The “lost” Tigerman McCurry interview

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A conversation with Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry about the past, present, and future of their impact on Chicago-area architecture.

The peak postmodern Self-Park parking garage by Stanley Tigerman, completed in 1986. Photo: Eric Allix Rogers

For the October 2018 issue of Chicago magazine, I worked on a roundup of homes for sale throughout the Chicago metro area designed by Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry. The piece was published in print and online, but much of the interview portion remained unavailable until now.

To commemorate the recent passing of Stanley Tigerman, I believe that it’d be helpful to share the entirety of the discussion, particularly Tigerman reflecting on his own legacy and place in architectural history. From the conversation, it became evident to me that Stanley was not as interested in being remembered for his buildings so much as his reputation as a teacher, mentor, and critic of architecture and design — as a profession and a creative and philosophical endeavor.

A year prior to the discussion, the husband and wife architects had closed their Chicago office and moved the practice into their apartment so that Stanley could focus on his health while Margaret continued overseeing the firm’s projects. At Chicago mag, we figured it was as good a time as ever to revisit their careers and highlight some of the homes that were available on the market at the time.

Original Tigerman McCurry drawings and records live on at the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago. However, I wanted to make the transcript of the “lost” Chicago magazine interview available online for anyone interested in studying or exploring the careers of Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry.

Begin interview:

LaTrace: For the October issue of Chicago magazine, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on your careers and your impact on the Chicago area, and it looks like there are a couple of homes for sale that we wanted to highlight, including 6292 Timberview in Lisle and 919 Hill Road in Winnetka. Certainly, different price points, but both are very unique properties. Margaret, which one were you more involved with?

McCurry: The larger one. Well, we both were, but I spent the bulk of 19 years on it. I looked at the pictures and obviously when the family moved out, they took a couple of rooms with them into their new locale, while leaving others. So the colorful pictures are from a photo shoot that Architectural Digest did [Note: The listing photos were a mix of images from a 2005 feature and interview in Architectural Digest and newer images shot specifically for the real estate listing]. And then the rooms that aren’t professionally decorated is, I assume, the family that owns it now.

LaTrace: So, 19 years? Can you talk a little bit about that? It’s a long, interesting process, but can you tell me a little bit about how the process went for that particular property?

McCurry: Well, the house was built in 1929, and everyone knows what happened in 1929. It got built but it never got finished on the interiors in any way that would then measure it with the quality of the building itself. They [the family that commissioned Tigerman McCurry] had lived in it for several years and decided that it was really worth restoring — well, not even restoring — we basically ended up gutting many of the rooms. They moved out for three years as we went through the process. The ceiling heights, if I remember correctly, were about nine and a half feet, which is not that tall for a very elegant and historic house. So there were many tricks used in the moldings to make the rooms seem bigger. The molding steps in many tiny increments over the depths of at least a foot, but only a height of a few inches. So, there are many things like that to give it more character. And we replaced and re-proportioned all the windows, we re-proportioned doors, we changed bulky fireplaces into more elegant ones. It was a considerable amount of work, and then they moved back [in] after three years and then we tackled the interiors. Some of the furniture was bought in Paris. They were very interested in both the Art Deco and Biedermeier periods, so you can see from the photographs that there’s a lot of Biedermeier furniture, and it’s all real. We added room and light fixtures. Everything was done to a very high level of quality and historic interest in terms of the furnishings. So that’s how long it took, because they were very interested in the quality and in developing it.

LaTrace: And for this house in Lisle, it has a very unique, almost modular look to it. Stanley, can you talk a little bit about this house?

Tigerman: It was a long time ago and my memory is not so great.

McCurry: But you can talk about it some, Stanley.

Tigerman: I mean, I love the house. The client was terrific — she was a wonderful woman. Marion was the last name.

LaTrace: The listing shows that it was completed in 1979. Does that sound about right?

Tigerman: Yeah, but I mean, it’s 2018, so I may not be able to remember much from 1979.

LaTrace: Well, I guess the reason I bring that up is because it was a real transitional period in design and architecture with the rise of postmodernism.

Tigerman: Well, it’s not a postmodernist house. It has a few moves but it’s really kind of a modern house. There were really no decorative features or an attempt to connect it to history or the past or whatever. It was really done for her. But that’s really all I remember.

LaTrace: It looks like there’s a built-in on the first floor. Was that an original design by you for this house?

Tigerman: Yeah. It’s a sort of butterfly house blend, named after a house type around the early 1900s by Sir Edward Prior in England. And the entrance side is largely opaque and the other side is largely transparent, with lots of windows.

McCurry: I’m sure it was published and I’m sure it also won an AIA award.

Tigerman: Both. It was published I think in [Architectural] Digest.

LaTrace: It looks like the round corner faces the neighbors where the window side faces out towards that body of water. Was there a particular name for this home?

Tigerman: No. It was done as the Marion House.

McCurry: Just like Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, the first client gets the name of the house, so this one is Marion.

LaTrace: Another thing I was curious about, and feel free to say as much as you feel comfortable talking about, but I was just wondering how retirement is going and how you feel with having winded down the practice.

Tigerman: Well, I mean, I have some health issues, so a lot of my energy is spent on taking care of myself.

McCurry: The practice is wound down from Stanley’s side, but not necessarily on my side. We have a couple of projects. One is under construction and we just finished the drawings for another one, so the office has just been relocated to our apartments. And we also have things where we’re connecting with architects all the time. We have a group of young architects who come to the apartment every couple of months on a Sunday afternoon for a salon. We’ve had James Rondo, we’ve had Madeleine Grynsztejn, and Mark Kelly — people that can help younger people. We do what we can with mentoring because they’re all good young architects with small practices, teaching at all the different schools of architecture in the city, and trying to make it on their own while big firms are swallowing up little firms. It’s a funny time. We were lucky that we had a really great run for a lot of years with a lot of interesting clients, and it’s really hard watching young people struggle now.

LaTrace: It seems like a lot of industries are in an ebb and flow with change and particularly in some industries, like media, technology has changed things a lot. Would you say that maybe your take is that attitudes towards [custom] homes has changed, or the fact that maybe younger people aren’t buying houses as often — or is there anything in particular that comes to your minds about your experience and the changes in the profession today?

McCurry: Stanley?

Tigerman: No.

McCurry: Well, it’s hard. There are many more architects out there. When we began, most architects worked for larger firms, and there were a few in the city — the really well-known house architects like George Fred Keck, who Stanley worked for for a while. And Booth and Nagle were out there, but they were both Stanley’s employees. Booth came first, then came Nagle. And then they left and started their own practice, and then they split. But I think that there are many more architects out there, so the competition is trickier. Also, I think the climate — people became frightened by what happened in 2008. You know, life had been a bowl of cherries for a very long time for a lot of people. And now, I don’t think there are as many [people] who want to pay for a certain quality of work. It is much harder to compete in a way, because people are undercutting fees and things, so architects are really struggling today — the younger ones — to keep a practice going. And I mean, it’s not that hard to do many different building types. The only one that’s difficult would be, say a hospital. Any other type you would not have had to have done ten. Say a church: you don’t have to do ten churches to be a candidate for a church. And in fact, you can say that because I haven’t done any, maybe it’ll be fresher than somebody that’s cranking out churches. But the belief factor isn’t always there. Same with libraries, police stations, you name it.

LaTrace: It’s interesting and definitely seems like if anyone has the money, it’s the hospitals right now and you see a lot of these large global firms behind that type of work. You maybe don’t hear so much about these high profile, individually-driven residences. There’s actually one… An apartment I believe that was done by Stanley. It was a duplex Lake Shore Drive apartment with a wavy staircase and it looks like that apartment had been gutted, rehabbed, and resold in the last couple of years. In terms of your own legacy, there’s a growing sentiment and movement to preserve some of the stuff that was done in the ‘70s and ‘80s by Chicago architects. And I did see the documentary you were in Stanley — the Helmut Jahn Thompson Center documentary — and I was wondering how you feel personally about seeing some of the work done by Chicago architects such as yourselves potentially being threatened in the coming years?

Tigerman: Well, you know, I have no feeling about that. It is what it’ll be. Buildings get torn down, or remodeled badly, or defaced, and I don’t have any feelings about that. What I do — what I did — was for the client, not for resale. And of course, buildings come and go and things get demolished, or trashed, or changed or whatever, and I don’t have any strong chip on my shoulder or axe to grind about such things. Everything has a life. As said in the Bible, there’s a time for this and a time for that. There’s a time to invent and a time to destroy; there’s a time for war and a time for peace. So buildings come and go, as do I. Everything changes, and everything dies and gets renewed and refurbished and life goes on. Life is always in a state of change.

McCurry: And the drawings all exist in perpetuity, so that’s important too.

Tigerman: Everything is in the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries, so that means that people can pour over the documents.

McCurry: And a good portion of both of our projects are either in books that we’ve done ourselves — I have two books that have most of my best houses in them. But the historic houses are in a book I did some years ago.

Tigerman: I’ve got eight books that I did, so I mean, we’re a part of history. And times change, and I have no problem with that. I accept the facts of change.

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