old chicago skyscraper of the week–field warehouse

September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

[Happy Birthday, H. H. Richardson!]

The Field Warehouse, H. H. Richardson’s largest Chicago project, was designed as a headquarters for Marshall Field’s massive wholesale trade, which served visiting merchants with a one-stop emporium from which to stock their stores.  As James O’Gorman noted in 1978, the Field Warehouse was a mélange of new and old techniques; it grafted a load-bearing red sandstone and granite exterior to an interior structure of fire-protected iron on its lower floors and heavy, slow-burning timber above.[i]  Richardson divided the half-block structure into three fire compartments, separated by heavy masonry walls that served as wind-resisting shear walls.[ii]  The Field Warehouse was thus the largest example in Chicago of “cage construction,” that is, a skeletal interior braced and enclosed by load-bearing walls on the exterior.  Unfamiliar with local foundation lore, Richardson’s design proved the difficulty of designing such a structure on Chicago soil, as the heavier exterior settled further than the lighter structure within.[iii]  While there is some evidence that Richardson preferred a combination of granite on the lower floors with brick above, the walls as built featured granite and sandstone.  These realized a long-held desire on Richardson’s part to explore the “beauty of material and symmetry rather than of mere superficial ornamentation,” and the traditional interpretation of the Field Warehouse’s elevations as “depending on the relations of voids and solids alone” suggests his willingness to celebrate the cold relentlessness of Chicago commerce within a building “massive and quiet.”[iv]  Like the Opera House, Field desired the marketing benefits of a building that contained “nothing cheap or flimsy,” and the march of stone across the facades—thirteen identical bays on Adams Street and seven on Wells and Franklin—gave an image that was “fitted for a fort as well for commerce.”[v]  But this stone was, in fact, aided by iron as well.  Richardson designed the building with no light court in the center and thus relied on the windows between these massive stone piers for all of the building’s daylighting.  To achieve this, each of the broad windows at the first through fourth stories was spanned by concealed iron lintels in the stonework above, and the resulting broad apertures—wider, indeed, than any other bearing wall windows of the era—were filled with enormous double-hung glass lights.[vi]

The Field Warehouse was thus a summative statement of the possibilities and limits of fenestrated bearing masonry, and this was its primary legacy.  “Simplicity,” wrote Montgomery Schuyler of its elevations, “could scarcely go further,” and this willingness to let planning and construction speak—refined, to be sure, by Richardson—influenced major Chicago projects in its wake.


[i] James F. O’Gorman, “The Marshall Field Wholesale Store: Materials Toward a Monograph.”  The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.  VOl. 37, no. 3.  Oct., 1978.  175-194.

[ii] “Real Estate.”  Chicago.  Oct. 25, 1885.  28.

[iii] James F. O’Gorman, “The Marshall Field Wholesale Store: Materials Toward a Monograph.”  The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.  VOl. 37, no. 3.  Oct., 1978., 188.  Harriett Monroe recalled Richardson visiting John Wellborn Root and inquiring about local techniques for building on Chicago’s soil. Harriett Monroe, John Wellborn Root: A Study of His Life and Work.  (Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1896).  119-120.

[iv] James F. O’Gorman, Three American Architects.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).  49-50.

[v] Industrial Chicagoop. cit.  186.

[vi] James F. O’Gorman, “The Marshall Field Wholesale Store: Materials Toward a Monograph.”  The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians.  VOl. 37, no. 3.  Oct., 1978.  188.

 

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