability within the sand base. The building took about seven years to finish from concept until it opened in 2010. We had some beautiful works of art that were commissioned for the lobbies. There was an international search for artists who could propose an art piece for the lobbies that were very tall. Jaume Plensa, who is an internationally known Spanish artist, won the commission for the residential lobby area of the tower. His piece included 196 gold-plated cymbals on rods that represented the number of countries in the world at that time. They are placed over two ponds of water, and the cymbals make a little musical sound as the water drips down from eighteen droplet nozzles into the pond. It’s called World Voices, which is a lovely conceptual title for it.
I would like to end my presentation with this project because it is very meaningful to me. I was able to go to Dubai in the latter part of the project, although we had full-time staff onsite during that time. I was grateful to be able to see it and that is a lasting memory.
Thanks to Karen Widi, Manager of Library, Records and Information Services at SOM, for her invaluable help. Thanks also to Elizabeth Schneider at Chicago Women in Architecture and Alexandra Lee Small at the Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation.
About the Award
Established in 2017, the Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award honors distinguished women who have positively contributed as a member of Chicago Women in Architecture and have supported issues faced by women architects throughout their careers. Award recipients are nominated and selected by CWA and CWAF as recognition of the awardee’s impact on the lives and careers of others in the architecture community, inspiring new generations of women to engage with CWA and the field of architecture. Previous awardees are Cynthia Weese, FAIA; Roula Alakiotou, FAIA; Linda Searl, FAIA; and Kathryn H. Anthony, PhD.
About CWA and CWAF
CWA is a 501(c)(6) nonprofit membership organization founded in 1974 to establish community, mentorship, visibility, and advocacy for women working in the field of architecture and related professions. Through the ongoing efforts of the entirely volunteer-led organization, this mission is realized by offering educational, professional, and social networking events; organizing and sponsoring lectures in partnership with like-minded organizations; and awarding annual scholarships to women architecture students in their final year of study.
In 2003, CWAF was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. Today, CWAF continues its support of CWA initiatives by raising funds to expand scholarship offerings as well as fundraising for events and special projects that further the careers for women in and around the field of architecture.
For more information about Chicago Women in Architecture and the Chicago Women in Architecture Foundation, please visit their website.