Octave Uzanne on Chicago, 1893

The Columbian Exposition of 1892-1893 provided opportunities for the world to come see the economic and architectural intensity of Chicago, and most reported back with a mix of wonder and horror.  Here’s Frenchman Octave Uzanne, writing for his hometown newspaper and quoted, approvingly, by the Boston-based American Architect and Building News:

“…as sleep was stealing over me I remember briefly the three weeks so quickly passed in Chicago, and I found that the World’s Fair had left no sensible trace, no truly durable imprint on my memory.  But that which did come to the surface, that which hastened to precipitate itself upon the condensation of my thought and memory, on the sensitive plate of my mind, was the vision of this redoubtable city, built upon a mud flat on the shore of a somber, verdureless lake; it was the noisy, furious, impulsive, brutal life which there maneuvers its battalions—a life without soul and ideal, with its interminable dinners with their ranks of champagne bottles circulating among the evening coats, its drunkenness without gayety, its hypocritical luxury, its vulgar courtesies, its celebrations in which there is more flare than intelligence, and chiefly what struck me was the great press of business, that power of a modern Theomacus defying the impossible disturbing the horizon.  Business! Business!  Business!  Is this not the real burden of the raven in Poe’s poem?  The next morning, raising the shade of my compartment, I saw behind the glass a smiling country unroll itself…Before nature thus peaceful, in sight of these light mists, these mosses, these flowers opening in the sun, I forgot the frightful nightmare of the departure from Chicago, that Gordian city, so excessive, so satanic, whose life is too inclement for the singing, dreamy soul of the Latin races.”

Post office tunnel

what's missing?

Ever wonder why your typical commute to the Western Suburbs involves a drive through the middle of the old Post Office Building?  Me too.

Chicago had an awful track record of main post offices–the first one began sinking into the clay soil immediately after it opened, and the second one (see below) took ten years to design and build, at which point it was already obsolete.

That was nothing, however, compared to the wait for the next one.  The U.S. Government almost immediately planned to replace Henry Ives Cobb’s Postoffice on Dearborn and Adams Street after its disastrous opening in 1905.  But funding, understandably, was slow in coming, a World War intervened, and it wasn’t until 1926 that money was appropriated for a new facility.  In the meantime, the Postoffice built a temporary Parcel Post Building between Harrison and Van Buren Streets on the west side of the Chicago River, parallel to rail tracks and freight yards.  The city was unhappy with this location, since it blocked a planned extension of Congress Street, but acquiesced given the problems with mail handling in the existing building and promises that this was simply a stopgap measure.

The Loop was, by that point, too crowded and the real estate market to overheated to contemplate building a new Postoffice in the middle of downtown.  So in 1928, a site was chosen on land owned by the Marshall Field Estate south of the Parcel Post Building between Harrison, Polk, Canal, and the River.  Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White began to prepare drawings for a 2 million square foot building that would tie in to the temporary parcel post building and allow it to gradually give up its handling duties to the new structure.

Unfortunately, indecision, changing specifications, and the complexity of the task at hand meant that design work dragged out for more than a year.  By 1930, a new Postmaster General had taken over, and in reviewing the plans noted that rail and pedestrian access became greater south of Harrison.  Instead, the Post Office decided to expand the Parcel Post site, much to the City’s dismay.  Given the onset of the Depression, neither the  City nor the Hoover administration wanted to delay the project any further, however, as the promise of 12,000 construction and manufacturing jobs lay at stake.  Instead, GAPW’s design was simply moved one block north, the Postoffice negotiated with railroads to build on top of their tracks, and as a sop to the City they agreed to build an ‘arcade’ through both the old and new buildings to allow “Congress Street” to flow through it if and when a bridge was ever built over the River that connected with the existing Congress street on the east side.

The Postoffice was built around the Parcel Post Building, and opened in 1934.  By 1929, plans for Congress “Street” had become plans for Congress Expressway, and the arcade–twin 40′ tunnels with 20′ pedestrian tunnels on either side, were being used by the Postoffice as entrances for trucks.  As the Expressway plans moved toward reality in the 1950s, the City agreed to give the pedestrian tunnels to the Postal Service, and jammed four lanes of traffic through the–slightly widened–auto tunnels.  Today, when you drive west from the Loop. you drive through the 1921 Parcel Post building first, and then under the 1934 Postoffice.

The Postal Service held on to the site south of Harrison, however, and in 1997 finished a new facility on this site that replaced the 1934 structure.  Those 2.2 million square feet of space were recently auctioned off, though it remains unclear what will happen to the GAPW building.  Meanwhile, over 100,000 commuters per day drive over the River and under the old Post Office, a monument to a design for a different site and the urgency with which governments acted in the early days of the Depression.

Recessed Spandrels

Typical "Chicago Frame" elevation with recessed spandrels and promoted columns

After a month or so of working on 1920s skyscrapers, I’m moving my research focus to the really classic stuff, particularly the Holabird & Roche buildings of about 1897-1910.  These are usually called the “Chicago Frame” buildings and they have a really distinct set of characteristics–large tripartite windows (big plate glass center for light, small double-hung units around this for air), brick or terra-cotta covered steelwork, and some articulation at the top (usually a light cornice) and base.

One thing these buildings share with the later 1920s structures is a vertical emphasis on their facades.  This is something that Sullivan called for in “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” and something that he, Holabird and Roche, and later Art Deco architects all accomplished through a simple trick.  When designing these facades, architects divided the elevation into three elements–the windows themselves, vertical ‘jackets’ around the columns, and horizontal panels underneath the windows, spandrels, that formed a short upstand on the interiors.

These were functionally necessary for the offices inside.  Glass couldn’t be tempered yet, and thus had to be protected from kicks or bumps.  Furniture needed something solid to bump up against, and office workers would certainly have been disturbed by windows that went all the way to the floor (most still are).  On the elevation, though, they offered an opportunity to express a hierarchy, or grain, in the facade.  By setting the spandrels against the inside edge of the columns, architects could emphasize the columns, which would thus stand just a bit forward.  The vertical ‘stripes’ on the facade would thus be continuous, while the horizontal ‘stripes’ formed by the spandrels would be broken at each column.  The effect was to emphasize height, but this also created a layering of vertical and horizontal grids on these facades, expressing the grid of steel structure behind.

Such layering could be quite complex and rich–the 1900 Ayer Building, by Holabird and Roche, uses terra cotta throughout the facade that allowed an incredibly fine grain of repeated lines that seem almost woven together.  Spandrels of the art deco era tended to be smaller–one window width instead of one column bay–and designers figured out that by making them a different, darker material, they could practically disguise the floor plates entirely, creating a much more relentless verticality in their compositions.

Interestingly, both Holabird & Roche and Louis Sullivan abandoned this approach on their big department stores.  The Boston Store, Mandel Bros., and Carson’s (all still standing at the intersection of State and Madison) all have planar frames with no recessed spandrels at all (Mandel Bros. is recessed by about 2″, on further study).  Still trying to figure out why this approach would have been more appropriate on a department store, but this was more the approach used by Burnham on his neo-classical blocks of 1907-1913.

Anyway, a neat trick, and the one trope that seems to tie together Sullivan, the Chicago Frame buildings, and the later generation of Art Deco.

Chicago Earthquake

The wind- and earthquake- resistant steel frame of the Fisher Building, under construction in 1895

Yesterday morning’s small earthquake woke people in Chicago up, but did no damage.  While the city isn’t technically in a seismic zone, it’s not immune to the occasional tremble.

On the morning of Oct. 31, 1895, much of the midwest was shaken by a surprisingly violent earthquake.  The next day, the Chicago Tribune reported that while many in masonry buildings had been shaken awake, those in the “lofty office buildings” hadn’t felt a thing:

“Night watchman W. C. Smith was on the thirteenth floor of the Reliance Building, no. 100 State street, at the time the earthquake should have alarmed him.  He said last night:  “I was on the thirteenth floor until 7:30.  I was awake and walking about.  I noticed nothing, and can find no one who did.  The earthquake failed so far as this building is concerned.”

Further south, the Fisher building, under construction, also felt nothing:

“Of all structures which should have felt the shock, the lofty skeleton of the Fisher Building, now under construction on the northeast corner of Van Buren and Dearborn streets, seemed the most promising for a good story.  Fourteen of its eighteen stories are under construction, and a forest of steel framework rises to a great height above the street level.  Construction work goes on by night as well as by day.

“At 5 o’clock Foreman Arthur Hand had charge of a gang of thirty men working on the topmost floor of the structure.  The earthquake came and went, but the workmen remained in blissful ignorance of the occurrence until the day men began to arrive with stories of earthquake shocks in all parts of town.

“Foreman A. D. Graham was on the framework of the fourteenth floor from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m.  He was sure no shock had been felt, and thought the fact augured well for the solidity of construction work on the Fisher Building.”

This, of course, was a good sign that the new, moment-framed steel structures were resilient, but it also provides anecdotal evidence of their ductility, or ability to bend under load.  Today, steel frames that give without breaking are preferred in seismic construction, particularly over brittle masonry structures.  These two buildings, among the first to use self-braced frames to resist wind loading, seem at least anecdotally to have also protected against the “Great” Chicago Earthquake of 1895.

Quotes from “In the Lofty Office Buildings.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 1, 1895.  1, 6.

Carson’s Renovation

Louis Sullivan’s set of buildings for Schlesinger and Mayer, bought shortly thereafter by Carson, Pirie, Scott, is in the home stretch of a fantastic renovation led by Harboe Architects.  Carson’s moved out of the building several years ago, and the structure had suffered from life as a declining department store.  Its cornice had been replaced, per city code in the 1950s, with a parapet that singlehandedly wrecked Sullivan’s composition, the interior was hacked up to provide ‘modern’ display space, and the exterior hadn’t been cleaned in years.

The restoration is part of a block-wide project by Joseph Freed, developers, and it connects the Sullivan buildings, along with later extensions for Carson’s by D. H. Burnham & Co. and Holabird & Root, as well as other buildings on the block into large floor-plate offices.  Gensler has already taken much of the third floor, the School of the Art Institute has studio space for its architecture studios (how cool would that be?) in the upper levels, and it has been rumored that Target is a customer for the lower, retail levels.

Renovation work has confirmed some history and uncovered new stories.  Sullivan originally designed a nine-story block on Madison, three bays wide, for Schlesinger and Mayer in 1899, with plans to expand at that height around the block.  By the time of the second, corner building, constructed in 1902, the code allowed three more stories, giving the buiding its signature “step” on Madison (see top photo).  While the first phase included a storefront that extended out onto the sidewalk, the city balked at a State Street facade with multiple incursions, so Sullivan changed the street level elevation at the last minute to include flat windows of plate glass.  This phase was constructed on caissons, all of which were installed while the old building on the corner stayed open–it was then demolished and the structure rose in its place.  Later additions by Burnham dropped some of Sullivan’s window details, a subtle but noticeable distinction.  Sharper eyes might also notice that Burnham’s extension used a different ornamental iron company.  Sullivan’s relationship with the Winslow Brothers led to exquisitely detailed and executed cast iron panels–those on the Burnham wing are copies, and lack just a bit of the originals’ finesse.

The cast iron was all removed during the restoration, stripped, cleaned, and repainted before being reassembled.  Most of the State Street elevation is done now, and it looks, for the first time in decades, as it did in 1902.  The cornice was replaced by a fiberglass replica several years ago, and now the base matches the top in terms of showing Sullivan’s intent.  Interestingly, it proved impossible to replicate the full bays of plate glass on the first floor due to newer codes requiring tempered glass adjacent to pedestrian areas, so the new windows have a glass fin in the center that divides each bay into two lights.

Interestingly, the State Street wing was constructed so quickly that Sullivan was unable to obtain steel columns in time.  Thus the older wing uses steel Gray columns, while the 1902 building has cast iron columns.  Later additions used simpler steel Z-bar supports.

The renovation also uncovered two earlier Sullivan facades on Wabash.  While these were known, they hadn’t been uncovered in years, and had remained hidden behind sheet metal facades added in the 1950s and 1960s.  Chicago has lost two Sullivan buildings in the last few years–Pilgrim Baptist Church and the Wirt Dexter Building–to fire, so to ‘discover’ two is a trend in the right direction.

A number of 19th century buildings have been renovated in the Loop recently–the Reliance, the Marquette, and the Rookery have all received long-overdue attention and care.  As cornices get restored, windows are re-opened, and cast iron and terra cotta is repaired, glimpses of what the city’s commercial buildings were actually like emerge and you can get a sense for just how seriously builders, owners, and architects took their role in defining Chicago’s image.

Thanks to Bob Score of Harboe Architects for showing me around.  I’ve just posted shots of the exterior, but if you’re in town and walking on State Street, you can peer in the windows and see acres of cast iron still to be remounted.  Worth the trip.  And while we’re at it, there are a handful of old Chicago buildings that are in desperate need of the same treatment.  I’d nominate Holabird & Roche’s Ayer/McLurg Building on Wabash between Jackson and Adams as the next most-needed restoration.  You?

old chicago skyscraper of the week–Mather Tower

One of the more bizarre skyscrapers in Chicago is the “pencil thin” Mather Tower on Wacker Drive.  Alonzo Mather had made a fortune by designing a more humane rail car for livestock, and invested in a small lot at 320 N. Michigan in the early 1920s.  In the overheating real estate market of the mid-decade, he purchased a similarly sized lot fronting on the new Wacker Drive, and announced plans for twin towers–one on each lot–to frame Alfred Alschuler’s London Guarantee Building (that’s it to the left in the photo).  With newly relaxed height limits, Mather was limited only by volume and setbacks, and his architect, Herbert Hugh Riddle, was able to exploit the zoning code’s nuances and proposed a 521-foot tower on a site that measured only 65 x 100 feet.

The structural and logistical gymnastics required to achieve this height were formidable.   Riddle, a residential architect who had never designed a tower before, did his best, but was left with a tapering profile that, at the top, provided less than 400 sq. ft. per floor after space for elevators and stairs were taken out.  Worse, the constant setbacks required by the zoning code meant that structural columns needed to be offset multiple times, creating large shear stresses that needed deep, cantilevered beams.  The tower was so thin, in fact, that calculations revealed a very real danger that the structure could topple over in a wind storm, meaning that the foundations had to be designed not only to carry the building’s gravity load, but also to hold it down against uplift caused by wind.

Not surprisingly, the second tower never got built.  Mather Tower, finished in 1928, never earned its $2.6 million construction cost back for its owner, whose estate finally sold it in 1945 for a mere $600,000.  Its tower was popular with artists, many of whom rented the small floor plates as studios with world-beating view.  The lower block is now a hotel that looks out on the equally slender Trump Tower, across the Chicago River.