Writer explores Prairie School’s Barry Byrne in new book

Staff Writer

Author Vincent Michael will return to Chicago, Sept. 17 to Sept. 21, to discuss and sign his book “The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe.”

Byrne was a radical architect who was an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright and was inspired by Louis Sullivan. A dedicated modernist and progressive Catholic, Byrne concentrated for much of his career on Catholic churches and schools throughout North America, many of them now considered landmarks.

In Hyde Park, Byrne is best known for designing the St. Thomas the Apostle church in 1922. It was the first modern Catholic Church building.

“He pushed the altar area into the congregation which is unusual for the Catholic tradition,” Michael said. “He wrapped his buildings in taut planar skins — they didn’t seem to have hard edges anywhere.”

Michael — executive director of the Global Heritage Fund in Palo Alto, Calif., the John H. Bryan Chair of Historic Preservation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a trustee of the National Trust for Historic Preservation — said his interest in Byrne developed during his years as an architecture history student at the University of Chicago.

“I lived on 53rd and Kimbark and I would walk by St. Thomas Church all the time,” said Michael, who received his bachelor’s and master’s degree in history and social sciences from the University of Chicago.

One night at Phyllis’ Musical Inn in Wicker Park, Michael said he struck up a conversation with a woman named Felicity Rich. During that time he said he was fixated on discussing history and architecture and was surprised that she stuck around for the conversation. He soon found out why.

“I told her that I was interested in studying Byrne’s work and she told me that she was his granddaughter,” Michael said.

Now Michael and Rich have been married for about 22 years. Rich took most of the pictures that are in the book, which has more than 100 photographs and drawings. The book, which Michael said took about 15 years to complete, is a biography that charts the entire length of Byrne’s work including his struggle as a diehard modernist who was designing for what was then the anti-modern Catholic Church.

While doing research at the Chicago History Museum, Michael said he found letters written by Bryne’s wife Annette Cremin Byrne at the museum that shows that Byrne met Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in Europe before he came to the United States. He also met Erich Mendelsohn, Jacobus Johannes Pieter Oud and other modernist architects there.

“Byrne was the only Prairie School architect to build in Europe, designing the concrete Church of Christ the King, built in 1928–31 in Cork, Ireland,” Michael said.
Cremin Byrne also did a lot of the interior work on homes designed by Byrnes.

During his visit to Chicago, Michael will speak at the Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., Oak Park, at 7 p.m. on Sept. 17 and the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St. at noon on Sept. 19. That event will culminate in an invitation-only ceremony at St. Thomas Apostle Church, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave. He will also speak at the Chicago Architectural Foundation on Sept. 21.

For more information or to purchase the book, visit press.uillinois.edu.