Nervi’s Stadio Franchi–saved for the moment!

Last Friday the Italian Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali issued its binding opinion preventing plans to demolish–even partly–Nervi’s iconic stadium in Florence. As reported by Artribune, the ruling allows consideration of new roofs and new end zone stands (“curva“) but prevents the city and Fiorentina from pursuing their original plans to demolish the 1931/32 stadium and build anew on the same site. The ruling has, predictably, drawn protest from the team’s owner, Italian-American billionaire and CEO of Mediacom Rocco Commisso, but Fiorentina hasn’t been able to explain why, for instance, a new stadium adjacent to the historic Nervi structure wouldn’t serve the same purpose.

Monday, Florence Mayor Dario Nardella held a press conference during which he announced that the city would fully comply with the MiBACT directive, and would take the suggestion made by the Pier Luigi Project Foundation that the entire Campo di Marte be considered as a revitalization project, perhaps involving a new stadium and new development that could help fund the renovation work that the Franchi would need to begin a new life as a community center, like Nervi’s Stadio Flaminio is slated to become in Rome. More encouraging, he announced that the city would, in fact, hold an international competition to re-imagine the Campo di Marte, with precisely the aims of rejuvenating the stadium and improving access to the city’s second main rail station, adjacent to the site.

Commisso has threatened to take the team to the suburbs, and this has caused plenty of concern and backlash from the Viola. But Florence should take a lesson from the American experience of the last several decades, as professional sports teams have taken municipalities to the cleaners with threats of pulling up their cleats and leaving for better financial deals offered by cities or suburbs seeking the publicity that comes with today’s media-saturated sports culture. Those deals have never–literally never–worked out as planned for those cities, who consistently fail to see the income promised by the teams, and who–after a few years–find themselves the owners of a stadium criticized by the owners as out-of-date and facing threats from those owners to move to the next town.

Fingers crossed that this goes ahead, and that Florence has, by 2025, a new precinct worthy of a visit by sports fans and, perhaps, even by tourists who alight at that station before the one in town…

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who joined the campaign to Save the Franchi…

chicago skyscraper of the week–continental I

Continental-National Insurance was a Chicago-based firm, organized in the 1890s, that purchased the Straus Building on Michigan Avenue in 1943–and then quickly outgrew its 600,000 or so square feet of floor space. In 1960 the company announced two schemes for expansion to the west, along Jackson Street–one saving Holabird & Roche’s 1912 Cable Building in February and another, demolishing the Cable and two other adjacent structures, in September after the neighboring owners realized they would be ‘boxed in’ by Continental-National’s expansion plans.

The schemes were designed by C.F. Murphy & Associates, which had just undergone a tidal change in personnel. Murphy, the titular head of the office, was not an architect–he was, instead, perhaps the greatest business development operator Chicago has ever seen. He had his start in 1912 as Daniel Burnham’s personal secretary, and rose through the ranks of Burnham’s successor firms, finally emerging with partner Sigurd Naess as Naess + Murphy in 1947. Naess was a conservative designer, best known for the fairly stodgy Prudential Building, and after his retirement in 1957 Murphy emulated Burnham in hiring a stable of young, talented designers who would go on to design many of the city’s postwar landmarks.

Among them were two IIT graduates, Jacques Brownson and James Ferris, who brought a staunch belief in Miesian aesthetics from their backgrounds. Together, they tackled Continental’s program, which called for vast, open offices to allow for efficient communication among their huge clerical staff and for easy re-organization. Brownson and Ferris addressed this with unusually large, 42′-0″ column bays organized around a tightly-planned central core, leaving each level with around 19,000 square feet of usable space.

Typical Floor Plan, from Architectural Forum, May, 1963.

But those large structural bays presented a problem in that they required deep girders, and Continental-National’s other requirement was that the floors in the new building be contiguous with those in the Straus to provide easy circulation throughout. Murphy’s structural engineer responded with 27″ deep beams with unusually heavy sections that allowed large openings toward the center of each one to accommodate the building’s s double-duct mechanical system. The result was a compact floor sandwich–just 37″ total–within the Straus’ comparatively tight 12′-0″ floor-to-floor height.

Construction view showing openings in beams. Architectural Forum, May, 1963.

That was clever enough, but Brownson and Ferris’ Miesian leanings led to further innovation in the building’s integration of cladding and structure. Frustrated with the need for fireproofing around steel members, they looked for ways of expressing the building’s steelwork in a more direct fashion than the attached I-beams that had become Mies’ trademark cladding solution. “I like to see what really is,” Brownson later explained, “what goes on with things.” Their solution was to take advantage of a loophole in Chicago’s building code that required “bearing” structural elements to be fireproofed. This, they argued, left out wind bracing, allowing a building’s lateral system–provided it took no gravity loads–to be left unprotected.

Brownson and Ferris laid out a scheme that provided a fully self-supporting gravity system–the heavy column and internal girder in the detail above–but then detailed 3/8″ steel cover plates that served as the outer formwork for the fireproofing concrete that would be poured around these elements. These cover plates were designed with welded studs that made them monolithic with the concrete and, through another set of welded studs, with the columns and girders themselves. Exposed on the exterior, these cover plates became part of the welded frame’s lateral system–Roche relied on them to take some portion of the structure’s wind loads–but they also served as exposed cladding. They thus fulfilled three integrated purposes–lateral resistance, formwork, and facade.

Brownson and Ferris added vertical find to the spandrel panels to maintain flat surfaces against the fluid pressure of the poured concrete that align with stainless steel mullions framing the building’s continuous windows; they also detailed shadowgaps behind the column covers that reveal the thin nature of the steelwork overall. These details helped to articulate the building facade as a series of layers that offer a sense of cross-grain and hierarchy, with the column covers set out farthest and the girder edges, window mullions, girder plates, and glass all set back in a coordinated sequence that reads like a tartan grid of vertical and horizontal lines:

The result recalls the layered facades of 19th century lofts, especially those by Holabird & Roche, where this trick of layering horizontal and vertical elements produced visually rich elevations like that of the Gage group:

Continental opened in 1962 to wide critical acclaim. The Chicago chapter of the AIA called it “the finest commercial building of recent years” and Progressive Architecture explicitly noted its adherence to “the principles of the 19th Century Chicago School.” Carl Condit wrote about the building frequently, citing its “peculiar combination of force and dignity” and also praising the inspiration that it clearly drew from past, local examples. “The articulated walls of the Continental addition are so emphatically drawn” from such forebears as Ayer McClurg or Schlesinger and Mayer, Condit argued, “as to make it seem as though the long discontinuities between past and present had never existed.”

Brownson would go on to expand upon many of the Continental’s cladding and structural ideas in the Civic Center, which came into Murphy’s office as a joint venture with SOM and Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett while Continental was on the drawing boards. Ferris would jump ship several years later when Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White won the commission from Continental–then renamed the CNA Group–to design the much taller (and much more colorful) expansion to the south along Wabash.

from Progressive Architecture, Sept., 1963


  • “13 Buildings in Chicago Area Win Honors for Their Architecture [Continental 1].  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 10, 1964.  17
  • “Big Bays in Chicago. [Continental I]”  Architectural Forum, Vol. 118, no. 5.  May, 1963.  121.
  • Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Preliminary Landmark Recommendation: Continental Center, 55 E. Jackson Blvd.  (Chicago: City of Chicago Department of Housing and Economic Development, 2011).  13, 15.
  • Carl Condit, Chicago 1930-70: Building, Planning, and Urban Technology.  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974). 
  • Carl W. Condit, “The New Architecture of Chicago.”  Chicago Review, 17:2/3, special issue on New Chicago Writing and Art.  1964.  111-112.
  • “Evolution of the High-Rise Office Building.”  Progressive Architecture, Vol. XLIV, no. 9.  Sept., 1963.  155.
  • James M. Gavin, “Continental Shows Off New Skyscraper.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, July 24, 1962.  C6.
  • “Steel Plate Exterior Serves as Cover for Fireproofing [Continental].”  Architectural Record, Vol. 132, no. 2.  August, 1962.  156

hancock center site–1962 scheme

Headline, Chicago Tribune, Apr. 16, 1962.

I’ve been diving into the history of the Hancock Center–er, sorry, 875 N. Michigan Avenue–and it’s a particularly rich tale, as you’d expect. The standard narratives about the building shape matching floor dimensions for varying programs and the extraordinary efficiency of the trussed tubes both check out, of course, but the tower’s timing–topped out in mid-1968–and its difficult construction (both brewing as future posts) make its story even more dramatic than I’d expected.

And it has an interesting pre-history, too. Its site, between Chestnut and Delaware on North Michigan, was one of the last blocks to be developed. By 1962, it was surrounded by construction, including two projects being developed by John J. Mack and Raymond Sher, who had hired Shaw, Metz, and Dolio to continue their string of high rise residential towers that had risen all along north Lake Shore Drive. The Continental Hotel, on the north side of Delaware (now a Westin) borrowed Shaw’s by then trademark white brick, vertical banding, and light metal rooftop ‘cap,’ a formula that’s instantly recognizable in their prominent Drive buildings.

Continental Hotel, Delaware and Michigan, Chicago. Shaw, Metz, and Dolio, 1965.

The second Mack and Sher project, two blocks south, was 777 N. Michigan, an apartment tower with a podium of parking and retail–again, done up in Shaw’s white brick and metal spandrel curtain wall:

777 N. Michigan Ave. Shaw, Metz, & Dolio, 1965.

In April, 1962, announcing the start of work on 777 N Michigan, the Tribune reported that the cluster of Mack and Sher/Shaw, Metz, & Dolio buildings on the Avenue would also include a 65-story tower on the block between Chestnut and Delaware. Costing $30 million, the project was to include 1000 apartments, 1300 parking spaces, and a rotating observation deck that would have just topped the Civic Center, then on track to become the city’s tallest building. Set back from the Avenue by a broad plaza, Shaw’s massing would have faced the Fourth Presbyterian Church with a sphinx-like symmetrical plan, a tall central shaft flanked by two shorter bays, and retail ‘paws’ surrounding the central entrance:

from James Gavin, “65 Story Tower Planned.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 16, 1962.

The 65-story plan languished, and Mack and Sher sold the site in April, 1964 to an anonymous “group of investors from the east” for $4.8 million, or nearly $60 a square foot. Few doubted the possibilities that the land–in the midst of a booming residential district, at the head of the city’s most prestigious retail avenue, within a few hundred feet of the Lake and a (magnificent) mile north of the Loop–would pay off. But few at the time would realize that the “group of investors” would propose and build a structure that would rise nearly twice as tall as Mack and Sher’s headline-grabbing proposal…

VINTAGE PHOTO POSTCARD The John Hancock Center At Dusk Chicago Illinois  1974 - $3.99 | PicClick
Contemporary postcard of the Hancock Center, with 777 N. Michigan in the foreground and the Continental Hotel and Palmolive Building behind.