mies’ advice to young architects–solid

I’ve been immersed in a pandemic-delayed trawl through the Mies van der Rohe papers in the Library of Congress this week. A few finds that merit publication (forthcoming), but also no small amount of joy. I get the sense that his taciturn, grumpy reputation was mostly fictional; he comes across as incredibly warm and (occasionally) funny. But terse, definitely terse.

Sometime in the late 1950s he delivered a “lecture” to the Architectural League of New York City, but–never confident in his English ability, he asked that it be all questions and answers. The conversation mostly focused on the Seagram’s building, but the crowd got in plenty of larger issues as well. The typescript in the archives hasn’t, I think, ever been published, and given Mies’ reluctance to speak or write very much it’s an important collection of his thought.

It ends with an anonymous questioner tossing up a classic softball…and Mies hitting it out of the park:

QUESTION:  Now there are a lot of young people here tonight and I wonder, Mr. van der Rohe, if you would like to give them some advice.  Some of us probably are well along and saying we are not going to contribute much to architecture, but these youngsters might like to hear some advice about how they should approach their first commission, or what they should think about—certain clarities that you’ve mentioned.  Perhaps you’d like to repeat them or….

VAN DER ROHE:  I think there is one thing what I would do—I would work very hard.

Typescript titled “Architectural League,” in folder “Interviews with Mies, Box 62, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Papers, Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Roo

champlain towers collapse–best summary yet…

Architect and engineer Twitter has been busy this week speculating about the cause(s) of the building collapse north of Miami. The best summary I’ve seen yet is in this morning’s Washington Post and deserves a full read by anyone curious/concerned, including reasons why a foundation failure or sinkhole seems increasingly unlikely.

Elsewhere, the truly chilling document from the president of the building’s HOA and associated engineer’s report emphasize just how pervasive the building’s deterioration had become. Deferred maintenance and short-term financial decisions are their own post/book idea, but this is a prime example of how primed we are to ignore risks of long-term catastrophe when faced with difficult short-term decisions.

339 barry, an underrated Chicago ‘first’

Display Ad, 339 Barry. Chicago Tribune, Nov. 14, 1964.

The burst of apartment building in the early 1960s that rebuilt much of Lake Shore Drive was matched by a new high-rise type that revolutionized residential financing in Chicago and, eventually, throughout the country.  While rental apartments found a consistent, nearly-insatiable market among young professionals and couples, Chicago—like many American cities—found itself losing young families to the suburbs as rentals for multi-bedroom units soared.  The attractiveness of new developments in the 1950s, along with the promise of new connecting expressways made for a natural migration out of the city for white families with children.  Mortgage assistance for new, single-family homes from the FHA encouraged this, as did the inherent wealth-building potential that stemmed from home ownership, which transformed funds previously expended on monthly rent into equity.  While this out-migration was a windfall for homebuilders and developers outside of Chicago, it sapped tax dollars and much of the city’s skilled workforce; because of the restrictive covenants and the intransigent, often violent racism that continued to mark the city’s white middle class neighborhoods, this trend further cemented segregationist tendencies throughout the city. 

It was clear to many stakeholders—city builders, financiers, and the Daley administration—that encouraging home ownership within the city limits was a necessary step to combatting this endemic white flight.  But the city was largely built-out by this point, with little room to annex new territory and limited land on which to build developments that could compete with the sylvan lawns and sprawling ranch houses offered by new expressway suburbs like Oak Lawn or Arlington Heights.  Urban renewal had offered limited possibilities and, to this point, had necessarily been aimed at lower middle class and Black families with apartment projects that could not provide the benefits of equity that suburban home ownership promised.  And the city’s most desirable sites and neighborhoods came with land costs that demanded dense occupation and, thus, multi-story development.

But Illinois’ laws through the 1950s made integration between home ownership and skyscraper construction difficult and risky.  Like most states, real estate law in Illinois had always been based on English common law, which assumed physical ownership of land itself as the basis for all property rights; title to a particular plot of land also came with rights to the ground below and the air above.[i]  Defining a single unit in a high-rise in legal terms was, if not impossible, at least such a byzantine process that developers had come up with the co-operative system to get around it.  Since the 1920s, this method gave owners a share in the corporate ownership of an entire building and the right to rent a single, specified unit within.  This came with quirks and risks—among them, residents of a development were legally and fiscally responsible for the defaults of their fellow, corporately-bound neighbors.  If one resident fell behind on their monthly payments, the remaining residents had to make up the difference for the corporation’s property taxes, mortgage payments, and maintenance costs.  Co-ops gave residents inordinate power over sales and purchases; boards had the right to approve or deny new buyers, which was often a de facto segregationist power, and they could in extreme situations force residents out for cause—though this could be arbitrary and brought with it an uncertainty that home ownership typically avoided.  The system continued to be popular through the 1950s—Herbert Greenwald’s developments in particular often championed the co-op arrangement—but it was clearly an outdated and potentially discriminatory structure that was, by 1963, not providing a robust enough alternative to suburban home ownership.

A consortium of Chicago real estate lawyers approached the State legislature in 1963 with proposed legislation, inspired by new laws passed in Puerto Rico and Hawaii in 1958, that would allow ‘fee-simple’ ownership of individual units in a high-rise by specifically designating a process for dividing a project’s volume into legally defined parcels.[ii]  They argued that this idea was, in fact, well-proven—“the idea dates from ancient Rome” was a common refrain—and that it had encouraged construction and found eager markets among both young families and older couples in the states that had passed similar laws.[iii]  Shared ownership—or, from the Latin, “con dominium” offered a way to cut through the legal mess that came with defining air rights in a land-based system.  Herbert Rosenthal, president of Dunbar Builders, which had managed to construct low-rise shared-ownership developments under the old laws in 1962, explained the benefits to the Tribune, noting that a condominium arrangement offered exactly the elusive “best of both apartment living and home ownership”:

 “Condominium buyers have the security of ownership, along with its financial and tax advantages, as well as the convenience and freedom of an apartment dweller, he said.

“In a condominium project, buyers own their own apartment, while hallways, roof and other structural portions of the building, are owned in common with the other residents.  Owners have individual title to their units and are responsible only for their own mortgages and taxes, and a small fee to maintain the grounds and common areas.

“The condominium plan differs from the cooperative in that individual dwelling units can be sold, exchanged, or rented by the owners independently of their neighbors.  Co-operatives are owned by stockholder tenants, and permission is required from a governing body to sell or buy an apartment.”[iv]

But the new arrangement also offered developers an important benefit, in that it allowed them to walk away from a project once all of its units had been sold, leaving management to entities that could be formed by the owners themselves and eliminating the difficulties that came with collecting rent or running projects as corporations—a new class of developer emerged that focused on quicker turnarounds, rapid sales, and speed of construction as priorities. 

Passage of Illinois’ condominium law, in June, 1963, did not on its own spawn the next decade’s extraordinary burst of condominium construction.[v]  Rather, it took acceptance from the orbit of financial institutions and a healthy dose of marketing to establish condominiums as rivals to both co-ops and rental apartments.  The FHA provided much of the groundwork for this, though, extending its mortgage insurance programs to condominium projects nationwide in 1961, and with that security the city saw its first high-rise condominium announced three weeks before the law was even passed.  339 W. Barry, between Sheridan Road and Lake Shore Drive in Lakeview East, was an immediate ratification of the concept.  Developed and built by F&S Construction, one of the suburbs’ largest homeowners, 339 Barry reflected a hunch by the company’s owner, Jack Hoffman, that there was a “move back to urban living.”[vi]  Hoffman, namesake of one suburb where the firm had built nearly 2000 houses, had seen homebuilding slow and recognized that the new laws opened up an entirely new market, laying out the advantages to the press and pointing out that here, finally, was that elusive combination of ownership with “the benefits of living in a luxury apartment on Lake Shore Drive.”[vii] 

Hoffman’s efforts to replicate the perceived comforts and conveniences of the suburbs along Lake Shore Drive led to a building designed by Fridstein and Fitch, a firm opened by Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett partner Marvin Fitch in 1951.  Their site on a suburban-sounding “quiet, shaded street” offered unrestricted views to Lincoln Park and the lake, and Fridstein and Fitch arranged the building’s massing accordingly, with an exposed core on the building’s west side that allowed every apartment eastward-looking views and balconies.  Each unit was larger than standard north side apartments, at between 1000 and 2000 square feet, with large living rooms and separate dining rooms; each floor of the 26-story structure had just two or three units, which sold for between $25,000 and $58,000.   Taking cues from Mies’ Commonwealth Apartments, just to the southwest, they developed the building’s curtain wall with grey-tinted glass to mitigate bright morning sunshine, set into aluminum mullions that replicated the now-established Miesian idiom. 

But Fitch, interviewed on the building’s announcement, argued that the building’s sleek exterior was less important than its robust construction and its amenities.  “The renter,” he thought, was more concerned with these “exterior or visible details.”  Purchasers, on the other hand, were more concerned with the longer-term durability of “details of construction…plumbing, heating, wiring” and other equipment.[viii]  Hoffman pointed out the building’s ‘double climate control system,’ which adopted the zoned system of commercial towers, but without ducted air.  One baseboard circuit provided heat during winter to eliminate condensation from the apartments’ floor-to-ceiling windows, while fan coil units provided “individual heating and air conditioning” for each room.[ix]  Other amenities that, according to Fitch and Hoffman, distinguished the condominiums from rental apartments included dine-in kitchens, more sophisticated appliances including garbage disposers and ovens with ranges, optional dishwashers, and improved finishes, in particular parquet flooring in entrance halls.[x]  Unit plans also included three times the amount of closet space recommended by the FHA—an acknowledgement that the stability that came with ownership rather than renting would inevitably lead to greater accumulation.[xi]  These upgrades were combined with marble tubs, rosewood-paneled public areas, and “elegant details everywhere.”  Perhaps most tellingly, Fridstein and Fitch specified improved acoustic construction for walls between units, with laminated sheets of 5/8” drywall on one side, single layers of drywall resilient furring channels on the other to absorb transmitting vibrations, and 3-5/8” thick blankets of fiberglass insulation between.  Combined, these improvements, developed by U.S. Gypsum, gave walls a 51dB rating, more than 10% greater than FHA apartment standards and a crucial selling point to buyers used to the relative isolation of suburban homes.  “You can play your hi-fi or television, have an argument…sneeze, and snore to your heart’s content and the people in the next apartment home won’t hear you,’ claimed F&S’ vice president, William Griffin, on the building’s opening.[xii]  These innovations, the units’ larger floor sizes, and Hoffman’s gamble on drawing suburbanites back to the city were dependent on financing, of course, but the project received enthusiastic support from St. Paul Savings and Loan, while Chicago Title and Trust signed on to guarantee mortgages, supported by the FHA, to individual buyers.[xiii] 

Display Ad, 339 Barry. Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1964.

After the first condominium sale in the city was celebrated in August, 1964—to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Eastline, both of whom worked at sales and marketing in the Loop—buyers were initially wary.[xiv]  Five units remained unsold by January, 1966, a year and a half after its opening[xv]—but as the first year’s operating costs proved to be within Hoffman’s estimates the building filled with owners, predominantly professionals between 35 and 45 years old, about a quarter of whom were families with children, and were split between those who had tired of renting and those who had returned from suburbs, citing maintenance and yard work as major reasons they had given up on home ownership.[xvi]  F&S launched an ad campaign based largely on snob appeal and economic logic—pointing out, in a 1964 ad, the art collection of one resident and describing his tenth floor unit as “appropriate to his social and economic position” while being a financially advantageous investment.”[xvii]  But they also instituted a buy-back program, offering to purchase would-be condominium buyers’ homes at market rates, creating a “simple and foolproof way to trade in a house on a condominium unit.”[xviii]  Through state legislation and aggressive marketing, Chicago’s battle with its suburbs for population and tax base was engaged.

[i] “Begin More Condominium Apartments.”  Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1963.  N_B10.

[ii] “Condominium Co-Op Bill is Introduced.”  Chicago Tribune, Mar. 14, 1963.  F9.

[iii] “Condominiums Take a Firm Foothold in the Chicago Area.”  Chicago Tribune, Sept. 3, 1967.  D1.

[iv] “Condo Idea Catches on Across U.S.”  Chicago Tribune, Oct. 17, 1964.  N11.

[v] “Illinois Sets Up New Form of Condominium.”  Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1963.  4.

[vi] James M. Gavin, “Construction Site is 339 Barry.”  Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1963.  C5.

[vii] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.”  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964.  W_A5.

[viii] “Find Condominium Buyer Considers Important Factors.”  Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1963.  N_B5.

[ix] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.”  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964.  W_A5.

[x] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.”  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964.  W_A5; and “Find Condominium Buyer Considers Important Factors.”  Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1963.  N_B5.

[xi] “House Hunter Cautioned: Be Sure Closets are Adequate.” Chicago Tribune, Jul. 11, 1964, pp. 1-s_b5.

[xii] “New Soundproof Technique Applied in Skyscraper Condo. [339 Barry]”  Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1964.  N15.

[xiii] James M. Gavin, “Construction Site is 339 Barry.”  Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1963.  C5.

[xiv] “Family Acquires Condo Home; First in Lakefront Skyscraper.” Chicago Tribune, Aug 29, 1964. 1-n12.

[xv] “Year of Operation Verifies Estimate of Condo Expenses.” Chicago Tribune, Jan 8, 1966. 1-n_a3.

[xvi] “Sell 30 of 67 Condo Homes in Skyscraper on the Lake.” Chicago Tribune, Nov 14, 1964. 1-w5.  See, too, “Condo Attracts Prospects from the North Shore.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), May 16, 1964, pp. 1-n_a12.

[xvii] Display ad, “339 Barry Condominium.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 25, 1964. 1-w8.

[xviii] “Purchase-Offer Plan Announced for Condo Units.” Chicago Tribune, Jan 16, 1965. 1-w_a10.

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 Change.org 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.”