Tuesday, September 11, 2012

William Holabird--Happy 158th Birthday!

William Holabird

Happy birthday  to William Holabird, a giant in Chicago architecture who would be 158-years-old today.  He’s long gone, but many of the buildings that he and his partner, Martin Roche, designed still live on. 

Long, long ago . . . back in a time when I never could have dreamed that I would be leading tours in which I would rave about the genius of the architectural partnership of William Holabird and Martin Roche, back in the days when Dion was tearing open that shirt of his with Rosie on his chest, my father was stationed at Fort Sheridan, 25 miles north of Chicago.

I wish I had known then what I knew now.

The Water Tower at Fort Sheridan (JWB, 2011)
As far as I can remember back in the early 1960’s the military garrison, headquarters for the United States Fifth Army, appeared almost the same as it did when Holabird and Roche teamed up with Ossian Simonds to design it back at the close of the nineteenth century.  The one big difference could be found in the south end of the fort where rows of stables stood empty.

And, of course, the Nike base 200 yards away from our quarters and the housing itself were fairly new.

The original pumping station for the base, now a special events facility (JWB, 2011)
Today the former army base is a lovely tree-lined community, a home to wealthy North Shore folks who have been part of a project to redesign a historic landmark with sensitivity and common sense.  The best of the old still remains, recreated to meet the needs of today’s requirements.  The old guard house and stockade, for example, is now an arts center in which kids with violins and cellos come, one after the other, for music lessons.

As an 11-year-old kid I rode my brand new J. C. Higgins bicycle all over that base, and a decade later, while earning a graduate degree at DePaul, I delivered mail there, walking through the slush on gray winter days on a route that took forever because of the size of the place and the amount of mail that had to be forwarded in a place where the turnover was so high.

Original officers' quarters on Logan Loop
(Note the Richardsonian arch in the simple brick facade)
(JWB, 2011)
Except for maybe the water tower and some of the great limestone officers’ quarters on the bluff overlooking the lake, I never really gave the architecture in the place a second thought.

Last year, though, with Jill and our friends, Anita and Andy, I went back to Fort Sheridan.  It was like walking around a museum with a collection of buildings that came from the drawing tables of two great Chicago architects just a half-dozen years into their careers.

The Guard House and stockade on the west side of the fort
Fort Sheridan was built on land donated to the United States by members of the Commercial Club of Chicago, a civic body scared spit-less by the labor unrest that brought the constant threat of violence and confrontation to the rapidly growing city in the late 1880’s. 

As Robert Bruegmann wrote in his definitive study of Holabird and Root, not a whole lot is known about the process that allowed a relatively young architectural firm to earn a commission for designing an army post on 600 acres of land overlooking Lake Michigan between Lake Forest and Highland Park.  The one thing we DO know is that young William Holabird’s old man, Samuel Beckley Holabird, was the Quartermaster General of the United States Army at the time.

Guard House detail--today a community arts center (JWB, 2011)
The firm probably received a pretty hefty dose of “do it this way” from the Army, and there was little variety in the materials that were part of the design although the materials were plentiful – a yellowish brick that was manufactured on the property, limestone, and slate for the roofs.

Still, the post was a far cry from the log and stick frame construction that was a part of most frontier posts at the time.  You need only to look at the entrances to some of the officers’ quarters on Logan Loop, let’s say, to see the influence of Henry Hobson Richardson and the Romanesque design of the time.

Divided into three sections – public (the 200-acre parade ground), residential (the barracks for infantry and cavalry and the four “loops” for officers’ quarters, and industrial (the stables, commissary, pumping station on the lake, and the like), the whole design was dominated by and centered around the 167-foot water tower that is just to the south of the parade ground.

The water tower looking from the north across the parade ground (JWB, 2011)
The tower is still easily the most impressive part of the design.  As Mr. Bruegmann wrote in Architects and the City: 

At close range the lower part of the brick shaft with its bulbous projecting corners and slit windows, recalls a medieval fortification more than a church tower.  At the bottom the brick tower flares outward to meet an impressive stone base dramatically opened by a great arch to provide a carriageway.  The enormous rusticated stones forming the wedge-shaped voussoirs of the arch reinforce the impression of ponderous weight above the narrow opening and bring to mind a medieval sally port.  Creating such an opening in the base of a massive tower was expensive and completely superfluous, of course, since there was ample space for passages on ether side of the tower or through the adjacent barracks buildings, but he architects and the army apparently felt it necessary to create at least one impressive set piece that was unmistakably martial perhaps to counteract the somewhat fanciful crowning element visible from the surrounding suburbs.

Today the Town of Fort Sheridan is a model for the painstaking restoration of its older structures and the sensitive integration of new single-family and multi-family units within the context of the green space that dominates the town.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District controls 250 acres of the old fort,
and natural settings combined with easily navigable trails abound (JWB, 2011)
The place where my family lived on the north side of the base is long gone.  It was a fairly awful place to live when we were there, and I’m glad to see it gone.  But the rest of the base is much the same as I remember it, an imposing testimony to the early work of two architects who would go on to change the city of Chicago with their honestly-crafted, strikingly handsome, “Chicago-school” designs.

1 comment:

Jill said...

Loved that you finally did a blog on Ft. Sheridan! So interesting how this facilty came about and what it is used for today, It is an amazingly beautiful piece of property on the lakefront.