Monday, January 14, 2013

Wacker Drive -- Getting Started

Wacker Drive, on the right of the photo, running along the south side of the Chicago River, was formally
begun on January after a meeting at City Hall (JWB Photo)

“Full speed ahead on the widening and double decking of South Water street at a cost of $20,000,000, a project which it is contended will ultimately mean as much to Chicago as the $16,000,00 boulevard link improvement has meant,” was what The Chicago Tribune offered as its lead story on this date in 1922.  The day before Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson ordered that the plan, initially presented to the public in 1917 by the Chicago Plan commission at an official luncheon at the Hotel Sherman, be started.

Just a few days ago I mentioned that in the first week of 1910 the Chicago Plan was officially introduced at a gala event at the Congress Hotel.  Find that discussion here.  The massive transformation of South Water Street from bedlam to the smooth and sleek double decks of today’s Wacker Drive, the beginning of which was outlined in The Tribune article on this day in 1922, was a direct result of that Chicago Plan.

Wacker Drive and its slowly expanding river
walk are today attractions that delight visitors to the
city as well as Chicagoans themselves.  (JWB Photo)
Excitement abounded and the city was raring to get started when the new plans were approved in 1917.  Charles H. Wacker, chairman of the Chicago Plan commission, reckoned that when the plan was finished the new street would be “second only to Michigan boulevard as a show place in Chicago and at the same time will reduce the traffic complications of the city in the rush hours by at least 16 per cent.”

The report of the Plan commission gave three recommendations that would “change the street into a fine highway of tremendous economic value in Chicago.”

First, “To convert into street space all of the property between the river and South Water street from State street to Market street (today's South Wacker Drive).”

Second, “To double deck the street at the height of the bridges, using the upper level for light and the lower for heavy traffic; connecting the Illinois Central freight and the lake front warehouse and manufacturing districts with the west side railway and industrial zone.”

Finally, “To utilize the lower level for water and rail freight transfer and team track facilities, made possible by river lighterage or as a public parking space for automobiles.”

The plans for the project were prepared by Edward H. Bennett, a principal contributor to the original Plan of 1909 and the designer of the Michigan Avenue bridge, finished in 1920.  The transportation and traffic plans were assembled by Henry A. Goetz.  Both men worked under the direction of Mr. Wacker and the project’s managing director, Walter D. Moody.  The plans were reviewed and endorsed by John F. Wallace, chairman of the railway terminal commission and the city’s engineers, John Ericson and C. D. Hill.

So everyone was on board.  A Tribune editorial on November 25, 1917 praised the ambitious plan, saying that it would “not only be a long step forward in the great work which the commission has mapped out for both the beautification and material betterment of the city, but also as a concrete real estate proposition it would be a boon to the entire north end of the downtown district.”

Depiction of what the plan for the new drive might look like, as
depicted in the November 25, 1917 Chicago Tribune
That editorial, though, contained a good portion of pessimism about the chances of the project being completed in a timely fashion.  The worth of the project, the paper wrote, “is tempered by the well grounded belief that many years are likely to elapse before the produce business takes its departure from that street, and that many more are likely to pass before there is any possibility of a realization of such a fine public work . . .”

In a separate editorial on that same date the paper provided another cause for pessimism – inaction on the part of those who governed the city.  “We do not ask of a city government even that it ‘set and think.’  We know it will merely ‘set.’  We would not recognize as a local administrative body anything which had a mental process or a movement of physical activity.  We recognize municipal authority is a spongelike substance which gets into the city hall, swells out, and fills it.”

It turned out that The Tribune had the situation pretty well analyzed.  Finally, as 1922 began a delegation called on Mayor Thompson.  It was composed of Charles H. Wacker, the chairman of the Plan commission; D. F. Kelly, general manager of Mandel Brothers; James Simpson, vice-president of Marshall Field & Co.; Frank L. Bennett, former commissioner of public parks; and former City Controller Walter Wilson.

At the conclusion of the meeting Michael J. Faherty, president of the board of local improvements, the body that had overseen the construction of the link bridge across the river at Michigan Avenue two years earlier, announced that the assessment request for the improvement would be filed in the County court within 30 days.  Over 16 million dollars was needed for the project in addition to th $3,800,000 that had been approved by voters in November of 1919.

The plan commission estimated that in one area alone, the waste of food caused by long hauls through crowded streets, along with the cost of handling and rehandling the produce, as well as the delays caused by the South Water market’s chaos, $6,000,000 was lost every year.

South Water Street nears an end on August 27, 1925 (Google Image)
The recent improvements to Michigan Avenue had blatantly pointed out what a mess the archaic market of South Water Street was.  We can’t imagine it today as we glide along the river on a tour boat or zip through the rebuilt lower Wacker Drive from the lake to the Eisenhower.  But 90 years ago the area we know today as Illinois Center and Lakeshore East was a vast freight yard for the Illinois Central, and South Water Street was a smelly, noisy collection of produce, horse carts, trucks, and shouting vendors from Michigan Avenue all the way to the Rush Street bridge that connected to the Chicago and Northwestern terminal north of the river.

As Charles Wacker stated, “South Water street is a burdensome charge on the people of Chicago.  It an economic waste, a drawback to progress, and obstruction to the city’s development, insanitary, a cause of congestion, and a constant conflagration danger to the loop.”

Four years after Wacker made that assessment, the double-deck, riverside highway named after him was completed from Michigan Avenue to Lake Street, finished in less time than the initial delay between its original approval in 1917 and the start of the project in 1922.  Can you imagine what the city on the river would look like without it?

Wabash Plaza, designed by Carol Ross Barney & Jankowski, with Harry Weese's Seventeenth Church of Christ
Scientist in the background -- one of the many places of interest along the Wacker Drive river walk (JWB Photo)

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mies van der Rohe's Minerals and Metals Building


The Minerals and Metals Building at the Illinois Institute of
Technology, dedicated January 10, 1943 (Google Image)

If you are a Mies van der Rohe fan, then today is a big day for you.  After its dedication on January 10, the quarter-million dollar Minerals and Metals Research Building at the Illinois Institute of Technology was open for the first day on this date in 1943.  According to I.I.T. this building at Thirty-fourth and Federal was not just the first of the great architect’s designs to be built on as the master plan for the school began to unfold.  It was also his earliest completed work in the United States.

According to The Chicago Tribune the dedication ceremony featured a technological display that was befitting the new building.  "Instead of the customary dedicatory oratory at the ceremony voices of the speakers came forth from the magic new steel recording wire developed at the institute, while the speakers smoked as they listened to themselves talk.  Instead of a pretty girl pushing an electric switch to start things going, a new sound device did the job."

Dr. Henry T. Heald, president of the institute, sat quietly, puffing on a cigar while his voice, previously recorded, came out of a speaker.  This new-fangled "wire recording development" was developed at the school, invented by Marvin Camras, a physicist.  It allowed sounds to be recorded on "wire as fine as a human hair."  Next up was Harold Vagtborg, director of the Armour Research Foundation, who also smoked a cigar as his voice was projected to the crowd.

Minerals and Metals, snowstorm (jmtp's photostream on Flikr)
Then a "weird sound of increasing volume" came through the speaker.  When a predetermined pitch, measured by a sound level indicator, was reached, it was fed into a sound analyzer that "started things moving in the building."  Eighteen minutes after that sound blast steel was being poured from a furnace in the three-story foundry.

The latest techniques in forging magnesium were demonstrated as was a press having a pressure of 2,400,000 pounds that could "stop at the point of contact with a feather without crushing the feather."

The I.I.T. Campus Guide describes the building in this way, “Mies constructed the entire frame of the Minerals and Metals Building, vertical and horizontal members alike, of wide-flange beams and mullions.  Freestanding walls of the building were designed in glass and brick and were inserted within the frame.  Indicative of the primacy of structure in the abstract, the wide-flange steel section would later become Mies’s signature element.”

Of course, 1943 was the height of World War Ii and the country was dedicated to the effort, and rationing of any material deemed vital to the cause was strictly enforced.  It was in 1942, for example, that Phillip K. Wrigley donated the steel intended for lights at Wrigley Field to the war effort.  The first of Mies's great residential buildings, The Promontory of 1949, is constructed of reinforced concrete because steel was still scarce six years after the Minerals and Metals Building was completed.

So, how did I.I.T. get the permission to use the steel for the new building?  The Mies van der Rohe Society in its description of the building notes that during the war I.I.T. had become “the Midwestern center of wartime technological training, offering tuition-free programs for ‘women’s defense training’ and ‘white–collar men whose jobs were ruined by war-time restrictions.’ With programs in engineering drawing, industrial chemistry, and ordinance inspection, IIT was determined to ‘train experts who will see that the metals in Uncle Sam’s guns, ships and tanks are flawless.’”

Because of its importance to the war effort, the school received permission for the steel.  In fact, present at the dedication ceremony was Brigadier General Thomas S. Hammond, head of the Chicago Ordinance district, who helped pour molten iron into molds.  It's a good thing the steel was approved.  Mies’s use of the it is emblematic of what the I.I.T. Campus Guide calls a “transitional place in Mies’s body of work.”

South end of Minerals and Metals Building (Google Image)
Most interesting, perhaps, is the way Mies treats the south end of the new building.  Unlike buildings that would follow, columns and spandrels were connected by bolts rather than by welding.  Also this end of the building showcases the steel in an irregular pattern.  The Mies van der Rohe society points out that this was not, as some critics have suggested, a tribute to Piet Mondrian or Theo van Doesburg.  The Society suggests, “Although Mies was aware of both artists’ work, his avant-garde use of steel was actually a map to the inside of the building, inaugurating a technique he would use over and over again at I.I.T."  The steel at this end of the structure is a road map that shows clearly the internal layout, composed of a three-story foundry hall flanked by three floors of offices and laboratories, with a second-floor balcony overlooking the main floor of the hall.

In the rest of the structure the columns are not visible at all from the outside; instead the viewer sees a glass wall atop a brick base.  In later buildings Mies, of course, chose to expose the rolled I-beam columns on the face of the wall.

Walter Gropius's Fagus Factoy of 1911 (Google Image)
Glancing quickly at a photo of the Bauhaus in Dessau where Mies served as architect-director until the school moved to Berlin in 1932 where it closed a year later, one can discern a passing resemblance between the 1943 building at I.I.T. and the building in Dessau.  Even more striking, perhaps, is the similarity between the Mineral and Metals Building and the Walter Gropius design for the 1911 Fagus Factory in Alfeld, Germany.

Yet, as the Mies van der Rohe Society points out, the “structural premises are very different.  It is in the Minerals and Metals Building that we first see Mies use the rolled-steel I-beam as part of his structural grammar . . . Minerals and Metals reflects Mies’s transition from forms that had been ‘dear to his heart’ during his days working in Europe to new forms that were ‘possible, necessary, and significant.’”

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Edward Probst, 1870-1942


One hundred thirteen years ago yesterday the Chicago Plan was feted at the Congress Hotel as yesterday’s blog indicated.  That great plan, as was mentioned, was the product of the great firm of Daniel Burnham, who offered all of his firm’s resources, including the talent of Edward H. Bennett, giving the plan to the city without charging for its creation.

Chicago Tribune, 1/10/1942
Today in 1942 Edward Probst, the last remaining member of those glory days died at his home in River Forest.

In gearing up for the intensive, all-consuming effort that Mr. Burnham put into the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, the architect appointed Ernest R. Graham, as his chief assistant.  At the close of the fair Burnham was forced to downsize and consolidate his operations.  As part of this process he selected Mr. Graham as his sole partner, Charles B. Atwood as his chief designer, and E. M. Shankland as his chief engineer.

This worked for over a decade, but by 1908 with Atwood dead and the work clearly taking a toll on Burnham, under the direction of Graham the office was divided into three departments:  design, working plans, and superintendence.  Edward Probst was put in charge of the second of the three departments, having served as chief of the Drafting Department for four years.  Probst had been with the firm for close to ten years at this point.  He was born in Chicago in 1870 and began his architectural career in 1893, working in the drafting room of Robert G. Pentecost.

Sally A. Kitt Chappell wrote in her amazing Architecture and Planning of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White . . .  “Good at details, Probst had the reputation of being an exacting ‘task master.’ He oversaw three department heads:  George Hubbard, in charge of plumbing and heating; Joachim Giaver and later Magnus Gundersen, in charge of structural engineering; and William Stevens, in charge of architectural drafting.”

The Merchandise Mart of 1930, arguably the greatest work produced by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White (JWB Photo)
When Daniel Burnham died in 1912 his sons joined with Ernest Graham to form Graham, Burnham & Co.  Five years later Daniel and Hubert Burnham formed Burnham Brothers.  Far more successful was the other half of the original Burnham partnership—that composed of Ernest R. Graham, Peirce Anderson, Howard Judson White, and Edward Mathias Probst.  For nearly 50 years this was the largest architectural firm in the world.

Upon the death of the last surviving partner in 1942, Edward Probst’s son took over what was left of the firm.  Versions of the firm survived until 2006 when the once grand alliance, at this point under the direction of Robert Surman, finally closed its doors.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Plan of Chicago Unveiled - January 8, 1910


The great city of the prairie, hugging Lake Michigan, received a plan that would set its course for the twentieth
century on January 8, 1910 (JWB, 2012)

On this date – January 8 of 1910 – the members of the Chicago plan commission met for the first time with the member of the Commercial Club.   Held at the Congress Hotel, the meeting officially launched the brand new Chicago Plan, which presented according to The Chicago Tribune, “visions of Chicago as the most beautiful city in the world – the most healthful and practical.”  During the evening the new plan for the city was assessed from a number of different angles.

Daniel Burnham (Photo courtesy of
Chicago History Museum)
First, there was praise for the internationally acclaimed architect, who had contributed the services of his firm, asking no fee in return, Daniel Burnham. Master of Ceremonies for the evening, Theodore W. Robinson, the President of the Commercial Club,  paid tribute to the great architect.  Mr. Robinson said of Burnham, “The genius which brought thousands to the worlds’ fair of 1893, a fair which many claimed would be big but not beautiful, has contributed his talent to the plan without renumeration.  This is a significant occasion.  From now on both these great organizations must pull together to make this one of the greatest of cities.”

The second organization to which Mr. Robinson referred was the Chicago Plan Commission, which worked with the Commercial Club for four years to produce the plan.  Charles H. Wacker, the President of the Plan Commission also spoke that evening.  Mr. Wacker observed that the member of the Commercial Club had gone to great lengths to support the work.  “No time was spared, no money was stinted, and the best talent was secured,” Mr. Wacker stated.

The Michigan Avenue Bridge, now the DuSable Bridge, completed in 1920 was a
direct result of the Chicago Plan.  In fact, its designer, Edward Bennett, was arguably the
man most responsible for the writing of the plan (JWB Photo)
Alderman B. W. Snow cast the plan in moral terms, saying, “Dirt, grime, and sordid conditions are not a part of industrial and commercial success.  They are evidences of failure to grasp the fundamental truth that men who are happy, whose lives are cast in pleasant places, who are clean of body and mind, are the men who do things.”

The United States Secretary of the Treasury, Franklin MacVeagh, sent a message to the assemblage in which he tied this new kind of urban planning, specifically as it related to Chicago, to the interests of the entire nation. “Cities in the near future will be built on plans, as houses or parks are,” he wrote.  “Chicago especially must be.  She has a great mission and responsibility.  She must be the metropolis of the Mississippi valley, and respond to the material and spiritual demands of a great people.  She must be great in all particulars, and beautiful.  The present great plan must be greater still and dominate every district and neighborhood as it is added.”

The two-tiered Wacker Drive, to the right and following the river's curve, also came directly from
the Chicago Plan's suggestions (JWB Photo)
Mr. Wacker also clearly outlined the financial stake that the city had in following through on the principles of the plan.  He observed that in just 61 days during the previous summer Americans who visited France spent $2,000,000.  The sum was so enticing that as the year came to an end the Paris Chamber of Deputies authorized a loan for $180,000,000 to fund “an elaborate scheme of improvements.”

Turning next to the opportunity that would be missed if the plan were not acted upon, Mr. Wacker observed, “Hundreds of thousands of people pass through Chicago every year for the purpose of spending their money in New York because they feel New York has more to offer them.  New York has capitalized its attractiveness and has discovered that it paid in dollars and cents.  A traveler seeks the places that give him comfort and beauty.  He may visit London, but he spends week in Paris.”

Concluding his remarks, Mr. Wacker issued a plea, “Our golden opportunity is at hand.  Today all the important features of the plan may be carried out at small cost.  But the longer we wait the more difficult will it become.  Large amounts are appropriated and expended annually in a haphazard and disorderly way.  If we expend during a similar period the sum of $222,464,770, which was spent for extraordinary improvements in Chicago from 1882 to 1906, we shall save many millions of dollars and accomplish much more.”

A principal component of the plan was to use the lakefront as a force for the public good, rather than allowing it
to become an 18-mile stretch of commercial and industrial concerns.  This foresight, if it had not been followed, would
have created a far different city than
Mr. Charles D. Norton, representing the United States Secretary of the Treasury, broadened the significance of the plan, relating it to the rapidly expanding nation.  Mr. Norton proclaimed, “For what Chicago plans and executes will determine to what extent the comfort, the pleasure, and the pride of our mighty inland empire shall be satisfied.  A hundred million of people will soon look to this city as their capital, their center in which to trade, to hear music, to see pictures, to enjoy themselves.  This places a high responsibility upon the men who control public and private business in Chicago.”

Concluding remarks came from Alderman Snow who pulled all of these remarks together in assessing the importance of implementing the plan.  He finished his speech by observing, “That which will improve the economic efficiency of the laboring men and women of our city to the same extent will add to the industrial and commercial possibilities of Chicago.  If you will hammer home the truth that a city built along rational and modern lines means more of comfort, more of health, more of opportunity for physical, mental, and moral development for its people, you will find little difficulty in carrying out your ideas, but no longer limit yourselves by calling your plan the city of beauty.”

At the banquet that evening, now a century and three years distant, Chicago began the process of turning itself into a sleek, streamlined beauty, with continuous, well-planned improvements in infrastructure, parks, transportation systems, both automobile and railroad, and its lakeshore that would last for the next three decades.  There were some slip-ups along the way, and much didn’t get done that could have while some projects were carried out that never should have been.

Still, if you listen to folks who are visiting Chicago for the first time, almost to a person they will say, “I never realized that Chicago was as beautiful as it is.”  And they are right.

It’s quite a story.