Thursday, December 28, 2017

December 28, 1979 -- Nathaniel Owings Decries the Skyscraper

December 28, 1979 – The Chicago Tribune covers an address by Nathaiel Owings, the co-founder of architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, given to the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Owings comments are, strangely enough – given the many mid-century modern designs that SOM had completed by this time – “a retrospective crusade against the dehumanizing effects of skyscrapers.” [Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1979] The 75-year-old architect says that with the construction of the John Hancock Center, which his firm designed, and Water Tower Place, “the kingdom of State Street was dislodged” and “the human scale of North Michigan Avenue was ‘blown to bits.’”  Speaking of the sites chosen for the two buildings, Owings observed, “What tragedy lies behind these simple acts … I always wonder what we’re going to do when we have to tear these buildings down 100 years from now.  We’re certainly going to have a lot of problems.”  Owings made it clear that he didn’t condemn the city, a city that, despite his living in the Big Sur area of California, he still holds in high regard.  “It is the foremost American city – vital, wonderful, and always on the move,” he said.  “Chicago is a huge ant hill.  Push it a little with your foot, and you stir up a million little creatures, each carrying a grain of sand and scurrying around.  But that’s the point:  they’re moving.”  The old water works, the John Hancock Center and Water Tower Place are pictured above.

December 28, 1918 – A story that will continue for some years reaches a turning point on this date as the United States War Department passes on an opportunity to purchase the hospital that lumber dealer Edward Hines is building on the site of a former speedway near Maywood.  Secretary of War Newton Baker says, “…The war department has no right to spend money which has been appropriated to it for temporary war uses in making permanent additions to the military establishment, but that if the congress wants us to establish a permanent military hospital in Chicago the Speedway will then be considered, but that as a war emergency it obviously is not necessary.” The hospital, at this point half-finished, is surrounded by “a mushroom growth of mystery, hints of bribery, accusations and counter accusations.”  [Chicago Daily Tribune, December 29, 1918]  Among other things realtor Milan M. Hitchcock, the former postmaster of Berwyn, vanishes without a trace in mid-November after he tells his family he is headed to Chicago to discuss land values around the Speedway with a detective representing the Hines interests.  According to the paper, “It developed during the investigation of his disappearance that he had received a telegram from a war department official months before asking for a valuation on the land surrounding the Maywood speedway.  The one he made was far below the price asked by Hines for his hospital.”  In early October the War Department informed Hines that it had never formally authorized the hospital that he had begun in memory of his son, who was killed in France as World War I came to an end. At that point Hines began a lobbying effort to get the government to bend to his wishes.  The lumber dealer apparently engaged in an extensive campaign against the hospital complex being completed at Ft. Sheridan, railing against the lack of safety in the wooden buildings of that facility, touting the fireproof construction of his own.  Influential Chicagoans by the thousands received circulars deriding the Fort Sheridan complex.  Ads were placed in newspapers carrying that message to a wide audience.  The story didn’t end there; plenty more was to come before the United States Senate voted in 1920 to appropriate 3.2 million dollars to assume ownership of the hospital, provided Hines kicked in $1.6 million.  Construction began again in spring of 1920, and the first patient was admitted to the new facility on August 8, 1921.  The above photo shows the hospital as it waited for someone to make a decision about what would happen to it.

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