Old Chicago Skyscraper of the Week–City/County Building


“A practical building that will be an ornament to the city as well,” according to Inland Architect, the Cook County Courthouse (shown left) and its later conjoined twin, Chicago City Hall, were commissioned and built in the wake of the Post Office debacle.  Determined not to repeat the cost and schedule overruns of that building, and to avoid the functional problems that plagued it, Cook County held a nationwide competition in 1905 to replace its crumbling courthouse, built in 1885 to designs by James Egan.  That building, along with the twinned City Hall by John Van Osdel, had been constructed on experimental mat and pile foundations, which had failed in the intervening decades.

Perhaps understandably reluctant to hire designers from out of town, the County awarded the grand prize to a St. Louis firm, but gave the commission to Holabird & Roche, whose scheme had come in a distant third.  Their plans, however, cleverly split up the half-block mass with a single, C-shaped corridor on each floor, thus avoiding problems of daylighting that had plagued other entries.  The scheme also contemplated that the City would eventually build a mirror image structure on the western half of the block, and allowed for corridor connections and continuity in elevations as and when this took place.  Extensive structural problems were alleviated by complex steel trusswork that allowed large, column-free courtrooms to slide in underneath upper stories of office space.

Work was finished on the County building in 1908, but due to a later start and labor problems during construction, City Hall itself was not complete until 1912.  For a very brief time, the County Building stood alone against the older City Hall structure, as shown above, showing the evolution of the City in its scale, and of changing tastes and technology.

In particular, the gargantuan Corinthian colonnades were heavily critiqued at the time, both for being insufficiently rigorous in their use of the Classic language, and in their pretentiousness.  Holabird & Roche had scaled and spaced these columns to permit daylight in to the offices behind–both buildings were finished well before electric light became cost-effective for daytime illumination–but the result did not, in critic Montgomery Schuyler’s view, adequately express the nature of the spaces behind.  Likewise, the choice of classical language was not universally popular, though it reflected general tastes for civic buildings throughout the country.  Harriet Monroe, sister-in-law to the late John Root and still his champion more than twenty years after his death, decried the complex as “a pretentious building of a heavy squareness,” which it undoubtedly was.  Elsewhere, the technical achievement of its 21,000,000 pounds of structural steel found a warmer reception.

Perhaps the building’s greatest achievement was to have been built with no evidence of corruption, graft, or nepotism–no small achievement in Chicago at the time.  Holabird & Roche cemented their reputation for honest dealings with this project.  It stands as an example of the fairly successful wedding, in their work, of classically derived language and functional requirements, and with the completion of the Daley Plaza across the street, it is the visible symbol of the City and County governments–pretentious, but at 200 feet no longer dwarfing its neighbors.

New World’s Tallest Building (criteria)!

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats just formally released its revised criteria for “Tallest Buildings.”  As you can see from their press release, it’s a bit of a mess, but takes into account the shenanigans that architects, owners, and engineers have gone through to be “#1.”  Most interesting is that they’ve given up on the idea of measuring to the “roof,” which makes sense given the shapey cones, towers, etc., that are sprouting up on top of skyscrapers in a bid for extra height.  And, thanks to Chicago’s Trump Tower, they’ve redefined the point from which height is measured.  No longer is it street level, it’s from the “lowest significant, open-air pedestrian entrance.”  Expect something in Dubai to bring people in from an underground parking garage through a deep open pit pretty soon.

sci-tech: pneumatic classroom

layout pneumaticOur graduate structures sequence involves weekly laboratories that give students (and their instructor) a chance to experiment with basic statics and element design in a hands-on environment.  While we usually do something like break cardboard beams, or build trusses out of spaghetti (raw, not cooked), our final structures lab has always been a ‘pneumatic classroom.’  Students are given a box containing mylar painter’s dropcloths, duct tape, and a fan, and their assignment is to build an inflatable classroom big enough to contain the entire class.

This year, that class had 22 students, our largest yet.  We staged the classroom in the College’s new studio pavilion, which has a conveniently sized double-height review space.  It took the class just 41 minutes to lay out, fabricate, and inflate the classroom, and it stayed up with the power of just a small desk fan.

Pneumatics had their heyday in the late 1960s, when they were seen as a tectonic representation of the radical social and cultural statements being made across campuses and throughout society.  One architecture school in Paris completely dropped their classes so that students could spend their semester building temporary pneumatic ‘social condensors’ that would serve as gathering places for protesters and party-goers.

Today, pneumatic structures are used almost entirely for stadiums–the Metrodome in Minneapolis being a good example.  But they’re handy as temporary classrooms, too.

aerial pneumatic small

old chicago skyscraper of the week–Masonic Temple

b+w extThe combination of steel construction, wind bracing, and elevator technology led to what Chicago claimed as the tallest building in the world, Burnham & Root’s Masonic Temple, constructed between 1890 and 1892 at the corner of Randolph and State street.

The building was designed to be both a home and an investment for the city’s Freemasons.  The lower dozen or so floors were planned to be an internal retail mall, with a central atrium that extended up through eight more floors of lettable offices.  At the top, the masonic halls took up attic spaces under its double pitched roofs, which surrounded an enclosed wintergarden.  Such a mix of uses was not unheard of–the auditorium, after all, had combined retail, office space, and a hotel with its large theatre.  But in its height and concentration of business and mercantile uses, the Temple was unique.

At this height, wind bracing became a paramount concern, and the building’s steel structure incorporated two planes of cross, or “x” bracing, concealed within the atrium walls.  These were designed to counter the sail-like effects of its broad State street facade and its relatively shallow depth along Randolph.  The elevator system was likewise advanced for its day, with two banks of elevators designed to serve only half the building apiece.

At its groundbreaking ceremony, the cornerstone was found, improbably, to be too small, and it had to be broken apart and relaid in private later.  Rumors abounded at the irony of a society dedicated to the mysteries of masonry failing to get such an important element of their headquarters right, and more suspicious attendees no doubt saw this as ominous.  Indeed, within a year both the head of the building committee, Norman Gassette, and Burnham’s partner and the building’s chief designer, John Root, were dead of sudden illnesses.

The building fared little better after its opening.  As Joanna Merwood-Salisbury notes in her new, outstanding book, Chicago 1890, the atrium proved a magnet for suicides, which the building endured at the rate of one every three months.  Its opening was rushed, leading to slipshod interior finishes and workers interrupting daily business for months after firms and retailers moved in.

Worst of all was the elevator service, which was barely adequate for the office and retail population it served.  Added to that was traffic from Masonic meetings, which added hundreds of passengers at a time to the upper floors’ bank.  Worse, the toilet rooms were concentrated on one of the upper floors, meaning that they, too, added passengers to these cabs.  A worker on one of the lower floors had to ride all the way down to the lobby, transfer to an upper zone cab, and ride all the way to the top of the building to simply answer nature’s call.  Tenants complained, too, about the attitude of the elevator operators who became used to the attentions of tourists heading to the wintergarden and developed a disdainful attitude to the building’s mere tenants.

The Masons moved out within ten years, leaving their halls to be rented out for theatrical productions.  Office tenants objected to the seedy crowd these attracted, noting that they had difficulty attracting secretaries who would have to share the elevators with morally challenged theater-goers.  The building emptied as occupants became disgusted with the long waiting times for elevator service and the declining atmosphere of the building.  In 1939, the owners chose to simply demolish it instead of paying for foundation upgrades as the new State Street subway was laid next door.  For over sixty years, the site of what had been Chicago’s tallest building was occupied by a two-story Walgreen’s drugstore, though it is now the site of the Joffrey Ballet tower by Booth Hansen, whose proportions echo those of the Masonic Temple, one of John Welborn Root’s last designs.

President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities

Word this morning that Los Angeles architect Thom Mayne has been appointed to Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. After twenty years or so of small scale but formally and materially inventive work, Mayne caught on to federal funding for new architecture and became the darling of the GSA’s design program in the last ten years. Not all of those buildings drew rapturous applause (his courthouse for Eugene, Oregon basically got him run out of town on a rail), but this is a provocative, interesting choice.  He’ll be serving with Sarah Jessica Parker, among others…