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 . . .

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