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.

1 comment:

Tony said...

We are so spoiled to live in a place with such amazing architecture! I, for one, take it for granted all too often. Thanks for the reminders!