January 1, 2013

Edward Dart: Re-Discovering a Modernist Architect

Water Tower Place in Chicago

photo by: Lorenia, Flickr

Edward Dart's Water Tower Place in Chicago.

Although noted Chicago architect Edward Dart (1922-1975) designed everything from well-known public spaces and Modernist lakefront houses to iconic churches, I’d never heard of him. And as you’ll read in Lisa Skolnik’s article, “Discovering Dart,” in our Winter 2013 issue of Preservation, neither had the family who purchased one of his houses.

So, to get a better sense of who this accomplished but often overlooked architect was -- and why he was so obscure -- I called Matthew Seymour, a project manager for Central Building and Preservation in Chicago, who had written his master’s thesis in preservation on Dart and served as a source for our feature.

Though his sister published his biography in 1993, Dart’s early life is still, to a large extent, a mystery. What we do know is that he was born in New Orleans in 1922 to parents of French descent, and that he exhibited a talent for drawing and sketching while in the U.S. Navy, a hobby he carried on throughout his years serving during WWII.

“All I know is that people who are still alive that knew him personally, who were his friends, said that he was the nicest guy in the world,” Seymour says of Dart’s personal life.

After completing his post-war architectural studies at Yale in 1949 under the tutelage of greats like Louis Kahn and Eero Saarinen, Dart interviewed with several firms in California, but almost immediately decided instead to move to Chicago. There he would largely work alone before joining the firm of Jerrold Loebl, a former professor, in 1965.

Henrich House

photo by: Matthew Seymour

Henrich House.

As an architect, Dart is probably best known for Water Tower Place, a 74-story mixed-use Chicago fixture on Michigan Avenue, complete with one of the world’s first vertical shopping malls. Coincidentally, it was the project during which he died, unexpectedly, at the age of 53. He’s also well known for tens of private houses that dot Chicago’s northern and western suburbs, such as the Henrich House in Barrington, designed in 1962.

But Dart’s churches are the works that define him. His ultimate masterpiece, in Seymour’s eyes, is the often-overlooked St. Procopius Abbey and Monastery in Lisle, Ill. It’s the work that best demonstrates what Seymour calls the “Dart Design Philosophy.”

The philosophy combines Dart’s unique use of materials -- wood, steel, glass, and especially Chicago Common Brick, which adds an element of softness and warmth to the interiors of his designs -- with unusual shapes and geometric forms to create both aesthetically pleasing and functional structures. The final element of the philosophy was the almost seamless incorporation of a project into its site and surroundings, much like the designs of Frank Lloyd Wright.

The interior of St. Procopius Abbey and Monastery

photo by: Payton Chung, Flickr

Interior of St. Procopius Abbey and Monastery.

However, Dart’s designs seem to take an extra step in finding a way to cater to the lifestyle and desires of his clients, as opposed to the works of Wright, which often dominated their inhabitants. The elements of this philosophy combined to create a unique version of Midcentury Modernism.

“Developing your own style, being inventive, and trying to design buildings that don’t look like anything else had to be really hard,” Seymour says. “It’s his own style, and I think it does have a place in the history and evolution of architecture.”

But if that’s the case, the question is even more intriguing; why the obscurity? Seymour says that it could be that Dart died young, just as he was reaching the height of his career. But he also points out that the Midcentury Modern era during which Dart practiced has only recently been drawing interest.

Perhaps, then, this is only the beginning of Dart’s fame.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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