old chicago skyscraper of the week–Daily News

May 5, 2010 § Leave a comment

Imagine that you’re running the second largest newspaper in Chicago, and that your chief rival has just built a tower at the most prestigious location in the city.  That tower has received nationwide critical acclaim and made the other paper a symbol for the entire region.  What would you do?

Build another tower, right?  And maybe update its style just enough to make the larger paper seem old fashioned or out of date.  That’s exactly what the Daily News set out to do in the late 1920s.  Stung by the Tribune’s landmark tower on Michigan and the River, the News negotiated with the C&NW railroad to buy the air above an existing freight yard north of Madison along the riverfront.  The Chicago River, long a source of embarrassment, was in the midst of the massive redevelopment that brought Wacker Drive around the north and west sides of the Loop, and the News saw an opportunity for a large civic gesture.

The News’ site didn’t have the plaza that Michigan avenue had provided, so the directors ordered Holabird and Root to make one; as a result, the paper’s newsrooms, printing facilities, and loading dock were jammed up against the site’s western edge, forming a 21-story wall along Canal Street, and the eastern half of the site was given over to a large public plaza, propped up above the working rail lines beneath.  On the southern edge, the building included a concourse (that’s the big door in the lower left in the photo) that connected to C&NW’s passenger station by a bridge across Canal Street.  The building’s main elevator core linked to this concourse, and provided access to the paper’s offices, and speculative tenant space above.  WMAQ occupied the penthouse floors, and for years two radio aerials completed the composition–replaced by somewhat smaller flagpoles now.

W. B. Gray, Engineer in Charge of Structural Design for Holabird & Root, wrote in 1930 that the Daily News’ steel frame had “some particularly interesting features.”  Because it was built over a working rail yard, Gray had few choices about where columns could be located.  The paper’s presses had to be supported above the rail lines, and in the end Gray designed the press room like a gigantic bridge across the northern end of the site, supported on the east and west sides of the rail yard but held up by a story high truss above and tension columns that literally dangled the multi-ton machinery above the tracks below.

You can’t see that bridgework, though, as it’s concealed behind one of Chicago’s early art deco building skins.  Taking some elements of Beaux-Arts massing, the verticality of neo-gothic skyscrapers such as Eliel Saarinen’s entry for the Tribune tower, and abstracted bas-relief ornament made popular by the 1925 Paris Exposition, Holabird & Root sculpted a broad, linear skyscraper that cleverly masked the programmatic and structural complexity within.  This presented a clean face to the almost mirror-image (at least in plan) Civic Opera across the River and a front door to commuters heading home through the C&NW passenger station and the Daily News’ concourse.  Where, I suspect, one could not buy a copy of the Tribune for any price.

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