old chicago skyscraper of the week: harris bank II

Harris Trust and Savings Bank is as old-school as Chicago finance gets–founded in the 1880s, it specialized in municipal bonds and staked its claim on Monroe Street with a 20-story building designed by Boston architects Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge in 1909-1911. After modernizing in the late 1930s, the bank announced plans in 1954 to expand with a 20-story annex at the back of that tower, fronting on Clark Street.

This was big news–“the first building to be erected inside the Loop in more than 20 years,” claimed Tribune real estate editor Al Chase (pace, Prudential–you’re not in the Loop, you’re Loop-adjacent). Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill were announced as architects, and they produced a sketch of the proposed square tower–an elegant prism up on piloti that reflected their emerging Miesian vocabulary:

(Photo by Kaufman & Fabry, from Al Chase, “Loop to Have New Building of 20 Stories [Harris].”  Chicago Daily Tribune, May 28, 1954.  1.

Inland Steel, of course, grabbed that “first new sksycraper in the Loop in 20 years” crown in 1957, so what happened to Harris Bank’s plans? They ran afoul of the city’s 1942 zoning ordinance, which limited buildings downtown to a volume in cubic feet equal to 144 times its lot size–a bizarre formula that was passed explicitly to ‘limit skyscrapers’ in an era that saw no demand for new commercial space downtown and a growing emphasis on the Loop’s retail development. The owners of Harris’ neighbor on Monroe St., the Fort Dearborn building (a late Jenney and Mundie structure), sued after Harris announced their plans, pointing out that the proposed tower was nearly twice the volume permitted by the code.

Harris may have been counting on the city’s tradition of ‘spot zoning,’ in which a friendly (and, occasionally, well-compensated) alderman would run through a variance allowing a building owner to break the rules in one specific instance, a practice common enough that it had essentially trivialized the city’s zoning code for housing. This contributed to the growing problem of ‘kitchenette’ apartments in the city’s Black belt, in which slumlord owners could easily pack more and more substandard apartments into decaying buildings through political machincations and outright graft.

With a moribund commercial market, however, there had been virtually no spot-zoning in the Loop, but Harris’ plans were thwarted: Chicago’s zoning commission denied their application by a single vote, and the city council actually chastised the company, publicly declaring in March, 1955 that–since Harris rented out the upper floors of its building, the aldermen saw no need for such a tall structure.

It’s hard to imagine that discussion taking place at any other time in the city’s history, but change happened quickly. Just weeks after the city council’s admonishment, Chicago’s new Mayor, Richard J. Daley, took office. Daley saw the Loop as the city’s political and economic heart, and he would take action to not only permit new commercial construction, but to actively promote it as a way of fortifying his political base and slowing the suburban flight that was draining downtown Chicago of its business class.

Harris ultimately took their case to Circuit court, which ruled in their favor in 1956. But by that point the bank’s financial position had improved enough that they reconceived the project, buying the Fort Dearborn building from the owners who had originally blocked their expansion plans and waiting for a new zoning code to take shape. That code, passed with Daley’s enthusiastic backing in 1957, switched from a volume limit to a floor-area-ratio, allowing a 14-story building by right and then providing incentives of additional floor area for amenities like setbacks, colonnades, and sidewalk planting. In July of that year, Harris announced the 23-story building that was ultimately built–just six weeks after the new zoning code took effect.

Harris Bank in an advertisement in Architectural Forum, October, 1961.

Designed by Walter Netsch–after being replaced on the Inland Steel project and finishing design work on the iconic Air Force Academy design–Harris continued some of that building’s themes. While its columns are buried behind its steel-and-glass curtain wall, its mechanical zone is clearly delineated at the 11th and 12th floors, showing Netsch’s continued interest in expressing building services. Harris’ core was integrated with the elevators in the original, 1911 building, giving it a ‘side saddle’ arrangement that SOM’s New York office was pursuing in their design for the Park Avenue headquarters of Pepsi-Cola at roughly the same time.

Typical floor plan of SOM tower (left), Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge tower (1911, center), and three-story annex (right). “Sophisticated Chicago Skyscraper.”  Architectural Record,  February, 1961.  123-132.

And, about that curtain wall. Like Inland, it’s made of stainless steel, but detailed to eliminate the characteristic ‘oil canning’ that gives Inland’s elevations their shimmering character. Harris’s detailing is all about rigidity, folding thin sheets of steel at their edges to provide a firm edge and prevent the small variations that catch daylight so strikingly at Inland. This gives the wall some greater depth–and notice how Netsch picked up the Miesian trick of regularizing the centerlines of the columns and mullions, with slightly narrower windows at the ends of each bay:

Harris Trust and Savings Bank, Clark and Monroe Sts. Walter Netsch/SOM, 1957-1961. East facade. (photo by the author).
“Sophisticated Chicago Skyscraper.”  Architectural Record,  February, 1961.  123-132.

SOM also designed a renovation program for an adjacent parking garage to the west of the Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge building to hold a new banking hall and commercial facilities, but this was replaced by a 1972 addition (visible in the background of the lead photo), also by SOM but this time designed by Bruce Graham. That building–a rigorous nine-square grid with expressed girders, greater spans, and an even more robust modeling of its curtain wall–is an essay in the range of design philosophies emergent in the firm, far more in line with the bold structural statement of Sears than with the almost gothic tracery of Harris’ mullions.

elevators (grain) at the skyscraper museum

..virtually, of course. After connectivity and audio issues scotched our planned webinar last night “at” the Skyscraper Museum, Carol Willis has posted my (pre-recorded) lecture on Chicago’s Grain Elevators on their website, along with a generous introduction…those of you who missed out last night, along with anyone else as fascinated by the history of these things as I am, can catch up here:

We’re still on for tomorrow, when UNCC’s Lee Gray will talk about the OTHER kind of elevator, and I’ll join him for a discussion on historic conveying systems in tall structures…of all kinds. See you there…


The structures portion of our SCI-TECH sequence is super hands-on, and has become sort of a trademark of the program. While we do cover theory and calculations for basic structural elements, we’ve always felt that building things, testing them, and talking about how real structures are behaving under load is the best way to instill the sort of intuitive understanding of statics and structural form that architects really need when they sit across the table from actual engineers. Rob Whitehead’s structures labs are famous for their large-scale tests, using twenty or fifty pound bags of sand and with everything but walkup music as students turn out to watch big things get broken.

So, how do you get the same haptic learning accomplished in a pandemic? Working with rock star colleague Eric Badding and teaching assistant Anannya Das, we took our long span structures module entirely online this term. Last year we organized it to provide an experimental pathway toward designing a studio-scaled long span–four feet of span, carrying fifteen pounds of load–and asked them to first sketch out ideas, then to build scale models and prototypes before the final test. This year, we scaled it down to kitchen table-size, and asked students to work remotely or in limited numbers in the College’s studios. We restricted materials to just chipboard and hot glue to make it easy to source, and the department funded small jewelers’ scales for groups of two or three students, and we asked them to develop and test structures spanning just 24″ and carrying 16-ounce cans of beans. As a serviceability test, we asked them to roll another can of beans under the span during loading–and the lightest structure to pass that test would earn an automatic 100% for the module.

For the scaled down models, students submitted videos of their tests and .pdfs of sketches or descriptions. But for the final competition yesterday, we got everyone on zoom and asked them to test their models live. Each team had a three minute slot, and we set up a Google Doc so that teams could see when their turn came around so they could be ready to dive right in.

Happy to say that the results were convincing–thanks to good coaching and a diligent timekeeper we saw about 30 long spans carry their cans of beans, and ended up awarding joint first place to projects that did it with 36 and 54 grams of cardboard, respectively–about a 20:1 load/weight ratio. Many of the entries adopted fairly pure structural forms, figured out the secondary and tertiary modes of failure like racking or torsion, and applied the notion of ‘hacking’ shapes to remove dead weight where it did the least amount of work–all themes we tried to emphasize in the long span unit.

And, many of the teams turned out genuinely good looking work–signs that even under the most dire of circumstances good design wins out.

proto-mies I: 2933 Sheridan Road

2933 North Sheridan Road, Chicago. Mies van der Rohe/PACE Associates, 1950-1951.

Among the narrative threads I’m trying to weave together with the postwar Chicago project, the role of high-rise housing is one of the most intriguing–and under-appreciated. Public housing in the city is the most obvious and damning piece of this story, but the role of skyscraper housing in the private sector is also a key element in understanding how and why skyscrapers have been so integral to Chicago’s growth and development.

Developers in Chicago built high-rise housing for the city’s middle and upper-classes consistently through the 1920s, most of it along the lakeshore extending north from downtown and in Hyde Park. New financial instruments–housing cooperatives and, eventually, federally-backed mortgages made high-rise residential towers financially viable and affordable for a broad market. They also exacerbated the city’s entrenched segregationist patterns as they could be exclusionary and targeted toward white neighborhoods at the further expense of desperately overcrowded Black neighborhoods concentrated on the south side. While high-rise co-ops partially democratized the city’s valuable lakefront property, they also set in stone (literally) racial patterns that would define the city’s geography later in the century.

After the war a handful of progressive developers aimed projects squarely at the middle class, taking advantage of city politics that sought–often desperately–to keep as much of the city’s population as it could from moving to the suburbs, in particular its downtown workforce. Among these developers, Herbert Greenwald, a University of Chicago graduate, proved to be a particularly enlightened client. Much more on him to come, but he’s best known as the instigator of Mies van der Rohe’s first (and, arguably, best) high-rise projects–Promontory Apartments on south Lake Shore Drive and their progeny, the iconic 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartments just north of the Loop.

Promontory is often thought of as a sort of ‘starter-Mies.’ It was Greenwald’s first high-rise, and it was designed in 1947-49 in the midst of an ongoing crisis in the steel industry that limited availability. Its concrete frame is expressed and subtly detailed, but compared to 860-880’s delicate steel tracery it comes across as more plain-spoken and even crude. Nonetheless, Promontory itself was profoundly influential and led to several projects–particularly CHA high-rises–that adopted its exposed concrete and brickwork with admittedly mixed results.

Seeing Promontory as nothing more than a premonition of 860-880, though, ignores the fact that nearly all high-rise housing in Chicago relied on concrete construction. 860-880, for all its influence on American commercial skyscrapers, was a total one-off in terms of its steel construction–a material dead-end in housing that I’m trying to get to the bottom of.

2933 Sheridan Promotional Brochure (Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago).

2933 Sheridan was designed and constructed almost exactly in parallel with 860-880, and it shows that Mies certainly regarded Promontory as a valid and ongoing experiment. It suffers a bit from a more crowded site–none of the convenient long vistas for photography that have made Promontory a more appetizing subject. But it merits a closer look, both for its clearly targeted demographic–young professionals with and without children–and for the way it developed the exposed, infilled frame that made Promontory such a revolutionary presence on the skyline.

Greenwald’s great genius was catering to urban professionals–young buyers, some with children, who rejected the suburbs and wanted to remain downtown, close to amenities and within a walk or a short drive from the Loop. This demographic was generally well-educated, knowledgable about design trends, and empowered by the postwar economic boom to afford a modest lifestyle boost. The Baldwin-Kingery store, which began selling Scandinavian furniture to young design enthusiasts on Michigan Avenue in 1947, catered to exactly Greenwald’s target audience. In both cases, bringing high design down from the luxury level was a brilliant and profitable endeavor.

2933 Sheridan Promotional Brochure (Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, Art Institute of Chicago).

The building’s promotional brochure featured perspectives far from the precise, almost clinical drawings for which Mies’ office was known, showing instead sketchy, cartoon-like renderings of softly textured carpets and Eames or Saarinen chairs instead of marble surfaces and Barcelona chairs, all looking out over nearby Lincoln Park. Its mix of apartment types–fully 1/3 of which were two-bedroom units designed for small families–reflected the market for apartments suitable for singles, couples, and children.

Most notable, though, to Al Chase, the Tribune’s chief real estate reporter at the time, was 2933 Sheridan’s unique exterior appearance:

“This is the second large apartment project to have windows extending flush from floor to ceiling, thus making the exterior an almost solid sheet of plate glass, broken only by horizontal or spandrel beams and vertical columns, which are of reinforced concrete.”

Al Chase, “Work Started on 244 New Family Units.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 25, 1950.  C5.

It was the second apartment building to do so only by a few months–860-880 opened just prior to it. But the combination of floor-to-ceiling glass and exposed concrete edge beams and columns became one of several default formulas for Chicago apartments going forward. If 860-880 was, in fact, a dead-end in terms of the city’s residential high-rises, 2933 Sheridan advanced Promontory’s tectonic formula in a way that was imitated in dozens of high-rise blocks over the next couple of decades–perhaps most clearly in the 1963 Lakefront Place, a 16-story block in South Shore by Schmidt, Garden, & Erikson (who, probably not coincidentally, were then working with Mies’ office on the Federal Center):

Lakefront Place, Chicago. Schmidt, Garden, and Erickson, 1963.

More to come on that status as “second” apartment building to have floor-to-ceiling glass…but for the moment worth pointing out that the various Greenwald projects that seem like they’re warmups for 860-880 had important impacts on their own, and their concrete, brick, and glass solutions proved to be more influential than generally credited…