618 s. michigan

Via the Architect’s Newsletter, here’s a provocative take on facade restoration…

Gensler is re-habbing a 1913 building at 618 South Michigan Ave. for Columbia College.  The original building, by William Zimmerman, had a fairly standard-issue expressed frame facade with tripartite windows and a robust (if somewhat clunky) program of classical ornament.  By 1913, this was practically the Chicago commercial vernacular, and it was being eclipsed rapidly by heavier stone facades.

Apparently the existing fabric is still more or less intact, but the facade got the blue-glass and metal mullion treatment in the 1950s.  As part of the renovation, Gensler has proposed a new glass curtain wall with the original elevation etched into the glass surface, which will show a ghostly image of Zimmerman’s original.  Gensler’s project architect (Elva Rubio, who gave a fantastic lecture at ISU a couple of years ago) came right out and said that the design team felt some pressure from Krueck & Sexton’s Spertus Institute next door, and that this was as bold a statement as the budget allowed.

It raises some interesting questions, of course.  First, Zimmerman’s facade was hardly missed–a classic case of “historic” without really being “historical.”  On the one hand, a graphic treatment of, say, some Sullivania would be downright insulting, so maybe it’s proper to deploy this strategy on a facade with little real historic baggage.  On the other, though, part of the richness of the old expressed frames is, surely, the depth of the skin, and the resulting heavy shadow lines and articulation between vertical and horizontal elements, which obviously get eliminated with this approach.

Still, almost any nod to the history of Chicago’s commercial blocks is welcome, and while a whole row of these would probably be numbing, as a one-off this seems kind of fresh.  And it certainly plays off the brilliant glazing details of Spertus while recalling the classic post-1909 Plan facades that still dot this end of Michigan Ave.  And the best part–I think–is that there’s another kind of conservation going on here.  In addition to reproducing Zimmerman’s rather heavy-handed detailing, Gensler have also included etched bird silhouettes that are designed to keep shorebirds from flying in to the glass wall.  That alone makes me want to give it the benefit of the doubt.

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