FEATURE STORY — November/December 2007

Band of Brothers

Brothers photo

Along with their chain-smoking and zebra-skin caps, the Navy Pier architecture students of the 1940s were known for being exceptionally driven and politically active. From this group emerged some of the Chicagoland area’s most accomplished architects in recent time. Front Row, From Left: Donald Brotherson, Art Garikes, Al Borash; Back Row, From Left:  Marv Goldblatt, Sam Schmall, Earl Wright, George Mansolas.
Courtesy of Mel Markson

United by the war, rigorous classes and their zebra-skin caps, the Navy Pier architecture students of the 1940s weren’t just friends—they were “like a family”

By Rachel Farrell

As I’m sitting with Melvin Markson ’48-’50 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE, ’55 UIUC in The Parthenon restaurant in Chicago one afternoon, he pulls out a piece of paper and slides it in front of me. The other four men sitting with us lean forward to get a closer look.

It’s a photocopy of a drawing that, through a series of sketches, depicts what life was like for architecture students at the Chicago Undergraduate Division of the University of Illinois at Navy Pier during the late 1940s. Created by Kioshi Kikuchi ’48-’49 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE, the drawing was once used by students to outline an eight- by 16-foot mural for a Navy Pier open house in 1950. These days, no one knows what happened to the mural. All that remains is this drawing.

Markson points to one of the sketches on the page. “Here we are standing outside of art class in the hallway, smoking our cigarettes and watching the girls walk by,” he says. “We tried to entice the girls to pose for our drawing class.

“Here’s an architecture class,” he continues, pointing to another spot. “You notice it says, ‘No Smoking’ and there’s a cloud of smoke above it. Here, the guard is coming and he’s—”

Sam Schmall ’48-’50 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE, ’57 UIUC interrupts him. “We used to play blackjack on the drafting tables,” he says excitedly. “And the guard knew, but he didn’t want to catch us. So as he came down the hall, he would jiggle his keys to let us know he was coming.”

“Well, that was more for smoking,” Markson says, looking at Schmall through his shaded eyeglasses. “So everyone would clean up their cigarettes.”

Schmall ignores him. “This was the ‘History of Architecture’ class where we had slide shows,” he says, pointing to the paper. “One day, somebody slipped in a picture of a nude girl. And the instructor is talking about Greek temples and so forth and everyone is laughing. He turns around, sees the picture, and says, ‘Next picture! Next picture!’”

The men burst into hearty laughter. “I tell ya,” Schmall says, holding up his index finger, “it was like Animal House without the house!”

The men burst into hearty laughter. “I tell ya,” Schmall says, holding up his index finger, “it was like Animal House without the house!”

In a few hours, these five will be joined by the rest of the Navy Pier Architects Club, a fraternity-like gang of 68 men who studied architecture at Navy Pier primarily from 1948 to 1950. For the past 53 years, club members have reunited this way annually to reminisce about their days at the Pier. There, they became legendary for wearing matching zebra-skin caps, chain smoking between classes, pulling practical jokes and creating a makeshift musical group known as the “Ash-Can Band.”

But that’s not all that made them stand out at Navy Pier. Jokes aside, they were among the most academically driven students on campus, in part because one-third of them were returning World War II veterans who set a rigorous pace in the classroom. In addition, the demands of the Navy Pier architectural program resulted in three of four students dropping out within two years, which caused the remaining students to bond together “like a family,” says Schmall.

On a social and political level, they were also one of the most active and visible groups on campus: They were the first students at Navy Pier to lobby for a four-year campus; the first in the nation to organize an American Institute of Architects student chapter; and, on a lighter note, the ones who made paper-maché palm trees and a working waterfall for the school’s jungle-themed Tropicana Dance. As Helen Harron (or “Ma,” as they called her), the Department of Architecture secretary, once said, “these boys were special.”

Brothers photo

At The Parthenon restaurant, (from left) Mel Markson, Gus Kostopulos, Sam Schmall and Jerome Butler look at photographs from Navy Pier. Hours later, other members of the Navy Pier Architects Club will arrive for their 53rd annual reunion.
Courtesy of Mel Markson

She was right. From this group emerged some of the Chicagoland area’s most esteemed architects. Markson, for example, went on to co-found an award-winning architecture firm, Busche and Markson Inc., where he completed more than 2,000 designs and received the Association of Licensed Architects’ highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award. Jerome Butler ’48-’50 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE, ’52 UIUC, served in several prestigious posts with the City of Chicago, including city architect, commissioner of public works and commissioner of aviation. In 1976, he helped lead the restoration of Navy Pier’s East End buildings, a project that won the American Institute of Architects’ Design Excellence Award. The late Don Erickson ’47-’48 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE apprenticed for three years under architect Frank Lloyd Wright at his Spring Green, Wis., Taliesin estate, after which Erickson designed several award-winning homes and co-founded the Association of Licensed Architects with Markson in 1999.

But that’s not all the architecture students became known for: After performing handstands on Coca-Cola bottles at the Pier, Tom Mosiej ’48-’51 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE, ’54  UIUC went on to become a national gymnastics champion. And after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Fred Gulden ’47-’49 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE, ’53 UIUC was detained by Communist authorities in Ho Chi Minh City for 15 months—and consequently made headlines as the “last American in Vietnam.”

Sleeping on the drafting table

As members of the Navy Pier Architects Club tell it, life was not easy on the Pier. The architecture students would typically start their day with an 8 a.m. class on the East End, after which they’d lug their drawing boards, books and other supplies five-eighths of a mile to the Pier’s other end. They’d repeat that process, sometimes five times or more, until their final class was dismissed around 6 p.m. Then, many of them would stick around to do homework as late as 10 p.m., after which they’d hop on a streetcar and go home.

On days when project deadlines were looming, many of them would pull all-nighters at the Pier or simply “sleep on the drafting table, [where] you’d pull blueprints over you to keep you warm,” recalls Schmall. In addition, four times per semester, the architecture students were required to come to campus on a Saturday morning and complete a design problem within eight hours.

There were other factors that made Navy Pier’s architecture program challenging. For example, the Department of Architecture’s credit hours system required more classroom time than other departments. While a three-credit English course required one three-hour class per week, a three-credit architecture course demanded one three-hour class, three times a week.

To survive the program, students banded together. “Unlike the pre-meds [who would] kill for an ‘A,’” says Schmall, “we got to the point where we said, ‘This is ridiculous’ and we [decided] to help each other out.” That meant picking up a paintbrush if one of the guys fell behind on a sketch, sharing books and pencils with those who couldn’t afford them, or meeting on Rush Street for a celebratory drink after finishing a project. “It was camaraderie,” explains Markson. “We did it all together.”

Club members also say that their professors—many of whom were practicing architects—were a source of both motivation and support during the hard times at Navy Pier. For Schmall, learning from professional architects was inspirational and one of the highlights of his undergraduate education. “We weren’t being taught by some guy who just went to school and repeated what he learned,” he says. “These guys were [sharing] their experiences ... We emulated them.” Butler explains how Professor Ray Stuermer helped him overcome his struggles with drawing. “Stuermer gave me a great deal of encouragement,” he says. “In fact, I think I got my first ‘A’ on a design problem from him—and that was kind of a turning point for me.” Markson says that Professor Joseph Marion Gutnayer, a teacher famous for saying “Zis is no good!” in a French accent, was responsible for pushing Erickson to study under Frank Lloyd Wright. And all agree that if it weren’t for Professor Henry Mikolajczyk, none of them would have had the chance to study at the Pier: He was the original designer of Navy Pier’s classrooms.  

“Throw away your books!”

Like other colleges at the time, Navy Pier offered an architectural curriculum that was largely rooted in Beaux-Arts, a classic architectural style developed at École des Beaux-Arts (“School of Fine Arts”) in Paris. As part of the Beaux-Arts training, Navy Pier architecture students had to master difficult techniques such as wash rendering, which required painting hundreds of precise, light strokes. (Markson estimates that his wash rendering of a Roman column, for example, took 150 to 200 hours to complete.) Beaux-Arts projects were not evaluated by Navy Pier faculty; instead, they were shipped off and judged by a jury of distinguished architects, who stamped the best drawings with “First Mention Place,” “First Mention” or “First” before returning them to the school.

The students didn’t always agree with this grading system—and one day, Schmall decided to do something about it. While Professor Anthony DeFillipps was out of sight, he gathered his fellow students’ drawings, dipped the heel of his shoe into an ink pad, and branded every drawing with a stamp that resembled the Beaux-Arts “First Mention Place” mark. Then he and his friends nailed every drawing to the classroom wall. Needless to say, DeFillipps wasn’t happy when he finally entered the room and saw the new wall ornaments. “He yelled, ‘Take ‘em all down!’” Schmall recalls, chuckling.

Navy Pier’s architecture students, however, weren’t the only ones who rebelled against Beaux-Arts. Frank Lloyd Wright was famous for rejecting this classical style in favor of “organic architecture,” which took inspiration from the natural world. During his visit to Navy Pier in 1949, Wright adamantly told the architecture students, “Throw away your books! Go out and work with nature!”

“And all the professors cringed,” says Markson.

Life after the Pier

After completing Navy Pier’s two-year program, the architecture students went in different directions. Some were drafted into the military, while others enrolled in a four-year college such as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Those who went downstate found themselves in a period of adjustment. Since the Urbana campus had much higher enrollment and larger class sizes than Navy Pier, many of the Navy Pier students didn’t see each other as often as they used to. They also discovered that student interaction in the classroom was different. “At Navy Pier, students talked to each other and helped each other,” says Gus Kostopulos ’48-’50 NAVY PIER ATTENDEE, ’57 UIUC. “These guys [at the Urbana campus] would hide what they were doing for their projects.” Many of the Navy Pier students also had to adjust to poor living conditions on the campus. Unable to afford regular housing, they often lived in the Parade Ground Units (or “PGUs,” as they called them), which were cheap, temporary housing structures built in the 1940s to accommodate the influx of World War II veterans.

In 1954, around the time when some of the Navy Pier architecture students were graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Kostopulos decided to pay a visit to “Ma” Harron and the Department of Architecture dean at Navy Pier. “And the dean said, ‘You know, maybe you guys ought to think about a reunion,’” remembers Kostopulos. “So I went to work.” He and Harron organized a dinner at the Como Inn, a quaint Italian restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, and mailed out invitations to all the Navy Pier architecture students and faculty from the 1948-50 era. The first reunion was a smashing success, with almost everyone attending.

From that point on, reunions were held annually—although many of the former students saw each other more frequently than that. Those who practiced architecture in the Chicago area often contacted each other to network, recommend jobs or offer design work. Unlike their other colleagues in the profession, the Navy Pier architects say they weren’t—and still aren’t—interested in competing against each other for work. “Amongst us, if you and I were bidding for a job,” says Markson, nodding to Kostopulos, “I’d say, ‘I’m too damn busy. Why don’t you take the job?’ I mean, that’s how we are.”

Until there’s two left

By 6 p.m., 26 members of the Navy Pier Architects Club have trickled into the dimly lit dining room at The Parthenon, greeting each other with bright grins and slaps on the back that momentarily hide their elderly age. Mostly wearing polo shirts, suits or shirt-and-tie combinations, they move slowly but enthusiastically towards the dining room table, energized by each other’s presence.

They talk of appraisal work they’ve accomplished since retiring from architecture, new homes they’ve purchased in Arizona, rumors they’ve heard about Navy Pier friends, vacations they’ve taken to European countries. As they pass baskets of sesame-speckled bread and pour pinkish-red wine, the room swells with laughter and conversation, accented by the sound of butter knives clinking against glass plates.

Markson is quiet as he chews his bread and gazes across the room. I ask him if he envisions how long the reunions will continue. “Until there’s two guys left,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Then, when there’s one guy—well, that’s it.”

There’s no other discussion of the inevitable end of the Navy Pier Architects Club. Instead, Markson and the others talk only about how grateful they are for spending their early college days at Navy Pier. “When my daughter went to Champaign,” Schmall says, “I told her that, despite all the stress and cramming for exams, later on you’re going to say, ‘My college days were the best days of my life.’ And I can say that now. All of us Navy Pier people will tell you ...” He slows his speech to punctuate each word: “It was the best time we ever had in our lives.”


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