Rolf Achilles, instructor of the History of American Interior Design in the Historic Preservation graduate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has had an unconventional path to the field of preservation. “I’m a Medievalist and Byzantinist by training, an art historian by choice, and a preservationist by chance."
Achilles was born in Germany but relocated to Brazil with his family as a young child. He credits his time in South America with sparking his lifelong interest in the built and natural environment. “We had a house in the jungle,” Achilles recalled. “But we also had big cities and small towns, too. There was a lot of variety.”
The family gained sponsorship to the United States when Achilles reached school age, settling in DeKalb, Illinois. He remembers the move as “quite a shock.” After studying philosophy, history, German literature, and economics at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Achilles was unsure what should follow. As a German citizen since birth, he decided to go to Europe to pursue his academic interests and was accepted to the university in Frankfurt am Main.
Initially, Achilles studied German literature during a time of great unrest and rioting among German students. “I gave [German literature] up when I realized that’s what all the 22-year-old rebels studied,” Achilles joked. He had been accepted to study under the noted philosopher Theodor Adorno, but Adorno died shortly after.
Achilles continued traveling throughout Europe, enrolling in university courses that pertained to his growing interest in art history, classical archaeology and historic architecture, over the next several years. Much of this travel was funded by Achilles’ photography; for instance, he was engaged to photograph sacred interiors in the Netherlands and several Swiss Medieval and Baroque interiors for archives in Switzerland.
He also wrote for magazines and architecture publications to fund his academic interests. "It taught me how to seek a patron, and that's become essential to my work in historic preservation, even now."
After criss-crossing Europe and the near east with forays into Asia, all the while meeting and studying with academics whose work piqued his interest, Achilles found himself without a formal graduate degree. He decided to apply to graduate programs in Art History at American universities, but found that the Italian postal system caused his applications to arrive past their deadlines.
He returned to the Chicago area and Northern Illinois University, earning a Master’s degree and still managing to return to Europe and Northern Africa as part of his studies in Medieval and Byzantine art and architecture. After a sojourn in Utrecht, Istanbul, and Rome, Achilles was formally accepted into the Art History doctoral program at the University of Chicago. He later began working at the University’s Smart Museum.
Achilles has been working independently since 1983, and is firmly rooted in the city’s art and academic worlds, in addition to his contributions to the field of historic preservation. He has written several books, including histories of the Chicago Public Library and the Newberry Library. He currently sits on the boards of the Richard H. Driehaus Museum and the Glessner House Museum, among other nonprofit cultural organizations. Achilles also helped found (with the Smith family) and curated the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows, as well as the Macy’s Pedway Collection of Windows; he continues to design and curate exhibits for other area museums. In addition to a number of other honors, including being inducted in the Guild of Glaziers and being awarded the Freedom of the City of London, he is an honorary ambassador of the city of Hamburg, Germany, to the city of Chicago.
“You have to get out and be a cultural gadfly,” Achilles said. “You need to stub your toe on something.”
Achilles has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1994, first in the Art History department, and now in the Historic Preservation graduate program. He teaches the program’s class on historic interiors, which all students are required to take during their studies. Although Achilles teaches this course because it aligns closely with his academic background and interests as an art historian, he has other reasons, too.
“I teach interiors because relatively few preservationists seem to focus on interiors,” Achilles said. “They’re the most endangered part of a building…and more philosophically, interiors are where we live. There’s a certain distance between us and the exteriors of buildings, but there’s no distance between us and the interiors we live and work in…I-beams aren’t particularly cuddly, but upholstery is.”
Achilles also utilizes Chicago’s many remaining historic interior spaces as an extension of his classroom, and field trips and site visits form a large portion of the course. “If you haven’t stood inside of the building,” Achilles believes, “you just can’t talk about it.”
As a preservationist, both in the classroom and in the field, Achilles is interested in best practices and reforming current legislation to better protect our cultural heritage. He also encourages students who are nearing graduation to think beyond the conventional 9-to-5 job when making their next move. “We need to constantly be badgering. This is a 24/7 discipline. I’ve devoted much of my life to actually realizing preservation, preserving cultural heritage. I talk preservation constantly.”
“Preservation is a lifetime program, and everyone in it spends two years [in graduate school] just getting warmed up.”
Story by Monica Giacomucci (MSHP, 2015)