The Society of Architectural Historians lost a great friend and benefactor on Sunday, March 22, 2015, when Seymour H. Persky passed away. Persky, an attorney, preservationist, and philanthropist, changed SAH forever when in 1995 he offered to purchase the landmark James Charnley House for the Society if the organization would move its national headquarters to the house. When the SAH Board decided to accept Seymour’s offer, it was a cultural coup for the City of Chicago, and it ensured public access to Charnley House in perpetuity. To acknowledge Persky’s generosity and preservation-minded priorities, the SAH Board voted to change the name of the house to Charnley-Persky House, and this year SAH will celebrate its 20th anniversary in the house.
Born in 1922, Persky was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who came to Chicago via Canada. He grew up poor on the west side of Chicago and often proudly told the story of his entrepreneurial mother, Bertha, who provided for her children by repairing used clothing and reselling it on Maxwell Street. The culture, language, traditions, and beliefs that he learned at a Hebrew school in Lawndale shaped his character from an early age, as did the Great Depression about which he said, “We were on relief. With God’s help we starved regularly.” In the heart of the Depression, Persky was introduced to Modern architecture at the 1933–34 Century of Progress Exposition, where he saw the House of Tomorrow by Keck and Keck, the same designers of a passive solar house on Lake Michigan where Persky would live 40 years later.
In 1942, Persky enlisted in the military and served as an airplane mechanic for planes patrolling for submarines in Guatemala. After service, he took full advantage of the GI Bill, attending Herschel Junior College for two years and later Roosevelt and DePaul Universities simultaneously, earning both a BA and JD in 1952. He practiced as a criminal defense lawyer for a number of years, and later began to invest in historic buildings, particularly apartment buildings in Lincoln Park and Evanston. His company, Parliament Enterprises, eventually had an inventory of more than 30 historic buildings.
In addition to purchasing and restoring historic structures, Persky also amassed one of the largest private collections of building fragments, decorative arts, and drawings by Adler and Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and other Prairie School architects. He felt a kinship with the designers, and the fragments fascinated him because they were “tangible history,” as he said. The Wright connection led him to explore the work of sculptor Alfonso Iannelli, whose archive Persky also acquired. Persky built the collection with expert advice from Chicago Cultural Historian Tim Samuelson, architect John Vinci, artist Mike Grucza, and others who shared Persky’s passion for Chicago’s architectural heritage.
A sociable and generous man, Persky belonged to many social clubs including the Cliff Dwellers, the Standard Club, the Union League Club, and the now-shuttered Covenant Club. In addition, he served on the boards and trustee committees of many not-for-profits and educational institutions including the Society of Architectural Historians, Landmarks Illinois, Roosevelt University, DePaul University, Illinois Institute of Technology School of Architecture, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Known for his generous nature, Persky also supported many Jewish philanthropies, including the Jewish United Fund, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish National Fund which supports water desalinization, and numerous synagogues and Jewish schools.
One of Persky’s greatest gifts was made when he had the option to purchase the James Charnley House from Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm that used the house for the Chicago Institute of Architecture and Urbanism, a think tank envisioned by SOM Partner Bruce Graham. When SOM decided to close CIAU in the early 1990s, Persky reserved the option to purchase Charnley House. Although Persky admired the house for its resemblance to the Auditorium Theatre, which also displays the combined talents of Adler, Sullivan and Wright, he knew he couldn’t live in it, because it was three stories high, without an elevator. Persky struggled to find a partner or not-for-profit that would keep the house open to the public and, as he said, “All of a sudden—Bing!—as if somebody had reached in and pulled a switch, I thought of the Society of Architectural Historians being there…I reached for the phone and called somebody at the SAH and made them an offer.” In 1995 Persky made a $1.65 million contribution to the Society of Architectural Historians to purchase the James Charnley House. SAH agreed to use the house as its international headquarters and to open the house to the public for weekly tours, lectures, college seminars, and even an upcoming archaeological dig. Recognizing the challenges of maintaining and conserving this National Historic Landmark, between 2010 and 2015, Persky donated $250,000 to establish an endowment for the House. We at SAH were honored to have known Seymour H. Persky, and we will miss his entrepreneurial ideas and wry wit.
The Society of Architectural Historians is now accepting memorial gifts in Persky’s honor. To make a contribution, please click here.
Quotes from this obituary are from an oral history that Pauline Saliga recorded with Seymour Persky in 2008. To read the entire oral history, go to http://www.sah.org/about-sah/charnley-persky-house/history and click on the link at the bottom of the page.
Read Blair Kamin’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune about Persky’s life and work: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/obituaries/ct-seymour-persky-obituary-kamin-met-no-date-20150323-story.html
Read the family's obituary at legacy.com: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/chicagotribune/obituary.aspx?pid=174469773
Pauline Saliga, Executive Director
Society of Architectural Historians and
Charnley-Persky House Museum Foundation