Bob Zuber, AIA Partner - Architecture Design at Award Winning Chicago Architects, Morgante Wilson
A little over two decades ago, I was fresh out of College, having just move
d from downstate Illinois, to Chicago. I had landed my first professional job working downtown in a large corporate firm as a very junior member of a team working on residential high rises in the city and corporate office parks in the suburbs. Sounds like an architect’s dream, right? Well, I hated it.
“Hate” may actually be too gentle of a word for how I felt about that job, and how it infiltrated every aspect of my life- but needless to say, I despised everything about the type of work I was doing. The office politics intrinsic to a 100-person firm, the intense stress and late hours for which I had no control over- but mostly, a complete and utter displacement from the design process for which I had no input, and a total disconnection from the very clients and end-users of the buildings I worked on.
I lasted 8 Months before I decided to throw in the towel and look for another job. Luckily, it was the “Go-Go Years” of the late 90’s economy, and I quickly landed a job at Morgante Wilson Architects, a small 15-person firm that was founded by a husband and wife team. Partners in life and in their profession. The work they did was mostly residential, which meant quicker-paced projects and clients with whom I could connect with, who would have a visceral and vital relationship to the design process.
One of the first projects I was assigned to was a second-floor addition and exterior renovation for the Glenview home of Julie and Mike Tracy and their two young boys, Joe and John. It was Julie’s dream to open a Montessori-type speech pathology school for young children, and a new space above their garage seemed to be the perfect spot!
Finally- this was the type of project that I had envisioned myself working on! Projects where the clients were fully invested in the design process, and who were appreciative of the hard work that was done for them. My professional relationship with the Tracys was just as rewarding as my professional relationship with Fred Wilson and Elissa Morgante, the founders of my new firm, who were quite willing to give me the opportunities and responsibilities I craved. I had not expected I would be learning as much, and involved in the design process as I was that early in my career!
One afternoon, well into the construction phase of their project, I had come back into the office after a morning of site meetings, to find a message from Julie on my phone. She had just come home after work and had been surprised by how much the project had turned the corner, and was overwhelmed that her dream was coming to fruition. While still in her driveway, she had called me to say,
“Thank-You for helping me achieve my dream, its beautiful!”
It was beautiful enough to be featured in Better Homes Magazine.
It was at that point, with her simple gesture of “Thanks”, that I realized I had found my own home. Although I had stumbled onto this particular firm in a sort of “happy accident”, I now knew this was the type of work I wanted to do for the rest of my life, and this was the firm I wanted to work for.
Now “fast forward” a few decades. The Tracys had moved on to bigger and better endeavors in their lives and created a non-profit organization, Urban Autism Solutions, which dedicated itself to changing outcomes of young Adults with autism through a living facility that advanced their social and vocational opportunities. Their own son, John, was one of their residents, having been diagnosed with autism at an early age. I had even heard Mike and Julie Tracy mentioned on an NPR radio segment one day, that described how they were leading the country on autism research and development with their work.
Last year, Julie reached out to our office and asked for a referral to a company that could replace the front door on one of their independent living residential buildings. The existing front door assembly (consisting of two doors, paneled jambs and art-glass transom) was original to the circa-1880 brick townhome. Although there was another set of interior doors directly inside the foyer, the original doors were old, worn and drafty. During the winters, cold wind swept through the front entry and directly up to the second floor living quarters, and were badly in need of being replaced.
Now, I had an opportunity to repay their simple act of kindness with another. They had unknowingly, given me the affirmation I needed during a professional turning point in my life, and now I could step in to lend a hand when they needed it.
Teaming up with a coworker, Renata Buenrostro, we reached out to two of the talented vendors we had worked with in the past. Richard Behles of Creative Millwork, LLC, and Zak Silver at Studio 41 to help us with this endeavor. Unbelievably enough, they both agreed to donate 100% of the work to Urban Autism Solutions! Furthermore, Richard was able to persuade Jonathan Rubenstein of Jar Corp. to donate the stain and finishing work of the door as well! Richard and I met at the residence in late 2019 to measure and plan for the new front doors. I sent a design sketch for Creative Millwork to match the existing set of doors and his company sent back detailed shop drawings for my review. Meanwhile, Renata worked with Zak to select a beautiful set of entry door hardware. The existing art glass transom was removed for safe-keeping before it would be reinstalled behind a new, double-insulated glass transom fabricated by Richard’s shop.
Before the doors could be fabricated and installed, disaster struck in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic. Suddenly, this project took on an altogether new meaning as we strove to keep an at-risk population safe and warm through the winter months. To me, the front door became a symbolic barrier between the cold and bleak storm brewing outside, and the warm and comfort of these resident’s home.
“Home” means a lot of things to a lot of different people. It can mean a special place to create a life-long dream, the comfort of knowing you are on the correct life-path, a physical environment that keeps you safe and sound from a chaotic world and even the random acts of kindness you bring into people’s lives, often unknowingly, and in small ways.
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the clients who have enriched my life in meaningful ways. The many talented coworkers who always have my back. Fred Wilson And Elissa Morgante, who gave me endless opportunities. The vendors and contractors I know who would put charity before profit. And to know that giving is always better than receiving.