Julius Shulman

Few people can claim to have both reinvented and dominated their field like Julius Shulman, who photographed architecture for over 60 years and who died yesterday. A friend sent a link to this film project on his work that is staggeringly beautiful, like his photographs.

While doing some research on a regionally famous architect a few years ago I heard this story several times:  some key detail, a porch rail or something minor, was under discussion.  The junior architect says “that won’t last, it’s too fragile and it will get broken.”  And the principal says, completely straight, “It only has to last until Julius shoots it.”

Willis Tower

As of today the “Sears” Tower is officially the “Willis” Tower.  Much grumbling about the name change, but the truth is that Sears hasn’t had anything to do with the building since they sold it in the early 90s.  Plenty of downtown buildings have kept their old name after being sold, or after the company in them has long since departed (Inland Steel, for instance, doesn’t even exist as a company anymore).  Aon Center didn’t seem to bother anyone–not a lot of love lost for Amoco (or Standard Oil, for that matter).  But for some the name sticks, no matter what.  Asking for the “Railway Exchange” will still get you to the Santa Fe Building, and the same goes for “Marshall Fields” which is now “Macy’s.”  After thirty-five years, “Sears” will probably stick.  I just hope the new name gets rendered in serious 70s Helvetica on the sign like the old name.

What might have been–the Tribune Tower and height limits

Three versions of the Tribune Tower

Three versions of the Tribune Tower

The Tribune Tower was designed and built between 1922 and 1924, during a period that saw intense debate about height limits.  The old limit of 260 feet had been gradually eroded by a loophole allowing spires and towers to rise higher, to 400 feet, and the successful appeal of a downtown Methodist church to build what is now called the Chicago Temple, rising to 555 feet, led many to suggest that the limit be abolished entirely.  While buildings of the 1920s ended up being subject to a complex formula of setbacks and volumetric calculations, for a brief few months it seemed possible that the Tribune, among others, would be free to build as high as they liked.

The Tribune, which publicized its new headquarters regularly, asked New York architects Hood + Howells, winners of their international competition, to suggest ways in which their neo-gothic design could be enlarged, and they responded with the sketches shown above (from James O’Donnell Bennett, “M-E Building Opens New Era of Skyscrapers,” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec. 22, 1922).  The original scheme is on the right, with its spire matching the 400 foot limit; in the center is a scheme that rose to 570 feet, and on the right is a 650′ version.  In the end, economics as well as code limited the tower to 462 feet, but Michigan Avenue would look somewhat different today if thing had worked out otherwise.

Charles Cheney, AIA, and his scientific opinion…

Writing in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects in 1928, Charles Cheney proposed a scientific analysis of the relative “beauty” of various cities based on their architecture. Paris, “the most beautiful city in the world,” scored quite high–90%. American cities didn’t do so well. Washington led with a 25% beauty rating, while Philadelphia rated 15% and Boston 12%. Chicago? 8%.

Chicago architect Edward Probst, was unimpressed. “I think there is a question,” he said to a local reporter, “of whether or not Mr. Cheney is qualified to pass judgment.”

Ray Schalk’s Architectural Performance

Ray Schalk was a Hall of Fame catcher for the White Sox in the 1920s, known for his ability to catch soaring pop flies–which, incidentally, were called “skyscrapers” before that term was applied to buildings. On May 11, 1925, as the 460 foot Tribune Tower neared completion, Schalk took part in a publicity stunt organized by the newspaper. In front of a lunchtime crowd of 10,000, Schalk took his position in the middle of a blocked Michigan Avenue, and caught a ball dropped from a derrick at the tower’s summit. It took three tries, but Schalk hung on to the third one before departing, via police escort, to catch for the White Sox that afternoon.

This wasn’t the record–Senators catcher Gabby Street caught a ball thrown from the top of the 550-foot Washington Monument. But it was an inspired act of architectural performance, and worth remembering as the Tribune Company’s ownership of Chicago’s other ballclub comes to an end. (See “Schalk Catches Ball off Tribune Tower,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 12, 1925. p. 29)


Proper foundations are useful for overall structural performance...erm...

Proper foundations are useful for overall structural performance...erm...

Here’s something we don’t see everyday (via Gizmodo).  Usually when structures fail they start off in ways that don’t involve…uh…the entire building tipping over.  Things rust, or start to move, or settle in ways that announce the problem.  This looks like the foundation went really bad in a hurry.  I like the comment about cranes and caulk, but my guess is that this is going to present a somewhat greater problem.

el dorado

Good article in this month’s Architecture magazine on regional architect heroes El Dorado, who combine design and fabrication with a legendary office culture.  One thing the article misses, though, was a long-standing project of theirs called “Fair Fights,” which seeks to find the Best Thing.  Apples and Oranges?  Oranges are better.  Worth checking out is their comparison of one of their own projects with the planet Mars.  (Thanks to Paul from Substance for first pointing me in this direction).

old chicago skyscraper of the week–civic opera

Graham, Anderson, Probst, & White, 1929

Graham, Anderson, Probst, & White, 1929

Designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, the Civic Opera building was finished in 1929 as the stock market collapsed and as real estate in Chicago began to falter.  It stood in a long tradition of buildings, starting with Cobb and Frost’s Opera House of 1885, that supported the arts by both providing a space for performance and providing a steady stream of income in the form of office rentals.  It was also one of the most elaborate Art Deco skyscrapers to take shape, with an attenuated tower and two wings that surrounded the large, open space of the main opera theatre and a smaller adjunct.  Combined, these gave the unfortunate appearance of a large throne, an image that came to symbolize the regal pretensions of the Opera and its subscribers as the economy crashed.

Despite the heroic engineering of the building, there were flaws in the theater’s acoustics (since corrected), and while it was intended as a replacement for the aging Auditorium, a renovation effort re-opened that building’s theater to opera in the 1930s, which many judged a relief from the colder acoustics of the new building.  With the Daily News Building by Holabird & Root. also of 1929 and also a prime example of Beaux-Arts inspired Art Deco, the Opera House forms a unique cross-river composition that was only partially intentional.