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.

Stadio Franchi–some hopeful news and, perhaps, a way forward?

There is some tentatively promising news regarding Nervi’s Stadio Franchi in Florence, which has been threatened with demolition by the owner of Fiorentina, the Italian football team that plays there, and the municipality.

Responding to a plea from 33 leading architects, engineers, and historians–including half a dozen Pritzker Prize winners—Dario Nardella, Florence’s mayor, responded today with this press release, which (roughly translated) reads:

“I read with interest the letter signed by important architects on the Artemio Franchi stadium, which once again highlights the great international attention in general for the city of Florence and today in particular for the stadium designed by Pier Luigi Nervi. The attention has been amplified by the international press, from the New York Times to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

I cannot fail to point out that that same attention was lacking when the Franchi stadium was heavily modified for the 1990 World Cup. sports facility.  It must be evident to all, even these same “archistars,” that a sports facility, if it is not adequate to the times for functionality, usability and sustainability, loses its original function.”

I have great respect for the illustrious signatories of the letter and I believe it is important to listen to the international professional and scientific community, seizing advantage of the availability offered by them.  We are awaiting a response from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage for the correct interpretation of the new rules and – out of institutional respect – I believe it is only right to wait for that opinion. As of now, I would like to invite all the signatories of the letter to a videoconference meeting for an open and, I hope, constructive discussion. I look forward to a positive response to this invitation from all of them. “

So, nothing ‘concrete,’ (couldn’t resist), but a definite change of tone from previous missives.

One possibility that the city may consider is an idea that has been informally floated regarding the larger site of the Franchi, Florence’s Campo Marte, still nominally a military practice ground northeast of the central city.  Since the construction of Nervi’s stadium on it in 1931-32, the 40-hectare site has accumulated a cluster of sports facilities, including a 1990 stadium custom built for track and field events after the Franchi’s track was removed to accommodate World Cup games.  That stadium, the Stadio Luigi Ridolfi sits on a smaller footprint, but has no historic value and is located across the street from the platforms of the city’s second rail station (the one you go through before you arrive at Santa Maria Novella if you’re coming from Rome). 

Google Map image showing the Stadio Artemio Franchi (top), the Stadio Luigi Ridolfi (center left) and the Stazione Campo Marte Firenze, bottom left.

What if…that stadium were demolished, instead of the Franchi, and a new, state-of-the art football stadium was built in its place, with direct connections to the platforms of the railroad station.  The Franchi could be restored, the 1990 accretions mentioned by Nardella removed to reveal Nervi’s cantilevered roof in its original form, and the athletics events now held in the Stadio Ridolfi could take place on a rebuilt track surrounded by a preserved Nervi masterpiece?  The pitch there now could serve the community—imagine being a kid playing on the actual field that had once seen your heroes competing—and the Campo Marte could be developed as a new commercial and residential zone centered on the new stadium, much as wildly successful projects around Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago’s Wrigley Field have earned team owners a healthy revenue stream while providing amenities for fans. 

More to come, surely.  In the meantime, please consider signing the petition as we are planning to send an updated copy to the Mayor’s office later this week, and keep fingers crossed…

nervi guest star: Suburra

Suburra: Blood on Rome, Season 3, Episode 2.

This was a particularly momentous week, even aside from the election that saw the power behind Chicago’s greatest typographical crime go down to defeat, since we–finally–got the third season of the incomparable Italian crime drama Suburra on Netflix. Based on the truly great 2015 film of the same name, the series follows the enjoyably lurid battles between rival drug gangs in Rome and Ostia, and it’s been one of several that I’ve watched obsessively while convincing myself that they’re really the best way to practice my Italian skills…

Episode 2 of season 3 sees two upstart gangsters trying to corner the entire city’s market, which means they have to expand to northern Rome. To set the scene, their meetings with that region’s boss are set in front of a prominent landmark–Nervi’s Palazzetto dello Sport. While his larger arena in the EUR district had no shortage of love from film directors in the 1960s, the Palazzetto never got quite the star turn, despite gaining greater critical acclaim.

Suburra: Blood on Rome, Season 3, Episode 2.

So it was a happy surprise to see it as the scene-setter here–and to have it play a background role in a particularly bloody plot twist. Suburra has been a virtual tour of Rome and Ostia, with the city playing a supporting role–major scenes in the Vatican, the Campidoglio, and–especially–Calatrava’s derelict and incomplete Città dello Sport, which serves as the neutral and secret meeting site for the protagonists’ high-level meetings. That, in particular, is a nice commentary–no chance anyone (particularly construction workers) would be anywhere near its abandoned steel sails, which have become a monument to political dysfunction in the city as a whole.

No spoilers here, just a hearty recommendation. Season 3 has been announced as the last one in the series. It’s been a good ride, and seeing Nervi’s masterpiece get some screen time has been the icing on the cake. For the record, the bar that serves as the negotiating table really should have been the legendary Bar Maratona, a globally recognized monument to running and espresso consumption halfway between the arena and MAXXI, where archival researchers on lunch break can often be found giving their retinas a break between dives into the Nervi archives…but hey, close enough…

Suburra: Blood on Rome, Season 3, Episode 2.

Nervi’s Stadio Franchi in Florence—preservation emergency and petition

Please consider signing this petition to the Mayor and City of Florence supporting preservation of Pier Luigi Nervi’s Stadio Artemio Franchi.

While there is good news on the Nervi preservation front with the scheduled public announcement of a preservation plan for the 1960 Olympics’ Stadio Flaminio in Rome scheduled for Tuesday, 27 October, there is another battle to save an equally important example of his athletics work brewing in Florence.

The Torre Maratona and the 1932 East Grandstand

In 2017, while doing some research for an introductory essay to the Flaminio plan, I had a tour of Nervi’s Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, home of the city’s famed football club, Fiorentina.  I was there to photograph details of the 1931/32 structure that had been a key experimental ground for Nervi and his two constructing collaborators—Nervi changed partners between the projects for the club’s east and west stands, and in the process began what I think of as the most important collaboration of his career, working with Giovanni Bartoli to develop the stadium’s famed helical staircases.  This was the first of Nervi’s most imaginative, most integrative work, combining structural improvisation with a deep understanding of how things were to be built—with economy and efficiency—on site.

During my visit, my guide, a Fiorentina executive, excitedly showed me a model for a brand new stadium in the city’s suburbs, part of a planned commercial development that would give the club all of the requisite luxury boxes, stadium-related retail, and paid parking that today’s multi-million-dollar sports organizations see as vital to their operations.  What, I asked, concerned, would happen to the Nervi structure that I was there to document once the team abandoned the central-city grounds it had occupied since for nearly 90 years?  There was some uncomfortable shuffling and no clear answer, but earlier this year that plan—like so much else in 2020—fell through and the club focused on renovating and expanding Stadio Franchi.

The famed cantilevers of the 1931 West Grandstand have been concealed under a metal roof, but remain extant and capable of full restoration

While that would seem to be good news, there’s evidence that their plans for the revitalization are not well-intended in preservation terms.  After the city of Florence approved the project in early August, two political parties quickly pushed through so-called “Stadium Unblocking” legislation that would exempt sports facilities from the country’s sturdy conservation and heritage laws.  According to the trade journal The Stadium Business:

Three key amendments are said to have been made, chiefly the allowance to redevelop a stadium with a view to its “best usability”, even in the face of perceived architectural or cultural value.

Historic venues are now set to be permitted to adapt to international standards, such as bringing stands closer to the pitch. Meanwhile, while the “symbolic value” of a stadium will still be recognised, this will take a back seat to the “need to guarantee the functionality of the stadium” and the “economic-financial sustainability of the stadium”

Fiorentina has no official connection to the legislation, but Matteo Renzi, former Italian Prime Minister and former mayor of Florence, has lent his vocal support to the proposed amendments and from the timing it’s clear that the changes are intended to directly impact the team’s plans for Nervi’s stadium

The stripped-classical “wrapper” around Nervi’s engineering shows the tensions between his expressive intent and the Fascist government’s official style

This is a worrying development, for three reasons:

First, Stadio Franchi is more than a collection of valuable ‘symbols’—its importance to Italian architecture and engineering, to the history of football in the country, and to Italian history in general lies exactly in its integration of engineering and contracting ingenuity and the architectural ‘wrappers’ that surround it.  In 1931, Fiorentina was owned by Luigi Ridolfi Vay da Verrazzano, a WWI hero and outspoken supporter of Mussolini and Fascism; his new stadium was located on the city’s military grounds and originally named for Giovanni Berta, a Fascist martyr.  Nervi’s original, west grandstand was covered in a façade designed in the stripped classicism that was de rigueur for the day—an architectural show of strength that formalized Nervi and Nebbiosi’s more graceful, statically-derived concrete work within.  While the stand’s soaring roof was praised by Pietro Maria Bardi in neo-futurist terms that suggested it, too, could convey great power and strength, the contrast between the government-approved “typhoid classicism” and Nervi’s soaring roof stands today as a wordless commentary on the inherent contrast between the two schools of architectural thought.  The second grandstand, with its helical stairs and its tall Torre Maratona, shows that Nervi’s expressive style—nascent here with the latitude allowed him by a truly collaborative partner in Bertoli—could negotiate between the dictates of the Fascist regime and the structural ‘truths’ that he saw as fundamental to any large-scale structures.  Italy has, more than any other European country, taken pains to preserve and to frame the architecture of its darkest moments—Fascist monuments still form important elements of the Roman fabric and their continued vitality and provocation is a key part of that city’s rich urban experience.  Nowhere in Florence are the difficult contrasts of the 1930s so evident as here.  The stadium is also, of course, a vital piece of the Nervi oeuvre, the first structure to gain him truly international acclaim and the blueprint for his later stadium work at the Flaminio, Novara, Taormina, and for unbuilt projects elsewhere, including Rome and suburban London.

Second, the leverage that the proposed legislation gives team owners to demolish historic stadia anywhere in Italy sets a terrible precedent.  Sports have provided vital, important moments in culture throughout Europe and worldwide, and while Olympic venues have seen much of the best-known historic overlap between athletics and society at large, the day-to-day presence of these venues in cities offers important evidence of their weaving into everyday life.  In America, the wholesale erasure of urban ballparks from the 1960s through the 1990s has left us with only one truly integral example of how important the type was to daily life.  Fenway Park in Boston (I’m biased, to be sure) is the sole surviving example of this now that Chicago’s Wrigley Field has been wrecked by a tissue of suburban development that has sterilized and commodified its formerly gritty, neighborhood scale atmosphere.  The regret that has caused cities that have, over the last thirty years, desperately built imitation ‘old-style’ ballparks in an effort to rebuild that vital link is palpable, but the difficulties in re-establishing the link between urban fabric and ballparks that carry only ‘symbolic value’ can be seen by the fact that two of these retreads from the 1990s, in Atlanta and Texas, have themselves already been demolished and replaced.  Stadio Franchi has hosted World Cup games, international football matches, and Six Nations rugby, in addition to numerous concerts (my first visit there was nixed because of a Madonna show in 2012).  But it’s also held nearly 50,000 spectators for countless weekly matches—nearly four generations of fans have seen the team play in more or less the same surroundings.

Finally, the assumption that financially well-off clubs deserve breaks like this is one further step in the commercialization of sport and the stripping of these experiences from everyday fans.  There’s no doubt that any plans to ‘revitalize’ the Franchi will include luxury boxes and high-end retail and will be unlikely to prioritize the cheap seats which the average Florentine could afford.  Redevelopments that are claimed for the “economic-financial sustainability of the stadium” have a funny way of taking great public monuments and privatizing them even further.  American cities can show countless examples of this—tax breaks for new stadiums that end up having no effect on the local economy but that give owners the excuse to raise prices beyond the realm of the average fan.

Interestingly, in 1950 Nervi and his sons produced a plan to expand the Florence stadium with a second deck over the east stands, complete with dramatic, forked cantilever structures that would have sheltered the famous helical staircases and competed with the remnant Torre Maratona.  While the extension proposal only exists in a handful of sketches, it’s clear that the urgent need was for more seats—not luxury boxes or the department-store like retail arcades that disguise much modern stadium construction.  To some, that will suggest the ultimate obsolescence of a classic sports facility, but given the longing many of us have for the atmosphere and aura of a truly classic ballpark, it may also point the way toward maintaining a unique and (in the reductionist parlance of the day), ‘brand-able’ experience for Fiorentina.

1950 proposal for additional tier of seats on the West Grandstand. From Rogers, The Works of Pier Luigi Nervi (New York: Praeger, 1957).

While the legislation is a done deal, allowing teams to demolish any stadium in Italy if it suits their financial ambitions—whether the structure is listed or not—there is a campaign, led by the Pier Luigi Nervi Project Association, to petition the EU to block the Italian legislation on the grounds that it violates their conservation and monuments directives.  More to come on that.

In the meantime, pressure on the city of Florence seems the most likely route to influence the stadium’s preservation. After speaking with the Nervi Project Association, I’ve started a international petition addressed to Dario Nardella, Mayor of Florence, here. If you’re as concerned about the effects of the Sbloccastadi legislation’s effect on Nervi’s historic structures there and want to make your voice heard, please consider adding your name to it.

The main interior staircase, by Nervi, mediating the structural expression of the grandstands with the exterior’s aesthetics.