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Jim Loewenberg, prominent high-rise architect, dies at 86

His 28-acre Lakeshore East development was a capstone for a busy career.

Architect Jim Loewenberg in 2003 with models of one of his buildings at 1 W. Superior St.
Architect Jim Loewenberg in 2003 with models of one of his buildings at 1 W. Superior St.
Sun-Times files

Everybody’s a critic when it comes to Chicago architecture, and the remarks can be cutting. But Jim Loewenberg never played a game of jealous talk and backbiting while rising to become an architect who defined downtown living.

Friends and family members recalled his confidence, gentlemanly nature and eagerness to promote younger architects. They also recalled how pleased he was to see a life’s work realized in the success of his massive Lakeshore East, a planned development on an old Illinois Central yard alongside Lake Michigan.

Mr. Loewenberg designed some of the 13 buildings now on the site as co-chairman of Magellan Development Group. His favorite touch was a six-acre park in the middle of it, a kind of hidden oasis.

Magellan CEO David Carlins said one fall day, as they watched families playing in the park, Mr. Loewenberg opened up about what it all meant to him. “He loved the diversity, the people of all ages who came from all over to live there. He said, ‘We built a community, not just a bunch of buildings,’” Carlins said.

Mr. Loewenberg died Wednesday surrounded by family at age 86. The lifelong Chicagoan had recently relocated to Palm Beach, Florida. Family members said he suffered from cancer.

“One of the great pleasures of my life was being able to work with him every day” at Magellan, said his daughter, Robin Loewenberg Tebbe. “I was an only child. He took me to all the job sites,” she said.

“He loved talking about buildings. It was very exciting to him. He loved it when somebody brought to him a new problem to solve.”

More than being an architect, Tebbe said her father “always thought of himself as a master builder.”

After getting his bachelor’s in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1957, Mr. Loewenberg joined the design firm of his father and uncle. He had a hand in buildings that now grace Lake Shore Drive, but his career took off in the 1980s when he partnered with Joel Carlins, later his co-CEO at Magellan.

Mr. Loewenberg’s work started appearing everywhere in River North, with towers such as Ontario Place and Grand Plaza. Developers said he designed buildings from the inside out, with great attention to home layouts that attracted buyers. But some of his work drew criticism for wearing a heavy brow of painted concrete and above-ground parking decks that deadened street life.

Things came to a head in 2003, when Mayor Richard Daley spoke out against the “plain old boxes” of River North and demanded that architects and city planners do better. It was widely interpreted as a swipe at Mr. Loewenberg.

Tebbe said Mr. Loewenberg never reacted angrily to the criticism. “He loved Rich. He understood what the mayor’s criticism was. He took it to heart, and he upped his game a bit” while also understanding that tastes were changing, she said.

In 2005, Loewenberg shrugged off the criticism with a smile. “I don’t get too involved in that. I’m too old and cranky,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Few would ever call him cranky. But he threw himself into new designs for the 28-acre Lakeshore East, where he used new materials, more glass and creative treatment of balconies in buildings such as the Lancaster and the Shoreham. He also recruited other architects to help fulfill his vision, notably Jeanne Gang, whose work at Lakeshore East includes two celebrated buildings. The project has won international design awards.

“Jim trusted me, and I will always hold a special spot in my heart given the creative opportunity he gave me with my first high-rise, Aqua, and most recently my tallest high-rise, Vista,” said Gang, founder of the firm Studio Gang.

Lynn Osmond, president of the Chicago Architecture Center, said, “The impact that Jim had on downtown Chicago’s residential communities is undeniable, and his contribution of Lakeshore East has forever changed Chicago.”

In 2009, Mr. Loewenberg received the lifetime achievement award from the Urban Land Institute Chicago, and he was named to the Chicago Real Estate Hall of Fame. In all, he designed 45,000 residential units and 500,000 square feet of commercial space.

Mr. Loewenberg was a high-rise kid himself. Tebbe said he was born downtown and grew up in the old Park Lane Apartments at Sheridan Road and Surf Street. He attended Nettlehorst School and North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka. While at MIT, he wed Nancy Rosenstein, to whom he would be married for 63 years. She died in 2019.

He was long active in affairs at MIT and in numerous local organizations. Mr. Loewenberg was a governing member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a member of the Economic Club of Chicago and president of the Standard Club.

In addition to his wife, he was preceded in death by his son-in-law Louis Berger. Survivors include his sister, Doris Kraus, two grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and two great-grandsons. He also is survived by his late-in-life partner, Jean Scharf.

Because of concerns about coronavirus transmission, the family said a memorial service will be held later. In the meantime, relatives welcome contributions in Mr. Loewenberg’s name to the Chicago Architecture Center.