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Ernest Alton Grunsfeld (1929-2011)

Dates of Interview:

January 15, 16, 19, 20, 22, 26, and 27, 2004

Location of Interview:

Grunsfeld's office in Chicago


Annemarie van Roessel

Length of Transcript:

281 pages
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Photograph by Stuart-Rodgers-Reilly, courtesy of Grunsfeld Shafer Architects.

Biographical Summary

Ernest Alton "Tony" Grunsfeld, III, was born in 1929 in Chicago, Illinois, and studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1952. After serving in the military and working briefly in the offices of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill George Fred Keck, and Bertrand Goldberg in Chicago, in 1956 Grunsfeld joined Wallace Yerkes, formerly a partner of his father, noted Chicago architect Ernest Alton Grunsfeld, Jr., in a small residential practice in Chicago. Before long, Yerkes and Grunsfeld became the architects of choice for many prominent clients in Chicago's North Shore communities. After Yerkes' death in 1965, Grunsfeld continued in private practice, designing private houses, apartments, and commercial projects across the United States. Working in a modern aesthetic, Grunsfeld is highly regarded for his sensitivity to site and landscape, architectural massing, and building materials. He was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1985. Grunsfeld died on April 22, 2011.

Interview Highlights

Grunsfeld first speaks about his family background, focusing on his father's architectural career and his father's important commissions, including the Whitehall Hotel, the Adler Planetarium, and and the Michigan Avenue Garden Apartments—all in Chicago— and the Lessing Rosenwald house in Pennsylvania; landscape designers; his father's dislike of life in California and his father's love of life in France. Then Grunsfeld speaks about his own career in architecture; study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; military service; work at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, for George Fred Keck. and for Bertrand Goldberg; opening his own firm with Wallace Yerkes; his residential and commercial commissions; working with landscape designers Gertrude Kuh and Franz Lipp and various interior designers, including Marianne Willisch and Arthur Elrod; opinions and reflections.

Ernest A. Grunsfeld, Jr., architect. Adler Planetarium and Astronomical Museum, Chicago, IL, 1930.
Kaufmann & Fabry Co., photographer.
Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Ernest A. Grunsfeld, Jr., architect. Century of Progress International Exposition, Lumber Industries House, Chicago, IL, 1933.
Kaufmann & Fabry Co., photographer.
Historic Architecture and Landscape Image Collection, Ryerson and Burnham Archives, The Art Institute of Chicago.

Interview Excerpt

"Sometimes I can't believe I've been so lucky since an awful lot of the building I've done over the years has been on ravines or Lake Michigan—something like thirty-three or thirty-four houses on the lake. Those houses pose that problem but even more so because there's such a discrepancy in quality between the lake view and your neighbors or the street. Straightening out those priorities is sometimes difficult, and if it's difficult, it's fun.... You're constantly making decisions, little or big.... If you think about decisions based on what the client wanted, you'd almost have to call them every time to find out. Otherwise you're guessing. That's too hard, because as you're working on it and it's really hard to solve, you can say, Well, maybe the client didn't want that. And so you try something else. Then you begin to merge what you think the client wants with what's easy. So instead you just go ahead and make decisions based on what you think is right for the client's program.... I think houses are very private. That's where you go hide, that's where you're with your family, where you can take your shoes off and be comfortable. I think that's sort of the idea of the gate and the moat and drawbridge. Then there's the lake and the ravine or a beautiful garden that is all your private space. I think [my] houses are intentionally closed in the front. I'm not sure they're unfriendly. They are certainly private. I think maybe the truth is that we all are designing houses for ourselves and when they're complete, you just turn them over to someone else. I think that's true. I've always felt that was true." (pp. 208-210)

Ernest A. Grunsfeld, III, architect. Residence in Northfield, IL, 1965.
Photograph by Orlando Cabanban, courtesy of Grunsfeld Shafer Architects.

Ernest A. Grunsfeld, III, architect. Residence in Highland Park, IL, 1990.
Photograph by Lambros Photography, courtesy of Grunsfeld Shafer Architects.

Additional Resources

Grunsfeld Family images in the R&B Archives
Related archival materials in the R&B Archives
Works by Grunsfeld Family in the Department of Architecture and Design

Funding for this oral history was provided by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.