old chicago skyscraper of the week–Stewart

One of the main points I want to make in the book is that the classically-inspired skyscrapers from 1900 on weren’t the cultural betrayal that traditional histories (Giedion’s Space, Time, and Architecture in particular) have made them out to be.  The work of Daniel Burnham and his successors usually stand for the ‘infection’ of the Chicago School by the classical principles of the 1892 Columbian Exposition, but my research has pretty well shown that these buildings were, like their more structurally ‘expressive’ forebears, equally responsive to functional and material concerns, and they were certainly no less technically accomplished.

To do this, the book has to take seriously some previously unstudied or marginalized examples.  The first resolutely classical skyscraper in the Loop was the 1893 Marshall Field’s extension, designed by Charles Atwood and still standing (barely, from the looks of the facade) at the corner of Madison and Wabash.  But that was an explicit marketing response to the Fair.  The first tall building after the Fair didn’t occur until 1897, when a syndicate that included Burnham among its investors built the Stewart, shown here, across Washington Street from the Reliance (where the execrable Block 37 now stands).

Burnham was experimenting here, and the results weren’t entirely successful.  He had been interested in the commercial possibilities of the classically dressed frame, clearly, and saw the Stewart as a chance to apply these principles to an otherwise lightweight, quite open structural grid.  In 1897, daylighting was still a paramount concern, and this guided the sizes and proportions of the building’s windows.  Such apertures left limited space for solid elements in the elevations, and while Burnham applied academically correct ornament to the Stewart, the proportions are all wrong–far too light to be a truly Beaux-Arts composition.  Those demanded serious monumentality.

Draftsman A. N. Rebori, reflecting on his work with the firm after Burnham’s death in 1913, wrote of this and other early experiments in the office that:

“It requires…but a casual study of the structural conditions upon which modern construction is dependent, to realize that the laws of Vignola were not drawn to solve such problems as those with which the designer starts out to illustrate them.  Surely the difficulties are not lessened when classical detail is employed, for the moulding and ornaments, increasing with the module of measure, tend to sacrifice the space in the façade that is needed for light and air, which to say the least is a costly procedure.”

While other, more civically minded buildings–or buildings such as hotels or banks that needed to project a more pretentious image–would adopt a more monumental style during the early 1900s, the classical skyscraper developed more slowly.  The Stewart was modestly successful, but the office’s experiments in classical language reverted to the application of ornament to more functionally proportioned frames in the next decade.


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