Friday, May 6, 2011

Astor Tower

Astor Tower, 1300 North Astor Street (JWB, 2011)

To walk down Astor Street on a sunny day is to return to the end of the nineteenth century when Chicago was in the midst of growth unparalleled in the history of mankind.  It’s a street where the movers and shakers involved in that growth – those who led it and those who profited from it – came to stay.

Omit the cars and add a soundtrack of horse’s hooves on cobblestone streets, and you're back in a time when Chicagoans saw the industrial machine that was their home chugging and wheezing and lurching forward on its way to producing the greatest city in history.

The fantasy comes to an end, though, as you approach the corner of Astor and Goethe.  Walking south past John Root’s townhouse, you’ll come upon two art deco towers designed by Philip Maher and a coquettish condominium building on the northwest corner that raises its glass skirts five floors to show the concrete core that supports it.

This building is Bertrand Goldberg’s Astor Tower, which started life off as a boutique hotel, catering to celebrities, before becoming a condominium building in the 1970’s.

Back there in 1963 when Astor Tower was finished, Marina City was just getting off the drawing board.  In light of that, Astor Towers is an interesting project because it uses the same engineering principles as Goldberg’s circular towers down on the river. 

The entrance and exposed core of Astor Tower, the same system
used in the round towers of Marina City (JWB, 2011)
Just like Marina City, Astor Tower is built around a central core, which contained the elevators, fire stairs and utility conduits.  This core, poured in place over three weeks, resisted 90% of the wind stress on the tower and carried the bulk of the weight of the building.  The 24 floors of the building hung off the core, supported on their exterior edges by thin concrete columns. []

Goldberg began the living spaces of the building at the fifth floor, exposing the all-important core of Astor Tower.  The protective canopy that hangs over the glassy entrance lobby is cantilevered off that massive core just as are the living spaces above.  At the top of the structure the core peeks out again, exposing itself and the engineering triumph of the tower for all to see.

Bertrand Goldberg's residence at 1518 North Astor (JWB, 2011)
The squared tower stands in contrast to Goldberg’s greatest residential projects, the serpentine River City and the round twin towers of Marina City.  In this respect, the architect showed his respect for the venerable Astor Street neighborhood.  It was a neighborhood into which he would move, a couple blocks north at 1518 North Astor.

The plan shows Goldberg’s emphasis on creating buildings that considered first and foremost the people who would live in and around them.  In this he differed from his mentor, Mies van der Rohe.  Goldberg commented on this difference, saying, “Mies was seeking a modular uniformity that could do many things, but not necessarily adapt itself to the humanism that is required in our period.  He rather imposed, and he said to me, ‘I will teach people to live in my buildings.’  I say I will seek the buildings that permit people to live.”

Perhaps the most striking feature of the original hotel related to the exterior louvers behind which the windows were placed.  When they were new, these operable louvers provided shade and privacy.  The one-eighth inch glass panes behind the louvers were set in aluminum frames and were removable from the inside so that they could be easily washed.

That worked fine when the place operated as a hotel.  Employees experienced in the window system kept the windows cleaned on a schedule, substituting clean windows for the ones that needed washing. 

DeStefano facade re-design of 1994 (JWB, 2011)
But when the building changed to condominiums, the windows became the responsibility of the owners.  Many ignored the arduous process of lifting, cleaning and replacing the windows altogether.  The ones that tried it were not trained in or adept at the process, and the result was that none of the windows were seated correctly or properly sealed.  Many of the window gaskets had failed as well.  So when it rained outside, it also rained inside.

It was decided in 1993, therefore, to do away with the original system altogether, and DeStefano + Partners designed a new system of fenestration that did away with the louvers and created a sleek, glassy surface for the building.  The new window system was installed outside the original windows, and then the old windows were removed, resulting in a minimal amount of disruption for unit owners. [Hunter, Carl. “The Dilemma of Renovation Design,” Realty and Building, September 24, 1994.]

Astor Tower, when it was a hotel, saw its share of big names.  It was popular, in part, because of the relative isolation it enjoyed on Astor Street.  It also had four two-room suites per floor on the lower floors and on tthe upper floors breathtaking views of the skyline and the lake could be seen from three-room suites.

Sammy Davis, Jr., The Monkees, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood and many others all came through the hotel.  But the most famous visit came at 2:00 p.m. on Friday, August 12 of 1966 when The Beatles came through Chicago on what would be their last tour of the United States.

In a suite on the 27th floor John Lennon was forced to defend himself in the flap over remarks about Christianity that he had made six months earlier. “I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down,” Lennon said. “I was just saying it as a fact . . . I’m not saying that we’re better, or greater or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is, you know.  I just said what I said and it was wrong, or was taken wrong.  And now it’s all this.”

Astor Tower was three-years-old. 

For a good look at the 1966 Astor Tower and the press conference that followed, check this out . . .