September 28, 2023  •  4 Comments

I can thank my father for getting me started as a photographer: upon my college graduation, he bought me an SLR camera body and two lenses. In case you're wondering, it was Minolta gear - and yes, I still own it.

Below is one of the first landscape photographs I made with that camera: this is the lake in the neighborhood where I grew up and at which I spent countless hours during all four seasons. There's nothing technically or artistically exceptional about the image but it's personally significant for many reasons.  

That graduation gift had staying power: a lifetime's worth. 

My dad has been front of mind lately, because this week my siblings and I donated the bulk of his archives to the Art Institute of Chicago. It's been bittersweet. Allow me to wander away from photography for the rest of this post to pay tribute to him. 

A respected civil engineer and site planner, Walter Metschke had a long and interesting career working on projects across the country - in places like Colorado Springs, Omaha, Chicago and New York; Fort Smith, Shreveport, Bowling Green and Philadelphia; Detroit, Oak Ridge, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C. He kept at it until he was nearly 80.

The biggest of his "really big" jobs was the transformation of O'Hare Field to a modern jet-age international facility - at the time, the most massive enterprise, physically and financially, the City of Chicago had ever undertaken. During peak construction, they were doing nearly $104 million [today's dollars] worth of work per month, and for more than three years, Walt was at the job site seven days a week, 12-hours a day.

"He [Metschke] has supervised contractors on 60 prime contracts - ranging from $1MM to $18MM [$10MM to $187MM today] - and hundreds of sub-contractors working almost simultaneously under tremendous pressure to get done and get out of the way so the next one could get going."
-Chicago Sun-Times August 1962 profile of Walter Metschke in his role as "Field General" for the O'Hare project

O'Hare International Airport was completed on time - in just under five years and all while the airport remained operational with passenger traffic increasing exponentially - on budget, and to Walt's high standards. There was no corner-cutting.

My father died in December 2010. A few years ago while I was back home in Chicago, one of my brothers and I reviewed and catalogued his extensive archives. Historically significant, we felt they ought to be housed where others could appreciate them, too. 

But where should that be?

The Art Institute of Chicago was my preferred choice for three reasons: first, because Walt's memoirs are included in the Institute's Chicago Architects Oral History Project. Second, though my dad's work was geographically dispersed, there is a strong Chicago connection: via O'Hare (the initial project as well as an expansion program in the 1980s), the Department of Aviation (Walt was Chief of Aviation Planning from 1968-1973), and his association with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill which dates back to the 1940s. Finally, because the AIC has been diligent in documenting and preserving Chicago's architectural history.

I offered the AIC Walt's substantial archives related to O'Hare's jet-age transformation and extending well past the opening of the new airport, as well as his records related to two noteworthy SOM projects - also very big jobs: the city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee for the Manhattan Project, and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. [My dad's preliminary site plan won Oak Ridge for SOM which was a huge feather in the firm's cap.]

The response came promptly: This list is fascinating and impressive, with three projects that shaped America in extraordinary but different ways. We're unequivocally interested...

As of Tuesday, the Ryerson Burnham Library at the Art Institute of Chicago became the permanent home for Walter Metschke's archives.

The mission of the RBA is to collect materials that explicate the development of art, architecture and design in Chicago and the Midwest from the 1870s to the present. This is achieved via the acquisition of the archives of artists, designers, gallerists, educators and art historians. Their collection is renowned for the caliber of its holdings related to both the First and Second Chicago Schools, including the world’s preeminent archival collections of Louis Sullivan and Daniel H. Burnham.

Though I'm confident my father's collection will be appreciated and well cared for by the RBA, giving it up was more difficult than anticipated. As a caretaker of his professional legacy, there is a sense of finality to this: saying goodbye to him again.

I suppose that's why I wanted to share something about him with you this week. I realize what I've written has little to do with photography; thanks for indulging me. 

Commenting as my dad's archives were about to be transferred to the Art Institute, another brother sent this note to me:

Sometimes I forget just how successful Dad was and all the things he accomplished. To me he was just Dad!  

That would have made my father smile, because as significant as were his professional achievements, it was his family that meant the most to him. 

Just Dad. We kids were the lucky ones who got to call him that.

Now his legacy will live on in the city to which he gave so much of himself. 

Walter G. Metschke


Marjorie Scheire(non-registered)
What a wonderful tribute and how nice to be able to see a little into all he accomplished. Nice that you found a solid place to leave his library of work and his legacy for many to come to have access to it and perhaps to also be inspired!
We too are all blessed by his introducing you to photography with that first camera. It is always a pleasure to see your work.
Gerhardt Krohne(non-registered)
He was also the kindest, most caring Christian man I ever was privileged to know in my now 77 years.
Judith (Metschke) Thompson(non-registered)
I'm so proud to have known and loved you, Walter! You have been a hero to me since we met in 1957.
Brian Quirk(non-registered)
Beautiful tribute! I was privileged to know him for a few years only from your recollections, and the stories of all he accomplished. I never met him, but you made him very real.

You did a wonderful thing in making sure his legacy will continue on.
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