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John Augur Holabird (1920-2009)

Audio Interview with Transcript:

Dates of Interview: October 29, 30; November 3, 6, 12, 16; December 3, 1992
Location of Interview: Holabird's home in Chicago
Interviewer: Susan Benjamin
Length of Transcript: 207 pages

View Online (transcript only)

Video Interview, unedited (1998):

Dates of Interview: August 4, 1998
Location of Interview: unknown
Interviewer: unknown
Length of Interview: 1 hour, 53 minutes, 37 seconds

Part 1 of 4 (00:29:34): View Online
Part 2 of 4 (00:28:12): View Online
Part 3 of 4 (00:30:51): View Online
Part 4 of 4 (00:25:00): View Online

Biographical Summary

John Augur Holabird was born in 1920 in Chicago, Illinois, the son of architect John A. Holabird and grandson of William Holabird, founder of the firm Holabird and Roche (later Holabird and Root). He studied architecture at Harvard University where he earned his bachelor's degree in 1942 and his master's degree in 1948. His studies were interrupted by military service in the United States Army Corps of Engineers from 1942 until 1945. After graduating in 1948 Holabird went to work in his family's architectural firm, Holabird and Root, but left after one year to teach at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago (1949-54) and then at Bennington College in Vermont (1954). He returned to Holabird and Root in 1955 and remained there until he retired in 1987. Holabird's architectural work included the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, the Ravinia Pavilion and Restaurant in Highland Park, Illinois, and the Intramural Physical Education building at the University of Illinois in Champaign/Urbana. Holabird has served on many advisory boards, including the Ragdale Foundation and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. He has also been a trustee of the Ravinia Festival Association, the Francis W. Parker School, and the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1974. Holabird died February 16, 2009, in Chicago.

Interview Highlights

AUDIO/TEXT TRANSCRIPT: Holabird speaks about his family and early years; Saturdays at the Tavern Club; the office of Holabird and Root; at the Century of Progress International Exhibition; the Depression; studying architecture at Harvard University; his interest in stage design; teaching; Helmuth Bartsch; clients; cultural and civic activities; the Holabird and Root collection at the Chicago Historical Society.

Intramural Physical Education Building at University of Illinois; Champaign/Urbana, 1971.
Photo courtesy of Holabird & Root.

VIDEO, Part 1 of 4: Talks about his childhood and family; Holabird grew up in a family of architects; went to the office and building sites of Holabird and Root with his father beginning at age five (00:00:32); father never talked about architecture at home; “He figured architects didn’t talk to their wives about their work because it would get out and other people would know about things; it was a dog-eat-dog competition right then...”; in 1931 there were 300 people in the office but only about eight people during the Depression (00:04:06); father worked on the Century of Progress World’s Fair (Chicago, 1933); describes the Fair and various venues; the Fair work was important in keeping the firm alive (00:05:41); father’s practice continued with projects, especially hotels, all over the country (00:10:31); received a national scholarship and enrolled in Harvard University; participated in the drama club, working on sets and props; did stagehand work at summer theaters (00:16:00); completed education at Harvard, entered the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II (00:23:03); worked with the “colored” training battalion; all the officers were white; this was his first experience working with African-Americans (00:26:28); became a parachute engineer; sent overseas with the 82nd Battalion for two years (00:27:37).

VIDEO, Part 2 of 4: Relates his experiences as an Army parachutist in Europe during World War II; father died three days before his Army discharge; while in Europe went to the Sorbonne (00:00:20); returned to Harvard University using GI Bill benefits, and with a wife and two children; became involved with the theater again (00:06:24); returned to the firm of Holabird and Root and was disappointed in its outdated practices; decided to return to drama; taught various stagecrafts at a school for seven years, enjoyed the experience immensely (00:10:12); worked at Holabird and Root during the school summer vacations; describes Gateway Gardens, Chicago, a building he designed (00:12:55); quit teaching, joined a union, began jobs with ABC and NBC-TV networks designing sets for local programs and for Saturday night beer commercials (00:14:25); returned to Holabird and Root. Describes Mr. Root as an inexperienced manager and not a designer; Mr. Root became an alcoholic, then had a heart attack in the mid-1950s; the office became more manageable and much better, with 150 to 180 employees (00:15:00); “Perkins and Will was doing all the great things in the suburbs that could not be done in the city very well” (00:18:03); worked on the Physical Education building on the University of Illinois campus, Urbana; calls it the most successful of anything he ever did; also did the gymnasium for Northern Illinois University and other schools; maintains he used his experience in stage work for these other buildings (00:19:05); became an Associate in Holabird and Root in fourteen years; in 1970 he became a partner; work of the firm improved, especially in design (00:22:00); started working on rehabilitation of older buildings, such as the Chicago Cultural Center; studied and reported on the use of the Chicago River as a city asset for recreational activities (00:23:50).

VIDEO, Part 3 of 4: Discusses his ideas for redevelopment of the Chicago Riverfront (00:00:25); Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Perkins + Will took over the design of office buildings in the downtown area except for telephone work, which Holabird and Root was doing; did the telephone company’s Canal Street building; calls it a “big switchboard” (00:01:55); Holabird and Root also was doing institutional work, including Northwestern Hospital; University of Chicago’s field house remodeling; the Physics Buildings; Bell Laboratories in Naperville, IL; a building for Western Electric, as well as work for the State of Illinois (00:03:16); Holabird also worked with other firms designing stage works, such as settings and backdrops for the St. Luke’s Fashion Show and for cotillions; he also copied Old Master paintings for sets and for his own dining room, using picture postcards as his guide (00:05:04); Served on the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Board for about eight years (00:08:02); on the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks: “No one told me I was on it, and then when I went off, no one thanked me...”; however, he describes the experience and colleagues as interesting and educational (00:09:12); named to the Board of the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts; tells of his ideas to further the goals of the foundation (00:11:27); relates how and why the firm of Holabird and Root has survived over the years (00:14:00); Holabird resigned from the firm in 1988 because he refused to use the computer in his work (00:16:35); describes working with stage sets as fun; “If sets look good twenty feet away, it’s fine. You can’t do that with buildings” (00:19:34); describes his relationship with Hedrich Blessing as important; his father and Root were good friends with Hedrich and Blessing; they did all the photographs for the firm until the 1950s; Holabird disagreed on how to frame the photos, saying he would include people and other buildings, since that is why they were built; Hedrich Blessing wanted their photographs to be “pristine” (00:21:00); Holabird relates his thoughts about changes in the city of Chicago; feels good things are happening (00:23:06); “Cities are interesting as they grow” (00:26:22); Holabird talks about the relationship between his father, John A. Holabird, Sr. and his partner, John Wellborn Root, Jr. (00:28:00).

VIDEO, Part 3 of 4: Holabird’s father brought Mies to the U.S. and to IIT from Nazi Germany; “No one knew much about Mies except for the Tugendhat House and the Barcelona Pavilion” (00:00:08); relates anecdotes about Frank Lloyd Wright (00:02:27); recalls memories of his father’s work at Ft. Sheridan, IL; his father thought the buildings were uninteresting (00:05:41); Holabird and Root drawings were donated to the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum); subsequently some drawings were damaged by a flood; they had to be restored and now are kept in optimal conditions (00:08:43); gives opinion on how Chicago became known as a city of great architecture (00:13:08); discusses how Harvard University, his theater work, and the Army helped him in his work as an architect and as a teacher (00:15:50); names the buildings he likes most: the Physical Education building on the University of Illinois campus, Urbana, where he had complete control; and the Ravinia buildings where he enjoyed working on the stage problems (00:17:22).

Illinois Bell Telephone Building; Chicago, IL, 1967.
Photo courtesy of Holabird & Root.

Interview Excerpt

"My grandfather William [Holabird] came to Chicago in 1877, six years after the fire, worked part-time for the quartermaster and then at night in the office of William LeBaron Jenney, who had more work than he could do. [Jenney] was really the first great architect in Chicago, and he had in his office, at one time or another, my grandfather and [Daniel] Burnham and [Martin] Roche, and I think [Louis] Sullivan worked for Jenney, too. He must have been a great teacher. There was enough work, so all these bright young men, as soon as they'd had a couple of years, started their own offices. Grandfather did in 1880. He and Ossian Simonds, who was a landscape man, they did houses on the South Side and in Evanston....The next year Martin Roche came from Jenney, and he and Grandfather were both architects. Ossian Simonds resigned and became a great landscape architect. They worked on Graceland Cemetery. Simonds did the landscape work, and Holabird & Roche did the main building there and some of the other stuff. Anyway, Grandfather was an engineer from West Point, and Roche was a tiny little Irish man. I don't know if [Roche] went to college or anything, but he drew like an angel and they made a good pair: Roche was the designer and Grandfather, who was a designer, too, was also a businessman." (p. 3)

Funding for the audio interview and transcript was provided by Harold Schiff, of Schal Associates.
Videos courtesy Judith Paine McBrien and the AIA Chicago Foundation.