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.

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