Betty Blum (1931–2022)

December 5, 2022

Architects and colleagues remember Betty Jane Blum and the Chicago Architects Oral History Project that she started at The Art Institute of Chicago in the early 1980s. Blum died on November 3, 2022 at the age of 91.

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Betty Blum (left) and Jean Jenger (right). Courtesy, Institutional Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Susan Benjamin
Architectural historian and author

Betty was unique—smart, adventurous, and dedicated to bringing out the most compelling information from Chicago’s premier architects. Her oral histories were not just biographies. They were stories of Chicago’s architectural community and how the city’s talented designers, including such luminaries as Bertrand Goldberg, Paul Schweikher, Gertrude Kerbis, and dozens of others, interacted and influenced each other. Reading one of her oral histories, all of which were grounded in meticulous research, feels like being part of an intimate conversation. And she was a great teacher. Under her tutelage I had the pleasure of interviewing Wilbert Hasbrouck and John Holabird.

Best of all, she was my friend! We traveled to Spain together, often attended lectures, and went out to lunch and dinner. And of course, I loved picking her brain about all the great people she knew. Once we were at a lecture together and the speaker told a rapt audience how indebted she was to Betty’s oral histories. I leaned over to Betty, telling her I was with a Rock Star! She was the best, and we enjoyed many happy times together. Lucky me for knowing Betty as the most competent of professionals and having her as a dear friend.

Stuart Cohen
Founder of Stuart Cohen & Julie Hacker Architects and Professor of Architecture Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago

Betty Blum was a sprite, full of energy, focused, sometimes witty, and always charming. I met her when she came to interview me as part of the Art Institute’s Architects Oral History project. Remarkably knowledgeable about twentieth-century architecture and architects, Blum did meticulous work as an exhaustive researcher. After interviewing sixty architects for the Art Institute, she probably knew as much about contemporary Chicago architecture as anyone in the city. Being interviewed by her was delightful and sometimes embarrassing as she knew and asked about things I’d written or done and had long forgotten. She was a good friend of my sometimes coauthor and dear friend Susan Benjamin. In addition to lunching with Betty and Susan on occasion, I really just saw her at SAH (Society of Architectural Historians) events, mostly lectures. When I heard she was sick I was surprised. I always thought of her as youthful and could never believe her actual age. She is someone I really wish I had gotten to know better.

Iker Gil
Founder of MAS Studio and MAS Context, and Executive Director of the SOM Foundation

I never met Betty Blum in person but I got to “meet” a lot of architects that practiced in Chicago thanks to her interviews for the Chicago Architects Oral History project. As someone who didn’t grow up in Chicago but was interested in knowing more about those who practiced in the city in the twentieth century, the interviews were an invaluable tool to gain that knowledge. You could learn about known figures beyond the brief descriptions of the projects. More about the why, the how, and what was happening around them to make those projects possible. For other architects that I was not familiar with, it was a perfect entry into their career. At a professional level, the oral histories have been an extremely useful tool to clarify grey areas and shine a light on overlooked aspects that I was researching.

It is through Betty and those that had the vision and provided the resources that we can have a clearer picture of the architectural culture in the city of the last century. It is my hope that we can find ways to continue to document the careers of architects and designers that have shaped and continue to shape Chicago in a myriad of ways.

Thank you Betty.

Blair Kamin
Author and former Chicago Tribune architecture critic

I don’t think I ever met Betty Blum, but I certainly knew her through her work—those fabulous, in-depth interviews she conducted with notable architects for the Art Institute of Chicago’s oral history project. The interviews often provided essential material and perspectives for obituaries that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. As Betty expertly drew them out, the architects told their stories, articulated their visions, and counter-attacked those who had attacked them, critics included! They were speaking, in short, both to Betty and to history. Imagine how much poorer we would be without that rich vein of memories to mine. Betty preserved them. Which is just as important, in its own way, as preserving great buildings.

Maya Manny
Former research assistant at the Department of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago

Betty Blum was a very special person, efficient, always upbeat and cheerful for the forty-some years that I knew her. I got to know her and the lately departed, and also very much missed Pauline Saliga, at the Department of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago where Betty organized the Oral History program most capably. She also became a very good personal friend and was most supportive and encouraging. She will be missed by many.

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Jane Clarke (left), Betty Blum (center), and Maya Manny (right). Courtesy of Maya Manny.

Luigi Mumford
Architect and former colleague of Betty Blum

Betty and I were friends. I was just over five weeks older than she was, or as John Zukowsky describes it, “the same vintage.” We met at the Art Institute. Our earlier lives had been very different but, by then, we were both older and mellower. Betty was very outgoing, and I tend to be quieter, but we shared jokes and experiences and had lunch together. Betty was not only a great researcher; she had a wonderful way with people. She was interested and interesting. Even after she moved to assisted living at The Clare, she was still meeting new people and wanting to know more about them.

Annemarie van Roessel
Assistant Curator at the Theatre Division of The New York Public Library and former colleague of Betty Blum

“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.” Spoken by the tutor to his young pupil in Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece Arcadia, this line has always struck me as an especially heartening metaphor for the kind of inquiry that historians pledge to do. For Betty Blum, memory was central to knowledge, and memory must be picked up and shared. Oral history was her superpower, channeling her long fascination with architects and artists and the ways they shape the world we live in. The Chicago Architects Oral History Project was her passion. I was immensely lucky that Betty took me under her wing as a young architectural historian more than 25 years ago and that our relationship ripened into a decades-long and deeply meaningful friendship.

Betty was able to put people at ease so quickly, with such generosity of attention, which was equally matched by an impressive command of the genealogies of modern architecture. She honored best-practice in oral history and, in studying what makes that approach so powerful, she developed critical relationships with colleagues across the country. To me, she was an incredibly generous mentor and intensely collaborative, embracing my willingness to transcribe the lengthy recordings she created, to develop the website that would make the CAOHP newly visible in the early years of the Internet, and, after a few years under her stellar guidance, to join her in planning, researching, and conducting oral histories myself. Over more than 20 years, she built the CAOHP into something that surpassed every initial expectation and it was a tremendous honor to contribute to it.

As I became her primary transcriber by the mid-1990s, she armed me with yellow legal pads overflowing with the names and terms that I’d encounter, as well as the reference citations she had used in her tenacious research, to ensure I rendered them all correctly. As I made the conversations spool out across my computer screen, I was always aware of the cadence of her questions, her thoughtful pauses to let her interviewee find the right words, and her agility in probing deeper when she sensed an opening.

What always impressed me was her brilliance in guiding architects to reflect on their lives and designs in ways that were revelatory to themselves, and, by extension, to those of us who read the texts later. We saw stories that we collected for the Chicago Architects Oral History Project as the radial pathways that emanated from the center core—Mies and Wright and SOM and the earliest modern architects—with unexpected bridges and underpasses that connected those lives in a parallel Chicago, one populated by critical ideas and powerful relationships. She was especially proud of interviewing the pioneering women: Mary Ann Crawford, Gertrude Kerbis, and Natalie du Bois. Betty was passionate about documenting the unwritten stories of twentieth-century Chicago architecture—indeed of the United States—and her sustained curiosity about it all was deeply inspiring to so many of us.

Over our ten years together in Chicago, our collaborations and conversations about architecture, art, family, friendship, and life took place across desks at The Art Institute, in her apartment high above Lake Shore Drive, at innumerable Chicago restaurants, in cafes in Paris, and during intermissions at dozens of theatre performances. In fact, to my great delight, Betty Blum loved the theatre almost as much as she loved architecture, and I owe her a huge debt for planting the seeds for my professional life today in New York City. I saw my first August Wilson play with her at the Goodman, my first Twelfth Night with her at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, my first Molière with her at the Cort, and many more experimental pieces than I can count. Sitting in the audience last week at Stoppard’s new drama Leopoldstadt, a brilliant and devastating play about memory, identity and torment in the lives of a cultured Jewish family in Vienna, I ached to tell Betty to tell her that she must see this one. She would have understood instinctively what Stoppard was trying to say about how the living must bear witness to those who have gone before.

Betty was my steadfast mentor when I needed it most, sustaining and supporting me when I wasn’t always sure where my path was leading. And she was the most generous friend, sharing her attention, her wisdom, her encouragement, her kindness, and her great empathy in the profound act of listening. Betty, may your memory be a blessing.

Kim Soss
Director of the Graham Resource Center and Architecture Librarian at the Illinois Institute of Technology

For an architecture librarian, few resources are as fun and rewarding to share as AIC’s Chicago Architects Oral Histories. Seeing a patron thumb through, wide-eyed, for the first time is mighty gratifying. When Betty donated her personal print set to the Graham Resource Center in 2015, my enthusiasm struck some as puzzling. After all, the Art Institute generously provides virtual (and searchable!) access to researchers worldwide. But print is another animal altogether. The pleasure of visiting her at home—and our shared mooning over her graceful Edward Wormley table and bookshelf full of gems—brought extra shine to my appreciation.

In addition to spreading the good word at IIT’s College of Architecture, I’ve relished reading the Oral Histories. Collectively, they bring richness and complexity to the story, as different subjects dish on shared moments, dynamics, and projects. Brigitte Peterhans’ and Bruce Graham’s perspectives on women’s place at SOM (and Jane Graham’s forced retirement); the brothers Keck paying Marianne Willisch her due; Harry Weese and Benjamin Baldwin’s acknowledgement (or lack thereof) of Kitty Baldwin Weese’s place in design history. Betty brings a clearly feminist perspective to the discipline, extraordinary for its time, while remaining generous and kind to the people she engages.

She turns questions into answers into questions. A scholar at serious play, rather than seeking confirmation of her own ideas. How fine it is to curl up in a comfy chair and dive in. Her curiosity, intellect, and spirit make the Oral Histories just so damn…juicy.

John Vinci
Principal of Vinci Hamp Architects

The oral histories produced by Betty Blum and her colleagues are unquestionably among the most important set of documents assembled. They illuminate a period of Chicago architecture that, at the time, seemed disjointed. Thanks to Betty’s leadership, these transcriptions offer a wealth of information that may have been lost to history. Me and my colleague Alex Krikhaar have read many and we were astounded as to the in-depth information that they provide.

More need to be done as some important people such as Arthur Takeuchi, who recently died, was not recorded. I venture to say the project will lose such important figures without Betty’s motivation. There are now many important architects that have stories that are in need of recognition. I might suggest that this become an ongoing project and, perhaps, that an index be made as a cross-reference of the existing oral histories.

Karen Widi
Manager of Library, Records, and Information Services at SOM

I met Betty Blum for the first time in 2007 when she was working on oral histories for several SOM retired partners: Marc Goldstein, John Kriken, David Childs, Gordon Wildermuth, Hal Iyengar, Brigitte Peterhans, and Roger Radford, assisting with research and fact checking dates.

I felt like I already knew Betty as I saw her name every time I looked at one of the hard copy oral histories that were in our office library, which are and continue to be a source of historical information and institutional knowledge. It was very impressive at how much she knew about each of the interviewees, the projects they worked on, and how she stitched it into the larger architectural story of the time during the interview. She also interjected humor and somehow managed to keep the interviewees on track which made the oral histories interesting to read, and ready reference for the many researchers I have referred them to.

I will always remember her and she will be missed.

Mary Woolever
Retired Art and Architecture archivist for the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago

Betty Blum was a legend—her interviews with architects and other creators of the built environment were admired by all and quoted by many. She was meticulous in her research, empathetic in her interviews, and always on the alert for a surprising or unknown fact that gave added understanding to her subject’s life and work. Her documentation of Chicago’s architecture community in the second half of the twentieth century forms a vital primary resource for all future writings on our buildings and their makers.

Working with Betty was one of the highlights of my professional career—she greatly enriched my knowledge of Chicago’s architecture and introduced me to many of our designers and builders.

John Zukowsky
Architectural, design historian, and former John H. Bryan Curator of Architecture at The Art Institute of Chicago

When Betty Blum began the oral history project in 1983 with a series of short interviews funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, I was slightly skeptical of the results because I initially thought that one interviewee would contradict another on jobs they built or give completely incorrect information. But after a while, I realized the great strength of the project was the amazingly rich picture of architectural practice and life in Chicago from the 1920s through the 2000s, spread across the dozens of peoples whom Betty and others had taped. This amazing resource is available on the Art Institute’s library website with downloadable transcripts and a comprehensive index. Betty’s dedication to the project and her gift in talking with architects help many of them to participate in this effort.

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Jean Jenger (left), Betty Blum (center), and Daniel Ollivier (right). Courtesy, Institutional Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Chicago Oral History Project in Betty Blum’s words as written in 1995 as a preface for her interview with Yau Chun Wong

Since its inception in 1981, the Department of Architecture at The Art Institute of Chicago has engaged in presenting to the public and the profession diverse aspects of the history and process of architecture, with a special concentration on Chicago. The department has produced bold, innovative exhibitions, generated important scholarly publications, and sponsored public programming of major importance, while concurrently increasing its collection of holdings of architectural drawings and documentation. From the beginning, its purpose has been to raise the level of awareness, understanding, and appreciation of the built environment to an ever-widening audience.

In the same spirit of breaking new ground, an idea emerged from the department’s advisory committee in 1983 to conduct an oral history project on Chicago architects. Until that time, oral testimony had not been used frequently as a method of documentation in the field of architecture. Innumerable questions were raised: was the method of gathering information about the architect from the architect himself a reliable one? Although a vast amount of unrecorded information was known to older architects, would they be willing to share it? Would their stories have lasting research value to future scholars, or would they be trivial? Was video-recording a viable option? How much would such a project cost? With a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, we began a feasibility study to answer these questions.

Our study focused on older personalities who had first-hand knowledge of the people and events of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s—decades that have had little attention in the literature of Chicago’s architectural history. For nine months in 1983, I contacted more than one hundred architects in Chicago and suburbs and visited most of them. I learned not only that they were ready, willing, and more than able to tell their stories, they were also impatient to do so. Many thought such a program was long overdue.

For each visit, I was armed with a brief biographical sketch of the architect and a tape recorder with which I recorded our brief exchange. At that time, we considered these visits to be only a prelude to a more comprehensive, in-depth interview. Regretfully, this vision did not materialize because some narrators later became incapacitated or died before full funding was secured. Slowly, however, we did begin an oral history project and now, more than twelve years later, our oral history collection has grown into a rich source of research data that is unique among oral history programs worldwide. With the completion of these interviews our collection of memoirists now numbers more than fifty and the collection continues to grow each year. This oral history text is available for study in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago, as well as in a complete electronic version on the Chicago Architects Oral History Project's section of The Art Institute of Chicago website,

This interview is one of several dozen short interviews that were recorded in 1983 during the feasibility study. Surely each one of these narrators could have spoken in greater depth and at greater length; each one deserves a full-scale oral history. Unfortunately, thirteen of these twenty architects have already died, which makes these short interviews especially valuable. These interviews were selected for transcription, despite their brevity, because each narrator brings to light significant and diverse aspects of the practice of architecture in Chicago. We were fortunate to receive an additional grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts to process this group of interviews.

Thanks go to each interviewee and those families that provided releases for the recordings to be made public documents. Thanks also go to Joan Cameron of TapeWriter for her usual diligence and care in transcribing; to Robert V. Sharp of the Publications Department and Maureen A. Lasko of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at The Art Institute of Chicago for the helpful suggestions that shaped the final form of this document; and, once again, to the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts for its continuing support, with special thanks to Carter Manny, its former director. Personally, I would like to thank John Zukowsky, Curator of Architecture at The Art Institute of Chicago, for his courage in taking a chance on me as an interviewer in 1983, when I was a complete novice in the craft of interviewing. Since then, I have learned the art and the craft and, more importantly, I have learned that each architect’s story has its own very interesting and unique configuration, often filled with wonderful surprises. Each one reveals another essential strand in the dense and interlocking web of Chicago’s architectural history.