Sunday, June 26, 2011

Richard J. Daley Center (Part Two)

Southeast corner of Daley Center (JWB, 2008)

So Jacques Brownson is named to lead a team composed of talent from three great Chicago architectural firms to build the new Chicago Civic Center.  Immediately, there are two problems.  First, the purpose for which the building is being constructed makes it nearly impossible to build it in a conventional metal framework of supporting steel.  And second, the half-lot that is part of the original proposal is, in Brownson’s estimation, too small to allow for any room on the lot other than the building itself.

The second problem was easier to solve.  Even though it meant tearing down Henrici’s, the oldest restaurant in Chicago at the time, the city condemned the buildings on Randolph Street between Clark and Dearborn.

The problem of designing the building was a far more difficult one.  Because the Chicago Building Code labeled the structure an assembly building, it required the circulation of twice as much air as a normal office building.  What does that mean?  More duct work and bigger ducts.  There was already the problem of supporting a building with so many courtrooms and assembly spaces, a design which made it hard to move supporting columns through the interior of the building without disrupting those spaces.  The air circulation problem was added to that.

Massive cruciform columns to support the
87-foot spans on north & south sides (JWB, 2008)
Mr. Brownson and the engineers huddled and did some figuring.  If the span between columns was brought to eighty-seven or ninety feet, then the trusses would have to be close to five feet in height.  Trusses that impressive would provide enough room between the structure and the ceilings of the courtrooms to thread the air ducts and other mechanical equipment through the space.

Then came the call from C. F. Murphy.  He’s got John Roche in his office, and Roche is saying that the structure can’t be built as it is being designed.  Big problem.  Charles F. Murphy started out with Daniel Burnham’s firm as an executive assistant to Ernest Graham.  He's seen the Big Guys of the profession work their magic.  He's worked quite a lot of it himself.

The two men have known each other their whole lives and one man speaks, the other man listens. 

By the time Jacques Brownson gets there, both men are worked into a lather.  Old Man Murphy doesn’t waste any time.  He says, “I want you to stop work on the Civic Center project the way it’s going.  Go back to a normal building.  John Roche says that he can’t build it, that it can’t be done.  The spans are too big.  He just can’t handle it, and it’s not possible to build it.”

Brownson bought some time by not arguing.  Roche went back to his engineers and checked the arithmetic.  Eventually, the plan was developed.  Three eighty-seven foot spans on the long side of the building with eighteen feet of space between floors, six of that going for mechanical space.  That dwarfs nearly all other office buildings in which the average ceiling height is between eight and nine feet.

All of this done with a slide rule and a lot of figuring.  The computer was still in its early stages of development and there were no applications that use what little computing power it had to architecture and structural engineering.

Trusses six feet tall help to stiffen the building (JWB, 2008) 
About this time Brownson made a trip to Indianapolis where he ended up having lunch with a group of county commissioners who had just overseen the construction of a new courthouse.  One of them told him, “You know, I worked with county commissioners and building boards and all of this stuff.  It’s really hard to get them to make a decision on things.  They’ll just run you from pillar to post, all kinds of tricks and stuff, and you never get them to make a decision.”

“What do you do,” Brownson asked.

“Get the foundations in the ground.  Then they can’t back away.”

So into the ground the caissons went.  Paschen Brothers oversaw the work, sinking caissons sixteen-feet in diameter all the way to bedrock, one hundred six feet below ground.  There was no turning back.

Sometime this week . . . the final installment.  The project gets off the ground.

As was the case with the first installment on the Richard J. Daley Center, the source of this information is the transcript of Jacques Brownson’s interview with Betty J. Blum, part of the Chicago Architects’ Oral History program at the Burnham and Ryerson libraries, located at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Daley Center (Part One)

In my mind there is one building in Chicago, more than any other, that combines the primal energy of the city’s smoky, brawny past and the pinky-up hankering to rise out of the swamp as a world-class cultural player.  It was finished in 1965 and combined the collective talents of three great architectural firms in the city.  Of course, it is the Richard J. Daley Center and it sits on one of three great public plazas running between Dearborn and Clark from Jackson on the south to Randolph on the north, all three finished in the ten years between 1965 and 1974.

The Richard J. Daley Center (JWB, 2011)
Built of Cor-Ten steel, originally designed for use in railway hopper cars, and sitting atop massive 87-foot bays on its north and south sides, in 1965 the Civic Center proclaimed Chicago’s position in the very forefront of modern architecture.  The addition, in 1967, of a monolithic sculpture, donated by Pablo Picasso, also made a statement.  Although plenty controversial at the time, the Picasso shouted, “Wese in da windy city has got us some class.”

The whole shebang, the building, the statue and the great public mall was a message that underscored the old words of first ward alderman Hinky-Dink Kenna who once said, “Chicago ain’t no sissy city.”

In was a union in which the great firms of C. F. Murphy, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett contributed a total of 150 personnel to an independent entity titled the Chicago Civic Center Architects, operating out of Holabird and Roche’s Monroe Building at 104 South Michigan Avenue.

Jacques Calman Brownson
Jacques Brownson of C. F. Murphy was, for all intents and purposes, the head of the project.   (Much of the information in this blog comes from Mr. Brownson’s oral history at the Burnham Ryerson Library.)  C. F. Murphy was in charge of the structural planning, along with the building’s electrical systems.  Skidmore oversaw the planning of the heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems while Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett contributed personnel to help with the design of the building.  The arrangement was, to say the least, unusual and at the beginning of the process, unwieldy. 

Things began to move along more quickly once it was decided that there would be one building on the plaza that would contain somewhere around 150 courtrooms, along with the Board of Health, and, because of a fairly tight budget, no parking on the site.  Mr. Brownson observed, “I would walk over there early in the morning, late at night, all the time.  I kept going there.  I said, ‘. . . If it’s a courts building, it has to have a forecourt.  It has to be full of sunlight.’ Because Chicago is dark and cloudy and gloomy and dismal enough, you know.  I said, ‘It has to have sunlight in it.’”

Henrici's, the oldest restaurant in Chicago until 1962
The problem was that the original plan called for using just half the lot, preserving the older buildings that fronted Randolph Street, among them the much-loved Henrici’s, the oldest restaurant in town, established in 1868 and standing on Randolph since 1893.  With only half a lot the building would have to be erected without a plaza.

As Mr. Brownson tells the story, the team assembled a slide show to accompany their presentation of the model of the building to the Public Building Commission.  The last slide was a photograph of an old man and woman sitting within the crescent of columns in the palazzo of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with the sun shining on them.  Mayor Daley exclaimed, “That’s what we want!  That’s what we want!”

Picasso Meets Daley (JWB, 2008)
The serious business of designing the structure was far more complex, and much of the reason for that was the variety of purposes that space inside the structure had to serve.  Jury courtrooms had to provide space for a jury room and jury seating.  Conference rooms for lawyers were required.  Courtrooms that would hear larger cases needed more space with higher ceilings.  In the beginning, no matter what the plan was, the architects always ended up with a supporting column coming down through the middle of the space they were trying to create.

That’s where the idea for the massive bays that still make the Daley Center, as it is known today, an engineering marvel.  More to come in the next few days on the building the Boss built . . .

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thoughts on Becoming a Grandpa

Chicago gains a new citizen (KF, 2011)

Early on Monday morning Chicago grew greater by one soul when our new granddaughter, Madelyn Jane, took her first breath.  The city looked beautiful before, but it’s amazing how much more beautiful it has become with the addition of just one new citizen.

Life also became immeasurably richer for Jill and me as we became grandparents for the first time.  We’ve been waiting patiently for Maddie, and, I suppose, waiting patiently for a new whole phase of our lives to begin.  Now that she’s here . . . well . . . we’re about as happy as two folks have a right to be.

Coming to grips with the fact that I am a grandfather is a notion with which I am still tinkering.  Like most things this is just one more part of life’s long symphony of opposition.  

With the bright promise of a future defined by this new life there is some thought of the years that are now gone dark.  With the great joy of being a grandpa comes the undeniable realization that I am grown to an age where I now really am a grandpa. I trust that the pain in these old knees will disappear completely when I first stand behind a stroller out for a walk with precious little Maddie.

And Maddie will learn over time that just because Ryan Dempster pitched his heart out on the day she was born and the Cubbies bagged a 1-0 win against Prince Fielder and the first-place Brewers, it’s no guarantee that she’ll see the team do any better than her dad or her granddads have.

It’s funny . . . I was just talking to some old friends the other day, and I told them that one fine, crisp August day in 1967 I felt like I might be the first person in the world to live forever.  The last year of high school was just ahead, I was in love with the woman I would eventually marry, and  “Brown Eyed Girl” was playing on the radio of my parents’ 1966 Malibu.

To this day I remember thinking on that sunny summer’s day, “This has to go one forever.  How could it not?”

But at some point in life you begin to realize that it won’t go on forever and that the music one day will stop and the sunny days will end.

What you have left – after the family has been raised, after the job has been completed, after the hectic, worrisome, often exhilarating race across adulthood’s sea ends at AARP’s calm, little harbor – are three things.

First, that maybe, just maybe, one day before the sun goes down for the last time the Cubbies will kick the goat out of Chicago and win the World Series, preferably by beating St. Louis in the Divisional Series and the White Sox in game seven of the championship. 

Secondly, that everybody’s right about this Heaven thing and that the Yellow Brick Road leads to something so mysteriously beautiful that you don’t even miss Costco.

But most importantly, there is the thought that a part of you lives through the lives you have touched.  Jill and I are lucky.  We raised two daughters who make us proud every single day.  We’ve got a great son-in-law who will be a supportive and nurturing hero of a father to this beautiful girl.

We didn’t know anything about being a parent when we started out; none of us do.  But we did the best we could, and despite our steep learning curve, Kristen and Kimberly not only survived, they ended up bright, independent and funny.

And now Kimberly and Ryan have given us a new opportunity to go at it.  That’s the great promise of the future . . . to see this little five-pound gem grow into a woman ready to dazzle the world.   The great promise – love and family and seeing it all through with courage, commitment and compassion.  Now little Maddie is here to teach us that lesson all over again.

In the end, that’s the only lesson that matters. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Edwin Colvin House at 5940 North Sheridan

The Edwin Colvin House at 5940 North Sheridan, designed by George W. Maher (JWB, 2011)

Across the street from George Lane Beach Park at the corner of Thorndale and Sheridan Road stands a handsome mansion designed by George W. Maher.  Maher was born in West Virginia, attended elementary school in Indiana and after his family moved to Chicago, began work at the age of 13 in the offices of Augustus Bauer and Henry Hill.  At the age of 61, he took his own life, but not before designing over 270 projects that incorporated both the Arts and Crafts and Prairie Style elements. 

G. W. Maher
His son, Philip B. Maher, who took over his father’s practice upon the elder Maher’s death is responsible for some of the great Art Deco designs that contributed mightily to the magnificence of the mile on the north side of the DuSable Bridge.

The Edwin Colvin house at 5940 North Sheridan Road was finished in 1909 and was built for the vice-president of the W. F. Hall Printing Company.  Edwin Colvin was born in 1867 in Buchanan Michigan and moved with his family to Ohio and Kentucky before finally apprenticing himself to a Michigan printer at the age of 14.  Four years later he headed for Chicago where, after a series of jobs in the industry, he joined W. F. Hall in 1899.

How about that?  The architect began his working life at the age of 13 . . . the printer at 14.  I would imagine they understood each other pretty well.

Front entrance with planter (JWB, 2011)
In 1908 Mr. Colvin and Robert M. Eastman purchased W. F. Hall upon the death of its founder, William F. Hall.  Mr. Eastman assumed the role of President while Mr. Colvin served as Vice-President.  Mr. Colvin also served as Vice-President of the Central Typesetting Company and as President of the Photoplay Publishing Company.  Photoplay Magazine, by the way, is considered by many to have founded what now we call celebrity media.  As early as 1918 the magazine had a circulation of over 200,000, and it became even more popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

W. F. Hall was begun in 1892 by its namesake, William Franklin Hall in what is now Printer’s Row.  In 1908 the concern moved north to Chicago and Kingsbury and at one time employed over a thousand workers.  In 1916 the plant, which was enlarged in 1918, produced 15,300,000 magazines, 14,245,000 periodicals, 12,248,000 catalogues, and 21,950,000 supplementary catalogues.  The production required 56,583,000 pounds of white paper and 885,000 pounds of ink and averaged a daily output of 188,610 pounds of catalogues and magazines.

Detail of second story window on Sheridan (JWB, 2011)
It appears that Mr. Colvin was doing fine.

The mansion on Sheridan Road, although it is one of the few survivors on the street from the glories of the first part of the twentieth century and cries out for attention, is a striking combination of classical forms and the horizontal rhythms of the Prairie Style.  One cannot help but notice that classical dormer two stories above the imposing front entrance, also classically designed – and on either side of the entrance . . . those planters could have come directly from the studio of Joseph Lymon Silsbee at which both George Maher and Frank Lloyd Wright worked.

The long, low elevation of the home as it faces Sheridan Road is a classic Prairie Style design, complete with its broad, overhanging eaves and yellow Roman brick.  So is the low hip-roof out of which that classical dormer protrudes.  The arched front entrance and the brick-lined porch reflect the Arts and Crafts emphasis on natural materials and artistry in construction.

Thorndale entrance with porte cochere and garage (JWB, 2011)
Especially striking is the Thorndale or south side of the house where in one sweeping arc the first floor cornice meets the port cochere and continues on to incorporate the three bays of the garage in its organic form.  I'm thinking it’s a beautiful way to come home on a rainy night.

There appears to be some work that is going on at 5940, but a heck of a lot more needs to be done, judging by the look of the lot and the way the concrete is crumbling, especially at the front and rear entrances.  It’s a handsome home, one worth investing in.  This is what wealth looked like back when Chicagoans were still trying to figure out how to get across the river. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

1400 North Astor Street

The Perry H. Smith Residence at 1400 North Astor (JWB, 2011)

Stop at the corner of Huron and Michigan Avenue today, and you’ll see the Allerton Hotel on one corner and the Chicago Place mall on the other.  Back in the 1880’s, though, Michigan Avenue was called Pine Street, and the intersection of Pine and Huron is where Perry H. Smith made his home.  It was in that home that Mr. Smith went to his eternal reward on March 29, 1895.

Perry Smith was born in Watertown, New York in 1828, attended Hamilton University where he finished second in his class and was practicing law by the time he was 21-years-old.  He didn’t wait long to head west . . . by the time he was 22, he was in Wisconsin, first in Kenosha and then in Appleton.

Porch Detail at 1400 N. Astor (JWB, 2011)
It was in Appleton, a newly established town, that he became the town’s first judge at the age of 23.  He was subsequently elected to the Wisconsin House of Representatives and then to the Senate.  Before he was 30-years-old, he was the Vice-President of the Chicago, St. Paul and Fond du Lac Railroad.  When that line merged with the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, he served in the same position with the company that William Ogden headed.

After a dozen years Mr. Smith retired from the railroad and assumed the role of a private citizen – a wealthy private citizen.  He had invested wisely, and at his death his estate approximated a million dollars.  Only once did he step out of retirement and that was to run for Mayor of Chicago against Monroe Heath in 1876, an election which Heath, the Republican, won by a wide majority.

Upon Smith’s death, his estate was divided between his wife and children, and the youngest son, Perry H., Jr., built a new home at 1400 North Astor Street, a red brick beauty designed by the firm of Henry Ives Cobb and Charles Summers Frost. 

Both architects left their marks on Chicago, together and independently.  Two years before the Smith home was finished on Astor, the architects’ plan for Potter Palmer’s opulent mansion had been completed on Lake Shore Drive.  Henry Ives Cobb designed the Newberry Library and the master plan for the University of Chicago.  Frost’s most well known work consists of the head house and auditorium at Navy Pier.

Brick work on center windows-1400 N. Astor (JWB, 2011)
The partnership dissolved in 1888 at which point Charles Frost went to work as the chief architect for a railroad.  Guess which one?  Right.  The Chicago and Northwestern.  Ah, connections . . . they’re so important.

The Astor Street residence sits on a long, narrow lot with it entrance facing south on Schiller.  Two bays, one on the east side of the entrance and one on the west, sit on either side of the arched entryway.  Ornamentation is modest, limited to the porch, the eastern bay and with brick ornament at the top of the gables. 

Hammond, Beeby, Rupert and Ainge designed a 3,000 square foot addition at the west of the property, completed in 1991, which houses a master bedroom suite and large kitchen. The addition is so skillfully interwoven with the original structure that you would have to look hard to see where one left off and the other began.  Of course, historicism was familiar to the firm as a variation of the partnership designed the Harold Washington Library, also completed in 1991.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Photo of the Week: Rain on My Parade

Lake Michigan after the Sunday storm . . . open water near the horizon as the storm clouds move east (JWB, 2011)

One of the great annual events in Chicago comes on Sunday of Memorial Day weekend when the powers that be shut down Lake Shore Drive, north and south, and allow bike riders to navigate a 30-mile circuit down the middle of one of the great urban roadways in the world.

There ain’t no road just like it . . . anywhere I’ve found.

The experience is always a blast, no matter what the weather.  Weather-wise, we had a little bit of everything this past Sunday.  My daughter, Kristen, and I headed south from Diversey at 5:45 with our wristbands prominently displayed.  We were at the Sullivan Arch at Columbus and Monroe by 6:05, where we picked up my friend, Ron, who had driven in from Channahon in heavy fog.

The fog never lifted.  It was hard to tell as we headed north to the Hollywood turnaround where we were at any point.  The city was shrouded in a thick cloud, and we were cycling through the middle of it.  It made the sense of peaceful quiet that always comes from thousands of cyclists zipping along one of the busiest highways in the city even more pronounced.

The fog continued throughout the morning as we discovered at 57th Street when the Museum of Science and Industry suddenly appeared out of the mist.  Fortunately, the winds were light and the going was easy.  It was another great day, shared with thousands of other Chicagoans, all of them up early and prepared for rolling along between the great lake and the city they love.

You work up a big appetite after 30 or 40 miles on the road, so the three of us headed for the Cosi on Michigan Avenue and had ourselves some good coffee and a nice, hot breakfast.  There are few things better on a Sunday then casual conversation, lots of laughs and good coffee.  That’s especially true after planting your rear on a bicycle seat for three hours.

Just as I was headed for the second cup of coffee, Kristen held up her I-Phone and said, “Hey, guys, you better look at this.”  On the screen was a blotch of red and yellow that had not been there a half-hour before.  Thunderstorms were on the way.

So the three of us scurried back to Grant Park to pick up our bikes, and after saying good-bye to Ron, Kristen and I started back north to Diversey, four miles away.  In the rain.  In really heavy rain.

By the time we cleared the Roosevelt Bridge and rounded Oak Street, the real heavy-duty action began.  A person feels very vulnerable, riding along a large body of water on the seat of a bicycle, the tallest object in the area, with lightning flashing all around. 

We made it to the North Avenue beach house . . . alive.  I paid seven bucks for a yellow plastic poncho that Kristen used to keep the I-Phone alive, and we moved on, finally arriving back home, soaked to the skin and covered in the sand our wheels threw up as we pedaled along the beach.

On the Inner Drive the water was so high that ducks were swimming next to the curb across the street from the Diversey driving range.

The rest of the afternoon was a mixture of heavy storms and a strange fog that repeatedly moved west from the lake and fell back again almost as if the lake were breathing.  The above picture gives a good idea of how strange that afternoon was as the storm clouds once again head east and the lake sends forth another layer of fog.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Mid-Century Modernism in Chicago--Part One

From the Office of Mies van der Rohe -- Chicago's Federal Center (JWB, 2008)

So . . . here’s a lesson for you . . . Walter Gropius ends up in Cambridge and his 52-year-old Bauhaus buddy ends up in a midwestern cow town where the smoke from belching steam engines turns everything to a tweedy gray.

Less is more.  We can’t all go to Harvard.

Anyway, Mies accepts the directorship of the School of Architecture at the Armour Institute, and in the early days walks down Michigan Avenue from the Blackstone Hotel to the Art Institute, from which he directs the program.  In his inaugural address he says, “The long path from material to function to completed work has only a single goal – to create order out of the desperate confusion of our time.”

And order it was, beginning with the 1949 Promontory Apartments.

Miesian design meant three things, basically. 

Inland Steel Building of 1958 (JWB, 2008)
• Volume, rather than mass . . . a pound of feathers over a pound of lead.  Mid-century modern design appears lighter than previous design styles because it is.  There is space for far more feathers in a pound of Miesian design than in the heavy, leaden designs that came before.  And the lightness shows as the vast majority of these buildings are lifted off their sites and float on two or three transparent stories of glass. 

• Regularity, rather than symmetry . . . in mid-century modern design the form of the building stems directly from its function.  Office space is king, and the regular horizontal rows of stacked office spaces are the glassy robes the new sovereign wears.  So the Daley Center in Chicago carries 30 floors in its 648 feet (198 meters) to accommodate the high-ceilinged courtrooms inside while the original Brunswick Building, originally an office building directly across the street packs five more stories, 35 floors, into 200 fewer feet, rising 445 feet (145 meters).

• Elimination of external ornamentation . . . at the beginning of the twentieth century Chicago had over one hundred stone yards, each yard with its own set of sculptors.  Walk through any neighborhood in the city, and you’ll see the work of those sculptors.  By the end of the 1950’s they were all gone as were the great terra cotta companies that had provided the ornamentation for such great structures as the Wrigley Building, the Reliance, Fisher and Santa Fe.

Order out of confusion . . . the idea makes sense in big cities, especially in a world just emerging from a war that has claimed the lives of between 62 and 78 million people.

Order out of confusion . . . some of the best representatives of this mid-century modern style stand right here in Chicago, largely the product of Mies van der Rohe or students he taught.

Here are a few . . .

Flamingo and the Dirksen Building, Federal Plaza (JWB, 2008)
Federal Center on both sides of Dearborn between Jackson and Adams, completed between 1964 and 1974 and designed by Mies van der Rohe.  Standing on graph paper of 4’ 8” granite pavers the grout lines of which unify the space, the black glass-and-steel Kluczynski, Dirksen and post office buildings pivot around the 53-foot explosion of Alexander Calder’s Flamingo.

55 East Jackson reflecting D. H. Burnham's Railway Exchange (JWB, 2008)
55 East Jackson, finished in 1962 for the CNA insurance group, this C. F. Murphy building with its 54-foot bays is just a half-block off Michigan Avenue.  Walk out to Michigan and look north . . . you’ll see the 1955 Prudential Building, designed by Naess and Murphy.  That’s the same Murphy. What a difference a half-dozen years makes.

The 87-foot bays at the Daley Center (JWB, 2008)
The Richard J. Daley Center, occupying the block bounded by Washington, Randolph, Dearborn and Clark.  Jacques Brownson and C. F. Murphy gave hizzoner exactly what he was looking for, a massive building that proclaimed the power of government while at the same time unequivocally shouting that this was a regime that looked forward and not back.  54-foot bays at 55 East Jackson.  Try 87-footers here.

Commonwealth Plaza takes a bath (JWB, 2011)
Commonwealth Plaza at 330 and 340 West Diversey, just north of Lincoln Park.  This would have been four Mies van der Rohe designed residential towers if the developer, Herbert Greenwald, hadn’t died in a plane crash.  The two towers are variations on the classic form the two began at Promontory Point and came to world-wide prominence with 860 and 880 North Lake Shore Drive.

5415 North Sheridan (JWB, 2011)
The Solomon, Cordwell Buenz design at 5415 North Sheridan Road.  Finished in 1973, its triangular design with rounded edges, along with the dark glass-and-steel of its exterior, puts one ever so slightly in mind of Lake Point Tower, finished just five years earlier.  The building is the tallest in the Edgewater neighborhood, has unobstructed lake views, with over 700 condominiums.

Harvard was lucky to get Gropius.  Chicago was even luckier to get Mies.  Stay tuned for more of these great mid-century modern buildings in the weeks and months to come.