2010 Hospitality Design Student Awards

NAV hotel project, Columbus Dr. at the Chicago River

Hospitality Design sponsors an annual competition for interiors projects in a number of categories, including student work (why doesn’t the AIA do something like this for students?  Good question…)  This year they recognized two student projects, one of which was from the hotel studio I taught last Spring with ID professor Cigdem Akkurt.  Congrats to Hilary Navratil, Stephanie Smothers, and Steve Sanda, whose collaboration you see to the left.

Chicagoans will recognize the site, at Columbus Drive and the River and right in front of the NBC Tower–one of those empty bits of land that you can’t quite believe hasn’t been developed yet.  Their scheme featured a thoughtful connection to the riverwalk, an urban scaled function and dining volume to the east, and a tower that picked up cues from surrounding buildings while standing out as a landmark on the riverfront.

The three of them get to go to New York for the awards ceremony later this summer, which we think is richly deserved…

Falling Cornices

A headless Carson's, ca. 2000

Chicago’s height restrictions between 1893 and 1923 encouraged building up to an absolute limit–between 130 and 260 feet, depending on the whims of the aldermen–but allowed only very limited, unoccupied structures above these heights.  As a result, buildings of this era almost all had flat tops (Montgomery Ward’s headquarters on Michigan Avenue was an exception), and architects typically included a bold cornice to finish off and frame the resulting, inevitably rectangular composition.

These cornices were usually of terra cotta, and had to be attached to the building’s structure by a combination of metal ties and steel outriggers, and these were vulnerable to water infiltration and corrosion.  Given their locations on rooftops, maintenance was difficult, and Chicago’s notorious climate meant that any water that worked its way into terra cotta joints could freeze, and thus expand, putting unforeseen pressure on cornice elements and their structure.

This combination of freeze-thaw cycles and corrosion had disastrous results as cornice elements were pried from their supports and crashed to the sidewalks below.  In May, 1911, an antiquated hotel on Dearborn shed its entire cornice in a windstorm while being razed, injuring two pedestrians, A stone falling from the deteriorating German Building in Jackson Park in a windstorm barely missed a crowd scurrying up its entrance in 1915.  But these attacks from above multiplied in the early 1920s; a woman was killed when a cornice stone was jostled loose from the six-story Hillman’s Department Store at State and Washington in 1921, and two schoolgirls were killed by falling cornice stones in a storm in April, 1922 that also dislodged a piece of the Congress Hotel’s cornice, ripping the clothing off of an unsuspecting pedestrian.

By the end of the 1920s, the “cornice danger” pushed owners to remove these elements, and thus eliminate what had become a major liability.  The Union Trust set workers to removing the cornice on its building at Dearborn and Madison, built in 1903.  Other owners followed suit, and the City first considered making rooftop overhangs illegal in 1938, though they ultimately decided to only require regular inspections and to give the City the authority to require owners to remove cornices deemed dangerous.

That threat seems to have been enough for many, and wholesale decapitations of formerly corniced structures occurred regularly during mid-century.  Perhaps as importantly, the cornice disappeared entirely from skyscraper designs after about 1923, replaced by parapets or railings that helped to add a vertical emphasis.  John Holabird, interviewed in 1928, thought that the “cornice peril” played a role in the evolution of neo-gothic and art deco sksycraper styles:

“ ‘The cornice,’ Mr. Holabird said, ‘dates back to the days of the early Greeks.  It came into being through filling out the eaves of a peaked roof, forming a right angle and thereby adding to the symmetrical appearance of a building.  When the flat roof was used this projection was retained.  And soon it became the classical rule that a structure must have a base, shaft, and crown—the cornice.

“ ‘We come to the moderns.  Those architects who harked back to the classical period for their inspiration retained this usage.  And with the development of the skyscraper architects fell victim to precedent and so in tall buildings we continued to have base, shaft, and cornice.

“ ‘But the skyscraper called for a cornice, according to the ideas of the designers, proportionate to the height of the building.  Hence, we began to have ponderous projections that proved to be costly to install, costly to keep in condition and perilous to pedestrians…About ten years ago, architects began to put on only slight cornices, then they used bands of different colored material to give the effect of the crown and now many feel that the crown may be eliminated without hurting the appearance of the structure.  All this, of course, applies only to edifices of classic feeling for building following the Gothic influence did not have cornices.”  –Philip Hampson, “Cornice Called Serious Peril to Loop Crowds.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, April 15, 1928.  B1.

Recent preservation efforts have replaced these missing cornices on several Loop skyscrapers, including the Reliance, the Marquette, and Carson’s.  The new elements are mostly fiberglass, not terra cotta, and the light weight and non-porous nature of the modern material makes them far less vulnerable to Chicago’s freeze-thaw cycles.

old chicago skyscraper of the week–Columbus Memorial

Shoppers at the Old Navy on State Street probably don’t realize that they are buying distressed polo shirts on the site of one of the most widely panned skyscrapers in the city’s history.

W. W. Boyington was, at the time, one of the grand old men of Chicago architecture.  Designer of the Water Tower, among other structures, his reputation extended back before the Great Fire.  But as younger architects arrived on the scene, Boyington’s aesthetics never really changed, and his later buildings seemed over-ornamented and fussy compared with buildings such as the Auditorium.  He was, however, a conservative voice in the city, and developers that had little faith in the new forms of construction found him a reliable pair of hands.

The Columbus Memorial was intended to capitalize on the 1893 Columbian Exposition.  Its primary tenants were to be doctors, though the lower floors were intended for retail, particularly the jewellery trade.  Boyington responded with an enthusiastic ornamental program:

“On each side of the entrance, which will be in the center of the State street front, will be glass mosaics of the Landing of Columbus and the Presentation at the Court of Isabella.  A ten-foot bronze statue of Columbus will be placed above the entrance.  The medallions and Spanish coats-of-arms are to be introduced into a cornice encircling the building.  A tower 240 feet in height, surmounted by a glass globe, will be a feature of the structure.  This globe is to be of opalescent glass, lighted by a 3,000 candle-power electric light.  The continents are to be marked in color on the globe, with a cut jewel locating Chicago.  The materials to be used in the exterior structure are stone and terra-cotta on a steel framework.”

Not surprisingly, the Columbus was seen as somewhat excessive, and subsequent criticism of it placed it in firm opposition to the simpler expressions of structure and skin that were just beginning to emerge in the city around that time.  G. Twose, writing in The Brickbuilder in January, 1894, suggested that it represented the opposite to an approach that would be most widely championed by Louis Sullivan:

“The designer had in this case and opportunity which he neglected—a fault to be found in nearly all the buildings.  Here was a steel building, complete in itself, except for certain elemental protection which its nature demanded, such protection being admirably rendered by terra-cotta, a material ductile to the greatest degree.  What, then, would be the natural artistic reasoning in manipulating such covering?  Why, surely this; here is a building having been built of a certain material, which is sufficient as far as strength is concerned, admirable in the economy of space and labor which its use permits, possessing endless possibilities, but brought into a regular and ordered system by means of certain laws and principles which rigidly govern its use.  This material has, however, to be supplemented in one regard by some other material, and one is quickly found whose chemical composition renders it perfect for such purpose, while at the same time it possesses unbounded capabilities of recording artistic thought; it owes obedience to no system of laws which would be antagonistic to its use in the proposed position; it is weak where the strength of the steel renders such weakness unimportant, and possesses to a very high degree those qualities wherein steel is deficient.  Having thus the building of steel on the one hand, and this subsidiary material on the other, it would be by far the most natural, the most logical, and the most artistic proceeding to apply this protective coat to the steel skeleton in such a manner that the steel construction should determine all forms, and dominate the ultimate expression, that the terra-cotta should faithfully follow each line, advance where the steel advances, and retreat where such is the action of construction, indicating joint or connection, flange, cap and bracket—a true and faithful indication of the substructure, modeled into beauty by the hand which applies it.”

Twose’s article was widely read, and it represents the first salvo fired in the critical discussion of what might be called the ‘negative merits’ of the tightly clad steel frame–with less opportunity offered by more functionally delimited frames and windows, the next generation of Chicago skyscrapers couldn’t help but avoid the ornamental excess of the Columbus.

This was Boyington’s last major work in Chicago.  He died in 1898 at the age of 80.  Not only was he one of the City’s oldest and most respected architects, he also served as the Mayor of Highland Park.  Twice.

Chicago Architecture Foundation–many thanks!

Had a great crowd of CAF docents last night for a lecture on the book project–talk about a knowledgeable audience!  Many thanks to all who helped set it up, and particularly to those docents and coordinators who I’ve had a chance to meet this spring.  CAF does great work as an ambassador for the city’s buildings, and their walking tours are conducted by people who really know their stuff.

Chicago Lectures

I’ll be giving two public lectures in the Chicago area over the next two weeks:

Northwestern University McCormick School of Engineering

“Built Like Bridges: Iron, Steel, and the Importance of Wind Bracing to the 19th Century Skyscraper”

4:00 PM, Tuesday, 13 April.  Cohen Lounge, Fourth Floor, Technological Institute (2145 Sheridan Road).  Free

Association for Preservation Technology, Western Great Lakes Chapter

“Buildings Without Walls – Plate Glass and the Chicago Skyscraper of the mid 1890’s”

5:30 PM, Monday, 19 April.  18 S. Wabash.  $10 for non-members, free for members.  1 CEU.

old chicago skyscraper of the week–Ayer/McClurg/Pakula

A massive fire in 1898 destroyed the loft building that stood on the site of the current Ayer/McClurg Building, killing seventeen workers.  It was one of several fires that year that forced code changes and forced the City to look at escape, rather than ‘fireproof construction,’ as the primary method of life safety assurance.  In particular, the fire pointed out the dangers of allowing escape through elevators (one elevator operator made several trips to the affected floors, but found himself fighting desperate workers trying to overcrowd the cab), and of external fire escapes, which proved useless as they were heated to red-hot by the intensity of the fire within.

The replacement building for client Frederick Ayer thus came under special scrutiny, but Holabird & Roche also broke new ground with its facade, which took the glass expanses of the mid-1890s curtain wall buildings and compressed them on to a flat elevation that was carefully articulated into vertical piers, horizontal spandrels, and vertical mullions.  All of this was rendered in a cream-colored enameled terra cotta that highlighted the difference between light solid and dark void, and particular attention was paid to reducing the widths and depths of the cladding elements, leaving the elevation a tenuous grid that left the greatest possible area for glazing between its linear members.  The building’s spandrels, in particular, were less than three feet high, leaving only 30″ of ‘wall’ on the interior.

These proportions reflected the lingering low prices of plate glass and the related refinement of enameled terra cotta as a cladding device.  Holabird & Roche would continue experimenting with layers of cross-grained horizontal and vertical elements surrounding large windows throughout the early 1900s, but this formula worked only as long as glass was cheap and daylight was necessary.

For a relatively cheap commercial structure, the Ayer has survived fairly well, though it lost its cornice in the 1950s and its facade has been carved up as tenants have installed insulated window glass.  Its ground floor has been entirely gutted–the Exchequer now takes up half of the street level–but it’s in desperate need of a significant renovation.  Probably next on the list of major Chicago skyscrapers to need one.