windowless buildings

The Tribune reported in May, 1934 that Sears would build the first “windowless department store” on the South Side, at 63rd and Halsted:

“In addition to being the first windowless department store building it probably will be the first ever equipped mechanically at the time of its erection in such a way as to insulate its interior from its physical environment.  Its air conditioning plant will control temperature, humidity, and air purification and movement.”

Al Chase, “Chicago to Have World’s First: Windowless Department Store.”  Chicago Daily Tribune.  May 20, 1934.  26.

The windowless building was to the 1930s what the all-glass skyscraper was to the 1920s–a pipe dream, but one based in some technical realities.  The glass skins that marked Chicago’s skyscrapers in the 1890s and early 1900s provided plenty of useful daylight in an era of expensive electricity, but they came with terrific environmental penalties, making offices hot in the summer and frigid in winter.

Electric lighting solved part of this problem–by 1912, incandescent bulbs and cheap electricity from Chicago Edison meant that any office could be illuminated without using large, thermally inefficient plate glass windows.  But the need for ventilation persisted, and even massive blocks like the Civic Opera relied on narrow floor plates, transomed doorways, and operable windows to provide natural ventilation.

Mechanically ducted air and air conditioning gradually allowed larger floor plates and sealed building skins.  There is some question about which commercial building offered its tenants full air conditioning in Chicago first–the Field is often cited, but C. F. Murphy recalls that this was retrofit only in about 1944.  One North La Salle also claimed to offer its lower floor tenants the service in 1930, though there is little confirmation of this.

Department stores and movie theaters, however, jumped at the new technology as an amenity that would, on its own, attract summertime customers keen to get out of the heat.  Sears hired Nimmons, Carr, and Wright to design the store, and George Carr described the scheme in terms diametrically opposed to the light-seeking strategies that helped shape earlier commercial stores and offices:

“ ‘Such a negligible percentage of the total floor area is affected by daylight in the average building of this type that they are not worth considering as a source of light,’ he said.

“ ‘Otherwise, windows actually operate in conflict with a store’s lighting system, mixing daylight with artificial light in a confused and unpleasant way.  They also interfere with the heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems, setting up counter currents and counter influences that militate against the efficiency of these systems.

“ ‘To put the lighting issue more specifically—if the walls of a department store were entirely glass and if there were no obstructions to the passage of light, such as shelves, counters, and showcases, natural illumination would be effective only thirty feet from the wall.

“ ‘When one considers the barriers to the passage of light in the average store and also the small proportion of wall surface that actually is occupied by windows, one must conclude that daylight is an inconsequential factor in the average store.’”

The store was covered in Architectural Forum, which also described the windowless Simonds Saw and Steel Co. windowless plant at Fitchburg, Mass.  “The window,” Forum noted, “dies hard,” but the lack of glass in these buildings brought with it considerable savings in heating and cooling:

“Interesting by-product of the construction of a completely sealed building was discovered in a test of the air conditioning apparatus.  This showed that the building retained its heat at night, even in the coldest weather, for a much longer than normal time.  The natural corollary is that it will retain cool night temperatures much longer in hot weather.  In either case savings are indicated in operating costs even greater than those expected.”

The demise of the naturally illuminated and ventilated commercial block makes an important break in the history of the skyscraper in Chicago.  One of the most important distinctions between post-war and pre-war office blocks is the total provision for ducted, conditioned air in the former, making the operable window an anachronism.

Today, of course, the latest in energy-efficient towers is some form of natural ventilation, thin floor plates, and a high-tech version of transom windows…and the “windowless department store” is long since gone, demolished in the urban upheavals that have dogged the surrounding neighborhood.

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