Civic Classicism– “some degree of dignity…”

January 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

Writing in Harper’s Weekly in 1901, critic Henry H. Hyde noted a “new era of building in Chicago” that combined the city’s well-known reputation for “utility” with  “some degree of dignity, if not beauty.”

Anyone familiar with architectural trends at the time would have recognized exactly what Hyde was talking about–Beaux-Arts classicism, the style of Frost and Granger’s Northern Trust Bank (1905), shown above.  The 1892-3 Columbian Exposition had inspired architects and patrons to experiment with heavy, ultra-regular classical elements and proportions as cloaks for all manner of buildings, and the march of the style into Chicago formed, for later historians, one of the great tragedies of the modern era, as the style allegedly replaced the more functionalist (and thus, to many, more progressive) synthesis of structure, cladding, and planning that marked the city’s architecture in the 1890s.

But Hyde’s article is interesting for what it doesn’t mention.  Here is his list of important buildings constructed in Chicago since the Fair which, in his words, “stood for Beauty”:

“The Art Institute, Illinois Trust and Savings, Chicago National Bank, Illinois Theatre, Federal Buildings, Crerar Library, and Field Columbian Museum…”

What’s missing?  All of these are either civic buildings, in which the display of monumental classicism sent an important message about the government constructing it, or dedicated cultural facilities, or small 3-4 story bank buildings.  The Chicago National and the Illinois Trust were both essentially banking halls with two stories of offices above (the Northern Trust had a hat added in 1910).  None of these are commercial skyscrapers, and none of them contain lettable office space.

To me, this is evidence that the Beaux-Arts style wasn’t compatible with the need for daylight in speculative office development.  Other than the Stewart, there was not a skyscraper that adhered to real Beaux-Arts compositional principles until the Continental and Commercial Bank (later the Edison) of 1907.  The Stewart and its progeny–Burnham’s buildings for Merchant’s Loan and First National–all deployed classical ornament, but around windows that according to strict academic orthodoxy, were two or three times as large as proportion and taste dictated they should be.

Hyde’s article thus unintentionally demonstrates that while classicism was undeniably popular–and useful if you were a wealthy branch bank seeking to impress the hell out of your clientele, or the average person in the street–it was counterproductive in providing well-illuminated office space.  At least until 1907-1910, when electric lighting became affordable and allowed designers to shrink those large, light-gathering (and environmentally appalling) windows for facades of greater solidity.  Which, in turn, allowed the popular Beaux-Arts style plenty of room to roam.

It’s probably all too apparent that I’ve been editing the book’s chapters on the later, neo-classical skyscrapers of that decade the last couple of weeks.  There’s some good stuff in there that challenges a lot of traditional Chicago architectural history, and I’m keen to keep as much in as possible.  But there are also a lot of digressions–still worthy, but not necessarily salient to the book’s main thesis.  So some of those may get farmed out here…my apologies to any die-hard anti-classicists in the audience.  I feel your pain, but also find this stuff almost a guilty pleasure…

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