Old Chicago skyscraper of the week–Straus

January 28, 2010 § 1 Comment

Chicago’s 1923 zoning ordinance was passed in the wake of controversy surrounding the Chicago Temple, a venture of a downtown Methodist Church that received a variance from height restrictions for its 556-foot spire.  The previous code had set a limit of 260 feet for occupied floors, with loopholes for towers or spires up to 400.

The 1923 ordinance, however, specified setback requirements above the maximum for the basic building block.  Past 264 feet (a slight uptick reflecting typical floor to floor heights of the time), the new ordinance only required that towers be set back at a 1:10 slope from surrounding streets lot lines.  It made no mention of whether these towers could be occupied, or rented, and it placed no absolute limit on their height.  The “lid,” according to one writer, had been quietly “ripped off.”  Towers on the street front had no setback requirements, provided they took up less than 50% of the lot’s linear frontage.

Skyscrapers of the 1920s, therefore, start to look very different from those built under the old code.  The first of these, the Straus Building by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, was the first to test the City’s appetite for taller spires.  Though its central tower only rose 475 feet (under the setback limit, it could have gone as high as 560), it was the first to offer rental space above 264 feet since the mid-1890s.  The tower floor plates were small, hard to access, and crowded with elevators, stairs, and toilet rooms, but their views over Grant Park and the Lake were spectacular.

Straus was a real estate finance company that took pride in its record of conservative investment, and this building, which served as their headquarters and a speculative investment, was no exception.  Midway through the design process they hired a consortium of building owners and managers to audit GAPW’s plans, looking for further cost savings and plan efficiencies.  Among other things, the group suggested using the dead space between express elevators for additional offices, a trend that has continued in buildings with similar elevator services.  Today’s architects will recognize this process as a forerunner to the dreaded “value engineering” that, in the words of one of my former colleagues, is often “two lies in one.”  Straus meticulously scheduled the project, hiring contractors and construction consultants to work with GAPW throughout the design process–again, foreshadowing today’s ‘fast track’ construction.

Straus did not skimp on finishes, however, making a calculated effort to provide the “atmosphere” that would attract first class tenants.  The leased banking hall on the second floor had its own entrance from Michigan and was elaborately styles with Roman Corinthian columns–appropriate, one critic noted, since the Romans likewise used their management skills to achieve grand buildings.  On top, in a rather un-Straus like flourish, GAPW designed an electric beacon, a ‘beehive’ that capped the setback tower and firmly announced the project on the Michigan avenue skyline.

Updated 8 March, 2010 with thanks to Bill

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