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?

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