SOM talk, dates

August 25, 2013 § 1 Comment

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…

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