Architect John Macsai (1926-2017) kept his “Eye on Evanston” in scores of columns for the Evanston RoundTable in which he praised, panned, and marveled at what he saw in the city where he’d made his home for 45 years. He gave opinions on all he surveyed, from apartment courtyards to bright orange condo balconies, from new metal facades superimposed on older buildings to Sherman Plaza, a “monster” project he disliked so intensely he once said he’d “have to write a dissertation” to show just how much.
But now John Macsai, this man of strong opinions tempered with humor, has passed away. He died at home Aug. 11 at age 91. Services were held at Beth Emet Synagogue.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz saluted Mr. Macsai in a tweet. Already missing Mr. Macsai and his love for Evanston, the City Manager slyly noted that now Evanston was off the hook but “Heaven is going to hear a lot about its design standards.”
John had been married to Geraldine (Gerry) Marcus Macsai for 67 years and was the father of Pamela, Aaron, Marian, and Gwen. He was also a college professor, author, Holocaust survivor, artist, and raconteur.
Born in Budapest, Mr. Macsai studied at the Atelier Art School until 1944 when the Germans invaded Hungary. He was taken away, first to a Nazi work camp with his father. There, he said, “we built airfields, cleared forests, and starved.”
In the same 2002 interview for the Art Institute of Chicago, he said he was then sent on “a kind of death march through Austria” to Mauthausen concentration camp. Enroute, John was forced to leave his father behind, lying on the side of the road with a hurt leg. The camp was liberated by U.S. forces May 5, 1945, and John was among the lucky ones who went home. He went back to Budapest and his mother, who survived the war in hiding.
Mr. Macsai enrolled at the Polytechnical University, persuaded by a practical uncle to give up his dream to study art. In 1947 the Hillel Foundation offered him a scholarship to Miami University of Ohio. He didn’t decide to go, he said, until he saw that the Communists were taking over Hungary.
Despite arriving on campus with minimal English, Mr. Macsai graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture in 1949. He headed to Chicago to work with the prestigious Holabird & Root firm. Within a year he was at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. He worked at several firms briefly, staying long enough at each to learn new skills and often doing free-lance rendering to earn more money.
Only six years after finishing college, he and Robert Hausner started their own firm. From 1955 to 1970, they designed apartment buildings at 1110, 1150, 1240 and 2960 Lake Shore Drive plus Harbor House at 3200, Mr. Macsai’s personal favorite. Blair Kamin, architecture critic of the Chicago Tribune, said they designed “some of Lake Shore Drive’s most eye-catching high-rises.” He also cited Mr. Macsai’s remarkable Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood.
It was a Hyatt Hotel when it opened in 1962 on Touhy Avenue. Over the years, it attracted famous visitors like Roberta Flack, Barry Manilow, and Michael Jordan. It also drew “every 13-year-old boy” planning a bar mitzvah, claimed Gwen Macsai.
Nonetheless, her father liked the building’s design, just not the color which he termed irrelevant. He liked how the concrete frame is exposed, “how the columns are pulled out of the structure…it’s like a human being,” he said, “whose skeleton is on the exterior.”
Mr. Macsai had wanted grey brick but A.N. Pritzker, who commissioned the building, pushed for something livelier. Shown the whole color palate, he chose purple. So purple it was, said Mr Macsai: “You don’t argue with a guy who could borrow $12 million on his signature only.”
In Evanston during the late 1980s, Mr. Macsai designed Evanston Place, on Chicago Avenue between Church and Davis streets. By then, he was working for his own firm, John Macsai and Associates, started in 1975. In 1991 his firm merged with O’Donnell, Wicklun Pigozzi & Peterson. When he retired in 1999, Mr. Macsai was a fellow in the American Institute of Architects in 1968 and had earned 13 AIA awards.
He reinforced his reputation as an architect to reckon with when he spent 25 years on the architecture faculty at the University of Illinois at Chicago, 1970-96.
He taught very practical classes. One he called his “how-to-do course” on family housing. He always stressed that both theory and practice, beauty, and function were crucial to the success of any building. Another course was on professional practice, the business of being an architect, from a client’s needs to zoning and building codes, and financing.
Local architect Ellen Galland, a UIC student in the 1970s, remembers John as “a rigorous, no-nonsense professor” who helped us “wrestle with the design subtleties of the facade of an apartment building” but also made sure we “never forget the minimum depth (14 inches) of a linen closet.”
Unable to find applicable teaching materials, he wrote his own: “Housing” (1976, 1982). This textbook addressed all facets of multi-family housing – from design and construction to financing and management – and soon was adopted by college classes across the country.
As fast as John Macsai moved up the rungs in his profession, he also made quick and lasting personal choices, starting with a blind date in late 1949. It didn’t seem promising, he said, because he looked like a Michelin Man, immobile in an upper body cast due to a car accident that had left him with a fractured spine; but his blind date turned out to be Gerry Marcus.
She remembered going to the KAM Temple and hearing Eleanor Roosevelt give a hopeful speech about the country. “Then the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court gave a talk,” Gerry said. “It was really unbelievable, two speakers like that. It gave John and me lots to talk about.”
The next day John sent her roses. In May 1950 they were married. Four years later, he became a U.S. citizen. In 1972, the Macsais moved to Evanston, into a house that Gerry describes as “a big old barn” at 1207 Judson Ave. John wrote for the RoundTable, belonged to Evanston Design and served on the Sign Review Appeals Board and the Northshore Interfaith Housing Council.
Both Pamela and Aaron followed their father into the visual arts. Pamela is a printmaker and retired Evanston Township High School art teacher. Aaron is a goldsmith and jewelry designer. Gwen is an author and long-time NPR radio essayist. Marian is an ophthalmologist.
It was Marian who said that, when they were growing up, her father seldom talked about his time in the Nazi camps. At the memorial, she recalled one time that he did.
Her dad saw her looking upset and asked what was wrong. She confessed she’d forgotten to remove a red item from the dirty clothes, and now all the clothes were pink, including her white leotard. Her dad was quiet for a moment and then he said her he’d buy her a new leotard.
Slowly, the story came out that at the work camp, he, too, had had to do laundry. Once he turned a whole washload pink by not picking out a red handkerchief. A guard, he told her, had been angry enough to shoot him but another guard saved him, saying it had been his hanky that spoiled the wash.
In retirement, John and Gerry moved to a condo at 1501 Hinman Ave. Mr. Macsai honed in on art, his first love. Already in 1989 he’d returned to watercolor painting and in 1991 had his first exhibit at the Gallery 1757. Other exhibits followed, in Chicago at the Cultural Center and Cliff Dwellers, in Evanston at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center and the Arttruck. His favorite subjects were front porches and doorways, which he studiously enjoyed on neighborhood walks.
He gave frequent talks at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. He also joined archeological digs, mostly in Israel, even joining the Tel Tanninim dig as a staff architect for four years. He read a lot. He read murder mysteries and so many books on World War II that his family teased him that he wouldn’t read anything without a swastika on the cover.
He once gave an AIA talk on the vicissitudes of housing practices in Chicago and threatened to write a tell-all book about Chicago swindles and political payoffs. He also toyed with starting an accent school, what he called “a reverse Berlitz school. In six weeks, we guarantee you’ll have an accent.” He always considered his own accent a business asset and figured aspiring chefs might want a French accent.
“John always had ideas percolating,” Gerry said. “He was a force of nature.”