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.

2 thoughts on “old chicago skyscraper of the week: harris bank II

  1. It was a pleasure to read this profile of a remarkable ensemble in the city. Regarding the “Miesian trick of regularizing…” seen most clearly at 860-880: Netsch’s Harris solution, with regular mullion spacing, exterior columns at the plane of the window wall and resultant narrower windows at bay ends – would work fully with the growing use of a consistent office planning module, a feature of SOM’s tall buildings serving business in Chicago and NYC of this period – the late 1950’s.

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    • Good point about the interior modules–That makes sense and you’re right that the regular office grid was a defining feature of that era (SOM and others), tying into other developments like standardized fluorescent lighting and A/C distribution…

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