Edward Dart: Re-Discovering a Modernist Architect

Posted on: January 1st, 2013 by David Robert Weible 3 Comments

Water Tower Place, 1976. Credit: orijinal, 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, 1962. Credit: 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.

St. Procopius Abbey Church and Monastery, 1967. Credit: Matthew Seymour
Exterior and 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.

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David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

Architecture, Modern Architecture, Preservation Magazine

3 Responses

  1. Erin

    January 1, 2013

    Thank you for the informative article. We just bought a 1954 Dart house in winnetka from the original owners and plan to restore it. We have the original blue prints including early drafts. Any restoration resources or architect references would be appreciated.

  2. Modern Architecture « rosylina858

    January 4, 2013

    […] Re-Discovering a Modernist Architect […]

  3. Barry Goldberg

    January 12, 2013

    Ed Dart designed Beth Hillel Congregation in Wilmette, Illinois about 1963. Located just off of Glenview Road and visible from the Edens Expressway, if features a sloping, soaring Sanctuary roof that is 50′ tall over the Bimah and is done in exposed white painted brick. The Sanctuary walls narrow as one views the Ark which is the visual centerpiece of a Synagogue.

    Most of the members have no idea who designed the building as there is no plaque, only the name on the original construction drawings which we are lucky to have.

    Good Article.

    Barry Goldberg