Barry Byrne was born on December 19, 1883. His father, Charles Emmett Byrne, a native of Prince Edward Island, worked as a railroad blacksmith. His mother Mary Barry Delaney, was a native of Chicago but had family connections to Co. Wexford, Ireland.
In 1897, his father was killed by a locomotive, leaving behind his wife and six children. Mary Byrne remained determined to rear her family despite the misfortunes that were ahead. This strength of character encouraged Barry Byrne and in later life would help him as he too faced the harsh reality of running an architects office during depression and wartime.
At the age of 14, Byrne left St. Columcille Parochial School to work in the mail order rooms of Montgomery Ward.
On one Sunday afternoon in 1902, Byrne’s life changed forever when on one of his regular visits to the Chicago Art Institute, he saw an exibition of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The impression the work made on Byrne, was so powerful that he presented himself at Wright’s Oak Park studio and fortunately got a job as an apprentice tracer.
Frank Lloyd Wright had no great love of formal education and the fact that Barry Byrne had not finished his 9th grade, was not of importance. Wright saw in Byrne, the same raw love and enthusiasm for architecture he too had experienced in his youth.
The early years at Oak Park were prolific and many of the most famous of Wrights buildings were designed, including the Unity Temple and Coonley house. Barry Byrne is known to have worked on the drawings of the Unity Temple, and this is where his thoughts on Roman Catholic church design began. By 1908, an affair between Wright and one of his clients caused the frequent absence of the architect and the office became dis-functional. With an increasingly difficult situation at hand, Byrne felt his post was serving no purpose and left the studio.
Between 1908 and 1913 Byrnes’ main work was in a three year partnership with Andrew Willatzen. During that time, more than twenty buildings were designed by the architects. However differences in opinion led to a mutual agreement to dissolve the partnership. Willatzen continued the practice alone until his retirement.
In 1913, Walter Burley Griffin won a three year contract in Canberra, Australia and asked Byrne to takeover his practice in Chicago while he was away. This was Barry Byrne’s first chance to use his own ideas and autonomy. Projects during this period include the Sam Schneider House and Melson Tomb, Mason City Iowa.
In 1915, Byrne established his own practice in Chicago. Of particular note during this period was the commission for a house for J.F.Clarke in Fairfield Iowa and the J.T. Kenna apartments, Chicago. The design of both buildings shows Byrne clearly breaking from the Prairie School ideas and developing his own distinct style.
Having returned to Chicago from a brief WWI army duty, Byrne continued with his practice in Chicago. It was from this point onward that his ideas and work flourished. The first large building contract was in 1921 for the Immaculata High School, Chicago. This was followed soon afterward by his first ecclesiastical commission, Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Chicago. By 1924, the Western Architect was publishing articles on his work and praise from renowned critic Lewis Mumford in his writings for Commonweal, brought the architect to the attention of the Catholic clergy as far away as Ireland.
In 1926, Byrne married artist Annette Cremin, who was originally introduced to him by Alfonso Iannelli. They would eventually have three children; Annette Cremin, Cathaleen Mary and Patrick Barry. Annette’s contribution to her husbands work is well noted. She regularly drew artists impressions of his designs and in some cases designed the interior colour schemes for some of his buildings and churches. By the end of the 20’s, Barry Byrne had designed four churches, a hospital, several unbuilt projects and some six schools. The business had also expanded with the addition of a construction company. However the stock market crash of 1929 caused a strong lull in the construction industry and the practice and construction company was closed.
Byrne moved to New York in the early thirties and supplemented the limited work as a building inspector and by writing articles for various publications. Work began to revive toward the late thirties and once again prospects began to look good. However with America’s entry to WWII, Byrne was again forced to scale down his business and work solely as a building inspector.
In 1945, at the age of 62, Byrne returned to Chicago where until semi-retirement in 1953, he continued work and designed four more churches among other smaller projects. The work during these years was again second to none, with such masterpieces as Church of St. Francis Xavier, Kansas City and St. Benedict’s Abbey, Atchison. From 1952 to 1959, he continued to work occasionally until his final project at the age of 79, where he designed a library for St. Procopius College, Illinois. He died in 1967.
Artists are often remembered for their work and talents. The many churches and buildings that Byrne designed will no doubt prove to be a lasting testimony to a gifted architect. However too often, do we lose grasp of the person himself. In our searches, we came across the web site of Stafford James, a Jazz bassist. At the age of 14, Stafford had the pleasure of working as a tracer for Barry Byrne and today, he regards Barry Byrne as one of the most important influences in his life.
With kind permission from Stafford James himself, the following is his personal account and testimony to Barry Byrne:
thank you for your e-mail pertaining to Mr. Barry Byrne. To answer your question, Mr. Byrne for me was one of those great inspirations in my life that to this day his ability to share with his fellow human beings has left an indelible mark in my life. When Mr. Byrne took me into his small atelier I was a young boy of 14 years. Each summer I would trace for him and during the year he would give me special projects to work on. He instilled in me the relationship of man and nature, as one can see in his work. At age 17, I won the Rotary International Award for Architecture that was inspired by my years of working for Mr. Byrne.
As I had come from a single parent upbringing, Mr. Byrne gave me so much that has helped me in life. Above all he taught me to always keep my vision on the objective idea even though there will always be those who will not have the vision to pursue the idea to its completion. Although today, as for the past 30+ years, I compose and perform music, it is still with the lessons that I have learned from another artist that have kept the creative flame lit. Barry Byrne’s humanity is something that very few people will know when describing his genius but I am very honored to have in my lifetime known a person such as him.