Thursday, November 1, 2012

Tribune Tower Competition

Tribune Tower rises toward completion in 1925 (Chicago Tribune archives)
On the first of November in 1922, 90 years ago today, The Chicago Tribune officially closed its competition and began the month-long process of judging the entries of over 200 architectural firms from all over the world.  With a first prize of $50,000 on the line, the competition attracted the work of the greatest designers of the age.

In announcing the competition The Tribune editorial board wrote, “North Michigan avenue presents to the new builders of Chicago an opportunity which does not often come to a city.  Mr. Wrigley has made an auspicious beginning, which challenges every other builder.  Beauty is one of the great needs of this city . . . The development of Michigan avenue as a majestic thoroughfare is the possible gift of the future to this city, and The Tribune hopes to do its part.”

The Wrigley Building and the new Tribune Tower opened began the "majestic thoroughfare" that is today
the Magnificent Mile (Chicago Tribune archives)
Requirements for submission were few.  The award would go to “the designer who produces plans combining lasting beauty and business practicality in one.”  Drawings did not need to be “specific and meticulous in detail, but only those showing the south and west elevations and a perspective from the southwest.”   This last stipulation meant that many more architects, especially younger designers who did not have the money to draw up a fully rendered building design, would be able to enter the competition.  And they did by the score.

The competition opened on August 1, 1922 and closed 90 years ago today.  The first place design would be built as the new headquarters for The Tribune “regardless of cost” and entrants in the competition could decide for themselves “in what materials their plans shall be executed.”

Ex-Governor Edward F. Dunne, a member of the Chicago plan commission, said of the competition, “I believe the offer of such a handsome reward will tempt not only the best architects in America, but many of Europe to submit plans and designs.”

Andrew Rebori, one of the outstanding architects of the era, said, “I deem the offer one of the greatest architectural opportunities ever presented.  The fact that it is international in scope will work to good advantage.  We need foreign ideas to prevent us from getting in a rut.  American architects have opportunities to exercise their art that those across the sea haven’t had of late years.”

The Wrigley Building (foreground) and Tribune Tower changed the north side of the river in
just four years (Chicago Tribune archives)
Any submission that was postmarked by November 1 was accepted.  A room on the second floor of the Lake Shore Trust and Savings Bank building at 605 North Michigan Avenue was set aside as the exhibition place for the designs and by the evening of November first, 120 plans had been received.

Neither the judges of the competition or anyone in The Tribune organization knew who the competitors were.  Each architect sent, along with his design, a sealed envelope with the firm’s name inside.  The envelope was issued a number, and that number was also assigned to the plan that it accompanied.

Ten of the designs were submitted by firms to which The Tribune offered two thousand dollars apiece for their time.  Included among these fortunate ten were John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood; Holabird & Roche; Jarvis Hunt; D. H. Burnham & Co.; Schmidt, Garden & Martin; and Andrew Rebori.  These designs were also numbered and mixed in with the other submissions.

In an article discussing the November deadline The Tribune quoted S. C. Hirons of a New York architectural firm, Dennison & Herrin, who observed:

“Never before has a nation-wide competition entered into the construction of a home for a great daily.  It will be a misfortune if some symbolic design does not win the award.  There is only one true symbol of modern or ancient journalism and that is—speed.  Years and years ago great news events were flashed across the country by beacon fires glowing form hill to hill.  Now cables and telegraph wires carry the messages.  Behind it all is one idea—speed.  The Chicago Tribune building should typify this in its architecture, and the construction should be that of a building that lends itself to ‘getting the news to the readers.’  Such a building would mark a new era in architectural design for newspaper homes.”

The most controversial aspect of the winning design, the great Gothic top of
John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, not exactly a symbol of speed (JWB, 2010)
At midnight on December 1 a winner was chosen, and the announcement was made on the following day with the New York City firm of John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood taking the first place award of fifty thousand dollars.

That day The Tribune put forth this message in an editorial, “Meanwhile the exhibition of the designs will prove, we feel sure, a milestone in architectural education.  Nothing of the kind has ever been offered to students and lovers of architecture up to this time.  The designs, collectively speaking, are the most important expression of modern utilitarian architecture ever presented for analysis and comparison.  The exhibition may be considered an encyclopedia of the architecture of the skyscraper.  Genius, exceptional talent, experience, ingenuity, and inspiration have contributed richly and we are confident its influence will be widespread and lasting.”

One of the designers, Raymond Hood, pictured as Robin Hood in Aesop's screen that tops the Michigan Avenue
entrance of the tower (Google image)
There is a point that a lot of critics of the winning design miss, I think.  Certainly, Eero Saarinen’s second place entry looks far more modern, practical and altogether more sensible to our modern eye than the sleek modern shaft, topped out with a Gothic nexus of flying buttresses of Hood and Howells' design.  However, the competition brought those two designs together, along with another 233 entries from the greatest designers in the world in an effort to create the most beautiful commercial building of the modern era.  And that’s worth something.

On December 3 a dinner to celebrate the award at which Mr. Howells observed that the commission for The Tribune was a unique opportunity, primarily because of the lot on which it would be built, a space which would show the entire building, all four sides of it.  “. . . how can a perfect skyscraper design be achieved,” he asked.  “Only when you have a building with four sides belonging to the same owner.  How many such opportunities are there in the world?  You can count them on your fingers.”

Uniquely situated on a spacious lot so that all four sides of the building could be
viewed originally, the design was one of few such opportunities in a large city (JWB, 2011)
In this respect, you have to give Colonel McCormick his due.  Walk through any major city and look at the tall buildings that line its major streets, and what do you see?  The front elevation in the vast majority of cases.  Here was a space that would allow a tower to rise that would display every square foot of its exterior, an exterior that Mr. Howells granted “looked Gothic.”

As if to answer from the very first the severest criticism leveled at the design, Mr. Howells, recognizing this Gothic orientation, added, “ . . . but it is meant to be a design expressing to the limit our American steel cage construction, and nothing else . . . I believe that the type of design chosen by The Tribune expresses not only the American office building but the actual steel cage, with its vertical steel columns from top to bottom and its interpolated steel beams.”

Was Howells right about that steel cage?  You be the judge.  (JWB, 2011)
Mr. Howells concluded by saying, “In the present design Mr. Hood and I have tried to set aside any itching for the original for fear of the fantastic, and we have striven only for a straight solution of that most worth while in American problems – the American skyscraper.”

As 1922 came to a close, the design for the new tower on Michigan Avenue was on display at the Lake Shore Trust and Savings Bank on the northeast corner of North Michigan Avenue and Ohio streets.  On display with it was the great energy and optimism that would carry the country through that decade, one of the greatest decades for building in the city’s history. 


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