Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Montgomery Ward Warehouse at 600 West Chicago (Part One)


The Montgomery  Ward Warehouse on the Chicago River at 600 West Chicago (JWB, 2011)

In his Kindergarten Chats Louis Sullivan, the great architect and thinker, wrote:  “it is the pervading law of all things organic, and inorganic, of all things, physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function.  This is the law.”

At the beginning of the twentieth century this may have been the law to Sullivan.  But the law didn’t apply to everyone.  Architecture during this period, a period that followed the first generation of great buildings in Chicago, by the collision of two forces.

On one side Sullivan and his crew argued for an architecture that spoke of its time and place  . . . and its purpose.  On the other side were the keepers of tradition, who argued for design that ennobled the place where it was built, a style that created a “city beautiful.”

Schmidt, Garden & Martin's design for the largest reinforced
concrete building in the world when it was finished in 1908 (JWB, 2011)
Of course, this oversimplifies the case, and the temptation is to praise one or damn the other, depending on how one’s tastes run.  The bottom line is that the first ten or fifteen years of the twentieth century were an amazingly eclectic and vital time in Chicago.

This vitality and eclecticism can be seen in a remarkable series of designs by a firm that came together in 1906 – Schmidt, Garden & Martin.  And none of the designs that the partnership produced is more impressive than the Montgomery Ward warehouse at 600 West Chicago.

Richard Ernest Schmidt was born in Bavaria in 1865 and came to Chicago with his family after the Civil War.  He studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first architectural program in the country, a course of study patterned after the curriculum at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.  He worked for a number of firms, including that of Charles Summer Frost, before starting his own practice in 1887.  It was Schmidt who brought the business knowledge to Schmidt, Garden & Martin that led to its great success.

Hugh Mackie Gorden Garden was born in Toronto in 1873.  At the age of 14 he moved with his family to Minneapolis, where his father died, necessitating the young man’s employment as a draftsman to support the family.  The family moved to Chicago in the 1880’s where the building boom promised better opportunities.  Garden worked in the offices of some of the greats – Sheply, Routan and Coolidge, Howard Van Doren Shaw, Henry Ives Cobb, and Frank Lloyd Wright.  His association with the Chicago Architectural Club and the young designers at Steinway Hall with their “Prairie Style” preferences influenced his career immeasurably. (FInd more about the Steinway Hall designers here.) As the talented designer, Garden complemented the business sense of  Richard Schmidt perfectly, and they combined their talents in 1895.

Modest terra cotta ornament, echoing the organic designs of
Louis Sullivan and the Prairie Style designers (JWB, 2011)
Eleven years later Schmidt and Garden added a partner, Edgar Martin.  The new partner was a skilled structural engineer, a man well-versed in the problems of designing and building large industrial buildings with state-of-the-art (in 1906) materials.

These were the three men to whom Montgomery Ward, immersed in a decade-long struggle to save Grant Park from those who would have it filled with great public buildings that adhered to the classical tradition, turned.  He must have made the decision consciously, perhaps thinking . . . I’m asking for a warehouse here, a huge warehouse, the biggest warehouse in the world.  I don’t want a monument . . . I want something that will do the work for which it is suited, an honest building that will say we’re moving forward as a company and not looking back at a time when praetors and consuls turned the lions loose on the gladiators.

It was a great business decision, and it produced a great structure about which Carl Condit, the architectural historian, has said, “This building stands by itself as one of the most powerful works of utilitarian architecture that our building art has produced.”

In the next blog . . . a look at Montgomery Ward and his grand building at 600 North Chicago. 

3 comments:

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