Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Powhatan - Happy Birthday

The Powhatan, begun this day in 1927 (JWB, 2012)

With the wind at my back I whipped along the Lakefront Trail this afternoon on a brisk late September afternoon to wish the Powhatan Apartments a very happy birthday.  It was on this day in 1927 that ground was broken on one of the more exuberant moments in Art Deco history.  Combining the sleek, geometric forms that characterized the movement with references to Native American culture, a product of the spirit of nationalism that the country embraced after World War I, this beautifully preserved tower is a gem at Forty-Ninth Street and the lake.

Front Entrance of The Powhatan, Native American motifs abounding (JWB, 2012)
In 1927 The Chicago Tribune described the proposed building as “characterized by the sweeping lines of the most up to the minute thought in American architecture,” adding that it would “present an imposing appearance from the parkland now being reclaimed from the lake, on which it will face.”  (In another one of the amazing number of public works projects that the city completed in the 1920’s, 568 acres of parkland were reclaimed from Lake Michigan between Twenty-Third and Fifty-Seventh Streets.)

Entrance detail (JWB, 2012)
As originally designed The Powhatan had 54 apartments, ranging in size form six to ten rooms.  Charles Morgan was responsible for the exterior design of the building with Robert De Golyer providing the design for the interior spaces.

The beauty and streamlined nature of the multi-hued spandrels (JWB, 2012)
Charles Morgan graduated from The University of Illinois in 1913, served as a professor of architecture at Kansas University and Florida Southern College.  He also was an associate architect with Frank Lloyd Wright’s firm.  Mr. Morgan’s Chicago office was appropriately located at 333 North Michigan Avenue, one of Chicago’s greatest Art Deco towers.  Unfortunately, Mr. Morgan died at the age of 56, drowning in the Coottee River off New Port Ritchey after taking a rowboat into the river to retrieve a ball for a group of children.

Spandrel (JWB, 2012)
Robert DeGolyer specialized in upscale apartment and co-op buildings on Lake Shore Drive.  In addition to The Powhatan, between 1925 and 1930 he designed 1120, 1242, 3500 and 3750 North Lake Shore Drive and the Worcester House on East Pearson.   He was born in Chicago in 1876 and graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1898.  He worked in Los Angeles for three years before returning to Chicago and entering the firm of Marshall and Fox, at which he worked from 1906 to 1915.  Although noted for those upscale projects, he also was the lead architect in a group of 15 designers who drew the plans for the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a 925 unit public housing project on the north branch of the Chicago River, bisected by Diversey Boulevard.  This project, in which only 17.6 percent of the land was covered with buildings, is in the news again.  Find the information here.

Representative Spandrel on the Upper Floors (JWB, 2012)
The principal materials used in the design of The Powhatan’s exterior are Indiana limestone and terra cotta.  At the base of the building the spandrels, or the ornamental pieces between the top of a window and the bottom of the window above it, are of a black terra cotta design that features Native American and wildlife motifs.

Minute detail from front canopy (JWB, 2012)
Above the third floor all of the spandrels are finished in terra cotta, each spandrel containing eight hues ranging from red to green.  A Tribune article of 1929 describes these spandrels as consisting of “wavy lines, giving impressionistic suggestions of Indian arrow heads, wigwams, the sun, moon, lightning and elements worshiped by the redskins..  At the bottom of each spandrel is a wavy effect to give the impression of the adjacent waters of the lake.”

Color Spandrel (Note waves at bottom and lightning bolts)  (JWB,2012)
Standing in front of this grand Art Deco lady under a blue September sky with the lake at my back, it was easy to ignore the Lake Shore Drive traffic speeding past a hundred yards or so away.  The Powhatan looks as good as she did back in the late 1920’s, and I’m glad I took some time a great Chicago September day to ride down and wish her a happy birthday.

Happy Birthday . . . you're looking better than ever (JWB, 2012)


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Anonymous said...

Love the tribute.. For a while now,I have been trying to find out more about this magnificent building! Back in 2000,I was lucky enough to acquire an etching of Frank Lloyd Wright that Charles Morgan executed. Along with the etching,I picked up numerous preliminary sketches including the Powhatan . Was also lucky to pick up the original Blueprints for a building called the Beaumont in texas,a gorgeous Gothic revival structure!

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