About Augustus V. M. Higginson

I’m an artist, architectural historian, and teacher living in Chicago. Born and raised in Southern California, I lived and worked there most of my life. Until four years ago. You might ask, as many often have, how this happened. “ It usually works the other way,” is a typical response.

True enough.

In looking back, I’m thinking my love for Chicago was sparked almost 40 years ago. There I was, 13, sitting in a doctor’s office, and my mother hands me a copy of Life Magazine. This was back in the day when opening its pages truly took you into another world with its massive, oversize layout and breathtaking photographic imagery. I leafed through the pages and there it was: The Chicago Stock Exchange Building, designed by Adler and Sullivan in 1894, was about to be torn down. On one page, the powerful, bay- windowed façade; on the next, the entrance arch; on yet another the massive, foliate cornice all photographed by Richard Nickel. I later learned he devoted his entire life to saving Chicago’s early architectural masterpieces… to little avail. He himself would go their way, as the walls of the Stock Exchange collapsed around him.

photos of Augustus V. M. Higginson

I was a child of the sixties when you couldn’t trust anyone over 30. That went for buildings in a way too. Even though I was a kid I shared Richard Nickel’s despair at the thoughtless destruction of what I thought was our real architectural heritage.

In Santa Barbara, where I grew up, bulldozers with seemingly endless appetites met everything from the adobe casas of the Hispanic era, to the Victorian homes of transplanted Easterners and Mid- westerners, to the Beaux Arts Bank of America Building on State Street. I thought they were awesome and I began to draw them. Even at age six, something hit me… touched me in some special place.

My dad thought I was nuts.

He was a product of Yale architecture school, then Yale drama; a technical theatre guy who could build an entire lighting system from the ground up. His architectural icon was Mies van der Rohe, that famous master of minimalism for whom less was always more. My mother was kinder. An artist and scenic designer, she saw the fun in all that wonderful 19th Century overblown ornamentation, and once indulged me when I saw a massive green velvet sofa, framed in carved dark mahogany, at a Museum of Art Treasure Sale. She bought it for $120.

Things changed in the 1970s. Urban renewal turned to architectural preservation and renovation in city neighborhoods across the country. By this time I was putting my passion for historic preservation to use, not just in drawing and exhibiting my works, but going to bat to try to save some of the buildings I loved. I gave walking tours of historic neighborhoods and worked to get landmark status for people I knew who owned endangered properties.

I graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in art history. I focused on architecture, costume, and the decorative arts of late 19th and early 20th century America. My master’s degree would come three years later, in 1985, from the University of California at Davis. This was also the year I had the first major exhibition of my work, at the North Point Gallery in San Francisco.

A year later I moved to Los Angeles, landing my first job at the Pacific Design Center. With my interest in architecture and historic preservation, I found myself working in my spare time for the Los Angeles Conservancy and later the Cultural Heritage Advisory Board of the City of West Hollywood, both grass roots organizations dedicated to the preservation of L.A.’s historic past. I thrilled to the architectural diversity: the Craftsman bungalows, Mayan revival theatres, and Art Deco skyscrapers. These experiences influenced my work in profound ways; a new interest in color and texture, where once there had been simply black and white, and a far richer, more diverse array of forms.

I spent 13 years in Los Angeles before returning to Santa Barbara in 1999. Although I was still painting I was also running a downtown art gallery. There I found an audience for my work: new people, rather than past acquaintances. This would last three years. Four years later, I was feeling the pull of the big city once again. This time, it would be Chicago, which I had come to know through friends who lived here.

I arrived on September 14th to my East Lakeview home and studio. This has been a great chapter in my life and career, giving tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, teaching the History of Architecture and Interior Design at Robert Morris College, and creating brand-new work. A recent commission for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, in which I created three large pieces based on historic Chicago interiors for the executive dining room, truly pushed my boundaries. First there was the matter of size: 42 x 50” pieces of watercolor paper, requiring a new drafting table and a whole new way of handling paper. Then came the interiors themselves. Having always worked in a rather flat, frieze – like style, I was forced to confront the problem of perspective; I had to re- draw the staircase hall of the Monadnock Block four times before I got it right! And while I had worked primarily in pen and ink and gouache over the years, I was now bringing in acrylic, especially for background surfaces. Anyone who has ever worked with gouache knows that it is great for intricate detail, not necessarily for larger areas.

In addition to my work, I also have met great people here and have a rich and varied social life, through the Union League Club, the Cigar Society of Chicago, and the Lambda Car Club. I’m an avid fan of good food and wine, great martinis… and the fun of sharing them at the dining room table and on the deck off my studio, which has a view that stretches from the Willis Tower to Wrigley Field to Lake Michigan.