backstory–CHA skyscrapers

June 2, 2020 § 1 Comment

A small contribution to understanding the long history that this week’s events in Chicago, among other places, are a part of. This paper, presented at the CAA conference in Chicago earlier this spring, is part of my current project to show how the city’s (deservedly) heralded commercial and civic high rises of the postwar era didn’t happen in a vacuum–they occurred within the political, social, and economic contexts of the city’s violent reactions and resistance to change. How do terrible decisions like those that led to Cabrini-Green get made, and why do seemingly good intentions metastasize into such projects? This brief overview of the city’s skyscrapers that didn’t work, and that rarely get discussed in architectural histories, looks at the forces that made physical monuments out of Chicago’s horrifying history of segregated housing. Further reading, highly recommended: D. Bradford Hunt, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago’s Public Housing.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).  146-147.

Introduction:  Low Rise Housing by the CHA, 1938-1941

Chicago’s first public efforts at social housing, designed and built between 1938 and 1941, were low-rise row houses and mid-rise garden apartment blocks.[i]  The four-story Lathrop Homes on the north side and the Trumbull Homes rowhouses on the far south side re-housed Polish and Italian families living in slum conditions nearby, while the Ida B. Wells row houses and walkup apartment blocks in Bronzeville were intended exclusively for black families.

Ida B. Wells Homes, Chicago, IL.  Aerial view at opening, 1941.  Jack Delano, photographer.  (Library of Congress, LC-USW3-000787-D).

The Jane Addams Homes, constructed at the intersection of Italian, Jewish, and African-American neighborhoods on the west side, could have been a leading example of integration.  Yet the CHA assigned just one of the project’s thirty-two buildings to black families, revealing what the Defender called the CHA’s “Jim Crow provisions.”[ii] 

Begun just three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Cabrini Homes on the north side were recast as housing for wartime workers and were thus subject to government non-discrimination requirements. 

Frances Cabrini Row Houses, Chicago, IL.  from Cabrini Extension Area : Portrait of a Chicago Slum.  (Chicago: Chicago Housing Authority, 1951).  2.

They became more integrated than other CHA projects, though they lagged behind the surrounding neighborhood’s changing demographics.  Despite attempts by a neighborhood church and ‘outside agitators’ to keep black residents out, the Homes developed a tenuous reputation for racial harmony in their early years.[iii]

The Cabrini Homes exemplified the Authority’s ability to provide well-built, inexpensive row houses; double-story apartments for families were located above single-story, ground-level apartments designed for childless couples and seniors.  (Figure 03)  This allowed for a dense development without resorting to elevators while opening up shared yard space that was accessible—and visible—from every unit.[iv]  Architect Henry Holsman experimented with new, durable materials such as precast concrete, and at $6,500 per unit, the Homes stretched minimal federal funding to achieve  a “decent, comfortable place in which to live.”[v]


As D. Bradford Hunt and others have showed, the CHA planned to scatter low-rise projects throughout the city, but their attempts to house returning black veterans in white neighborhoods met with a rock-throwing mobs.  The Airport Homes riot in 1946 was just the first of many violent reactions that terrorized black residents and intimidated city agencies.[vi]  That year, a Mayor’s committee determined that “the answer to housing shortages in Chicago is the construction of apartment buildings instead of individual houses,” handing white mobs a victory, and leaving the CHA to find sites only in politically safe, black neighborhoods.[vii] 

The Authority was thus pressured into ‘slum clearance’ projects to ‘rebuild’ black belt  neighborhoods from within.[viii]  Initially, this involved harnessing private capital to eminent domain.  Developers were given financial incentives to build middle-class housing on former slum sites and displaced residents would be housed in new, modern apartments built by the CHA.[ix]  The first slum clearance projects involved sites adjacent to the Lake between 31st and 35th Streets, and at the Federal Street neighborhood’s north end, between 27th and 30th Streets.  The lakefront site was cleared for New York Life’s Lake Meadows project, ten apartment towers designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill for middle-class, black residents and built between 1951 and 1957. 

The positive side of Chicago’s brief public-private housing partnership: Lake Meadows, SOM, 1951-1957 (Photo by the author).

Displaced families were provided with flats on the Federal Street site in the Dearborn Homes, where architects Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett laid out one, two, and three bedroom units in six- to nine- story towers, providing a demographic mix that reflected community patterns.[x]  As Chicago’s “entering wedge in the high-rise field,” the Dearborn Homes catered to family logistics, with shared play areas and pram storage on each floor.[xi] 

Dearborn Homes, Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett, 1947-49.  From Julian Whittlesey, “Chicago’s Multistory Public Housing Projects: An Appraisal.”  Progressive Architecture.  April, 1951.  58.

CHA director Elizabeth Wood noted that elevator buildings like the Dearborn Homes opened up shared outdoor space on crowded sites.[xii]  But she—and the CHA—knew that high-rises were problematic for families.[xiii]  Writing for Architectural Forum, she urged row houses for tenants with children, and she was cited by Catherine Bauer in a 1952 essay arguing against “skyscrapomania” in public housing.[xiv]  Bauer’s research showed that families craved the ground level access, individualized heat and water, and private outdoor space offered by row houses.  The “elevator building” worked for “people with servants, cars, and summer homes.”  But low-income families could not thrive in projects where they had no supervised place for children to play, opportunities for social exchange with their neighbors, or private outdoor space.[xv] 

A Brief Flurry of Innovation:  Gallery Apartments

Federal support for housing programs waned during the 1950s.  In response, the CHA sought creative solutions to tightening constraints from Chicago’s “top-flight architects,” settling on linear schemes with outdoor, ‘gallery’ circulation that doubled as semi-supervised play space for children.  Housing experts compared these to the Chicago’s traditional back stairs and porches and the CHA embraced galleries as “sidewalks in the air.”[xvi]

Loomis Courts, Chicago, IL.  Loewenberg & Loewenberg with Weese & Van der Meulen, Associate Architects, 1950-52.  Typical Floor Plan.  From Julian Whittlesey, “Chicago’s Multistory Public Housing Projects: An Appraisal.”  Progressive Architecture.  April, 1951.  62.

The first gallery plan project in Chicago was Loomis Courts, designed by Loewenberg & Loewenberg with Weese & Van der Meulen, Associate Architects (1950-52).  (Figure 05)  Designed for 126 families, the complex consisted of two seven-story structures adjacent to the Jane Addams rowhouses.  CHA planners rejected an initial nine-story skip-stop scheme, and design architect Harry Weese responded with angled gallery plans centered on a central elevator core.  The shared, eight-foot wide ‘sky sidewalks’ opened into each apartments’ kitchen, providing, effectively supplementing ground-level playgrounds in the wide space between the two buildings.

Ogden Courts, Chicago, IL.  SOM, 1951-52.  Model View.  (SOM).

Ogden Courts (1951-52), designed by SOM, were planned around similar galleries, but they also borrowed exposed construction techniques used by Mies van der Rohe in Promontory Apartments (1949).[xvii]  Promontory was developed by Herbert Greenwald, a mentee of Henry Holsman, whose expertise had been so critical to the Cabrini Row Houses. Holsman served as a consultant on Promontory and was influential in refining its budget-conscious palette, another economic achievement that convinced the CHA that materials frankly expressed–or, in other words, left bare–could serve as architectural finishes. Ogden Courts’s exposed frame used dense, water-resistant concrete, which also formed bare flat slabs to create durable architectural ceilings within.  The “building straight” approach, inspired by Promontory but with its roots in Holsman’s work at Cabrini, required “neither veneer nor paint,” and at just $9400 per unit, Ogden Courts set a formidably low bar for future CHA buildings and budgets.[xviii]  Prairie Courts (1950-52), designed by Keck and Keck, deployed galleries with elevator cores at their 1/3 points in two 14-story buildings, while several seven-story blocks were arranged around continuous galleries with a single elevator core in the center.  Apartments in these buildings had just one or two bedrooms, while lower row house blocks accommodated three- to five-bedroom units that offered immediate outdoor access.[xix] 

Archer Courts, Chicago, IL.  Everett F. Quinn & Associates with Alfred L. Mell, 1951-52.  Typical Floor Plan.  From Julian Whittlesey, “Chicago’s Multistory Public Housing Projects: An Appraisal.”  Progressive Architecture.  April, 1951.  67.

Finally, Archer Courts (1951-52), along Archer Avenue at Cermak Road, were designed by Everett F. Quinn & Associates with Alfred L. Mell.  (Figure 07)  The two thin, gallery-plan  slabs included three-bedroom units on the bottom two stories, with single-level units above, all contained within just a 21’ depth.  This allowed cross-ventilation, but it also required no intermediate girders, simplifying formwork and allowing for exposed concrete ceilings.  Archer Courts won praise for their “clarity and orderliness” and angled solar orientation.[xx]  At $10,270 per unit, they were expensive, but they proved more functional and successful than their contemporaries.[xxi]

The March Toward High Rises

The Authority’s experiments in mid-rise housing were, however, short-lived.  Federal agencies tightened budgets and standards while steep inflation and pressure from white neighborhoods forced the CHA into ‘slum clearance’ sites that came with steep land costs.  With smaller, more expensive sites and shrinking federal support, there was nowhere for the CHA to go but up.  The Authority commissioned budget and site driven ‘extensions,’ high-rise expansions of existing projects.  Extensions had two advantages: they were already in politically safe, black neighborhoods and they allowed the CHA to make use of existing services.  The first extension, the 15-story Grace Abbott Homes (Shaw, Metz, & Dolio, 1955) was constructed adjacent to Loomis Courts.  It was followed by the nine-story Harold Ickes Homes (Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, 1955) north of Dearborn Homes. These adopted the gallery plans that had informed the Authority’s mid-rise construction, but at new scales, adding 1200 and 700 units to their respective neighborhoods in towers ranging from nine to fifteen stories.  Shoddy workmanship at the Abbott Homes suggested that low budgets had bred negligence and corruption, however.[xxii]  Stateway Gardens, built between 1955 and 1957 in the Federal Street neighborhood, packed 1650 apartments into ten and seventeen story blocks.  Designed by Holabird, Root, and Burgee, these were built of reinforced concrete with brick facing, with apartments bare concrete walls and ceilings, laid out to avoid freestanding columns.[xxiii]  Stateway, too, fell victim to corruption and corner-cutting; inspectors uncovered a kickback scheme during its construction that raised concerns about the CHA’s hiring policies.[xxiv]

Worse than this low-level corruption, however, poor construction, inadequate services, and indifferent maintenance marred these projects’ early years.  In 1958, the Tribune reported that patronage and “featherbedding” meant the CHA’s maintenance costs were 80% higher than in other cities’.[xxv]  A Wall Street Journal reporter found that the three-year-old Abbott Homes were already neglected, with broken elevators and windows as well as cockroach and rat infestations that routine maintenance should have addressed.  CHA’s patronage jobs rewarded political connections over ability or attendance.  With underqualified or idle maintenance staff, buildings decayed quickly and irrevocably.

Laissez-faire maintenance was exacerbated by an ill-conceived drive toward multi-bedroom units.  In January, 1958 CHA Director Alvin Rose argued for more than 4,000 new units with three to five bedrooms to accommodate larger families emigrating from the south.  The Authority developed designs for five-story walkup structures, with single units for elderly residents on the ground floor and two rows of double-height multi-bedroom apartments above these.[xxvi]  Rose touted the “built-in babysitters” provided by the elderly housing, but the scheme failed to come in under a $17,000 per unit federal budget. 

As D. Bradford Hunt has noted, the Authority faced an impossible choice; it could not meet federal budgets with midrise housing on expensive clearance sites, but it also could not overcome the racial inertia that prevented it from building on cheaper, outlying land.  Meanwhile, a long waiting list for multi-bedroom housing grew.  Rose was despondent.  “We cannot build the type of low buildings that we need unless the federal government changes its regulations,” he told the Tribune.[xxvii]  “We can only build tall apartment buildings in which there must be many small apartments….We hope to build these large apartments in low buildings which would be much better for children than high rise apartments.”[xxviii]  The CHA abandoned the “row-on-row” idea and planned instead for 11,000 new units in gallery-plan high-rises despite grave doubts.[xxix]  Howard D. Gould, columnist for the Defender, warned, presciently, “for a family with several children in a high-rise building, how much supervision can a mother give children—if she is on the 12th floor—and they are travelling back and forth to the street on elevators?”[xxx]

The Colossal Projects: Cabrini Extension and the Taylor Homes

The Authority proposed large high-rise extensions for the Cabrini row houses on the north side, and the Dearborn Homes and Stateway Gardens projects on the south.  The Cabrini Extension site required condemnation proceedings and relocations before construction could begin; as those were resolved, cost pressures piled further expectations on the project.[xxxi]   Originally planned for 2,000 units—already a huge undertaking—it was split into two phases that, between them, provided over 3,000 apartments, most with three, four, or five bedrooms. 

Cabrini Extension Homes, A. Epstein & Sons, 1958-1961.  Exterior view of typical block. 

Cabrini Extension’s first phase (1958) was designed by A. Epstein and Sons, an engineering firm known more for rebuilding the Stockyards than for its hotels and residential buildings.  (Figure 08)  They adopted the exposed concrete and brick used by SOM in the Ogden Homes, but at a larger scale, with fifteen buildings of seven to nineteen stories each.  The William Green Homes north of Division (1962), were designed by Pace Associates, which had been formed to carry out working drawings for Mies’ Promontory Apartments and had evolved into an independent firm specializing in high-rise housing.  These fifteen- and sixteen-story blocks repeated Promontory’s exposed concrete walls, columns, and girders.  (Figure 09, Figure 10)  The Green Homes were planned for large families, with five bedroom apartments on the lower floors, three- and four-bedroom units on the third through sixth floors, and one- and two-bedroom units above.[xxxii]

Robert Taylor Homes, Chicago, IL.  1961-62.  Shaw, Metz, & Dolio.  Aerial View. 

Named for former CHA executive Robert Taylor, who had died in 1957, the 4400 units of the Federal Street project project were arranged into twenty-eight sixteen story blocks designed by Shaw, Metz & Associates and stretching for two miles along Federal Street.   Faced with the need to fit so many units onto a 95-acre site, the masterplan wrapped towers of gallery plans with central, exposed elevator cores into tight, repetitive clusters.  3500 units had three bedrooms while just 900 units had one or two, packing 27,000 tenants onto less than 100 acres—a population density four times Chicago’s average.  To achieve this, apartments throughout had to be two rooms deep instead of one, reducing cross-ventilation and forcing kitchens into the center of each unit.[xxxiii]  (Figure 12)  With neither close proximity to galleries nor any view of the playgrounds below, these landlocked kitchens left each cluster with virtually no supervised outdoor play space.

The Taylor Homes proved ill-conceived soon after their opening in March, 1962.  (Figure 13)  As Hunt has shown, the high percentage of three bedroom units skewed their demographics, exacerbating their inherent visibility and supervision problems.[xxxiv]  Within the towers, a late decision by the Authority to cut elevator numbers from three per tower to just two, despite warnings from the PHA, meant extraordinarily long wait times, while a lack of skilled maintenance staff meant constant breakdowns.[xxxv]  A typical block in the Taylor Homes had an elevator-to-bedroom ratio of 225:1, almost three times that of contemporary residential towers on Lake Shore Drive.  Even the CHA’s own mid-rise projects had ratios of around 70:1 to 80:1.  Children found high rise elevators to be irresistible playgrounds, often disabling or damaging them, and whole towers frequently went without any service at all.  In September, 1963 three children died when firefighters arrived at an apartment fire to find both elevators broken.[xxxvi]  Poor elevator service was matched by inadequate heating, plumbing, and recreational facilities. 

Worse than their functional problems, however, the large high rise projects concentrated social problems and exacerbated racial segregation.[xxxvii]  (Figure 14)  Initial requirements that established minimum incomes to ensure that tenants were employed were abandoned as the high-rises became housing of last resort.  With no employment in the surrounding neighborhoods and inadequate social programs, some residents turned to an underground economy that coalesced into organized gangs that exploited the towers’ poor visibility and flawed design.  By January, 1964, violent assaults in the Taylor Homes’ laundries and elevators led to threats of rent strikes.[xxxviii]  Further deaths—including a teenager who fell through a faulty gallery railing in 1964—and a growing crime problem cemented the high rises’ reputations as dysfunctional, dangerous communities. 

By 1970, the CHA’s original mission, to provide “bootstrap” housing to families as a first step toward finding their own accommodations devolved into ‘warehousing’ the most city’s most challenged residents.  Gang activity increased throughout the 1960s; sniper fire became a terrifying hallmark of life in Cabrini-Green.[xxxix]  Tribune reporter Cornelia Honchar argued that the projects’ “Hydra’s head of problems” were exemplified by the towers’ “slow, undependable, dirty” elevators, which were unsecured from the outside and invisible from both apartments and the complex’ public areas, leaving residents vulnerable to assault.  The underground economy, lax security, skewed demographics, and poor visibility, she argued, allowed teenage mischief and minor vandalism to metastasize an uncontained, ongoing revolt.[xl]

Chicago built its last multi-story housing in 1963.  It was prohibited from constructing large housing projects after the landmark civil rights case of Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority in 1969, which showed that the city’s housing policies had actually hardened segregation patterns.[xli]  Chicago instituted a voucher system aimed at dispersing tenants.  The CHA’s high-rises themselves lasted less than two generations.  The Authority embarked on a “Plan for Transformation” in the 1990s, moving 25,000 tenants from high-rise “warehouses” to low-rise CHA units, or to subsidized private housing.  Some CHA housing stock was reconceived.  Loomis Courts were privatized and converted to subsidized housing.[xlii]  Dearborn Homes were gutted and renovated in 2009-2010 and Archer Courts were renovated in 1999-2001 and expanded with new townhouses.[xliii]  Cabrini-Green, the Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, and other high-rise projects, however, were all demolished between 1995 and 2015.

In 1985, the Tribune’s William Mullen interviewed architects, CHA personnel, and residents who been involved with Cabrini-Green and other high-rise projects.  “The Road to Hell” outlined the desperate situation that the CHA had been placed in by aldermen representing their constituents’ virulently segregationist views and by punishingly tight federal budgets.  But Mullen also noted planners’ and architects’ complicity in the high-rises’ planning and design, quoting Monsignor John Egan, the Catholic church’s most vocal public housing proponent in the 1950s:

“When it was being planned in the 1950s, it seemed like a good idea,” he said of the Cabrini Extension….The problem is, we didn’t learn from our mistakes. We should have stopped the massive high-rise developments as soon as we saw what was going wrong in Cabrini. But we didn’t. We kept doing it over and over again.”[xliv]

[i] Al Chase, “New Chicago Housing Authority May Take Over Four Government Projects Here.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 14, 1937, pp. 1-c14.

[ii]C Cecil Craigne  “Disclose Jim Crow Unit At Jane Addams: 30-Apartment Building Is Set Aside.”  The Chicago Defender, Feb. 5, 1938. 7.

[iii] Carl Wiegman, “Story of City’s Big Problem: Negro Housing.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec 30, 1949, pp. 3.  “White Kids Rebuff Hate, Elect Negro Boy ‘Mayor’.” The Chicago Defender, Mar 20, 1943, pp. 6. 

[iv] “Furnish Model Apartments for War Workers in New Project.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jul 12, 1942, pp. 16.

[v]Al Chase, “New Construction Methods Save Time and Materials in CHA Housing.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 23, 1942. pg. B10; and Ralph W Cessna, “Housing Units in Chicago Add to Comfortable Living.” The Christian Science Monitor, Jan 07, 1942. 20.

[vi] “Airport Homes.” The Chicago Defender, Nov 30, 1946. 14 and “It Happens In Chicago.” The Chicago Defender, Dec 14, 1946. 14.

.  See, too, John Bartlow Martin, “Incident at Fernwood.” Harper’s Magazine, Oct 01, 1949. 86.

[vii] “Key to Housing is Apartments, Planners Told.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr. 18, 1946.  9.

[viii] Howard Wood, “Chicago Points New Way to Slum Clearance.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 14, 1938.  G4.

[ix] Wood, op. cit.

[x] “Ask Bids on New Project [Dearborn Homes].  The Chicago Defender, July 24, 1948.  7.

[xi] Julian Whittlesey, “Chicago’s Multistory Public Housing Projects: An Appraisal.”  Progressive Architecture.  April, 1951.  57-58.

[xii] D. Bradford Hunt and Robert Lau, “Understanding the Demise and Transformation of Chicago’s High-Rise Social Housing.”  CTBUH 8th World Congress, Dubai.  March 3-5 2008.  3.

[xiii] Julian Whittlesey, “Chicago’s Multistory Public Housing Projects: An Appraisal.”  Progressive Architecture.  April, 1951.  58.

[xiv] Cited in Catherine Bauer, “The Low-Income Tenant.”  Progressive Architecture, May, 1952.  61-64.

[xv] Bauer, op. cit., 61-64.

[xvi] Whittlesey, op. cit., 60.

[xvii] “Glass and Brick in a Concrete Frame.”  Architectural Forum, vol. 92.  January, 1950. 

[xviii] “Open Corridor Design.”  Architectural Forum, vol. 92.  January, 1950. 

[xix] Whittlesey, op. cit., 64.

[xx] Whittlesey, op. cit., 67.

[xxi] “$1,520,000 Bid For Building Homes Project.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 22, 1950.  14.  See, for instance, Jarrett, Vernon. “Neighborhood Group’s Victories.” Chicago Tribune, Mar. 14, 1973. 18.

[xxii] “Reveal Shoddy Work on New Housing Units.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sep 15, 1953. 7

[xxiii] Thomas Buck, “Housing Project to Blot Out Slum Area.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sep 04, 1955.  4.

[xxiv] “Confesses Stateway Gardens Shakedown.” Daily Defender, Nov 18, 1957.  2.

[xxv] “Waste In Public Housing.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Apr 14, 1958.  18.

[xxvi] Thomas Buck, “Plans OK’d for 7,396 New Housing Units Here.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 20, 1959.  15; and “Propose New Type Of Public Housing Here: Seek Federal Approval Of Novel Units.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 01, 1958.  11.

[xxvii] Thomas Buck, “Mayor to Ask New Type of Public Housing.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 15, 1958.  23.

[xxviii] Thomas Buck, “Larger Flats Called Public Housing Need.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan 10, 1958. 7.

[xxix] Ray Vicker, “Changing Housing: Public Housing Men Try Smaller Units, Dispersal to Cut Social Problems.” Wall Street Journal, May 02, 1958. 1.

[xxx]Howard D. Gould, “Population vs. High-Rise Housing.” Daily Defender, May 25, 1959. 8.

[xxxi] Thomas Buck. “Cha Will Add 97 Acres to Cabrini Homes: Project to Contain 1,950 t0 2,650 Units.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 22, 1950. 1-n2.

[xxxii] “Dedicate Housing Project Named for William Green.” Chicago Daily Defender, Nov 21, 1961. 6.

[xxxiii] “CHA To Start 4,415 Homes Project Soon: Center Will Be Named For Negro Leader.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sep 11, 1960.  28.

[xxxiv] D. Bradford Hunt, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago’s Public Housing.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).  146-147.

[xxxv] “Dispute Over Elevators of CHA Settled.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr 14, 1960. 6.

[xxxvi] “CHA Tenants Get Warning on Elevators.” Chicago Tribune, Sep 19, 1963.  D3.

[xxxvii] “The Robert R. Taylor Homes.”  Daily Defender, Apr. 16, 1959.  13.

[xxxviii] “‘Accord’ Reached at Taylor Homes.” Chicago Daily Defender, Jan 15, 1964.  4.

[xxxix] Cornelia Honchar, “Cabrini-Green–Near North Hell.”  Chicago Tribune, Aug 2, 1970.  W3

[xl] Honchar, op. cit.

[xli] “Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority, 296 F. Supp. 907.” (N.D. Ill. 1969); U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois – 296 F. Supp. 907,  February 10, 1969.

[xlii] “No Small Plan for TRANSFORMATION.” Chicago Reader, Sep 21, 2017. 12-16.

[xliii] Blair Kamin, “CHA Polishes Its Rough Edges.” Chicago Tribune, May 22, 2009.  Online at:

[xliv] William Mullen, “The Road to Hell.”  Chicago Tribune, Mar 31, 1985. H11.

mies cameo

May 18, 2020 § 9 Comments

“I’m the kind of guy, boy when I move–watch my smoke…”

I’ve been casually adjusting my entertainment options as the new Chicago project ramps up. Interesting, for example, that the really great releases on Chess Records were coming out at the same time as the classic postwar skyscrapers were going up. So my background music while I’m pulling notes together has occasionally tended toward Muddy Waters, Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson, and Koko Taylor–no great leap there.

Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm was a touchstone for postwar literary culture in Chicago, and while he largely disowned its 1955 film adaptation, this seemed like required viewing. It’s the story of the evocatively named Frankie Machine, a recovering heroin addict who tries to turn himself around after a prison stint by returning to Chicago, learning drums, and trying to sign on with a jazz band. It’s a pretty typical noir-ish drama, and it certainly plays into the stereotype of Chicago as a haven for vice and crime. But it has a lot going for it–Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak as the leads, Otto Preminger directing, and the first of Saul Bass’ iconic animated title sequences. Despite (or, maybe, because of) being condemned for its depiction of drug use, it was a popular and critical hit. Sinatra was nominated for an Oscar, and the art direction and soundtrack were nominated as well.

But it’s a brief, five-second cameo that caught my eye, especially as someone who’s slightly obsessive about architectural cameos. Thirty minutes into the film, Frankie Machine gets dressed up in a suit and bow tie and interviews with Harry Lane, a musical agent. And where is Lane’s agency based? Why, in the well-known Lane Building, which I’m guessing is located in the 800 block of North Lake Shore Drive:

Chicago’s well known Lane Building, 860 N. Lake Shore Dr. [?]

My first thought, of course, was that Preminger made a huge continuity error here–that font is not regulation Allzweck. But, more to the point, this is literally the one establishment shot in the entire movie–the rest of the film is clearly shot on soundstages that are deliberately devoid of any Chicago landmarks. There’s the standard police car with “Chicago” clearly written on its side, of course, but otherwise Preminger didn’t use any landmarks or skyline shots to set the location.

In 1955, he could have used the newly-completed Prudential Building, or any number of 1920s towers that would have been instantly recognizable as Chicagoan. Clearly, he was after a modern aesthetic, though–witness the Saul Bass title sequence. Given that, he could have used Lever House, or Manufacturers Hanover, two New York buildings that were more recent than 860-880. But he seems to have intentionally picked Mies’ 1952 apartment towers as a statement of particular Chicago modernity, as a statement of Lane’s success and sophistication.

Once inside? Ehhh, OK, here all bets are off. Lane’s office has chintz draperies, a brick fireplace, and a furniture palette that can best be described as Levittown modern instead of Miesian. Too much to ask for Barcelona chairs, I suppose, and there’s plenty of other visual sophistication around for the eyeballs to settle upon…finding Chicago landmarks in recent action films has become an architect’s version of trainspotting, but Preminger’s film shows that there’s plenty of untapped potential for this in classic cinema, too…

goose island’s lost skyscrapers

May 13, 2020 § 1 Comment

The Vernacular Architecture Forum’s annual conference took place virtually this past weekend, and while San Antonio was sorely missed (along with the chance to stay, again, in the Gunter Hotel, where Robert Johnson recorded his seminal blues record in 1936…) the online conference was well-organized and my session, on Agriculture and the City, had a good match of topics–Travis Olson from Wisconsin on Estonian and German farm buildings in rural North Dakota and Paula Lupkin from North Texas on the (lost) Farmer’s Exchange Building in Dallas.

Their papers touched on the necessity of railroads and boards of exchange to agriculture in the Plains and throughout the midwest, which linked nicely with my paper, which was an excerpt from a forthcoming paper on Chicago’s grain elevators, a happy rabbit hole that’s been my go-to procrastination research for the last few years. Their history parallels those of the city’s commercial skyscrapers in that they can be seen as ‘fossils’ of the economic, political, and social forces that shaped the city–structures that by their location, scale, and configuration show evidence of the flows of capital and power that converged on Chicago in a particularly turbulent era.

Philip Armour waded into Chicago’s grain trade as a sideline to his spectacularly brutal and efficient meatpacking empire in the 1880s, seeing potential fortunes to be won off of the vast–and often over-enthusiastic–bets being made on grain prices on the city’s Board of Trade. Few structures in the city owed their existence so directly to the machinations of commodities trading and speculation as Armour’s elevator complex on Goose Island, and few buildings in the city have disappeared with so few traces. But the elevators he built there at the end of the century illustrate the ways in which the city’s geography echoed the developing economic geography of the Midwest and upper Plains, and they show the scale and savagery of the fiscal warfare that took place on the Board’s trading floor every day.

VAF asked us to record our lectures, but decided not to archive any of the conference, so in the interests of previewing the larger paper and getting a ripping good tale of corn, bankruptcy, and tall timber construction out there, here’s my bit…

commencement 2020

May 9, 2020 § 1 Comment

It’s Commencement weekend here, and I’m honored to have been asked by the graduating B.Arch. class at ISU to be part of their ceremony today. Virtual, of course, but no less heartfelt. This year’s graduation is even more meaningful for me, as my daughter is also Class of 2020 and will have her own virtual ceremony next week. A bittersweet moment, but one that I hope is full of hope for times when we can gather and celebrate good things together.

So, for the record, and for anyone out there marking a transition this spring from school to practice or to more school, and especially for anyone watching their kids or students walk across a virtual stage, here are some thoughts on starting out in the midst of the unknown…

Today, as the father of a fellow graduating college senior, I empathize with you and your support teams. Graduation should be a coming together to share the sense of a long, difficult task well-done, and virtual events like this are showing us how important being together in one another’s company really is.

I hope that this strange end to your college years encourages you to champion those things that really do bring us together but that have clearly grown weak—the social and cultural infrastructures that help us enjoy one another’s company when things are good and that hold us together in tougher times. We’re used to thinking about the physical structures that do this like buildings, landscapes, and cities. But the pandemic is showing us that those are only the physical manifestations of other structures—ecological, economic, political—that are just as vital, and that have also fallen victim to short-term thinking and a profound lack of perspective. 

Our current predicament should move all of to act. To build, but also to rebuild.

So.  Go design better places, yes, but be good citizens and help design a better world. Work for the care, the foresight, the patience that we have been lacking. Work for fairness. Find causes you believe in passionately and work together to make them happen. If you find yourself less busy than you’d hoped as the economy recovers, take what you’ve learned here and build your own path.  You have a great excuse to be creative with your story. Think about what needs to be done, make that your calling, and don’t limit yourself with labels like “architect” or “designer.” All of this so that, when the next crisis hits, your generation will do a better job of taking care of each other and the abundant but fragile world we have.  

All of the usual commencement speech advice still applies. Work hard but stay in balance, keep in touch with your classmates and with us, stay hydrated, eat plenty of vegetables, and wash your hands regularly. But also: don’t waste a crisis. Take the pause that we’re enduring right now and use it. Think about the things you really value and how to do the hard work to make them really happen over the longer, happier years ahead.  

I hope that we’ll invite you back as a class soon and that we’ll give you the in-person celebration you deserve. When we do, I hope we’ll hear about the good projects you’re designing and the causes you feel passionate about and are working on. Most of all, I look forward to hearing about the lives you’re leading with the intention and the drive that comes from having had this chance—this excuse—to think deeply about what matters to you and how to design those values into the world you’re inheriting today.

Onward. Be well, do good work, and take care of each other.

social isolation reading list 1: nest engineering

March 21, 2020 § 1 Comment

Assuming we can all use every ounce of useful distraction we can get these days, here’s a truly wonderful article from the New York Times earlier this week on animal architecture–or, more precisely, animal engineering.

Researchers doing work on bird’s nests have some astounding observations and simulations that hint at how these structures work, and how they’re produced. Though they don’t mention him, there’s an echo of D’Arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form here, in his legendary (but still, to my mind, under-appreciated) course-correction to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It’s not only how these things (nests, finch’s beaks) actually perform, it’s also how organisms grow or build these things using algorithms that maximize efficiency of materials and energy that influences their final forms and configurations.

Image result for bird nest animal architecture

Two fascinating takeaways–first, the idea that nest structures operate on principles of massive, incalculable redundancy. As I understand this, nests hold their shape and support their loads through the thousands and thousands of small connections between more and less flexible sticks and objects that birds use to construct them:

Dr. King calls the experiment “ugly” because the rich system has an overabundance of factors at play. “This makes the problem not easily amenable to elegant theory or simple analysis,” he said….All the input parameters and boundary conditions are interwoven, in ways that prove difficult to tease apart.”

This is a tidy definition of a ‘hyperstatic’ structure–one with so many possible load paths that engineers end up using statistics instead of precise math to figure out how they actually work. It’s ‘ugly’ because it belies all of the precise math that we get used to when we’re studying simpler structures, but it’s exactly this ‘ugliness,’ or complexity, that gives the system its uncanny performance–the redundancy and synergy between all of those load paths end up giving a hyperstatic structure greater capacity than the sum of its (thousands of) parts.

The other surprising thing in the article is the suggestion (obvious once you think about it) that birds select the materials and formation of their nests based on their own bodies as ‘templates,’ and that they instinctively choose materials based on the need for varying degrees of stiffness and strength. I have a family of sparrows that nests under the eaves of my roof every year, and watching them browse the back yard for sticks and grass is going to take on new meaning this year. Seeing them hunting in a yard that–more typically than not–is strewn with all kinds of debris is kind of baffling. Why so picky? There’s a million sticks out there! What the researchers in the article seem to be suggesting is that these sparrows are hunting for something that’s the singular combination of length, diameter, and stiffness to add to the complex recipe that their instinct tells them they need for the nest to hold together.

The piopio’s nest.

This contrasts with our own species’ structural instincts, which–given our abilities to shape what nature gives us–tend toward shapes and configurations that can be easily understood by our simulation and math-oriented minds. We can take a piece of wood and cut, carve, and hone it into a shape that matches our understanding of a cantilever beam, and the implication is that our minds evolved to appreciate those kind of geometrically ideal forms. A bird looking at a nice tapered shape true to its moment diagram, though, might be as baffled by it as we are by its hyperstatic network of empirically selected sticks and grasses.

Finally, the article gets a huge thumbs-up from me for calling out designers’ obsession with metaphor, in particular the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, designed by Herzog and deMeuron and engineered, heroically, by Arups. The stadium looks like the complex assemblage of seemingly randomly ordered sticks in a nest, but sure doesn’t work like such a structure:

Image result for beijing national stadium

The structure is a highly ordered 42,000 tons of steel, a mere “monument to a metaphor,” the researchers noted.

Touchè. A more analogous interpretation of nest construction comes from the Institute for Computational Design and Construction at the University of Stuttgart, which has produced a truly stunning structure, the ‘Aggregate Pavilion,’ based on the process of nest construction, rather than the image of completed nests themselves.

Karola Dierich and Achim Menges’s Aggregate Pavilion at the Institute for Computational Design and Construction at the University of Stuttgart.

(Related: Richard O. Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us. Also well worth the read while we’ve all got time…)

impossible engineering

January 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

This Wednesday, January 22, I’ll be on the Science Channel show Impossible Engineering talking about shear walls. The episode will focus on the super-skinny skyscrapers now rising in New York City (rising, but largely unoccupied). Not surprisingly, I’ll point out that none of these towers would be possible without a particular Chicago innovation, and a much shorter and largely overlooked 1960s building that pioneered a handful of structural ‘hacks’ that make today’s shear walls particularly effective.

Which building? What hacks? Tune in at 9EST, 8CST to find out… The episode will post to the Science Channel’s website sometime afterwards, too…

old chicago skyscraper of the week–ogden courts

January 14, 2020 § 2 Comments

Part of the pitch for the new Chicago Skyscraper book is that studies of postwar high-rise construction in the city have focused exclusively on the well-known commercial towers downtown. That’s a fascinating story, of course, and one that will form the bulk of this project, but it’s not a story that’s completely devoid of context. In addition to the few dozen towers downtown that led to the Hancock and Sears Tower, there’s a largely untold story about the city’s other skyscrapers–the residential high rises that populated the lake shore, largely for the city’s middle and upper classes, and those that were built by the Chicago Housing Authority that ended up becoming notorious concentrations of poverty and crime.

What’s particularly interesting to me is that, in many cases, the same offices worked on all three types of projects. And, at least in the early years of the CHA’s foray into multi-story construction, some of their work on public housing was innovative, progressive, and–for a time–reasonably successful. In fact, in January, 1950, Architectural Forum focused on low-cost housing in Chicago, celebrating the opening of Mies’ Promontory Apartments, the announcement of 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, and this week’s star–SOM’s Ogden Courts project.

The Mies buildings are well known, of course, but they’re rarely recognized for how inexpensive they were to build (more to come on those; the Promontory and 860-880 stories are a lot richer than the textbooks make them out to be). Promontory, in particular, used rudimentary, almost primitive concrete and masonry techniques for its construction, eschewing the stone or finish brick that was expected for any apartment block of the era. Completed in 1949, half of its units sold before construction started, proving that modern design and raw material expression had untapped market potential.

Meanwhile, the Chicago Housing Authority was facing increasing cost pressure from declining federal support–just as the second wave of the Great Migration began. As black migrants arrived in the city, they found plenty of work but little in the way of acceptable housing. Forced by restrictive covenants and often-violent racism from white neighborhoods, black families were forced into narrow strips on the south and west sides where they found overpriced, substandard housing. The CHA had been slow to address this, building row houses and garden apartments such as the Ida B. Wells homes through the early 1940s but falling far behind the growing need. Aldermen in white neighborhoods resisted so-called ‘scattered site’ housing, meaning that the CHA’s projects were crowded into dense, already occupied sites in the ‘black belt’, further escalating prices and requiring carefully phased projects that resettled residents in the same sites from which they had to be evicted.

By the late 1940s, the combination of restricted sites and decreasing budgets forced the Authority to abandon its preferred strategies of walkup apartments and to concentrate on ‘elevator buildings,’ towers or slabs of seven to ten stories. CHA Director Elizabeth Wood acknowledged that this was far from ideal; social research showed that multi-story structures presented challenges of supervision, recreation, and storage for families, particularly those with multiple children. California sociologist Catherine Bauer had Chicago’s abandonment of row housing and garden apartments in mind when she wrote, in 1952:

“…high rise apartments do not offer the amenities for low-income families with children that row houses do.  There is no opportunity for the head of the family to engage in gardening.  There are fewer opportunities for social contacts between neighbors.  Mothers cannot keep close supervision of their children while doing their household work.  The use and storage of children’s toys such as carts, velocipedes, and bicycles constitute a problem, and the care of pets becomes a nuisance….”

Catherine Bauer, “The Low-Income Tenant.”  Progressive Architecture, May, 1952.  61-6

The CHA sought solutions to the problem of such higher densities by “picking the brains of enterprising architects” from the city, resulting in a brief flurry of innovative designs that explored different ways of providing modest recreation space immediately adjacent to apartments that could be supervised while maintaining desirable attributes of low rises such as cross-ventilation and daylight. Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett adopted cruciform tower plans from New York examples for the Dearborn Homes, completed in 1948, which offered indoor play spaces and shared pram storage on each floor that complemented open park spaces between the towers. Harry Weese and the Keck Brothers also contributed designs for Loomis and Prairie Courts.

But the project that won praise from both Architectural Forum and Progressive Architecture for its planning was Ogden Courts by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. This project, at Ogden and Talman on the southwest side, consisted of two seven-story buildings that furthered the developing gallery type by borrowing exposed construction techniques that had been put to use in Promontory Apartments, which achieved a remarkably low construction cost of $10,400 per unit.[i]  Completed in 1951, Ogden Courts used air-entrained concrete to produce a surface dense enough to avoid issues with water infiltration, and SOM carefully arranged its structure to align beams with partition walls, leaving flat slabs exposed to form durable architectural ceilings.  Such “building straight” required “neither veneer nor paint,” and it was complemented by red brick and glass block panels detailed to allow construction from inside, which avoided the expense of scaffolding.  Ogden Courts’ exposed frame became a signature for future buildings by the CHA, finding academic justification in the rise of so-called beton brut, or exposed rough concrete, in the work of Corbusier and the rising fashion for ‘brutalism,’ which called for an ‘honest’ exposure of materials.  At $9400 per unit, this approach certainly found favor with the CHA.[ii]

Still, the key design feature of SOM’s plan lay not in its exposed materials or its proposed (though apparently never installed) program of glazed tile ornament, but rather the simplicity and targeted thoughtfulness of its plan. While six apartments on each floor were clustered into pods that inhibited cross-ventilation, their arrangement in conjunction with two pairs of linear apartments meant that each gallery could be seen from four kitchens, the idea being that children playing on these eight-foot-wide balconies could be supervised by parents while they were preparing meals. Similarly, each apartment had room to store a pram, and storage for each tenant was provided immediately adjacent to the elevators, making trips to and from the ground-level playgrounds relatively efficient.

Forum was effusive in its praise for the simple but rigorous solutions SOM found to the combined problems of cost, supervision, and circulation:

“Photographs…show the unusual skill with which the exposed skeleton of hard-surfaced, self-finished concrete has been integrated decoratively with the plan and with other materials.  Columns fall between alternating bays of living rooms and bedrooms, so that strings of aluminum windows, continuous from column to column, vary in sill height according to whether the space inside is a bedroom or a living room.  Red brick filler panels, contrasting with gray frame, can be laid from inside without scaffolding.  The access balconies or porches seen in photo below are semi-sheltered upstairs’ sidewalks, faced with alternating panels 4-in. glazed tile and of open-wire, floor-to-ceiling fence.  These areas serve as rainy-day recreation space (conveniently supervised…from kitchens);

“In contrast with the sumptuous planning, construction is neat and cheap. Modeled closely on Mies van der Rohe’s Promontory Apartments, the concrete skeleton of columns, slabs, and beams calls for no visible crossbeams in the apartments.  The exterior surface, rendered dense by use of air-entraining cement, will require neither veneer nor paint. 

“Open Corridor Design [Ogden Courts].”  Architectural Forum, Vol. 92, no. 1.  Jan., 1950.  84-85.

The CHA’s progressive moment was short-lived; these mid-rise ideals evaporated in the face of shrinking budgets, further demographic pressure, and white neighborhoods’ unwillingness to accept equitable distribution of public housing throughout the city . Wood was forced out of her position in 1954, replaced by bureaucrats and political appointees who capitulated to the demands of white Aldermen for racially-based siting just as the Eisenhower administration–and a vocal coalition of Republicans and Southern Democrats in Congress–insisted that public housing budgets be made even more punishingly tight. These political and social pressures forged the infamously over-dense and under-serviced skyscrapers of Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes, where problems overwhelmed the limited political will of the Daley machine; over time, as D. Bradford Hunt and others have shown, Chicago’s entire public housing program was poisoned by the political and racial forces that concentrated the city’s poorest and neediest residents in skyscraper housing. Even well-intentioned, highly praised designs like SOM’s Ogden Courts, along with those of Keck and Keck and Harry Weese, fell victim; all were demolished in the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation” between 1995 and 2015.

[i] “Glass and Brick in a Concrete Frame.”  Architectural Forum, vol. 92.  January, 1950. 

[ii] “Open Corridor Design.”  Architectural Forum, vol. 92.  January, 1950. 

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