Stadio Franchi—international competition and cautious optimism

News this week that the city of Florence will, in fact, hold an international competition to restore Nervi’s Stadio Franchi and develop the surrounding Campo di Marte. As reported by La Nazione, the initial round will begin this month—a very quick turnaround that suggests work would being during the remaining term of the city’s Mayor, Dario Nardella.

While the stadium is still at some risk—terms of the competition would preserve the stadium’s fabric but would allow a broad range of interventions that could alter it—in the grand scheme of things this is a promising decision and a win for the preservation community. Not only is the stadium now being recognized as an iconic work in a city that is, frankly, full of them, but the entire neighborhood—a jumble of sports facilities, warehouses, parking lots, and the city’s second railway station—will be considered holistically. Our suggestion to the city (for what it’s worth, if any design teams have come across this in their Google research) is to consider a new stadium, new links to the rail infrastructure, and an entertainment and hotel complex that would rejuvenate the Campo di Marte, with Nervi’s stadium as an historic, cultural exclamation point…

So, not out of the woods yet, but cause for some cautious celebration. And, of course, a huge thank you to everyone who took the time to sign our petition (3700+!). That did, in fact, attract enough attention to help gain coverage in local outlets and the international press. All of that helped make the point that Nervi’s built work has huge support from the architectural, engineering, and preservation communities.

More news to follow, hopefully further positive developments. In the meantime, if you did sign and feel like celebrating with a Negroni or two, the staff at ArchitectureFarm would heartily endorse that…and possibly even join you…

allerton hotel–unlikely modern prototype

Allerton Hotel Chicago Illinois

The Allerton is a fairly typical 1920s hotel. Designed and built in 1923-24 by Murgatroyd and Ogden, it’s an ersatz combination of pyramidal massing, scooped out ventilation courts, and a vaguely Moorish theme, a landmark on Michigan Avenue mostly for its signage, which announces not only the hotel but also the fetchingly named Tip-Top-Tap, its rooftop bar.

Eminently forgettable as a piece of architecture, except…

PACE Architects’ principal, Charlie Genther, recalled that on the early Herbert Greenwald/Metropolitan Structures projects, Mies was constantly pushing to have floor-to-ceiling windows, newly enabled by the 1950 building code (about which, much more here…) Legal though that may have been, Greenwald had trouble convincing lenders that tenants wouldn’t find the vertiginous lack of solid walls at the edges of their floor plates terrifying.

There was one convenient prototype, just blocks from 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, though. The Tip-Top-Tap, which relied on its panoramic views to draw customers for “after-theater rendezvous” and “midnight chats.” The romance of the city, seen from above, was enhanced by the largest possible windows, which–sure enough–are floor-to-ceiling:

Tip Top Tap - Allerton Hotel Chicago, IL

Greenwald apparently used the bar first as a test case, and then–at least according to oft-repeated anecdotes–as proof that the lack of a spandrel wall wouldn’t disturb potential tenants. Judging from the Eames chairs, that view is probably contemporary with Greenwald’s excursions there–the DCW came out in 1946. The planters and radiator cabinets suggest that this wasn’t quite as easy a sell as the story makes it seem, but here’s a slightly later view, not too much later since the Prudential isn’t peeking out over the Trib’s shoulder:

It’s another story that’s impossible to confirm but too perfect to not be true, and it does suggest a research trip to the Tip-Top-Tap once it’s possible again…

tribune observation deck, late 1927

Photographer unknown

Scrounging around for unconventional illustrations allows me to call eBay shopping “research” instead of just “procrastination,” but every so often it pays off. This week’s haul includes a set of Brownie photographs that were taken from the roof of the Tribune Tower (judging from the position of the Wrigley Building, lower left). You’re looking at the Marina City site in the foreground and the still-new Wacker Drive across the River–the only tall building on it is Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White’s Builders Building, which was just finished in 1927. The warehouses and factories that lined the riverfront are still mostly intact…not exactly the high-rent district it would become.

Photographer unknown

Our photographer has just turned to the left…Herbert Hugh Riddle’s Mather Tower–a building so slender it needed tension foundations to hold it down in a windstorm–is being finished on the right and if you look closely you can see that GAPW’s Pittsfield Building is up and nearly all clad, but missing interior walls. That was Al Shaw’s first major project and you can see that he brought a distinct style to the firm that had just done the solidly classical Builders the year before. Those two being under construction puts a pretty firm date on these–the Pittsfield opened in February, 1928, so these must have been taken sometime in Fall, 1927. Note the Peristyle at the head of Grant Park.

Photographer unknown.

And finally, swinging around to look almost due west. The Merchandise Mart hasn’t been started and you can see the “twin tower” Butler Warehouses and the Cold Storage building on the opposite side of the North and South Branches of the River–now all converted into residential uses. Over to the right is the 1892 Criminal Courts Building by Otto Matz, and the tower of George Nimmons Reid Murdoch Building (1913) is just peaking up on the main branch’s north bank. Other than those, there’s not a whole lot along Hubbard and Kinzie that’s still there.

Useful? Well, as a baseline for the development along the Main Branch, for sure, but mostly just a rare find of some comprehensive views of the city at the peak of its 1920s boom. Thirty years later in 1957 the view wouldn’t have changed much–but another thirty years from that and our anonymous photographer wouldn’t have recognized much…

chicago skyscraper near misses–place du sable

Place du Sable, Chicago (C.F. Murphy, 1967-74, unbuilt). From Werner Blaser, Gene Summers: Art/Architecture

Whoa, right? That massive post-Miesian complex was to have taken up six city blocks of the West Loop, including the blocks that now contain Presidential Towers, the Social Security Administration, and 540 W. Madison–plus two blocks of parking next to the Kennedy. Madison Street, which would have run under the acres of open plaza space connecting the three buildings, was Chicago’s notorious Skid Row, a dozen or so blocks of flophouses, bars, and general decay that the Daley administration regarded as one of the city’s most visible embarrassments.

West Madison Street had plummeted into dereliction beginning in the late 19th century, when its proximity to the smoke and noise of the railroad terminals and yards west of the River made it a center for transient men who subsisted on the day labor that the constant flow of trains and freight required.  The mile or so extending west from the River became populated by boarding houses that brought those seeking “a rough life style with low expectations” and, with them, “taverns, liquor stores, second-hand shops, [and] day labor agencies.”  After World War II, mechanization and automation in the rail industry eliminated many of the subsistence jobs that had drawn “The Street’s” 75,000 or so denizens, but the flophouses and dive bars remained, serving an ever-smaller but harder-core population.[i]  The city began clearing several blocks of Madison Street west of Northwestern Station in the mid-1960s, and in 1968 an open competition was announced for the six city blocks bounded by Clinton and Monroe Streets, Washington Boulevard, and the new Kennedy Expressway, hoping to replace the flop houses and taverns with a new gateway to the burgeoning Loop.[ii]  The winning bidder would be offered the land at cost,  with the understanding that they would develop all six blocks over ten years.

That December, the newly-assembled Madison-Canal Development Company was announced as the winning bidder.  The Company was organized by two Memphis-based executives with Holiday Inn, and they had, wisely, hired C.F. Murphy to draw up a proposal for a 5-million square foot, $350 million complex that would take up the entire six-block footprint.  Murphy’s scheme borrowed from the office’s own portfolio, proposing two steel-framed towers with an expressed structural frame that recalled their Continental Insurance building, but blown up to colossal scale—one tower would rise 90 stories, the other 68.  These were to be joined by a low, slab-like apartment building and a square pavilion taking up almost an entire city block, all sitting atop a raised podium extending across the whole  site that would contain retail space while offering a raised pedestrian concourse above the existing street grid, and it proposed connecting via an underground concourse to Northwestern Station. The scheme clearly looked to contemporary urban structures such as Ville Place Marie in Montreal, where the city’s even harsher climate had led Pei and his developer to a raised podium and basement retail that connected to that city’s growing underground network of concourses, but it also showed a debt to Mies’ arrangement of towers and slabs at the Federal Center and elsewhere.[iii]  While the 90-story tower was to be a straightforward—if strikingly tall—office building, the Murphy scheme, developed by Mies protégé Gene Summers, proposed combining office and residential functions in the shorter tower.  Instead of stacking the narrower apartments atop the wider offices, as SOM had done at the Hancock, the Place du Sable tower grafted an apartment high-rise onto the side of an office tower, staggering the floors so that three residential floors would take up the height of two office floors. 

Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1974.

The double-use tower was the first phase of the project and the city began demolishing the far-northeastern block in preparation for foundation work.[iv]  Meanwhile, it emerged that Madison-Canal was, in fact, the brainchild of Charles Swibel, who had been Chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority for more than five years.  This was a disqualifying and potentially illegal conflict of interest.  Place du Sable was taking shape in the midst of an election campaign that, while never in doubt, took place in the aftermath of the 1968 unrest.  Richard Friedman, a liberal reformer running against Daley as a Republican, publicly released the project’s prospectus, which disclosed Swibel’s stake in the project and showed that the partnership was paying him an annual $100,000 fee for “consultation.”[v]  No keen observer of the city’s politics could fail to recognize such a huge annual payment to one of the city’s most notorious back-room dealers for what it was, but more was to come; a Department of Urban Renewal whistleblower came forward just weeks before the election to reveal that Madison-Canal hadn’t provided proof of their financial reserves—the two Holiday Inn executives had resigned while contracts were being signed—and that additional payments had been made from an empty shell company to the Real Estate Research Corporation which, it turned out, not only studied the possible rehabilitation of West Madison for the Department of Urban Renewal in 1966-69, but had then turned around and contracted with Madison Canal to assist on their bid.[vi]

The accusations barely registered among the growing list of financial scandals that plagued the late Daley administration, but lawsuits delayed the project and threatened its funding.  The company’s proposed sale of common stock was put on hold by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1969 and Place du Sable began its long, tortuous death throes.  By the end of 1970, Swibel publicly doubted the viability of the retail mall and underground concourse abandoning the raised podium in favor of a street-level plaza.[vii]  Madison-Canal only bought the site’s first blocks in January and June, 1971 as the project’s vaporous finances became apparent.[viii] 

Later that year, the General Services Administration announced that they would locate a new, consolidated regional headquarters for the Social Security Administration on one of the blocks that Madison-Canal owned.  The SSA had preferred a site on the River but Chicago’s Department of Urban Renewal convinced them to build on the Madison-Canal site instead.  Swibel and his company earned a quick 20% profit on their $5.8 million purchase of the land.[ix]  In June, 1974, the city formally abandoned Place du Sable, citing the failure of Madison-Canal to make any progress and starting a wave of lawsuits between the developers, the city, and the federal government.[x]  Swibel, however, held on to his one remaining block.  While he served as a confidant to Mayor Jane Byrne in the late 1970s, part of his block disappeared from the property tax rolls.  This came to light only when a termination agreement was drawn up that allowed Swibel to sell the entire block outside of the Place du Sable agreement and it was found that he had avoided paying nearly half a million dollars in property taxes on the land. 

Chicago Tribune, Feb. 1, 1981.

Place du Sable’s visual power—which existed in little more than a presentation model—was enough to earn Swibel millions of dollars through the mere promise of a project so gigantic that it would have realigned the Loop’s orbit, offering not only a new gateway development to arriving workers on the Kennedy, but a new center of commerce, residence, and entertainment that would have transformed the West Loop.  Did Swibel and his shell company have the capabilities—or even the intent—to pull such a vast, impactful scheme off?  Or was Place du Sable a cynical land banking venture, designed simply to earn one of the best connected operatives in Chicago an easy profit without any real commitment to the difficulties of building an actual project?  Swibel narrowly avoided criminal charges over his role in the affair, eventually agreeing to pay back nearly half a million dollars in back taxes, but this was a fraction of what he earned for essentially sitting on an empty piece of land for nearly a decade. 

Skyscrapers played a role in shaping the city’s skyline, but even the ones that weren’t built reveal much about the political and fiscal mechanisms that shaped the city as a whole.  The contrast between such active engagement and the lassez-faire approach of 19th and early 20th century politicians is one of the themes that’s shaping the new book.  Often this was for good—Swibel’s role in realizing Marina City, for instance, aligned labor, government, and financial interests toward one of the city’s most successful, iconic, and equitably conceived mixed-use projects.  But Place du Sable shows that these interests weren’t always as balanced.

Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1981

[i] Richard Greb, “Chicago’s Skid Row Fades as New High-Rise Slated.”  The Austin Statesman, Feb. 23, 1969.  A18.

[ii] Paul Gapp, “Architecture: Presidential Towers No Beauty, But it Works Like a Charm.”  Chicago Tribune, Dec. 22, 1985.  H6.

[iii] “Developers Alter West Side Plans [Place du Sable].”  Chicago Tribune, Dec. 6, 1970.  E1.

[iv] “Crews Tear Down Skid Row for New Development.”  Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1970.  W9.

[v] “Friedman Hits Swibel Again, Says He Would Halt Project.”  Chicago Tribune, Feb. 20, 1971.  D5.

[vi] Cornelia Honchar, “Suit Challenges ‘Skid Row’ Plan.”  Chicago Tribune, Mar. 18, 1971.  12.

[vii] Developers Alter West Side Plans [Place du Sable].”  Chicago Tribune, Dec. 6, 1970.  E1.

[viii] “Caisson Work Set for First Building in Place DuSable.”  Chicago Tribune, Sept. 16, 1971.  W12.

[ix] “$46 Million U.S. Building Set for Swibel Land on West Side.”  Chicago Tribune, Sept. 16, 1972.  N5; Alvin Nagelberg, “100% Land Profit Expected in Sale by Swibel to GSA.”  Chicago Tribune, Sept. 23, 1972.  1.

[x] Stanley Ziemba, “City Urged to Scrap West Side Development.”  Chicago Tribune, June 5, 1974.  B2 and “Place Du Sable Dream Dying Amid Controversy.”  Chicago Tribune, June 9, 1974.  45.

alleys, sidewalks, towers, and clout

Blocks 43 and 49, Chicago, 1906 Sanborn Map. (Library of Congress Map Collection)

OK, get comfortable. This is a long one, but a good one.

The Sanborn map above shows a block in the old Market district at the SW corner of the Loop. The manufacturing and warehousing buildings on that block persisted even as the wholesale market moved to its current site on the southwest side beginning in the 1940s, but largely fell into disrepair. In the 1960s, a trio of investors calling themselves Fleetwood Realty began quietly buying lots on the block, trying to assemble a large enough parcel to sell to a prospective developer or corporation. Insurance companies and other large corporations had been building on Wacker Drive (Market Street in the map above) since the mid-1950s; America Fore, Mutual Trust, Sinclair Oil all built headquarters on the boulevard. Hartford Insurance built two. More investment came with the Gateway Center buildings across the River and U.S. Gypsum’s rotated crystalline extravaganza in 1963-65. Fleetwood’s acquisitions were well-considered–the site was within walking distance of Union and Northwestern Stations to the west, the El loop to the east, and Congress Expressway to the south.

Fleetwood Realty was actually a partnership between Bernard Feinberg, president of Jefferson State Bank, a small Chicago institution, and two lawyers-turned-realtors, Albert Rubenstein and Philip Teinowitz. Feinberg was a business associate of Alderman Thomas Keane, widely regarded as Mayor Daley’s closest ally and as the “second most powerful man in Chicago.” As the Sun Times put it, where Daley was interested in power, Keane was interested in money, and in addition to mastering the rules and tactics of City Council, Keane masterfully blurred the lines between city business and personal profit.

In 1967, Feinberg and his partners announced that Greyhound would buy the southern half of their block to build a new bus terminal, replacing their aging structure in the central Loop. With direct connections to the expressway, the site made sense, but it faced one ten-foot-wide obstacle. If you look closely at the Sanborn map, you can see that there’s a north-south alley that splits the block between Quincy and Jackson. That was a city alley, meaning that it required a city council resolution to vacate it and sell it to Fleetwood. That all happened in January 1968 but under unusual circumstances. Usually, such actions were introduced by the alderman representing the ward where the land in question actually was. But, in this case, the resolution was put forward not by the 1st Ward Alderman, Donald Parillo, but instead by 25th Ward Alderman Vito Marzullo. Marzullo, too, was one of Daley’s staunchest allies; he represented his west-side ward for 30 years and was famous for inventing the phrase “all politics are local.” Parillo insisted that any sale of the alley should have been cleared by him. Marzullo claimed that he had only introduced it because Parillo had been absent from that council meeting, and Parillo pointed out that he hadn’t ever actually missed a meeting, meaning that Marzullo’s resolution had, in fact, never been formally presented. Feinberg bought the alley for $27,000, or about $12 per square foot, a fire sale price, and Parillo resigned from the city council in disgust. Later, the city estimated that the alley had actually been worth $68,000, but allowed the deal to stand nevertheless.

The Greyhound deal ended up falling through, but Fleetwood did manage to sell the site. New York realtors Cushman and Wakefield approached Feinberg with a risky offer in 1969. If the trio could also acquire the north half of the site within six months, they would purchase the entire block for a corporate client looking to build a 2 million-square-foot headquarters building. Fleetwood took the gamble, buying options on lots on the north side of the block, negotiating successfully for the last lot with only a month to spare.

The client, as you may have figured, was Sears, and in addition to their 2 million square feet, the whole-block site meant that they could also build 2 million square feet of speculative office space on top of their new headquarters. But Sears, too, had to buy an alley from the city–in this case, Quincy Street. They did so, with little objection and, again, at a price well below market value.

Sixteen days after the sale of the alley to Feinberg, Keane and his brother, George, mysteriously acquired 475 shares of Jefferson State Bank. Cook County Board Commissioner Harry Semrow also received 25 shares.

OK. Quick intermission.

And now, Act II.

Image result for 200 w monroe
American Surety, 200 W. Monroe St. Welton Becket, 1973.

Fast forward to 1972. Feinberg and Jefferson State Bank bought and demolished two buildings along Wells St., north of Monroe, and built the 23-story American Surety building in their place. (Jenney’s First Leiter Store stood on this corner, but it was demolished in 1931). The building is a fairly anonymous one–an infilled concrete frame done by Los Angeles firm Welton Becket. But it proved to be the undoing of Feinberg and, in part, of Keane. The two structures on the site were demolished in 1972, but it emerged that their permit was forged to suggest that they had been wrecked in 1971, saving Feinberg a year’s worth of county taxes. The Chairman of the Cook County Board of Appeals, which handled tax disputes? George Keane. Also on the Board? Harry Semrow. Both shareholders of the Jefferson State Bank.

No Chicago jury would have convicted any of the key players for this sort of business-as-usual stuff, but the Feds went after Thomas Keane for a range of similar corrupt practices, ultimately convicting him and Feinberg of mail fraud, since the forged demolition permits had been sent via post. Keane was also convicted of steering public funds to Jefferson–he served 22 months, Feinberg served four.

2 N. La Salle, Perkins & Will, 1979 (left) and 30 N. La Salle, Thomas E. Stanley, 1975

OK, now a coda.

While Keane and Feinberg were in prison, another Jefferson State Bank project 2 N. La Salle, got another sweetheart deal. In the photo above, you can see that there’s a substantial setback between 2 N. La Salle (the white-skinned building) and 30 N. La Salle, the more sinister looking one, which is what Chicago got on the site of Sullivan’s Stock Exchange, but that’s another post. There had been a zoning provision for new construction on La Salle that required a 20-foot setback, as the city’s Bureau of Street Traffic planned to widen La Salle at some point–the idea being that, as all of the obsolete structures on the street were inevitably torn down and replaced with new towers, they’d end up with plenty of room to add high-speed lanes. (Let that sink in–it would have included the Rookery, Jenney’s New York Life, and the Field Building…) 30 N. La Salle complied with the setback but, “somehow,” Feinberg’s 2 N. La Salle got a waiver, despite the Bureau of Street Traffic’s objections, meaning that with one zoning appeal the entire La Salle Street widening project was (thankfully) dead. Alderman Ed Vrdolyak tried to repeal the variance, noting that the jailed Feinberg had quickly transferred land ownership to his brother on entering prison, but Keane’s influence, even from behind bars, was significant, and you can see the results on La Salle Street today.

Feinberg resumed his real estate business after emerging from prison. Both he and Keane remained active in Chicago politics, though not in any official capacity. Feinberg died in 1980, Keane in 1996.


“Council Committee to Study High Rise Zoning Request.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Mar 04, 1971.

“SALE OF ALLEY TO DEVELOPER IS DEFENDED.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Feb 15, 1968.

“The World’s Tallest: Saga of a Chicago Skyscraper: World’s Tallest: Skyscraper’s Saga.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Oct 18, 1970.

“Vrdolyak Hits Loop Zoning OK.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Jul 30, 1977.

Brodt, Bonita. “How Time, Law Dealt with Political Criminals: How Time, Law Dealt with Political Criminals.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Feb 07, 1980.

Honchar, Cornelia. “Keane, Others in Clout Quiz.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Apr 01, 1973.

Kifner, John “Investigation of Chicago’s no. 2 Democrat Appears to Pose a Serious. Threat to the Daley Machine: Called by Grand Jury First News Conference Brother Quit Post.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Apr 08, 1973.

Nagelberg, Alvin. “GREYHOUND PLAN FOR NEW DEPOT TOLD: WILL SELL PRESENT TERMINAL.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Jun 20, 1967.

———. “PLAN GARAGE NEAR LOOP ON ENTIRE BLOCK: EXPECT WORK TO BEGIN SOON.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Jul 27, 1965.

———. “Plan New 23-Story Building in Loop.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Jan 27, 1972.

Phillips, Richard. “On Four Counts: Find Keane Pal Guilty of Fraud.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Jun 28, 1975.

Schreiber, Edward. “ALDERMAN QUITS POST, GOES SKIING: PARRILLO GIVES NO EXPLANATION.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), Feb 17, 1968.

hancock cutaway

With archives still closed I’m busy collecting…alternative…illustration possibilites. Call it research via eBay. Today’s find is from the June, 1968 Popular Mechanics, a Thunderbirds-esque cutaway of what I think of as the new project’s third act car chase scene. No deep thoughts here, just a nice, science fiction take on a classic. (Popular Science did one of these, too, but this one’s got more dark, brooding goodness…)

Charles Remsberg, “John Hancock Center: No. Two by 21 Feet.” Popular Mechanics, vol. 129, June 1968. 68–69

old chicago skyscraper of the week–equitable


If you had to pick one site in Chicago as the center of the entire city, it would likely be the Michigan Avenue bridge. The north bank is, according to legend, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built the first Euro-American settlement and trading post in 1789. Fort Dearborn stood roughly on the south bank, and Cyrus McCormick opened his factory on the du Sable site in 1847. Various industrial concerns moved in and out until 1929, when the north bank was cleared in anticipation of a second Wacker Drive, but the Depression scotched that project and the site became a parking lot. The Tribune bought the land in the 1940s, expecting to build radio and TV studios for its WGN stations, but those ended up in Irving Park and the gateway to North Michigan Avenue remained an eyesore through the 1950s.

Equitable Insurance started discussing the possibility of a combined headquarters and investment tower with the Tribune in 1961. The company had started in New York, in the 1870s and had a long–if checkered–architectural history. George Post engineered their first building, which was known for its early passenger elevators, electric lighting, and fireproof iron construction–which burned, spectacularly, in 1912. Burnham & Co. designed a massive block for the company on the same site–an early collaboration between Ernest Graham and Peirce Anderson. At 40 stories, that building was so overscaled that it helped inspire New York’s zoning code, and Equitable was careful when it expanded in the 1950s to develop urban schemes along with new skyscrapers–particularly in Pittsburgh, where it sponsored the decade-long Gateway Center, and in midtown Manhattan, where it built a plaza-centered tower as part of the Avenue of the Americas extension to Rockefeller Center.

For two decades the company’s Chicago branch office was in a renovated Jenney and Mundie Building on La Salle Street, but Jack Oates, the Chicago native who was Equitable’s CEO at the time found the Michigan Avenue site irresistible for its extraordinary visibility. The Tribune agreed to sell the land on the condition that the new development be set back far enough from Michigan Avenue to guarantee their 1925 Tower views of the River, and the two companies agreed to jointly sponsor a 100,000 square foot plaza that would serve as a forecourt to both buildings. Equitable hired SOM to design the tower, which emerged as what Bruce Graham would call “the most sophisticated building this office has ever done.” With no immediate neighbors, the plan developed as a rectangle of 3 x 5 38-foot structural bays with a central core. Those were large but not excessive; engineer Hal Iyengar recalled later, however, that at 35 stories the tower was at the limit of efficiency for a simple structural frame. SOM relied on welded joints throughout to provide stiffness, oversizing the perimeter girders and columns to create more rigid joints. The result was a step toward the tube frame–Fazlur Khan was working on the DeWitt-Chestnut apartment tower at roughly the same time and there’s at least a fuzzy parallel between that project’s pure tube structure and the Equitable’s stiffened perimeter,

It was Equitable’s curtain wall, however, that represented the most immediate advance in SOM’s skyscraper designs for its extensive use of aluminum, which formed the spandrel and column covers as well as the window mullions and sill rails, which held bronze-tinted glass and granite sill panels in place. The precision allowed by aluminum meant that this curtain wall was subtly more precise than those leading up to it in stainless steel–Inland Steel and Harris Bank in particular–and it marked one more turning point in the gradual move to aluminum for all things curtain wall in the 1960s.

Architectural Record, October, 1965.

Bruce Graham claimed a direct lineage to the city’s expressive skyscraper tradition, and the layering of horizontal and vertical lines here recalls, if abstractly, the woven grids of structure and ornament that he admired in buildings by Sullivan and Holabird & Roche, among others. But he was not above a Mies trick or two, either, spacing the mullions on the structural grid, leaving slightly narrower windows at the edges of each structural bay that add a syncopation and elegant ambiguity between structure and skin.

The building was almost entirely leased even before the structure was finished–in addition to Equitable, the building attracted two of the city’s largest advertising firms, and ALCOA took one floor for its regional branch offices, among others. The plaza, graced by a sinuous stair to the lower riverwalk (now replaced by Foster + Partners glassy, laptop-like Apple Store) and a fountain dedicated to 25 “pioneers” of the city, retained the vista of the Tribune Tower adequately, but has always suffered from its vast scale–despite planting and pavilions that have sought to break it down, the space functions better as a visual corridor than as a public space.

Image result for equitable chicago postcard

As one of the most visible sites in the city, Equitable’s construction became a daily attraction to the tens of thousands of pedestrians and drivers who passed it each day–leading the Tribune to produce a daily 15-minute recorded program that it broadcast on speakers to the assembled “sidewalk superintendents” who gathered to watch the drama of high steel being assembled there. Jack Brickhouse, WGN’s sports announcer, delivered the “construction play-by-play.”

Nervi’s Stadio Franchi–saved for the moment!

Last Friday the Italian Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali issued its binding opinion preventing plans to demolish–even partly–Nervi’s iconic stadium in Florence. As reported by Artribune, the ruling allows consideration of new roofs and new end zone stands (“curva“) but prevents the city and Fiorentina from pursuing their original plans to demolish the 1931/32 stadium and build anew on the same site. The ruling has, predictably, drawn protest from the team’s owner, Italian-American billionaire and CEO of Mediacom Rocco Commisso, but Fiorentina hasn’t been able to explain why, for instance, a new stadium adjacent to the historic Nervi structure wouldn’t serve the same purpose.

Monday, Florence Mayor Dario Nardella held a press conference during which he announced that the city would fully comply with the MiBACT directive, and would take the suggestion made by the Pier Luigi Project Foundation that the entire Campo di Marte be considered as a revitalization project, perhaps involving a new stadium and new development that could help fund the renovation work that the Franchi would need to begin a new life as a community center, like Nervi’s Stadio Flaminio is slated to become in Rome. More encouraging, he announced that the city would, in fact, hold an international competition to re-imagine the Campo di Marte, with precisely the aims of rejuvenating the stadium and improving access to the city’s second main rail station, adjacent to the site.

Commisso has threatened to take the team to the suburbs, and this has caused plenty of concern and backlash from the Viola. But Florence should take a lesson from the American experience of the last several decades, as professional sports teams have taken municipalities to the cleaners with threats of pulling up their cleats and leaving for better financial deals offered by cities or suburbs seeking the publicity that comes with today’s media-saturated sports culture. Those deals have never–literally never–worked out as planned for those cities, who consistently fail to see the income promised by the teams, and who–after a few years–find themselves the owners of a stadium criticized by the owners as out-of-date and facing threats from those owners to move to the next town.

Fingers crossed that this goes ahead, and that Florence has, by 2025, a new precinct worthy of a visit by sports fans and, perhaps, even by tourists who alight at that station before the one in town…

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who joined the campaign to Save the Franchi…

chicago skyscraper of the week–continental I

Continental-National Insurance was a Chicago-based firm, organized in the 1890s, that purchased the Straus Building on Michigan Avenue in 1943–and then quickly outgrew its 600,000 or so square feet of floor space. In 1960 the company announced two schemes for expansion to the west, along Jackson Street–one saving Holabird & Roche’s 1912 Cable Building in February and another, demolishing the Cable and two other adjacent structures, in September after the neighboring owners realized they would be ‘boxed in’ by Continental-National’s expansion plans.

The schemes were designed by C.F. Murphy & Associates, which had just undergone a tidal change in personnel. Murphy, the titular head of the office, was not an architect–he was, instead, perhaps the greatest business development operator Chicago has ever seen. He had his start in 1912 as Daniel Burnham’s personal secretary, and rose through the ranks of Burnham’s successor firms, finally emerging with partner Sigurd Naess as Naess + Murphy in 1947. Naess was a conservative designer, best known for the fairly stodgy Prudential Building, and after his retirement in 1957 Murphy emulated Burnham in hiring a stable of young, talented designers who would go on to design many of the city’s postwar landmarks.

Among them were two IIT graduates, Jacques Brownson and James Ferris, who brought a staunch belief in Miesian aesthetics from their backgrounds. Together, they tackled Continental’s program, which called for vast, open offices to allow for efficient communication among their huge clerical staff and for easy re-organization. Brownson and Ferris addressed this with unusually large, 42′-0″ column bays organized around a tightly-planned central core, leaving each level with around 19,000 square feet of usable space.

Typical Floor Plan, from Architectural Forum, May, 1963.

But those large structural bays presented a problem in that they required deep girders, and Continental-National’s other requirement was that the floors in the new building be contiguous with those in the Straus to provide easy circulation throughout. Murphy’s structural engineer responded with 27″ deep beams with unusually heavy sections that allowed large openings toward the center of each one to accommodate the building’s s double-duct mechanical system. The result was a compact floor sandwich–just 37″ total–within the Straus’ comparatively tight 12′-0″ floor-to-floor height.

Construction view showing openings in beams. Architectural Forum, May, 1963.

That was clever enough, but Brownson and Ferris’ Miesian leanings led to further innovation in the building’s integration of cladding and structure. Frustrated with the need for fireproofing around steel members, they looked for ways of expressing the building’s steelwork in a more direct fashion than the attached I-beams that had become Mies’ trademark cladding solution. “I like to see what really is,” Brownson later explained, “what goes on with things.” Their solution was to take advantage of a loophole in Chicago’s building code that required “bearing” structural elements to be fireproofed. This, they argued, left out wind bracing, allowing a building’s lateral system–provided it took no gravity loads–to be left unprotected.

Brownson and Ferris laid out a scheme that provided a fully self-supporting gravity system–the heavy column and internal girder in the detail above–but then detailed 3/8″ steel cover plates that served as the outer formwork for the fireproofing concrete that would be poured around these elements. These cover plates were designed with welded studs that made them monolithic with the concrete and, through another set of welded studs, with the columns and girders themselves. Exposed on the exterior, these cover plates became part of the welded frame’s lateral system–Roche relied on them to take some portion of the structure’s wind loads–but they also served as exposed cladding. They thus fulfilled three integrated purposes–lateral resistance, formwork, and facade.

Brownson and Ferris added vertical find to the spandrel panels to maintain flat surfaces against the fluid pressure of the poured concrete that align with stainless steel mullions framing the building’s continuous windows; they also detailed shadowgaps behind the column covers that reveal the thin nature of the steelwork overall. These details helped to articulate the building facade as a series of layers that offer a sense of cross-grain and hierarchy, with the column covers set out farthest and the girder edges, window mullions, girder plates, and glass all set back in a coordinated sequence that reads like a tartan grid of vertical and horizontal lines:

The result recalls the layered facades of 19th century lofts, especially those by Holabird & Roche, where this trick of layering horizontal and vertical elements produced visually rich elevations like that of the Gage group:

Continental opened in 1962 to wide critical acclaim. The Chicago chapter of the AIA called it “the finest commercial building of recent years” and Progressive Architecture explicitly noted its adherence to “the principles of the 19th Century Chicago School.” Carl Condit wrote about the building frequently, citing its “peculiar combination of force and dignity” and also praising the inspiration that it clearly drew from past, local examples. “The articulated walls of the Continental addition are so emphatically drawn” from such forebears as Ayer McClurg or Schlesinger and Mayer, Condit argued, “as to make it seem as though the long discontinuities between past and present had never existed.”

Brownson would go on to expand upon many of the Continental’s cladding and structural ideas in the Civic Center, which came into Murphy’s office as a joint venture with SOM and Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett while Continental was on the drawing boards. Ferris would jump ship several years later when Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White won the commission from Continental–then renamed the CNA Group–to design the much taller (and much more colorful) expansion to the south along Wabash.

from Progressive Architecture, Sept., 1963


  • “13 Buildings in Chicago Area Win Honors for Their Architecture [Continental 1].  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 10, 1964.  17
  • “Big Bays in Chicago. [Continental I]”  Architectural Forum, Vol. 118, no. 5.  May, 1963.  121.
  • Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Preliminary Landmark Recommendation: Continental Center, 55 E. Jackson Blvd.  (Chicago: City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development, 2011).  13, 15.
  • Carl Condit, Chicago 1930-70: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974). 
  • Carl W. Condit, “The New Architecture of Chicago.”  Chicago Review, 17:2/3, special issue on New Chicago Writing and Art.  1964.  111-112.
  • “Evolution of the High-Rise Office Building.”  Progressive Architecture, Vol. XLIV, no. 9.  Sept., 1963.  155.
  • James M. Gavin, “Continental Shows Off New Skyscraper.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1962.  C6.
  • “Steel Plate Exterior Serves as Cover for Fireproofing [Continental].”  Architectural Record, Vol. 132, no. 2.  August, 1962.  156

hancock center site–1962 scheme

Headline, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 16, 1962.

I’ve been diving into the history of the Hancock Center–er, sorry, 875 N. Michigan Avenue–and it’s a particularly rich tale, as you’d expect. The standard narratives about the building shape matching floor dimensions for varying programs and the extraordinary efficiency of the trussed tubes both check out, of course, but the tower’s timing–topped out in mid-1968–and its difficult construction (both brewing as future posts) make its story even more dramatic than I’d expected.

And it has an interesting pre-history, too. Its site, between Chestnut and Delaware on North Michigan, was one of the last blocks to be developed. By 1962, it was surrounded by construction, including two projects being developed by John J. Mack and Raymond Sher, who had hired Shaw, Metz, and Dolio to continue their string of high rise residential towers that had risen all along north Lake Shore Drive. The Continental Hotel, on the north side of Delaware (now a Westin) borrowed Shaw’s by then trademark white brick, vertical banding, and light metal rooftop ‘cap,’ a formula that’s instantly recognizable in their prominent Drive buildings.

Continental Hotel, Delaware and Michigan, Chicago. Shaw, Metz, and Dolio, 1965.

The second Mack and Sher project, two blocks south, was 777 N. Michigan, an apartment tower with a podium of parking and retail–again, done up in Shaw’s white brick and metal spandrel curtain wall:

777 N. Michigan Ave. Shaw, Metz, & Dolio, 1965.

In April, 1962, announcing the start of work on 777 N Michigan, the Tribune reported that the cluster of Mack and Sher/Shaw, Metz, & Dolio buildings on the Avenue would also include a 65-story tower on the block between Chestnut and Delaware. Costing $30 million, the project was to include 1000 apartments, 1300 parking spaces, and a rotating observation deck that would have just topped the Civic Center, then on track to become the city’s tallest building. Set back from the Avenue by a broad plaza, Shaw’s massing would have faced the Fourth Presbyterian Church with a sphinx-like symmetrical plan, a tall central shaft flanked by two shorter bays, and retail ‘paws’ surrounding the central entrance:

from James Gavin, “65 Story Tower Planned.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 16, 1962.

The 65-story plan languished, and Mack and Sher sold the site in April, 1964 to an anonymous “group of investors from the east” for $4.8 million, or nearly $60 a square foot. Few doubted the possibilities that the land–in the midst of a booming residential district, at the head of the city’s most prestigious retail avenue, within a few hundred feet of the Lake and a (magnificent) mile north of the Loop–would pay off. But few at the time would realize that the “group of investors” would propose and build a structure that would rise nearly twice as tall as Mack and Sher’s headline-grabbing proposal…

VINTAGE PHOTO POSTCARD The John Hancock Center At Dusk Chicago Illinois  1974 - $3.99 | PicClick
Contemporary postcard of the Hancock Center, with 777 N. Michigan in the foreground and the Continental Hotel and Palmolive Building behind.