If you want to get the inside story on the Chicago architecture scene over the past half-century, a fascinating read is available online in Betty Blum’s oral history of John Vinci.
Another option: spend an hour talking to Vinci, as I had the pleasure of doing last week. At 77, Vinci shows no sign of slowing down. He is the principal of Vinci | Hamp Architects where he’s run the show with Phil Hamp since 1985.
Vinci graduated from IIT and started out at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. He also worked for Crombie Taylor and Brenner Danforth Rockwell. During his career, He also spent a good deal of time advancing the cause of preservation—before anyone gave it a second thought.
Architectural photographer Richard Nickel was a friend and colleague. The duo got their hands dirty dismantling the old Garrick Theatre in 1960. After Nickel’s untimely death in 1972, Vinci inherited his Hasselblad camera, which bears the photographer’s name. Vinci eventually plans to donate the Hassie to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In addition to the Garrick, Vinci worked on other restoration projects—works of Frank Lloyd Wright, Ed Barnes, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen. Vinci was a key member of the salvage and reconstruction team on the Louis Sullivan-designed Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room.
John Vinci is a student of Chicago architecture and part of the history of it. It’s fitting, then, that he will receive the AIA Chicago Lifetime Achievement Award at Designight on Friday, October 24.
I found Vinci humble, feisty and funny, a live wire who doesn’t shy from controversy. He’s truly a walking encyclopedia of Chicago architecture. We talked about his education, career, dismantling old buildings with Richard Nickel, and why he was better suited to a career as an architect than a right fielder. Here’s what I learned from him during our conversation.
On being honored by the AIA: “I’m always embarrassed by these kind of things. It’s not something I worked for or ever thought about—but, I had an inkling it was coming. Several people called me to nominate me.”
On how he came to be known as a preservationist: “I’ve always been impulsive and persistent about a lot of things, threw myself into things, and so I just never knew what it would lead to. I always thought it would lead to more contemporary architecture on my part. But my calling seemed to come to more of the restoration work.”
On whether he considers himself, first and foremost, a designer of buildings, a creator of exhibits, a restorer, or a preservationist: “I consider myself an architect. Period. I see everything through that discipline. I see everything like I’m solving a mathematical problem. When I do a restoration, it’s clearly like a mathematical formula, finding what’s missing. How do you fill in the missing piece? When I do an exhibition, I’m trying to be objective about the objects and where they’re placed. When I do a modern building, they’re very disciplined, because that’s where I came from. Having Alfred Caldwell as my teacher and being under the Miesian School.”
On history and teaching: “I taught history of architecture for many years. When they hired me at Roosevelt University they said, ‘teach a course on Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan,’ and I thought, I can’t do that, that’s hero worship. So I immediately turned it into a 19th and 20th century class.”
On his role in architectural preservation: “When I worked for Brenner Danforth Rockwell, they had the Graham Foundation and the remodeling of the Stock Exchange building. I was kind of the conscience of the office. I had an intuitive sense of what should be done and what should not be done.”
On Chicago’s grand old theaters: “I always thought Balaban and Katz was kitsch. I had no love for old theaters, I just had a love for architecture and Adler and Sullivan did great theaters, very contemporary for the time and very beautiful.”
On designing the Arts Club of Chicago: “I tried to make the architecture its feature, its windows and its massing and proportion, that’s the important thing to me.”
On his design of the Italian-American Sports Museum: “I like certain things about it. I love the staircase. Nobody raved about it, but it holds up. The few things I’ve done seem to be solid.”
“On winning, losing and baseball: “I was never afraid to lose because I was always the last one picked when I played softball, and played right field, where nobody hit anything. I grew up near Comiskey Park. My two best friends were batboys for the White Sox. I always hoped one of them would need a sub and ask me, but they never did.”