old chicago skyscraper of the week–Fisher Building

December 16, 2009 § Leave a comment

Less heralded than its sister building, the Reliance, the Fisher was one of the last completed designs by Charles Atwood.  Atwood had joined the office of Daniel Burnham after the untimely death of John Wellborn Root in 1891.  He was something of a mysterious presence, hired from New York on the recommendation of several architects there.  He was a gifted draftsman and stylist, and many considered the Fine Arts building at the Columbian Exposition (now the Museum of Science and Industry) to be the best building at the Fair.

By 1895, plate glass prices in Chicago had plummeted, the result of overeager production in the gas fields of Indiana.  “Plate glass,” the Tribune reported, was “cheaper than bricks,” and Dankmar Adler, among others, publicly noted the “rage for glass surfaces” that marked skyscraper design at mid-decade.  The Reliance was among the more extreme examples of this trend, with windows six by eight feet.  But Atwood’s design for the Fisher was not far behind.  Though it used more conservative double-hung windows instead of the Reliance’s large, fixed panes, the surface of the Fisher is well over 80% glass, a spread that would have been decidedly uneconomical just a few years before when glass production could hardly keep up with the city’s demand.  The Fisher was thus able to offer bright, daylit offices, an important consideration in times when electricity was still expensive and light bulbs were inefficient, short-lived, and costly.

The Fisher also employed the latest structural technology, using riveted steel connections to provide resistance to wind.  While this technique had been used on the Reliance as well, the unique site of the newer building–in a narrow block between Dearborn and Plymouth Street, and adjacent to a very short neighbor–meant that it required none of the masonry fire walls that bordered the Reliance on two sides.  It stood very much alone, with four open sides above the fourth floor.  Inland Architect breathlessly announced that it was the “first building…without walls,” and that it had used less brick than any skyscraper yet built in the city.

A building “without walls” neatly describes what later generations would see in the Fisher and Reliance–prototypes of the mid-twentieth century ‘glass boxes.’  Atwood, of course, intended no such thing, but the Fisher is a good early example of the potential for thin, largely glass skins coupled with lightweight, skeletal frames.  This formula would quickly die out as glass production in Indiana collapsed around the turn of the century, and as electricity prices dropped shortly thereafter.

Atwood died in December, 1895, before the Fisher was completed.  While attributed to overwork, Burnham’s letters show that Atwood was actually fired just days before his passing, and Burnham would later say privately that Atwood had been addicted to opium.  The Fisher, with Atwood’s ingenious sea-related neogothic ornament, remains well-restored and has been converted into apartments.  It will be home for the next five months while I spend a sabbatical term working on the book.

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