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 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.
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):
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…