Monday, July 18, 2011

Richard J. Daley Center (Part Three)

Cor-Ten steel and the Daley Center (JWB, 2008)

Once the pouring of the caissons began on Chicago’s new Civic Center, there was no turning back.  Already thousands of hours of work and hundreds of pages of drawings had gone into the planning of the impressive building with the 87-foot bays. 

Jacques Brownson was adamant about the fact that the exterior of the building would reflect the power in its design.  “. . . I wanted it to be a steel building.  I didn’t want it covered with marble.  I wanted to have a structure,” he said in a later interview.

He got his wish.  The decision was made to use Cor-Ten steel in the fabrication of the exterior elements of the building.  The United States Steel product had originally been developed for the bottoms of railroad hopper cars.  In addition to its resistance to the elements, it was a much stronger material than the steel of the that time.  New tools were required to fabricate it because of the additional force needed to shape and work it. 

One of the first uses of Cor-Ten in a commercial structure was in the John Deere Building in Moline, Illinois where Eero Saarinen, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo chose Cor-Ten to clad the building in accordance with company president William Hewitt’s insistence that the headquarters should avoid the latest trend of glass boxes and instead be more down-to-earth and rugged.  The Deere headquarters opened just a year before the Civic Center was completed, clearly indicating how quickly the Chicago building was planned and constructed.

The representative of United States Steel (the only other bidder on the project was Bethlehem Steel) was Mack Corner who submitted a bid for $13,1313,313. 

“I can’t understand,” said Brownson.  “I understand the thirteen million, but then you go into three hundred thirteen thousand, three hundred thirteen dollars.”

Corner replied, “Yes, I like threes.  I feel very comfortable with threes in the bid.”

The Richard J. Daley Center's massive cruciform columns (JWB, 2008)
So everything is cool, and Mr. Brownson jets down to the University of Florida where the windows proposed for the building were to be tested.  He’s sitting at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami when the waiter says, “Did you hear about the big accident up in Chicago that just happened this afternoon.  A building that is under construction fell down.”

There was only one building in Chicago that was under construction.

The fourth and fifth floors of the Civic Center had collapsed.

The investigation that followed the accident revealed that faulty welding was at the heart of the disaster.  Welders were paid by the amount of weld they laid down, and someone on the night shift had cheated a little, laying little pieces of welding rod in the joints and welding over the top of them.  On the outside the joint looked great, but good looks were not going to work in a building as massive as the new Civic Center.  United States Steel changed their procedures, and the work went on.

These days with all of the green roofs and L.E.E.D. certifications, one might think that this hulking steel tower might seem hopelessly obsolete.  But what we now call the Daley Center was and still is remarkably sensitive to the environment. The windows in the building are of dark tinted glass, which serves two purposes.  There is the obvious effect on energy use.  But the windows also darken the hallways, making it easier to see what is going on in the courtrooms without opening doors and disturbing the proceedings.

All of the materials are native to the area.  Solid oak for all the doors.  White oak for the benches and woodwork.  All the carpeting is natural wool.  The granite is from Minnesota.  The arms of the jurors’ chairs are upholstered, so that nervous jurors, scratching away at the furniture, won’t do a whole lot of damage.

Then there is that great plaza, Chicago’s agora.  And on the east side the three flagpoles just north of the eternal flame, poles 116 feet tall, composed of three pieces of continuously welded three-inch steel plate, fabricated by the American Bridge Company, the only company that felt that it could undertake the assignment.

American Bridge Company's flag poles and the Picasso (JWB, 2008)
And just to the west of those massive flagpoles is the element that makes the plaza, the Picasso statue.  (Jacques Brownson would disagree with the notion that the statue makes the plaza.  If it had been left to him, the plaza would have been open public space with the statue on the west side of the building.)

How the statue, a gift from the world’s foremost artist, came to Chicago makes for an interesting story, a tale that William Hartmann tells in his oral interview with Betty Blum. 

All three firms working on the Daley Center project agreed that Pablo Picasso was their man.  When they checked with the mayor, according to Hartmann, Daley said, “Well, if he’s the best in the world, go ahead and try it . . . I trust you.”

At the Art Institute Hartmann found Allan McNab, an Englishman, and McNab knew Robert Penrose, who had written a biography of Picasso in England.  Penrose agreed to contact the great artist, suggesting that Hartmann do the same.  Penrose encouraged Hartmann to suggest that sometime soon he would be n the south of France and would like to drop in and discuss the project with Picasso. 

Pablo Picasso's gift to Chicago (JWB, 2008)
“Penrose said that is the way to do it,” Hartmann said.  “You don’t make an appointment with Picasso.  You don’t make an appointment at all . . . you telephone and say you happen to be nearby, and he’ll say come up today or come up tomorrow, and beyond that you can’t get an appointment.”

As the Civic Center was being built, William Hartmann, Norm Schlossman, and Charles Murphy arrived at Picasso’s villa at Mougins.  Hartmann had come prepared, loaded with “a lot of materials, including a small model and lots of photographs.  Photographs of Chicagoans and photographs of Chicago and historical photographs, a whole collection of things to stimulate and things to show the importance of the site, of course, and what surrounds it and what it meant to the city.”  Included in the package was a picture of Ernest Hemingway, a close friend of Picasso’s. the man whom Picasso had taught everything he knew about bullfighting.

Picasso was offered no guarantees that his work would be accepted although he a common arrangement whereby the artist would be paid to undertake a preliminary study of the project.  Picasso was noncommittal, saying, “I’m not going to agree to that now but I’ll think about it.”

Months went by with no word from Picasso.  Hartmann continued to make trips to Picasso, bringing artifacts with him each trip, hoping the inspiration might spark the master’s temperament . . . a baseball cap, a message from the mayor, at one point even a Sioux Indian war bonnet.

Then the word came.  Picasso had something to show.  A delegation was quickly put together, and the visit was arranged.  The whole delegation arrived in southern France, “full of glorious expectations.” 

(JWB, 2008)
A call was made to confirm the visit.  Picasso wasn’t there.  His personal assistant suggested calling the following day.  The next day . . . Picasso still gone.  The next day?  Not there.  It went on for a week.

“He knew we were coming.  We met other people who had come to see him, too, during that period, and they were all bewildered.  So, one by one, people began to disappear, leaving just Penrose and me.”

Finally, Hartmann, who frankly admitted his reluctance to be the sole judge of Picasso’s work, got in touch with the artist while checking his bags at the Nice airport for his return to Chicago.  “Oh how are you,” Picasso said.  “Where have you been?  Come up immediately.”

So, finally Hartmann was able to make a proposal about the sculpture.  Again, he offered to pay Picasso for the studies necessary to complete the proposal.  Picasso’s answer was, “You know, I may not produce anything. I may produce something that you don’t like . . . It wouldn’t be good for me to have you turn down something, and it wouldn’t be good for you to turn down something that I’ve done.  So, it’s best we keep this low-key all the way through, keep it calm and relatively confidential.”

Back and forth between Chicago and Mougins Hartmann went, each time carrying new sources of possible inspiration.  It became evident that Picasso was enchanted with the project.  “It’s curious,” he said.  “Marseilles wants me to do a civic sculpture and that’s a gangster city and Chicago wants me to do a civic sculpture and it’s a gangster city.  Isn’t it strange?”

(JWB, 2008)
Finally, there it was – a 42-inch maquette that is still on display at the Art Institute.  Hartmann returned to Chicago with it immediately.

A gallery was secured in the Art Institute, lighting was arranged, and the members of the Building Commission was ushered in to view the maquette that awaited their approval.  The last one in was Mayor Daley, who had said something early in the process about his hopes for a piece that spoke of blind justice and the wings of an eagle.

According to Hartmann, the Mayor’s reaction was, “Hmm, I like it.”  The members of the Building Commission followed his lead.

It became clear that the sculpture should be of steel, the same steel as the new Civic Center.  U. S. Steel came up with a bid of around $300,000. 

“Well, it would be much better if the taxpayers didn’t have to pay for this, if it was supported somehow by the public,” Mayor Daley opined. 

In one single meeting representatives of the Deering Foundation, the Woods Charitable Fund and the Field Foundation pledged one hundred grand apiece to get the gigantic sculpture built.

One glitch, though, Picasso still had not named his price for the great work.  Hartmann took a check for $100,000 with him and headed for France.  After preliminaries where Hartmann showed the working drawings, outlining how Picasso’s original dimensions would be changed in the finished work, the talk came around to money.

The great man was given the check as Hartmann began the negotiations. “We couldn’t begin to pay you for what this work represents and all this but everybody is so appreciative and loves it so much, and I have this check which is a token form the people of Chicago and I hope you’ll accept it.” Hartmann said as he handed Picasso the check.

Picasso took it, examined it, and then passed it back to his wife, with a one-word response, “No.”

Hartmann’s reaction?  “I fell through the floor . . . Here I’m going to get a bill for a million dollars or God knows what, right?”

“No,” Picasso repeated and then paused. “I want this to be my gift to you and the people of Chicago.”  And he passed the check back to Hartmann.

Chicago greeted its new sculpture with proper deference.  The city had refused to close the streets around the Civic Center for the dedication ceremony, festivities that featured Gwendolyn Brooks and the Chicago Symphony.  But the streets closed anyway, as people crowded into them to be a part of the dedication.

There were detractors, of course.  Alderman John Hoellen said, “if It’s an animal it belongs in the zoo, if it’s art it belongs in the art museum, but get it out of our parade ground!”

But, of course, the great work has stood the test of time.  Think of Chicago and it will be one of a half-dozen images that personify the city.  It couldn’t be in a better place, in front of one of the most remarkable works of architecture in the city, with one blind eye and the wings of an eagle rising monumentally above the gangster city.

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