champlain towers collapse–best summary yet…

Architect and engineer Twitter has been busy this week speculating about the cause(s) of the building collapse north of Miami. The best summary I’ve seen yet is in this morning’s Washington Post and deserves a full read by anyone curious/concerned, including reasons why a foundation failure or sinkhole seems increasingly unlikely.

Elsewhere, the truly chilling document from the president of the building’s HOA and associated engineer’s report emphasize just how pervasive the building’s deterioration had become. Deferred maintenance and short-term financial decisions are their own post/book idea, but this is a prime example of how primed we are to ignore risks of long-term catastrophe when faced with difficult short-term decisions.

339 barry, an underrated Chicago ‘first’

Display Ad, 339 Barry. Chicago Tribune, Nov. 14, 1964.

The burst of apartment building in the early 1960s that rebuilt much of Lake Shore Drive was matched by a new high-rise type that revolutionized residential financing in Chicago and, eventually, throughout the country.  While rental apartments found a consistent, nearly-insatiable market among young professionals and couples, Chicago—like many American cities—found itself losing young families to the suburbs as rentals for multi-bedroom units soared.  The attractiveness of new developments in the 1950s, along with the promise of new connecting expressways made for a natural migration out of the city for white families with children.  Mortgage assistance for new, single-family homes from the FHA encouraged this, as did the inherent wealth-building potential that stemmed from home ownership, which transformed funds previously expended on monthly rent into equity.  While this out-migration was a windfall for homebuilders and developers outside of Chicago, it sapped tax dollars and much of the city’s skilled workforce; because of the restrictive covenants and the intransigent, often violent racism that continued to mark the city’s white middle class neighborhoods, this trend further cemented segregationist tendencies throughout the city. 

It was clear to many stakeholders—city builders, financiers, and the Daley administration—that encouraging home ownership within the city limits was a necessary step to combatting this endemic white flight.  But the city was largely built-out by this point, with little room to annex new territory and limited land on which to build developments that could compete with the sylvan lawns and sprawling ranch houses offered by new expressway suburbs like Oak Lawn or Arlington Heights.  Urban renewal had offered limited possibilities and, to this point, had necessarily been aimed at lower middle class and Black families with apartment projects that could not provide the benefits of equity that suburban home ownership promised.  And the city’s most desirable sites and neighborhoods came with land costs that demanded dense occupation and, thus, multi-story development.

But Illinois’ laws through the 1950s made integration between home ownership and skyscraper construction difficult and risky.  Like most states, real estate law in Illinois had always been based on English common law, which assumed physical ownership of land itself as the basis for all property rights; title to a particular plot of land also came with rights to the ground below and the air above.[i]  Defining a single unit in a high-rise in legal terms was, if not impossible, at least such a byzantine process that developers had come up with the co-operative system to get around it.  Since the 1920s, this method gave owners a share in the corporate ownership of an entire building and the right to rent a single, specified unit within.  This came with quirks and risks—among them, residents of a development were legally and fiscally responsible for the defaults of their fellow, corporately-bound neighbors.  If one resident fell behind on their monthly payments, the remaining residents had to make up the difference for the corporation’s property taxes, mortgage payments, and maintenance costs.  Co-ops gave residents inordinate power over sales and purchases; boards had the right to approve or deny new buyers, which was often a de facto segregationist power, and they could in extreme situations force residents out for cause—though this could be arbitrary and brought with it an uncertainty that home ownership typically avoided.  The system continued to be popular through the 1950s—Herbert Greenwald’s developments in particular often championed the co-op arrangement—but it was clearly an outdated and potentially discriminatory structure that was, by 1963, not providing a robust enough alternative to suburban home ownership.

A consortium of Chicago real estate lawyers approached the State legislature in 1963 with proposed legislation, inspired by new laws passed in Puerto Rico and Hawaii in 1958, that would allow ‘fee-simple’ ownership of individual units in a high-rise by specifically designating a process for dividing a project’s volume into legally defined parcels.[ii]  They argued that this idea was, in fact, well-proven—“the idea dates from ancient Rome” was a common refrain—and that it had encouraged construction and found eager markets among both young families and older couples in the states that had passed similar laws.[iii]  Shared ownership—or, from the Latin, “con dominium” offered a way to cut through the legal mess that came with defining air rights in a land-based system.  Herbert Rosenthal, president of Dunbar Builders, which had managed to construct low-rise shared-ownership developments under the old laws in 1962, explained the benefits to the Tribune, noting that a condominium arrangement offered exactly the elusive “best of both apartment living and home ownership”:

 “Condominium buyers have the security of ownership, along with its financial and tax advantages, as well as the convenience and freedom of an apartment dweller, he said.

“In a condominium project, buyers own their own apartment, while hallways, roof and other structural portions of the building, are owned in common with the other residents.  Owners have individual title to their units and are responsible only for their own mortgages and taxes, and a small fee to maintain the grounds and common areas.

“The condominium plan differs from the cooperative in that individual dwelling units can be sold, exchanged, or rented by the owners independently of their neighbors.  Co-operatives are owned by stockholder tenants, and permission is required from a governing body to sell or buy an apartment.”[iv]

But the new arrangement also offered developers an important benefit, in that it allowed them to walk away from a project once all of its units had been sold, leaving management to entities that could be formed by the owners themselves and eliminating the difficulties that came with collecting rent or running projects as corporations—a new class of developer emerged that focused on quicker turnarounds, rapid sales, and speed of construction as priorities. 

Passage of Illinois’ condominium law, in June, 1963, did not on its own spawn the next decade’s extraordinary burst of condominium construction.[v]  Rather, it took acceptance from the orbit of financial institutions and a healthy dose of marketing to establish condominiums as rivals to both co-ops and rental apartments.  The FHA provided much of the groundwork for this, though, extending its mortgage insurance programs to condominium projects nationwide in 1961, and with that security the city saw its first high-rise condominium announced three weeks before the law was even passed.  339 W. Barry, between Sheridan Road and Lake Shore Drive in Lakeview East, was an immediate ratification of the concept.  Developed and built by F&S Construction, one of the suburbs’ largest homeowners, 339 Barry reflected a hunch by the company’s owner, Jack Hoffman, that there was a “move back to urban living.”[vi]  Hoffman, namesake of one suburb where the firm had built nearly 2000 houses, had seen homebuilding slow and recognized that the new laws opened up an entirely new market, laying out the advantages to the press and pointing out that here, finally, was that elusive combination of ownership with “the benefits of living in a luxury apartment on Lake Shore Drive.”[vii] 

Hoffman’s efforts to replicate the perceived comforts and conveniences of the suburbs along Lake Shore Drive led to a building designed by Fridstein and Fitch, a firm opened by Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett partner Marvin Fitch in 1951.  Their site on a suburban-sounding “quiet, shaded street” offered unrestricted views to Lincoln Park and the lake, and Fridstein and Fitch arranged the building’s massing accordingly, with an exposed core on the building’s west side that allowed every apartment eastward-looking views and balconies.  Each unit was larger than standard north side apartments, at between 1000 and 2000 square feet, with large living rooms and separate dining rooms; each floor of the 26-story structure had just two or three units, which sold for between $25,000 and $58,000.   Taking cues from Mies’ Commonwealth Apartments, just to the southwest, they developed the building’s curtain wall with grey-tinted glass to mitigate bright morning sunshine, set into aluminum mullions that replicated the now-established Miesian idiom. 

But Fitch, interviewed on the building’s announcement, argued that the building’s sleek exterior was less important than its robust construction and its amenities.  “The renter,” he thought, was more concerned with these “exterior or visible details.”  Purchasers, on the other hand, were more concerned with the longer-term durability of “details of construction…plumbing, heating, wiring” and other equipment.[viii]  Hoffman pointed out the building’s ‘double climate control system,’ which adopted the zoned system of commercial towers, but without ducted air.  One baseboard circuit provided heat during winter to eliminate condensation from the apartments’ floor-to-ceiling windows, while fan coil units provided “individual heating and air conditioning” for each room.[ix]  Other amenities that, according to Fitch and Hoffman, distinguished the condominiums from rental apartments included dine-in kitchens, more sophisticated appliances including garbage disposers and ovens with ranges, optional dishwashers, and improved finishes, in particular parquet flooring in entrance halls.[x]  Unit plans also included three times the amount of closet space recommended by the FHA—an acknowledgement that the stability that came with ownership rather than renting would inevitably lead to greater accumulation.[xi]  These upgrades were combined with marble tubs, rosewood-paneled public areas, and “elegant details everywhere.”  Perhaps most tellingly, Fridstein and Fitch specified improved acoustic construction for walls between units, with laminated sheets of 5/8” drywall on one side, single layers of drywall resilient furring channels on the other to absorb transmitting vibrations, and 3-5/8” thick blankets of fiberglass insulation between.  Combined, these improvements, developed by U.S. Gypsum, gave walls a 51dB rating, more than 10% greater than FHA apartment standards and a crucial selling point to buyers used to the relative isolation of suburban homes.  “You can play your hi-fi or television, have an argument…sneeze, and snore to your heart’s content and the people in the next apartment home won’t hear you,’ claimed F&S’ vice president, William Griffin, on the building’s opening.[xii]  These innovations, the units’ larger floor sizes, and Hoffman’s gamble on drawing suburbanites back to the city were dependent on financing, of course, but the project received enthusiastic support from St. Paul Savings and Loan, while Chicago Title and Trust signed on to guarantee mortgages, supported by the FHA, to individual buyers.[xiii] 

Display Ad, 339 Barry. Chicago Tribune, April 11, 1964.

After the first condominium sale in the city was celebrated in August, 1964—to Mr. and Mrs. Richard Eastline, both of whom worked at sales and marketing in the Loop—buyers were initially wary.[xiv]  Five units remained unsold by January, 1966, a year and a half after its opening[xv]—but as the first year’s operating costs proved to be within Hoffman’s estimates the building filled with owners, predominantly professionals between 35 and 45 years old, about a quarter of whom were families with children, and were split between those who had tired of renting and those who had returned from suburbs, citing maintenance and yard work as major reasons they had given up on home ownership.[xvi]  F&S launched an ad campaign based largely on snob appeal and economic logic—pointing out, in a 1964 ad, the art collection of one resident and describing his tenth floor unit as “appropriate to his social and economic position” while being a financially advantageous investment.”[xvii]  But they also instituted a buy-back program, offering to purchase would-be condominium buyers’ homes at market rates, creating a “simple and foolproof way to trade in a house on a condominium unit.”[xviii]  Through state legislation and aggressive marketing, Chicago’s battle with its suburbs for population and tax base was engaged.

[i] “Begin More Condominium Apartments.”  Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1963.  N_B10.

[ii] “Condominium Co-Op Bill is Introduced.”  Chicago Tribune, Mar. 14, 1963.  F9.

[iii] “Condominiums Take a Firm Foothold in the Chicago Area.”  Chicago Tribune, Sept. 3, 1967.  D1.

[iv] “Condo Idea Catches on Across U.S.”  Chicago Tribune, Oct. 17, 1964.  N11.

[v] “Illinois Sets Up New Form of Condominium.”  Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1963.  4.

[vi] James M. Gavin, “Construction Site is 339 Barry.”  Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1963.  C5.

[vii] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.”  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964.  W_A5.

[viii] “Find Condominium Buyer Considers Important Factors.”  Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1963.  N_B5.

[ix] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.”  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964.  W_A5.

[x] “Lake Front Homes: Open First City Skyscraper Condo.”  Chicago Tribune, Apr. 4, 1964.  W_A5; and “Find Condominium Buyer Considers Important Factors.”  Chicago Tribune, Aug. 10, 1963.  N_B5.

[xi] “House Hunter Cautioned: Be Sure Closets are Adequate.” Chicago Tribune, Jul. 11, 1964, pp. 1-s_b5.

[xii] “New Soundproof Technique Applied in Skyscraper Condo. [339 Barry]”  Chicago Tribune, May 23, 1964.  N15.

[xiii] James M. Gavin, “Construction Site is 339 Barry.”  Chicago Tribune, June 8, 1963.  C5.

[xiv] “Family Acquires Condo Home; First in Lakefront Skyscraper.” Chicago Tribune, Aug 29, 1964. 1-n12.

[xv] “Year of Operation Verifies Estimate of Condo Expenses.” Chicago Tribune, Jan 8, 1966. 1-n_a3.

[xvi] “Sell 30 of 67 Condo Homes in Skyscraper on the Lake.” Chicago Tribune, Nov 14, 1964. 1-w5.  See, too, “Condo Attracts Prospects from the North Shore.” Chicago Tribune (1963-1996), May 16, 1964, pp. 1-n_a12.

[xvii] Display ad, “339 Barry Condominium.” Chicago Tribune, Apr. 25, 1964. 1-w8.

[xviii] “Purchase-Offer Plan Announced for Condo Units.” Chicago Tribune, Jan 16, 1965. 1-w_a10.