David Bagnall, Executive Director, Lightner Museum
Photograph by laird
What led you to pursue a career in art history and architectural preservation? Can you recall a particular influence?
Early on I considered a career in fine art as a painter (I credit my mother who was an art teacher) but ultimately chose a more academic path studying art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. At the Courtauld, I went on to specialize in late 19th-century British and European art. When I moved to Chicago in 2004, I secured a position as curator for a private collector whose interests aligned with my area of expertise. He planned to exhibit his collection in an 1883 aesthetic movement mansion in downtown Chicago. Before taking over as executive director of the Lightner Museum, I worked as part of the team overseeing the restoration which is how I first got involved in historic preservation. What I enjoy about working with historic sites and collections is that you’re telling a more complete story about the buildings and the art and objects that lived within them.
Which architectural style or period is your personal favorite?
I’ve spent my career engaging with the architecture and design of the late 19th and early 20th century and I find it endlessly fascinating. But if I had to choose a style to live with, my personal preference would be mid-century modern—clean, simple designs, open living spaces, lots of natural light, and a strong connection with the world outside.
Can you share a few things about the Lightner Museum and its historic building that you find particularly interesting or attractive?
At the Lightner Museum there are such a diverse set of narratives to work with. You have the story of Henry Flagler, his commitment to the city of St. Augustine and his development of Florida’s Atlantic coast. You have the story of the Alcazar Hotel designed by Carrére and Hastings—one of leading architectural firms of the Gilded Age. And then you have the Lightner collection—an extensive collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century fine and decorative art amassed by Chicago publisher Otto Lightner. I’m looking forward to exploring this expansive story and to making the building and its collection as accessible as it can be to our visitors.
If you were to spend the night at the Lightner Museum, which room would you sleep in?
Historic buildings grow, evolve, and change over time. Today the part of the Alcazar Hotel that housed guest rooms is now occupied by the city of St. Augustine as office space. I’m still orienting myself with the building, but the Russian baths are a spectacular space, as is the original swimming pool—at the time the largest public indoor swimming pool. Again, what’s really appealing about working with this museum is the number of stories we have to share with our visitors. You have this remarkable building and then this incredibly eclectic collection.
As the director of preservation and interpretation for the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust in Chicago, you oversaw the restoration of Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House and its definitive Prairie School architecture. What is your process for researching and developing new narratives on well-known figures and masterful works?
At the trust, I was fortunate to be part of the team overseeing the work at the Robie House. It was an exceptionally rewarding experience to restore Wright’s vision for such an iconic American building. Wright is a monolithic figure with a well-defined story—a story that Wright himself worked hard to shape and control during his lifetime. The trust’s five sites in the Chicago area are all from Wright’s early career and that offered a tremendous opportunity to delve into Wright’s origins as an architect and explore the many influences that shaped his work and laid the path for his future career.