Saturday, December 8, 2012

Prudential Building Chicago--December 8, 1955

Welcome to the Modern Era -- The first tall building in Chicago in 21 years (JWB, 2008)
On March 1, 1951 an announcement was made that would change the face of downtown Chicago as news was delivered of the Prudential Life Insurance Company of America’s intent to build a 40-million dollar, 42-story skyscraper on the northeast corner of Randolph and Michigan, a project that would move the city east across Michigan Avenue and begin the process of building in the great railroad yard and terminal that filled what is today Illinois Center.

Four years later on this date, December 8, 1955, the new Midwest headquarters for Prudential opened for business.

The new building would be the fourth and largest regional office, a decentralization effort intended to bring the firm closer to the people it served.  Following the first such regional office in Los Angeles, completed in 1949, along with offices in Toronto and Houston, the Prudential building in Chicago was projected to house 7,000 employees.

Prudential paid just under five million dollars for the site, signing an agreement with the Illinois Central and the Michigan Central Railroads, a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad, for the 16 acres overlooking Grant Park.

Speaking at a luncheon in the Palmer House that day, Carol M. Shanks, president of Prudential, gave his reasons for choosing Chicago as the site for its largest regional headquarters.  “Mid-America is the arsenal and the breadbasket of the nation,” Shanks said.  “Without it the United States would be helplessly, hopelessly crippled.”

Helplessly, hopelessly crippled . . . kind of nice for a Chicagoan to hear.

The great railroad yards and terminals that filled the area east of Michigan Avenue from Monroe north to the river
(Chicago Aerial Photo Services--U.I.C archives)
At this same luncheon the secrecy involved in negotiations for the site was also disclosed.  From October of 1949 until January of 1951 L. J. Sheridan & Co. had been negotiating for the property with Illinois Central officials, keeping the identity of Prudential a secret.  Finally, with the deal nearly in place the president of the Illinois Central, Wayne A. Johnston, said that he would have to know the name of the prospective buyer in order “to sell the idea to the directors.”  It was only then that the buyer was disclosed.

C. F. Murphy, in his oral history, related the back-room dealing that led up to the final agreement. “They [Prudential] were thinking about the possibility of a location on the Near North Side exactly on the site of the Water Tower Place.  And then another place out in Skokie.  But when Leo (Leo Sheridan, a Chicago realtor who was the exclusive agent for Prudential) proposed air rights, they were most interested in that, but they said, ‘It’s a knotty problem.  We don’t want to be connected with something that falls through.’  And so the thing was done in secret for a year and a half.”

Prudential and its presence at the head of Millennium Park (JWB, 2008)
What finally developed over those 18 months was a deed that was 85 pages long and contained the legal description of over 500 small pieces of railroad property on which caissons and pilings, along with associated connections, would be sunk.  The architectural renderings for each of these legal pieces were part of a paper roll stretching 50 feet, half the length of the caissons that would support the new building.  C. F. Murphy stated, “I think they really overdid the thing . . . Take a column—caisson lot—and then there’d be a brace at the top of the column, that became a lot.  There were hundreds of the damn things . . . They had a great time.  And they kept that office door locked with no name on the door of the glass outside, and it was high secret all right.”

Carl Landefeld, who had worked for the great New York architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, was given responsibility for the design for the building, and the reaction to the first tall building tin Chicago since 1934 was not completely favorable, as hard as that might be to believe today.  In an October editorial The Chicago Tribune cautioned, “Instead of 35 stories, it is now planned that the building shall have 42, with a roughly corresponding increase in cubic content and occupancy.  The wisdom of this is questionable . . . The congestion resulting from so large an increase in office population at the edge of the already congested Loop might be an unhealthy thing for the city.”

(Look for contemporary criticism about the proposed three-tower project at Wolf Point, and you can see almost the same sentiments.)

JWB, 2009
Construction was not started until well into 1952 since application had to be made to the federal government for approval of the steel necessary for the building’s foundation, a step resulting from the controls, still in place at the time, on materials critical to the nation’s war effort and subsequent recovery.  That approval came on June 4, 1952.

Prudential Rising (Google Image)
With that hurdle overcome, construction was set to begin on a completely modern building.  This was to be the first skyscraper in Chicago that would not need to have its windows cleaned from the outside, “with its hazards to workmen and annoyances to office occupants.”  [Tribune, April 19, 1952]  All windows would swing open vertically, allowing them to be washed from the inside.  The windows would be double glazed with plate glass was to be so large "that offices will have what corresponds to picture windows in the modern home.”

The three million dollar cost of the 30 automatic elevators in the building would be the largest sum ever paid for elevator service, surpassing the cost of the elevators in the Empire State building by $200,000.

Another “first” for the building was the result of the decision to install escalators that would serve the building’s top two floors.  Installing the highest escalator system in the world at the time would allow the elimination of the “penthouse” normally used for housing elevator machinery at the top of the building.  Such a structure would have been out of place atop the sleek lines of the modern new building.

On August 12, 1952 Mayor Kennelly and Valentine Howell, executive vice-president of Prudential, hefted the first shovels of dirt atop what would become one of the 260 caissons that would be dug 105 to bedrock.

Prudential One and Prudential Two (JWB, 2008)
At the close of 1952 The Tribune told of the new technology that would make up the building’s air conditioning system.  The new tower would be the first time a building so far from the river would use river water for air conditioning.  Although Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, the Merchandise Mart and Union Station employed this method, these properties all sat within a block of the river.  Prudential was located three long blocks away.

A 30-inch pipe was constructed 18 feet below ground, running underneath what is now the Hyatt Hotel and through it 8,500 gallons of river water would be pumped to Prudential every minute.  Disposal of the 5,100,000 gallons of river water that would be used each day would be by way of a huge storm sewer running beneath Stetson Avenue.

On July 29, 1953 the Fuller Construction Company was awarded the contract for the general construction of the new tower.  It was an appropriate choice.  The company had begun in Chicago before moving its headquarters to the Flatiron Building in New York City, a building designed by Daniel Burnham’s firm.

On November 11, 1953 the first steel column, 60 feet long and weighing 31 tons, was erected.  The American Bridge Division of United States Steel was the fabricator and the erector of the steel in the new building.  By the end of April, 1954 the last caissons were completed.  On November 16, 1954 the topping-off ceremony was held.

Just into the new year of 1955 the first section of a 311-foot television tower belonging to WGN was hoisted to the top of the building.  The $300,000 antenna and transmitter gave the Chicago a chance to broadcast with a 50,000 watt transmitter over the highest antenna in the city, 914 feet above the ground.  In a way WGN began its rise to “super station” status with this move to Prudential from Tribune Tower in early 1955.

At 3:00 p.m. on June 4, 1955 six furniture vans and 30 movers began moving 2,600 pieces of office furniture and 400 Prudential employees from their old headquarters in the Butler building on Canal Street to the fourth and fifth floors of the new tower on Randolph.   Eighty crosstown trips competed the transfer over the weekend.

Alfonso Iannelli's great rock -- with the lettering of his choosing (JWB, 2008)
Just after this mysterious letters, in various combinations of black or white began appearing under the Rock of Gibraltar, the great bas-relief, the symbol of Prudential, sculpted by Alfonso Iannelli.  It seems that originally there was to be no lettering under the 42-foot rock.  But the suits felt that since the rock was the company’s copyrighted symbol, failure to identify it as such would open it up to appropriation by others.  Ianelli himself, preparing to climb scaffolding to chisel the outlines of the great rock so that it would stand out more, announced that he favored letters carved out of the  building’s limestone and decorated with gold leaf.  That’s what we see today on the west side of the building’s bustle.

The first tenant to move into the building, the western advertising offices of Readers’ Digest magazine, settled into its space in September of 1955, taking up temporary space on the third floor before moving up to the nineteenth floor in the spring of 1956.

In early October the last of the 2,617 windows was installed, beating the arrival of cold weather by a month.  Each window was double-glazed with each pane in the system a quarter-inch in thickness, hermetically sealed with a quarter-inch air space between.  

On December 8, 1955 the first new downtown skyscraper in 21 years was officially dedicated at a ceremony held in the auditorium and lobby of the new building.  Governor Stratton and Mayor Richard J. Daley, according to The Tribune, said that the Prudential project would be followed by “further large scale development of the remaining 77 acres of air rights over Illinois Central railroad adjoining the new skyscraper.”  Daley added that the building represented “41 stories of faith in the future of Chicago.”

A time capsule was set in one of the lobby columns.  Among its contents was a film showing the WGN facilities.  The capsule was sealed with a chip off the rock of Gibraltar, which the British consul general, Robert W. Mason, presented to Prudential at the ceremony.

Without the other Randolph Street buildings that Prudential heralded, this late 1950's postcard clearly
shows how sleekly modern the new building seemed (Booth Library Postcard Collection--Eastern Illinois U.)
This place has a special place in the heart of Chicagoans my age.  We remember taking the escalator up to the observation deck at the top of the building and, maybe, putting a coin into the telescopes that sat at the windows.  Maybe we at the Stouffer’s restaurant on the floor below.  My wife’s mother brought her and her little gaggle of Brownies to the building and they “flew up” the elevator and became Girl Scouts on the top floor.

Chicago has changed a lot over these past 57 years, but the Prudential remains as a reminder of the first building to start the process that would re-make the face of this great modern city.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Steve Goodman Post Office

A Place of Joy Executive Assistant heads for Lakeview
Post Office with rush orders (JWB, 2012)

Jill and I walked to the Lakeview Post Office a couple of weeks ago to mail a half-dozen packages for our daughter's stationery and design company, Kimberly FitzSimons.  The firm's executive assistant joined us on a lovely early autumn stroll up Southport. 

Of all the places in Chicago to mail a package, the post office at 1343 West Irving Park, might be the best.  The first thing you might notice is the cornerstone at the corner of Southport and Irving Park.  At its top is the name of Henry Mergenthau, named by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 to head the Treasury Department.  Below his name is the name of James A. Farley, the Postmaster General.  The date on the cornerstone, barely readable after over seven decades of Chicago winters, appears to be 1933.

The real treasure comes on the inside, though, as you come face-to-face with Epic (Epoch) of a Great City, a mural created by artist Harry Sternberg in 1937 and restored in 2003 by Parma Conservation of Chicago.

The artist, Harry Sternberg, shown at work at some sort of electric
gizmo, at the bottom left of the mural (Photo Courtesy of the
Friends of the Lakeview Post Office Mural)
An excellent biography of Harry Sternberg is contained in Mary Lackritz Gray’s A Guide to Chicago’s Murals.  Sternberg was born in New York to a poor immigrant family in 1904.  Lackritz indicates that the artist worked his way through the Art Students’ League, joining its faculty after graduation. At the age of 29 he was appointed the youngest faculty member in the school’s history, and he worked there for another 33 years. During the 1930’s he worked as part of the Graphics Division of the Federal Art Project.  During this period he came to Chicago to complete the work at the Lakeview Post Office.

The creator's signature in the lower right of the mural (JWB, 2012)
 As bad as we might think the economy was during the past decade, by 1933 one-fifth of those eligible to work in the country could not find a job.  The government responded in a number of ways, and the Public Works of Art Project, begun in December of 1933, was a program specifically designed so that artists would be put to work creating artworks for public buildings.

This program should not be confused with the Treasury Relief Art Project, a program for artists that was created as part of the Works Project Administration.  Under this program 90% of the artists employed in a project were required to be hired off the relief rolls.

In the Public Works of Art Project the Treasury Section recruited professional artists who were NOT on the relief rolls.  Funding was also assured for this program since funds for the art projects came out of roughly one-half of one percent of the production costs of the buildings to be decorated.  [Cook, Hillary.  “Politics of New Deal Art,” School of the Art Institute of Chicago.]

During this period The Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture gave out almost 1,400 commissions to decorate new federal buildings.  Of these commissions 1,100 post offices were built and decorated during this time.  From 1934 to 1941, “The Section” awarded 1,124 mural contracts for which it paid $1,472,199.  The amount of $563,429 was paid out for 289 sculptures during the same period.  These works featured the work of 1,205 individual artists with the average price for a mural commission coming in at $1,356.  Slightly more, $1,936, was paid on the average for a work of sculpture.

Epic (Epoch) of a City by Harry Sternberg (Photo Courtesy of Friends of the Lakeview Post Office Mural) 
Three views of Chicago can bee seen at the center of Sternberg's mural.  In the foreground Fort Dearborn is seen, rising on a bluff above Lake Michigan.  Behind it, beyond the water, Chicago the city is in flames.  Behind the burning city, though, the new city, the second city, has risen in the form of grand new structures.  The greatest buildings in the city are depicted, structures related to all facets of city life, commerce, religion, learning and art.  Clearly identifiable are the Civic Opera Building, the Palmer House, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum, Tribune Tower, and Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. 

Three cities tell the history of Chicago in the middle of the mural (JWB, 2012)
However, the three cities, as impressive as their story might be, clearly take a secondary place to the primary motif of the mural.  In Sternberg’s mural the workers are in the foreground at the right and left of the piece, shown larger than life. Elizabeth Chodos in Chicago Post Office Murals’ Connection to Socialist Realism has observed, “The message that these murals convey is that without the hard work of the average man Chicago’s infrastructure, and by extension, the city’s vitality and national importance, would not exist.”  [School of the Art Institute of Chicago]

At the left of the mural those who toil as laborers are depicted.  A laborer in a mill, ladling molten iron into an ingot, is shown.  To his left there is Sternberg, himself, wearing a leather apron. We also see science here as a means to improved production and a way to ease the burden of the worker.  On the right side of the mural largely agrarian themes are developed.  There is a man in overalls walking down a ramp toward a stockyard, and, displayed most prominently, the “Knocker,” armed with a sledge, ready to stun a steer in the first step in the meat packing process.  Also displayed is  a factory worker involved in the production of farm tractors.  A great website devoted to the mural can be found here

"The Knocker" prepares to start the meat-packing process (JWB, 2012)
Restoration of any of the hundreds murals in post offices across the country is not a priority of an agency that is struggling under a mountain of debt.  Fortunately, Sternberg’s mural at the Lakeview Post Office found a friend in the form of Dr. David Baldwin, Jr.  In March of 2001, after conducting research on the mural and corresponding with Sternberg, who was 98-years-old at the time, Dr. Baldwin formed the Friends of the Lakeview Post Office.  This organization raised $16,000, and Parma Conservation was contracted to renew the mural.  The renovation was done during business hours so that members of the community could see the great treasure that many had never noticed before.

Just a little over two years ago the post office was renamed as the Steve Goodman Post Office Building.  Representative Mike Quigley sponsored the bill that led to the ceremony at the post office, located just blocks away from Wrigley Field, where Steve Goodman’s ashes were scattered after his death in 1984.

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.