Interview: Tim Samuelson and the Intangible of History

When Timothy Samuelson stood in the center of his windowless, crowded studio, surrounded by gorgeous artifacts of the past, I thought he might break into song. 

“Nothing in here doesn’t have a story,” he declared excitedly, gesturing to the old building ornaments and defunct classic products, the framed sketches and leather-bound books, that coated room 300 of the Mana Contemporary in Pilsen. Like most busy spaces, one gets the impression it would look much smaller if everything were removed. But I wouldn’t want to change a thing.

Louis Sullivan’s Idea
By Tim Samuelson and Chris Ware
University of Minnesota Press

I met Chicago’s First Cultural Historian ostensibly to talk about his career and most recent book Louis Sullivan’s Idea, a coffee-table biography of the famous architect which I reviewed positively for Third Coast Review a few weeks prior. Anxious to make a good impression, this admiring journalist came with a list of questions. Immediately upon entering the studio, however, it was clear I would not need to direct the discussion. 

Speaking in a gravelly, sonorous voice, the 71-year-old, by way of an introduction, led me to a bookshelf on the wall. There sat a collection of novelty drinking birds, the popular tubular little toys that bob up and down on a hinge. He launched into a mesmerizing story about their World War II origins.

A genius “nerd,” he said affectionately, among a group of military rocket scientists, “in his spare time,” discovered a principle of physics that would create the novelty of a bird drinking. He gave them as gifts to visiting military higher ups. A kindly commander remembered the idea and, inspired by the scientist’s ingenuity, after the war, created a drinking bird tchotchke factory in Maryland to employ wounded veterans.

“I like that idea of the humanity of the evolution of the story,” he said. “I could say these (novelty birds) are early ones, and they date from 1953—blah, blah, blah. That’s not the point of them being here. I feel it’s my duty to speak for the commander who made that story…to know there’s a backstory.”

The preservationist revealed a theme he would circumambulate and return to for the rest of our discussion: the “intangibles” of history. Samuelson, who considers himself a bit of a renegade among historians, is not so interested in dates and facts, but rather wants to expose people to the feelings and textures that colored certain time periods. In Samuelson’s mind, the more we idolize the past as an untouchable concept, the less we understand.

“The intangibles transcend…the historical object,” he said. “That’s what appeals to me. My job is to perpetuate what is the real living part of this rather than it being a dead piece of history…I like to err on the side of letting people touch and experience things. You walk away with the intangible stories, which in many ways might be more valuable than the physical object itself.”

This is not a museum, he said, and neither are the five equally-full storage lockers he owns in the building. His objects are not on a pedestal. Everything here was meant to be felt, witnessed, known, on a personal level. It seemed important that I understand this point. He wanted me to know that “intangibles” are his bread and butter, his raison d’être. Tim Samuelson does not preserve stuff; he, in a way, preserves the emotions of a historical time period. Everything—the books, the exhibits, the preservation—is in furtherance of that goal. Once I understood, we sat down at a wooden table and discussed his work.

I’m interested in how you developed the book. You said you had an “interesting relationship” with your designer Chris Ware. Could you please expand on that?

“He was, in my opinion, able to pick up both on the history and the intangibles. What’s important about Sullivan is just as a much the history of his buildings as the intangibles that Sullivan put into them.” 

Chris Ware, Tim’s designer, is a nationally-recognized cartoonist, illustrator, and commercial artist. Friends for many years, the two initially bonded over their love of Chicago architecture. As far back as the 2000s, Ware realized Samuelson possessed a unique wealth of Sullivan knowledge and encouraged him to preserve the information, possibly in a book. But the reticent and unassuming Samuelson told his friend, “I don’t want to write these things down. I don’t feel like I’m in a position to do it.” Samuelson doesn’t like attention; interviews make him nervous, and he fears stealing the spotlight from his subject.

It took some convincing, but in 2010 Samuelson relented. He developed a Sullivan exhibit for the cultural center, with Ware serving as the graphic designer. Nearly a decade and several projects later, Samuelson and Ware adapted the exhibit into Louis Sullivan’s Idea.

You talk about historians overlooking important “intangible factors.” What do people overlook about Sullivan? How do you correct those misconceptions?

“Everyone wants to think of Sullivan as the beginning of modern architecture,” he said. “And that raw geometric simplicity. Well, that simplicity is all shaped and manipulated (to make) interesting analogies, composed in a way that will push your buttons . . . Historians don’t want to get in the matters of the heart. It’s in every great painting. You talk about a painting this way. You talk about a work of poetry this way. For some reason, the architectural historians will seize on some aspect, like the simplicity of it, (but) it’s not what it’s about.

“Like a poet will do with words, Sullivan will do with architecture. He was able to manipulate your senses by experiencing a building by its presence, by its space, what it is to move through it and see it in three dimensions. When the building’s gone, you can look at every drawing, you can look at every photograph—you never will have what it was to walk through.

“I was trying my best to convey the power of these buildings in a…textual form. Although if you’ve never seen these buildings, you’ll never get it totally.”

What are you trying to tell people about Sullivan’s abilities and career in your work?

“Sullivan realized you’re a part of nature, and every individual is an individual entity that can guide its own destiny as part of nature. You can think, reason, create, and have passions. Sullivan had a rare gift as an architect…that he could visualize space in three dimensions.

“(Sullivan created) a picture that is meant to stir somebody’s emotions through not only the bricks, mortar, and stone of a building; (he manipulated) your journey of discovering the building. Basically, Sullivan’s goal was to use the gift of the human mind and emotions to extend the forces of nature and bring a building alive. For somebody experiencing it, it pushes your buttons the same way you see a beautiful sunrise, you see the autumn leaves, you walk through the forest and there’s a clearing—you feel it and you see it. He uses architecture to . . . compress those things and play on you.”

It’s clear Samuelson worships Sullivan. He spoke wistfully about a boyhood spent searching for his buildings around Chicago. He reads Sullivan’s autobiography every year. Having met some of the last living folks to ever see the man, Samuelson is privy to details about the architect known only by a handful. Details like Sullivan’s favorite brand of cigarettes (Home Run Cigarettes, the cheapest option) Samuelson recovered and preserved in his book. 

Less savory details, like embarrassing stories about Sullivan’s alcoholic decline, Samuelson left out and will take to his grave, he told me, raising his wiry white eyebrows. I wondered if this was an invitation to press for details, but, sensing Sullivan’s ghost among his old possessions, I chose against it.

Louis Sullivan’s Idea is available at most bookstores and through the University of Minnesota Press’ website.

Photo of Tim Samuelson by William Zbaren, whose site may be found at Zbaren.com.

Adam Kaz
Adam Kaz
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