Monday, May 9, 2011

Tops on the Chicago RIver

Writing under the direction of the Commercial Club of Chicago, Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett provided a far-reaching plan for the entire Chicago area in their Chicago Plan of 1909.  One can argue about the magnitude of the plan and its effect on the city’s growth, but there is no arguing about this statement, “Michigan Avenue is probably destined to carry the heaviest movement of any street in the world.  Any boulevard connection in Michigan Avenue which fails to recognize the basic importance of the avenue will be a waste of money and energy.  Any impairment of the capacity of this street at any point along its entire front, any weakening of this foundation, is an error of the first magnitude.”

The swing bridge at Wells Street
with Northwestern Depot beyond
Chicago, in confronting the weight of these words, had a problem with Michigan Avenue – the Chicago River.  Michigan Avenue already ran from the river all the way south to the city limits by the year of the Great Fire in 1871.  But, heading north, there was no dependable way to cross the river.  Bridging the river came in the form of swing bridges, the most important one being at Wells Street, a structure that led to the Northwestern Railroad’s terminal at Wells and Kinzie.

But the swing bridges were cumbersome and subject to frequent breakdowns. As long as they were the principal means of crossing the river, Michigan Avenue would not be extended north, and the wealthy residents of the city would continue to build their mansions south of downtown in what is now the Prairie Avenue Historic District.

Various schemes were hatched to solve the problem, including a plan to build a tunnel under the river at Michigan Avenue.  Then on May 31, 1903 The Chicago Tribune ran an editorial stating that the only way to create a unified Michigan Avenue was to condemn the land on the north side of the river and build a bridge sufficiently large enough to carry both passenger and freight traffic.

“The scheme is practicable,” the editorial declared. “With energy and determination it can be carried out.  It may seem expensive, but the cost will be a trifle as compared with hundred of street improvement which are going on in London and Paris at the present time.”

Pont Alexandre III detail (JWB, 2010)
Finally, 17 years after the editorial and over a decade after the Chicago Plan was published, Chicago got its bridge.  Edward H. Bennett, who wrote the Chicago Plan with Daniel Burnham designed the bridge, taking inspiration from the Pont Alexandre III in Paris.  Pine Street, a narrow street on the north side of the river leading to the pumping station and waterworks, became the northern extension of Michigan Avenue, and the city was transformed.

Within ten years at least a half-dozen great skyscrapers were erected near the bridge before the construction stopped as a result of the worldwide Depression.  These were great buildings, meant to showcase the power of the firms they housed, but more than that, meant to prove to the world that Chicago could hold its own with any city on the planet.  They were designed with magnificence in mind, majestic to the eye and built with the latest innovations in engineering.

Nowhere do they declare this combination of beauty, power, and innovation more emphatically than in their crowns.  To look at the tops of these buildings was to realize that Chicago was more than just a stacker of wheat and player with railroads.  This was a city on the move.

Here’s what I mean . . .

The Wrigley Building Clock Tower (JWB, 2010)
The Wrigley Building was begun in 1921 and finished in 1924.  Charles Beersman, working for the great firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White modeled the tower of the south building after the Jeralda Tower in Seville Spain, choosing French Renaissance detailing for this study in shimmering white terra cotta.

The 360 N. Michigan Belevedere (JWB, 2010)
The London Guarantee and Accident Building, now 360 North Michigan, was finished in 1923.  Alfred Alschuler, a prolific designer who created buildings ranging from the Brach Candy Factory to the K.A.M. Isaiah Israel synagogue in Hyde Park, created a building that spoke at once of power and timelessness.  The belvedere atop the building is said to reference the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.

Tribune Tower complete with flying buttresses (JWB, 2010)
Two New York architects, John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, split a fifty thousand dollar first place prize for their winning design for the Chicago Tribune’s headquarters, which was finished in 1925.  Hood was designing radiator covers for the American Radiator Company when his design was chosen from 258 entries sent in from 23 countries.  The unadorned shaft of the building reflects the art deco style of the 1920’s, but the flying buttresses and neo-Gothic mass at the top of the building clearly proclaimed a publisher who saw himself as doing important work with universal implications.
Dinkelberg's fantastic dome atop 35 E. Wacker (JWB, 2010)
Frederick Dinkelberg and Joachim Javer designed the Jewelers’ Building across the river and just up Wacker Drive from Alschuler’s London Guarantee Building. Dinkelberg had worked his entire career for Daniel Burnham, even designing the Flatiron Builidng just off Madison Square Park in New York City.  The Jewelers' Building, now 35 East Wacker, was long on engineering – it was the first large building in the city with indoor parking – and long on classical design, forty stories of it.  Hard to believe that Dinkelberg’s widow had to take a collection among Chicago architects to scrape together enough money to bury her husband when he died in 1935.

The Burnham Brothers' Triumph (JWB, 2010)
Finally, the building that looks great in the sunshine, the art deco headquarters for the Carbide and Carbon Corporation, now the Hard Rock Hotel, just south of the bridge on Michigan Avenue.  Designed by the sons of the great Daniel Burnham, Daniel and Hubert, the study in black granite, green terra cotta and gold leaf was finished in 1929. That’s real gold up there on the top of the building, a summing up of all the excess that was the 1920’s, excess that turned into a mocking symbol as the country and the world slipped into the hard times of the 1930’s.

Chicago got its long-awaited bridge in 1920.  In the ten years that followed the city got far more than an easy way to cross the river.     

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