old chicago skyscraper of the week–pittsfield

Marshall Field’s estate was a consistent player in Chicago’s real estate market during the 1920s and 1930s, and the Pittsfield, named for the Massachusetts town of his birth, was an ambitious mix of retail and commercial office space.  Powered by a skyrocketing market and increasingly nuanced interpretations of the city’s 1923 setback ordinance, the Pittsfield reached only 38 stories–fewer than the 45-story Morrison Hotel tower built in 1925–but managed to poke a gabled roof and ornamental smokestack up to 557 feet, making it the tallest structure in the city until the Board of Trade pipped it in 1930.

The Pittsfield was the first major work by Alfred Shaw of Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White to make its mark on the city’s skyline.  It encapsulated Shaw’s response to the setback rules, which would make their mark on the city’s skyline in the Civic Opera and even the Merchandise Mart during the next decade.  Shaw interpreted the code faithfully, with a 264-foot high block filling the site footprint and a narrower, code-defined tower extending above this.  But while this formula had been rather rigidly interpreted in towers such as the Jeweler’s/Pure Oil a year earlier, Shaw used vertically oriented ornament and fenestration to try to tie the block and tower together.  The result is a tower that feels less strictly separated from its block, an effect that Holabird and Root would exploit to greater effect in their art deco skyscrapers a few years later.  Shaw’s ornament was a mix of white enameled gothic and black granite at the base, with some subtle deco leanings that would be more obvious on the Civic Opera, his 1929 tour de force.

Hidden by the setback stylings was a remarkably sophisticated plan that combined a skylit retail atrium at the base with an efficient office block (and less efficient tower) above.  To ease circulation Shaw squeezed the complex’ elevators into a narrow corridor along Washington Street, providing access to every floor and eliminating the awkward transfer floor that plagued other block-and-tower configurations of the era.

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