Kitty Weese: An Old Town Steel Magnolia
Kitty Weese would not have considered herself a feminist. She did not march for equal rights. She did not join advocacy groups. She did not participate in the sexual revolution. But she did change women's lives. In a time when most women only dreamed of having careers, she proved that women could be creative and at the same time be successful as wives, mothers, and professionals.
The Story Begins
Born in 1918, Kitty Baldwin Weese grew up in Montgomery, Alabama. She embodied all the attributes of Southern gentility: willowy, soft-spoken, talented, determined, and beautiful--a true steel magnolia. Defying tradition, Kitty studied to be a child psychologist, first at the University of London and later at Huntingdon College in Montgomery. She practiced at children's hospitals in Richmond, Virginia and in Montgomery. When World War II broke out, she volunteered as a "Grey Lady" caring for boys training to be pilots. Because of her background, the State Department hired her as a psychologist for their young trainees.
Influenced by her brother, architect and interior designer Ben Baldwin, Kitty became interested in the arts. After graduating from Princeton, Ben had studied painting under Hans Hofmann in Provincetown and New York. He became a part of the exclusive New York art world and was a regular at their shows and soirees. It was a heady experience, and he brought Kitty along for the ride. With her taste and discerning eye, Kitty fit right in. Among the group was a talented young Chicago architect named Harry Weese whom Ben introduced to Kitty. Then and there, her life took a fateful turn.
Ben joined the navy and was stationed in Washington, D.C. He continued to mingle with and entertain some of the country's leading painters, architects, and designers. On week-ends, Kitty got away from her hospital duties to act as his hostess. She often said she was lucky to get her art and modern design education from the movers and shakers of the art world. She reconnected with Harry, with whom she had been carrying on a correspondence courtship. They were married in the chaplain's office on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1945, just before Harry was sent to the Pacific.
After the war, Kitty and Harry moved to Chicago, and ran up against the problems facing many returning veterans--housing shortages and limited budgets. They needed an apartment, and they wanted furnishings that were affordable and well-designed. Both Kitty and Harry believed that good design was important for everyone--not just the wealthy. Harry's inspiration was noted Finnish designer, Alvar Aalto who had created a line of contemporary furniture known as Artek, which he sold from his combination store, gallery, and factory in Helsinki--an enterprise Harry hoped to replicate in the States.
During their first year in Chicago, Kitty and Harry became part of a lively group of arts professionals. At one Sunday afternoon gathering in Hyde Park, they met a kindred spirit, 27-year old Jody Kingrey who was looking for an outlet to express her creative energies. When one of the guests mentioned that it was a shame there was no place for young veterans to buy good, affordable home furnishings, Harry took action. He contacted Alvar Aalto and secured the Midwest franchise for Artek furniture. He signed a lease for a storefront in an elegant Holabird and Root art deco building on Ohio Street and Michigan Avenue. Baldwin Kingrey was born.
In 1947, Harry, Kitty, and Jody borrowed $9,000 from their parents and stocked their store with Aalto's classic furniture, as well as that of Eames, Mathsson, and Saarinen--launching the Scandinavian design boom of the 50s. Kitty and Jody ran the front of the store, and Harry started his architectural practice out of the back room. That same year, Kitty made her own history--she opened the first art gallery in the City of Chicago.
Although none of them had any retail experience, (Harry gave Kitty a book on how to run a retail store--which she never read), Aalto's endorsement, plus their hard work, knowledge, and enthusiasm made Baldwin Kingrey a huge success and a vital part of Chicago's retail establishment. It didn't take long for their good design message and the simplicity of their "plain" furniture to catch on, especially with young mothers. They could relate to Kitty and Jody--two working women who understood their needs as well as their pocketbooks. Kitty laughed when she recalled selling Aalto's three-legged stool for $6.25--less than the cost of the screws that held it together. Baldwin Kingrey provided a new American generation another opportunity to move forward.
On Her Own
After a dozen years, Kitty left Baldwin Kingrey to focus on raising her children. But when her fledglings flew the nest, she went back to interior design. She did the interiors of many buildings designed by her now-famous husband, including three floors of the Sears Tower and her own Willow Street house in Old Town. She also started painting, studying botanical illustration in Chicago and Aspen. Her brush transformed the most mundane objects into exciting works of art: a row of dancing carrots, an enticing purple onion, two bananas pierced by a sharp wooden branch (depicting the twin towers), a delicate green and lavender artichoke, even some ugly piece of fruit she found at a farmer's market. Affordably priced, Kitty's watercolors were sought-after; and her one-woman shows sold out. Thousands of women (and men) gained an appreciation of art from Kitty's paintings.
One winter day, I had lunch with Kitty at her dining table overlooking a bare garden. We munched on cucumber sandwiches, and she talked about the unique design features of the house: a modular kitchen that could expand to allow the cook more room to prepare a meal then retract to enhance the dining area; a living room with enough wall space to accommodate their large art collection (virtually unheard of in Old Town); an open spiral staircase connecting four floors that seemed like an ascent to heaven; and a fourth floor atelier flooded with light where Kitty could paint. Mostly, she talked about Harry: his design philosophy, his commitment to affordable urban housing, and his buildings--which she called models of intelligence. She presented me with a whimsical coloring book Harry had created for their daughters and her own work on his architecture: "Harry Weese Houses". When I left, we promised to have lunch again--when the garden was in bloom.
Winter turned to Spring. Kitty took a bad fall from which she never fully recovered. I kept promising to visit her again when she got stronger, but I waited too long. In 2005, she took the final journey--back to Montgomery where her life began. I felt a great sense of loss--for the end of a life that had enriched so many; and for myself, because I never had that second lunch with Kitty when the flowers bloomed.
I still see Kitty--in the paintings on my walls: a purple eggplant, a maroon onion, a scattering of pastel blossoms, the dancing carrots; in her last Christmas card: a bowl of cherries which she had signed , "Love, Kitty"; and waving to me from the doorway of her Willow Street house. Don't laugh. We Old Towners believe in our ghosts.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times