pop quiz–answered


That, believe it or not, is an 1885 drawing  by John Root of what would become the Jackson Blvd. elevation of the Monadnock Building.  See the resemblance?  Me neither.  The Brooks Brothers of Boston commissioned the building as soon as plans for the southern extension of Dearborn were announced in 1885, but they then sat on the project until the run-up to the 1892 Columbian Exposition.  From the drawings executed then, it was a rush job, which partly explains the simpler elevations.  This version certainly looks a lot like the Rookery, which Root would have been working on at roughly the same time, as well as the lesser-known Phoenix and Insurance Exchange Buildings.  Root in the mid-1880s was a die-hard Richardsonian Romanesque designer, as were most big city architects of the day, and the transformation of the Monadnock from a heavy, brick pier building to a–uh–heavy, brick pier with bay windows building shows how much could change in five or six years.

Jason N. gets mad props for figuring it out…thanks for playing!  (and just for reference, here’s the Monadnock elevation from Chicago Skyscrapers.  It’s the Dearborn Street elevation, so the proportions are different, but you’ll get the drift…)


pop quiz

1885 elevationI’m finishing up some illustrations for a paper on one of the Loop’s best known skyscrapers, and couldn’t resist letting this out.  It’s an early scheme–by a few years–and it bears precious little resemblance to what was finally built.  In the fine tradition of Curbed’s “Cornerspotter” feature, I’ll throw this open to the readership…any guesses?

SOM talk, dates

Happy to report that the summer book tour wound up with a good crowd at SOM Chicago last week.  I interned there in 1990, and while the office has moved, and most of the folks I worked with then have moved on, it was still a welcome invitation and a super knowledgeable crowd.

One question afterwards concerned the dates of the book–1871-1934.  1871 is obvious for most readers, as the Great Fire marked a pretty serious break point between “old” Chicago and “new” Chicago (though this may not have been quite as much of a break as the myth would have it…)  But 1934 is a bit less obvious, and deserves some explanation.

The Great Depression hit Chicago even harder than most cities in the U.S., building-wise, and after a decade that saw the most robust commercial growth in history, the Loop was essentially a dead zone for a generation after 1929.  The projects that were built all had some reason to go forward during the tough economic times–Marshall Field’s estate in particular built the Merchandise Mart and the Field Building as a (very) long term gamble that the economy would come back eventually, and they would never be able to afford the labor or materials to build on such a big scale in normal times.  Both projects were seen as something akin to a private WPA, putting people to work just for the sake of employment, with commercial viability almost an afterthought.  And, after the Field Building, even these projects dried up.

The Field was finished in 1934, and there were no skyscrapers built in the Loop until Inland Steel was completed in 1957.  By then, the technologies that helped form Chicago’s first generation of skyscrapers had been almost universally surpassed by materials and mechanisms that transferred from developments during WWII–aluminum and stainless steel, for example, or mechanically produced plate glass.  Air conditioning, though, had the greatest impact on building facades and even massing.  So, after 1934, the long break before construction in the Loop resumed meant that skyscraper architecture was a whole new ballgame.  While other histories of the ‘first Chicago School’ have stopped in 1912 with the death of Burnham (Condit, in particular), I thought it was worth showing that there were developments that were continuous up through the Field Building, and thus ‘stayed downtown’ for an additional couple of decades.

OK, why the emphasis on “in the Loop?”  Because there were other skyscrapers built in Chicago.  The Prudential, for instance, beat Inland Steel by three years, but it technically lies outside the transit ‘loop’ proper.  Inland’s publicists benefitted from this questionably narrow definition.  But there were even earlier skyscrapers built after WWII, of course, in the form of housing.  Mies’ Promontory Apartments (1949) and 860-880 Lake Shore Drive (1951) are the ones that might spring to mind first, but the Dearborn Homes (1950 by Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett on State between 27th and 30th Streets), began a decade’s worth of high-rise  public housing construction in Chicago, a checkered history that is rarely acknowledged in histories of the “second Chicago School.”

Many thanks to ISU alum Scott Steffes for arranging the talk…

Minneapolis talk…

Many thanks to Meghan Elliott and Gregory Donofrio at Preservation Design Works for sponsoring my talk in Minneapolis last night. In addition to teaching old buildings new tricks, PVN is committed to building connections in the Twin Cities that can help good projects get done. The crowd was a great one–true to their mission, it drew engineers, architects, lawyers, realtors, etc., which made for a great Q&A session afterwards. (And having a big contingent of ISU alums helped, too…) The host venue, The Engine Room, was an inspired choice for a venue, and worth checking out as a preservation success in progress.

On the road today, too, talking plate glass at SOM in a few minutes. A good day to drive across Wisconsin, and despite 35 miles of construction on I-90 I made it into town early enough to poke into the Art Institute, which has a lurvely set of Niemeyer sketches on display, and a stunning show of paper works by Zarina in the Modern Wing…


any takers?


OK, a certain percentage of architecturefarm’s loyal readership will identify this as the “Ferris Bueller House,” as reported by Curbed, but a few more might correctly identify it as A. James Speyer’s 1953 Ben Rose House, the closest Chicago ever came to the uber-Miesian rigor of Craig Ellwood’s best California houses.   (slight correction–the movie star itself is actually the 1974 pavilion by David Haid–thanks, Ed!) The spread of the Case Study ideal to the midwest was both inspiring and problematic; Iowa’s own Ray Crites designed a handful of similar houses that were both celebrated and endlessly repaired to deal with their mid-Pacific detailing in a freeze-thaw climate.

Anyway, it’s on the market for a cool $1.5m.  And the plate glass that the Ferrari drove through has apparently been completely fixed.

Natalie de Blois

pepsiphotoEvery major history of postwar modernism credits Lever House and PepsiCo’s headquarters–to this day two of the best buildings in New York–to SOM principal Gordon Bunshaft, but a deeper reading of their design histories shows that both of them benefitted enormously from the work of Natalie de Blois, who died last week.  SOM now credits her as the “Senior Designer” on PepsiCo, but they sure didn’t back in 1960.

de Blois rose to be a senior designer at SOM–in the New York office until 1961 and then in Chicago until 1974–and was one of those brilliant but entirely unsung figures who made the office what it was.  Almost every major design firm has one or two folks who rarely get the credit that the big stars get, but who are vital in the daily life of the office.

The obit in today’s Times makes the all-too-obvious point that she never got the credit she deserved because of the blatantly sexist norms of the day.  The stories of her treatment are sobering and frankly awful.  It’s hard not to think that much of Bunshaft’s real talent lay in her largely uncredited work, and that his reputation ought to really be re-assessed in light of what’s now common knowledge.  There’s a huge difference between PepsiCo (a vastly underrated building, one of the most rigorous things the New York office ever did and still maybe the best glass and steel curtain wall in New York) and, say, 9 East 57th Street, a building Bunshaft did with other senior designers that lacks the subtlety that seems to lie in everything de Blois worked on.

In the Art Institute’s Oral History project, de Blois was interviewed at length about her positions at SOM, the prejudice she endured, and the differences between the two offices.  In particular, she brought a breath of outside air to Chicago in the midst of it’s wholesale adoption of Miesian aesthetics:

I was flabbergasted when I got to Chicago. I found out that everybody talked about nothing but Mies van der Rohe.  Everything was Mies. There were people who had done detailing in Mies’ office; there were people who studied with Mies at IIT.

de Blois worked with Myron Goldsmith during her last years at SOM, in particular on the St. Joseph’s Bank in Elkhart, Indiana, a lesser-known but incredibly rigorous and beautiful low-rise building.  In addition to the Art Insitute’s Oral History, there’s a good interview of de Blois by Detlef Mertens, conducted in 2004, on SOM’s website.

She deserves a few minutes reading today.