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.

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