Obituary:  Benjamin Weese (1929-2024)

May 13, 2024 by Catharine Weese

Benjamin Weese, 94, passed away peacefully on April 29th due to complications from Alzheimer's. He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Cynthia Weese; son Daniel Towler Weese and his wife Cheryl Towler Weese; daughter Catharine Weese and her husband Nicholas Giusti; and five grandchildren: Micah, Cole and Carter Weese; and Emilia and Anouk Giusti.

Born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1929, Ben spent his early years on the North Shore. A move to the then-farm town of Barrington in the early 1940s fostered a life-long love of gardening and goats. After a high-school career as a football player and pole vaulter, Ben matriculated at Harvard in 1947. While his initial interests leaned toward social issues, he soon recognized a vocation for architecture; and upon graduation in 1951 he continued immediately to Harvard's Graduate School of Design. His studies were interrupted by the Korean War, when his religious beliefs led him to identify as a conscientious objector. His alternative service brought him to Germany in 1952, where he worked in a camp for young refugees escaping from communist East Germany. This time in post-World War II Europe was formative, and provided a touchstone for the rest of his life.

Returning from Europe in 1954, Ben continued his architecture studies with a new perspective influenced by the density of European cities and their vernacular architecture. After graduating in 1957, he joined the practice of his eldest brother Harry, where he led numerous large-scale academic and housing projects. Ben was instrumental in the historical preservation movement in Chicago, spearheading the drive to save H.H. Richardson's Glessner House on Prairie Avenue, and helping found the organization that would become the Chicago Architecture Center. He was an early urban "pioneer", buying a rooming house in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago in the late 1950s and helping kick off the renaissance of the historic neighborhood. As part of the Chicago Seven group of architects, he helped advance a vision of architecture that departed from the strict dogma of Mies van der Rohe's modernism; and he became a founding member of the reborn Chicago Architectural Club.

In 1977 Ben went into practice with his wife Cynthia and a series of partners; their firm, now known as Weese Langley Weese, specializes in institutional work and low-income housing, and Ben took special pride in his work for libraries and churches. Extensive travel in Europe informed and inspired the practice. Ben was a longstanding board member and president of the Graham Foundation; and he continued his advocacy for the historic fabric of Chicago as part of the city's Landmarks Commission.

In his later years, Ben enjoyed spending time shepherding his pine forests and gardening at his home in a small former logging town in Michigan. There, he invested in the traditional village fabric as well, promoting low-income housing, green space and local commerce. Everywhere he lived he left a lasting mark, from the architecture he built and preserved, to the street trees he planted in his Chicago neighborhood and the lush garden in Michigan…

A memorial will be planned for the fall.

Ben Weese joined SAH in 1992 and was a Life member.  He was honored by SAH at the inaugural SAH Awards Gala in 2010 as part of the Chicago Seven, for architectural excellence.  He subsequently served on the Awards Gala Committee in 2016.