Cynthia Weese was born in Des Moines, Iowa in 1940 and lived in small towns all over the state during her youth. The distinctive architectural character and quality of life she experienced in these places would serve as inspiration throughout her career. As a young girl, she was impressed by Eliel Saarinen's Des Moines Art Center and Frank Lloyd Wright' Johnson Wax Building and knew by the age of fourteen that she wanted to be an architect. During a family vacation she discovered Washington University in St. Louis and met Dean Joseph Passonneau who encouraged her to apply to the architecture program. Weese attended Washington University on scholarship and received a BSAS in 1962 and a B.Arch. in 1965. While a student, she met architect Benjamin Weese who was teaching at the university. They were married shortly thereafter and she moved to Chicago, completing her degree by taking classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Almost immediately Weese began to develop her own residential practice. This allowed her the flexibility to start a family and to participate in the revitalization of Chicago's older urban neighborhoods. She worked briefly for Joe Karr and then joined the firm of Harry Weese, Ben's older brother. In 1974, when the fuel crisis slowed work at the Weese office, Cynthia re-established an independent practice. In 1977, Ben left Harry's office and they formed Weese Seegers Hickey Weese (now Weese Langley Weese). Their projects included single-family houses, apartment buildings, and work for universities and public institutions. Weese was a founding member of Chicago Women in Architecture and the Chicago Architectural Club and participated in the group of architects known as the Chicago Eleven. She was critical to the development of American Institute of Architects (AIA) Chicago chapters Design Awards program. She has taught at Ball State University, Miami University, and the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. In 1993, Weese accepted the position of dean of the School of Architecture at Washington University. During her twelve-year tenure she was responsible for implementing a unique international study program, developing computer technology initiatives, and encouraging a design curriculum that encompassed sustainability and integration of mechanical systems and history. She was also instrumental in a campus expansion program. Weese was made a fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1991. In 2005 she left her post at Washington University and returned to Chicago to continue her private practice.
Weese speaks about the early influences in her life; how the landscape of her childhood informed her design approach; her studies at Washington University; her mentors; her efforts at establishing an independent identity and practice; working in Chicago in the turbulent era of the 1960s; helping to establish a strong identity for Chicago architects in the 1970s; working with Harry Weese and in partnership with her husband Ben Weese; what it means to practice architecture in Chicago; how she was able to successfully combine a family and professional life; the projects which hold the most significance for her (including the Corn Crib, A Secret Garden for a New Leaf, and the Kraft General Foods Education Center at the Art Institute of Chicago); her involvement in professional organizations such as Chicago Women in Architecture and the AIA; her accomplishments as Dean of the School of Architecture at Washington University; the future of architectural education; and the importance of architects assuming leadership roles.
Chicago City Day School, Chicago, Illinois, 1990. Photo courtesy Hedrich Blessing.
Corn Crib, central Illinois, 1977. Photo courtesy Phillip Turner.
A New Leaf, Chicago, Illinois, 1996. Photo courtesy Hedrich Blessing. Photo courtesy Steve Hall, Hedrich Blessing.
Funding for this oral history was provided by the Graham Foundation for the Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. It is one of a series of three videotaped oral histories of female architects coordinated in conjunction with Chicago Women in Architecture.