T. Gunny Harboe’s six-person Chicago office occupies a narrow space on the second floor of the Holabird & Roche–designed Marquette Building. Completed in 1895 and long considered a classic of the first Chicago school of architecture, the 17-story terra cotta and brick structure spent the second half of the 20th century without its cornice—a situation that Harboe remedied during a 2003 restoration. Six years later, most locals don’t recall that the cornice was ever missing, which is exactly how Harboe wants it. “When the average person says, ‘I never knew that was gone,’ that means you’ve done a good job,” says the 53-year-old architect.

Harboe grew up in the Chicago suburb of Northfield, but he didn’t spend his childhood prowling the old buildings of the city. His interest in old things was cultivated in a household filled with family heirlooms, each with its own story. For a short time the family moved to New Jersey—where Harboe dug up old bottles in the backyard of their Revolutionary War–era home. As an undergraduate at Brown, he majored in history and took American civilization courses. After a wide variety of experiences—including interning at the Rhode Island Historic Preservation & Heritage Commission, working at the Mystic Seaport museum, and doing carpentry in Vermont—Harboe ended up studying building technology and conservation in the graduate preservation program at Columbia University.

As a preservationist, Gunny Harboe has worked with some of Chicago's greatest architects, including Holabird & Roche, Daniel Burnham, and Louis Sullivan, but he says that he's just as happy working on an old barn as a National Historic Landmark.
Jeff Sciortino As a preservationist, Gunny Harboe has worked with some of Chicago's greatest architects, including Holabird & Roche, Daniel Burnham, and Louis Sullivan, but he says that he's just as happy working on an old barn as a National Historic Landmark.

All of these experiences built on his interest in all things related to “material culture,” but, Harboe notes, “buildings are the biggest remnants that you get.” After Columbia, he was able to neatly mate his preservation credentials with his carpentry craft when he was part of the four-person crew that rebuilt Frank Lloyd Wright’s Little House Living Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He considered a career in museums, but the Wright project made a strong impression. “The carpenters and craftsmen were important, but they weren’t making the big decisions,” Harboe says. “If you wanted to be directing the work, it was the architect.”

Thus he headed back to school, this time for an M.Arch. from MIT. After graduating in 1988, he returned to Chicago and was one of the first architectural hires at the then-new design/build firm McClier. When the firm received the job to renovate Burnham & Root’s Rookery a few months later, Harboe was the natural lead for the project—which took three and a half years to complete, including almost two in the field, learning from Daniel Burnham, John Wellborn Root, and Wright (who had renovated the original lobby during the first decade of the 1900s).

McClier was eventually acquired by Austin/AECOM, and Harboe continued to head the firm’s preservation and renovation work until founding Harboe Architects in March 2006. All of the firm’s employees have a formal education similar to Harboe’s—both an M.Arch. and preservation training. It’s a deliberate move that underscores his desire to get it right. “Nobody in Chicago does preservation with Gunny’s quality,” says Landmarks Illinois president Jim Peters. “He has a tremendous appreciation for materials and accuracy.”

Harboe’s résumé includes such seminal Chicago buildings as Holabird & Roche’s Marquette Building, Burnham’s Reliance Building, Louis Sullivan’s Carson Pirie Scott building, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s 860–880 Lake Shore Drive and Crown Hall. The Carson Pirie Scott work has continued in phases—the colonnade and cornice were restored in 2006, and a few minor faÇades were revealed late in 2008. Coming this fall is the complete renovation of the exuberantly ornamented metalwork on the first two floors facing State and Madison streets—the first time the intricate storefront has been disassembled and completely repaired since its initial installation over a century ago.

“A lot of architects react to things purely on an aesthetic level,” Harboe says. His practice draws on his wide experience as a generalist and tries to address a structure’s cultural meaning, beyond just what it looks like. Harboe considers himself an advocate for old buildings. “I understand we can’t save everything, but I’m not going to be the one to go against a building.”

Increasingly, he is working on newer buildings—in particular, classic Mies structures from the mid 20th century—because he sees it as a developing market. “Less was not always enough,” Harboe quips, noting that much of that era’s best work was designed with improperly vetted technology. “The Mies buildings are aesthetically elegant,” he says, “but they’re pragmatic nightmares.” Figuring out how to restore these structures—which often used materials that are no longer available, technologies that were insufficient to the task, and techniques that may no longer meet today’s building codes—is at the heart of Gunny Harboe’s work as a restoration architect.