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An Iconic Lens on Preservation

Conserving Chicago’s mid-century homes with legendary California Modernist photographer Julius Shulman.

By Mike Singer


Edward Dart’s Miller House in Olympia Fields, Ill.

Edward Dart’s Miller House in Olympia Fields, Ill. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

Edward Humrich’s Richard Boom house in Riverwoods, Ill.

Edward Humrich’s Richard Boom House in Riverwoods, Ill. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

The Harry Weese home and studio in Barrington Hills, Ill.

The Harry Weese Home and Studio in Barrington Hills, Ill. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

The Paul Schweikher home and studio in Roselle, Ill.

The Paul Schweikher Home and Studio in Roselle, Ill. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

The Minsk House in Riverwood, Ill.

The Minsk House in Riverwood, Ill. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

Interior of the Minsk House

Interior of the Minsk House. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

Ralph Rapson’s Gidwitz House in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago.

Ralph Rapson’s Gidwitz House in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

The Robert Hausner Home and Studio in Riverwoods, Ill.

The Robert Hausner Home and Studio in Riverwoods, Ill. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

Interior of Bertrand Goldberg’s Levin House in Flossmoor, Ill.

The interior of Bertrand Goldberg’s Levin House in Flossmoor, Ill. Photo by Julius Shulman and Juergen Norgei, 2006.

Julius Shulman with Gary Gand

Julius Shulman with Gary Gand. Image courtesy of Gary Gand.

Photographs can help save buildings and often outlast them, particularly if the most famous architectural photographer in the world takes the images.

Chicago musicians and architecture preservationists Gary and Joan Gand, co-founders of Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond, first met photographer Julius Shulman in Palm Springs with the idea that a coffee table book might be their best preservation tool.

“We had come out to Palm Springs in 2002 for Modernism [Week], and Julius was staying next door to us at the Orbit Inn,” says Gary Gand. “I recognized him and knew his work from Life, Look, and other magazines when I was a kid. I invited us to breakfast, and we spent the whole day with Julius. We became fast friends and we fell in love with Palm Springs through his eyes.”

Shulman is widely credited with popularizing West Coast Modernism with his iconic images of residential architecture in Palm Springs and greater Los Angeles. He focused his lens on early Modernist masters Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, John Lautner, and Albert Frey at a time when they were not well known.

“We were thinking, ‘What can we do to preserve these houses?’” says Gary’s wife, Joan Gand, referring to the mid-century Modern homes in Chicago’s northern suburbs that were falling fast to the wrecking ball in the 1990s, a time she characterizes as “the McMansion era.” “[Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond] had gotten press, we were doing blogs, we were doing emails, and we weren’t getting anywhere. We all owned Palm Springs Modern by Adele Cygelman and had seen what the book did for elevating the stature of the homes there,” she says. “So we said, ‘We’ve got to have a book, and we need a photographer.’”

They got both, just in time. Shulman, lionized in the documentary film Visual Acoustics, died in 2009 at age 98. The Gands convinced him to work on his last major photography book, Julius Shulman: Chicago Mid-Century Modernism, when he was 96.

Their hope is that Shulman’s mid-century Modernist photographs, featuring large expanses of wood and glass on deeply forested, leaf-laden lots, will popularize Prairie Modernist homes in much the same way Julius Shulman: Palm Springs and Julius Shulman Los Angeles popularized airy glass and steel mid-century homes perched atop California hillsides and in deserts.

In time for AIA Convention 2014 in Chicago, the book is arranged chronologically by year of construction, featuring 11 Chicago-area 20th-century architects, including Bertrand Goldberg, Burton Frank, Edward Humrich, Keck & Keck, Paul Schwikher, and Harry Weese along with commentary of what’s it like to live in these homes by the current owners. The Gands live in Riverwoods, Ill., in a post-and-beam Modernist cube built in 1955 by Chicago architects Keck & Keck. Known as the Minsk House, it is one of 14 homes Shulman photographed for the book.

AIArchitect asked the Gands to share some memories of working with Julius Shulman.

AIArchitect: Why was it important for you to produce a book on Chicago mid-century homes?

Joan Gand: Since the early 1980s, important Modern houses were being torn down left and right. We formed our preservation group, Chicago Bauhaus and Beyond, in 2004 in response to a very beautiful Keck & Keck house being torn down.

Gary Gand. It was the 1951 Kunstadter House, right near where Joan grew up in Highland Park. That house was a Chicago AIA winner in 1963—and it got bulldozed and was gone. We were so heartbroken by that.

Joan: We wound up buying a Keck & Keck home [in 1986] before the word Modernism was popular. We just loved the huge walls of glass, the post-and-beam architecture—and we lived in that house and it changed our lives. There was no book about these houses in Chicago, so we said, “We’ve got to have a book.” We sat down one night and we said, “Let’s go through all the people we know that own the best houses, the ones that we love, and try to pick the ones to feature in the book.”

AIArchitect: How did you get Julius Shulman to agree to do it?

Gary: We had come to Palm Springs in 2006, when Julius was [there] to get a star in the Palm Springs Walk of Stars. We had visited Julius’ home in Los Angeles, and we had gone to his birthday party after having first met him in Palm Springs four years earlier, so we had become friends. We were drinking tequila together over at the Del Marco Hotel. I kind of cornered him and said, “I know you are really busy right now, and you probably don’t have an opening for the next 20 years, but can you recommend a good photographer who can come to Chicago and photograph this book idea I have?”

And he hesitated for about two seconds, and he said, “I’m doing it!”

Joan: So Julius told us when he could come. We booked the flights and hired a van. We rented equipment. We spent two weeks with Julius and assistants, and produced this book.

AIArchitect: Julius Shulman was 96 when he took on this project. How did he manage it?

Gary: He had a walker with a metallic red finish and a Mercedes logo on it. He used a Horseman, a large format view camera. Julius would get out of the van with his assistant Juergen Nogai, who is a very well-known and talented photographer in his own right. Julius would walk up the driveway of a home and he would say, “Stop! Here!” And we’d all freeze, and Juergen would go get the tripod and the camera, and put it wherever Julius told him to put it. Julius would set up the photo, and Juergen would actually click the camera and help him with the focus. They made a great team.

Joan: He would take two versions of the photo, one with people in and one without. A common theme for Julius in taking these photos was the way the trees framed the architecture. He kept calling them “Indian trees.” He could feel the presence of the Indians. And he would always look for the big Indian tree. And he would set up and frame the house under the shelter of that tree.

AIArchitect: What was he like to work with?

Gary: We’d drink tequila and eat a giant plate of ribs, and there was no stopping this guy. He was the greatest. We had so much fun.

Yet, when working, there was no small talk with Julius. No “How about those Bears last night?” or “Hey, it’s a nice day.” Everything that came out of his mouth was like playing chess. You were always on, and you always had to come up with something that was equally challenging, equally as intellectual, to keep your side of the bargain. It was kind of a college education for me. As a photographer, I learned a lot more.

He took these photos when he was 96. He lived to be 98.5. He had a sister who lived to be close to 100. I asked him once, “What did she die from?” and he said, “Oh, she forgot to wake up one day.” He was very matter of fact about his age, and everybody’s age.

Joan: When Julius took his iconic photos of the Case Study Houses, he was known to carry props with him because the houses were unoccupied. We thought that Julius would be [a] master stylist, but we found out that he was adamantly against moving anything. Since our home was first to be photographed, we found out the hard way when he refused to let us move our funky old Weber grill out of the photo. It was really bothering me, so I surreptitiously managed to get the grill moved and have a second photo taken without it. I thought I put it past Julius, but later that evening he said with a wink, “I know you moved the grill…”

Recent Related:

Explore Chicago: New Architecture Since 2004

AIA Convention 2014: Circling Back to Chicago’s Loop

Palm Springs Architectural “What Ifs” on Display

Something to Laugh At: Charles Phoenix on Mid-Century Modernist Preservation

Stories of Quiet Elegance: Hugh Kaptur, AIA


At the AIA Store: Julius Shulman—Modernism Rediscovered

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