As the longtime executive director for the Chicago-based Society of Architectural Historians, Pauline Saliga helped move the nonprofit into the digital age and also worked to maintain the society’s headquarters in the historic Charnley-Persky House on the Gold Coast.
Earlier a curator at two prominent Chicago museums, Saliga was a fixture in the city’s museum community and an expert on architectural history.
“She ran the Charnley house beautifully,” said Chicago architect John Vinci. “She loved the house and she protected it. And she was just the most agreeable, easy-to-work-with person I’ve ever known.”
Saliga, 69, died of complications from pancreatic cancer Sept. 11 at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said her husband of 37 years, John Gronkowski. She had been a resident of the South Side Beverly community.
Born in Chicago, Saliga grew up in Canaryville and graduated from Maria High School on the South Side. She studied art history at DePaul University and transferred to Northern Illinois University, where she got a bachelor’s degree in art history in 1975. Saliga received a master’s degree in art history and museum administration in 1977 from the University of Michigan.
From 1977 until 1981, Saliga was an assistant curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, where she helped organize a retrospective on artist Sol LeWitt, along with many exhibitions on contemporary Chicago art.
In 1981, Saliga joined the Art Institute of Chicago as the assistant curator of architecture. The Art Institute had formed a full-fledged curatorial department of architecture in 1981, and now-retired museum professional John Zukowsky, who had been working at the museum’s Ryerson and Burnham libraries as an archivist, was tapped to be associate curator overseeing the new department. He hired Saliga as an assistant curator of architecture.
“I knew she would be a great addition to the Art Institute of Chicago staff as well as our new department, in part because of her familiarity with contemporary Chicago architects, since we were building bridges to that group,” Zukowsky recalled.
Saliga, who later became the Art Institute’s associate curator of architecture, organized various exhibitions and catalogs related to European and U.S. architecture in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“When she was with us at the Art Institute of Chicago, her quiet perseverance and stable temperament led her to very successfully complete complex grant narratives to support equally complex museum installations, exhibitions and publications,” Zukowsky said.
Saliga was most proud her work on “Fragments of Chicago’s Past,” a permanent collection of Chicago architectural fragments that the museum installed in 1987 around the main building’s central staircase, her husband said. Vinci oversaw the renovation of the Art Institute staircase and lobby right before the “Fragments” exhibit was installed.
“Our hope is that the presence of these fragments and our curatorial commentary on them will be a strong argument for preservation,” Saliga told the late Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp in 1987. “This is not just a graveyard.”
In 1991, the Art Institute published a 180-page handbook related to the “Fragments” exhibit that Saliga edited.
In 1992, Saliga edited a 186-page catalog for an exhibit on modern Spanish architecture, and in 1995, she co-authored “The Architecture of Bruce Goff: 1904-1982,” an exhibition catalog containing architectural drawings by Goff, an eclectic architect who practiced for a time in Chicago.
In 1995, Saliga left the Art Institute to join the Society of Architectural Historians. The group had left its headquarters in Philadelphia after philanthropist Seymour Persky gave the society money to buy the Charnley house — the only private home designed by architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright together — and donated it to the society on the condition that the group relocate to Chicago.
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The society settled in the three-story 1892 house, and part of Saliga’s job as executive director was overseeing renovations to make the home suitable for offices. She also led the group’s efforts to publish a quarterly journal, a bimonthly newsletter, an annual meeting involving scholarly papers and two study tours a year. In her work, Saliga oversaw projects such as creating mobile apps for architecture tours.
“She was such a personable and modest person and yet she had a vast understanding of the role that she played over the years — she was an outstanding person who made enormous contributions to Chicago, to the consciousness of the architectural heritage that this city has, and she has done a lot to help many people become more aware of that than they might have otherwise,” said Chicago artist William Conger.
Saliga stepped down as executive director earlier this year, before she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her husband said.
Saliga is also survived by a son, Thomas Gronkowski; a daughter, Nadia Gronkowski Valchev; and a grandson.
A private service was held. A public memorial service will take place at 5 p.m. Nov. 11 at the Charnley-Persky House Museum, 1365 N. Astor St.
Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.
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