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The Sears, Roebuck and Co. Complex, North Lawndale

2012 April 23
by Caroline Nye Stevens

930 S. Homan Ave.

When we think of the Sears Tower, the building that inevitably comes to mind is what was once the world’s tallest tower in downtown Chicago when completed in 1973. However, maybe instead we should think of North Lawndale’s tower — the original Sears Tower. When completed in 1906 it was the centerpiece of the world’s largest commercial building, a fitting home for what would later become the “World’s Largest Store”.

The Sears Towers (old and new), photo provided by the Homan Square Foundation

How large was the world’s largest commercial building? The Merchandise Building (where mail orders were processed) of the Sears Roebuck & Co. complex totaled 3.3 million square feet and spanned two city blocks. The 14 story tall tower stood at the center of the building’s eastern façade and was its most notable feature. The tower is most famous for broadcasting WLS-AM (World’s Largest Store) radio out of its eleventh floor. The Merchandise Building has since been demolished leaving the tower standing alone.

But it doesn’t stand entirely alone. A number of the original buildings from the Sears complex, all designed by Nimmons & Fellows and completed between 1905-1906, remain. Some of the surviving buildings include the Printing Building (out of which the legendary Sears Roebuck & Company catalogue was printed), the Advertising Building, Administration Building (housing the offices of Sears executives such as Richard Sears himself and Julius Rosenwald), and the Power House which supplied the heating and cooling to the entire 5 million square foot complex.

The Sears Roebuck & Company store may have grown to be the world’s largest store, but it started out as one of the smallest. Richard Warren Sears (1863-1914) got his first big break in Redwood Falls, MN when a local jeweler refused a shipment of watches from a Chicago wholesaler. The wholesaler offered to sell the watches to Sears for half their retail value. Sears didn’t blink at the offer, and bought all of the watches, and then quickly sold them for $2 more than what he had paid. He continued the relationship with the wholesaler and then eventually started making his own watches for the Sears Watch Company. This is how he met and partnered with watch-maker Alvah C. Roebuck. It didn’t take long for Sears’s aspirations to grow, and in 1893 he opened up the Sears Roebuck & Company (Roebuck sold his share of the company by 1895, though his name still remains attached to the company) – selling everything under the sun.

Sears Administration Building, CNS 2011

Despite coming into the mail order business twenty years after Montgomery Ward, it didn’t take much time at all before Sears surpassed the company in sales — making $11 million by 1900. His success was due in great part to innovative marketing ideas such as printing his catalog smaller than his competitors so that it would end up on the top of mail stacks in American homes (realizing that people usually stack from large to small with the smallest on top), and printing his order forms in German and Swedish to appeal to the country’s growing immigrant population.

The innovative nature of the company was further reflected in the organization of the Sears complex. At its height the headquarters in North Lawndale employed 22,000 people. The complex had its own private power plant, hospital, volunteer fire department, cafeterias (3 meals a day for 35 cents), and flower gardens. With so many amenities offered by the company, many of its employees lived just a short walk from the complex in North Lawndale. The Sears headquarters was truly a city within a city.

North Lawndale was a tourist destination for years, but it hit difficult times in the 1960’s. The neighborhood began to suffer from over crowding, and was devastated by the 1968 riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The neighborhood was delivered its final blow when the Sears headquarters moved downtown to the new Sears Tower (now Willis Tower).

North Lawndale has never fully recovered from this series of events, but in recent years signs of improvement have begun to show, thanks to the Foundation for Homan Square. The Foundation provides mixed-income housing for the community and a number of resources to help their neighbors thrive. In 2001 the Homan Square Community Center was built on land once occupied by the Sears Merchandise Building. A state of the art facility, it offers area residents affordable health care, a gym and fitness center, a theater, swimming pool and more. 2009 marked the opening of Power House High, a charter school in a renovated LEED Platinum building, once the Power House for the Sears Roebuck & Co. Headquarters.

At the top of the Original Sears Tower, CNS 2011

There are plans that someday the tower will also be renovated into a cultural center – a home to music, dance and the visual arts. The Foundation even aspires to build a culinary institute adjacent to the tower with a rooftop farm to feed students and the surrounding community. Such big and innovative plans are only fitting for the old home of the [once] World’s Largest Store.


American Urbex features an excellent article on the past to present history of the Sears Roebuck & Co. Complex, and offers a number of useful links on the subject. Read it here. The Sears complex of buildings became a landmark of the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Read the nominating report for the buildings here. The Sears website also has its own archives of company history found here.

If you still want to learn more about the original Sears complex, this episode of WTTW’s Chicago Tonight offers a wonderful history of the buildings — past, present, inside and out.

Happy Birthday Mies!

2012 March 27
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Farnsworth House, CNS 2011

Farnsworth House, CNS 2011

Today is Mies van der Rohe’s 126th Birthday! Celebrate through watching this short, rocking, homage to Chicago’s favorite architect: “Big Ed learns architecture through osmosis. And it rocks!”

Want to learn more about Mies? Check out BLUEPRINT’s entries on Crown Hall, Federal Center, and the IBM Tower.  And always remember, “Less is More!”

SKYLINES — A Red Addition to Ping Tom Park

2012 February 5
by Caroline Nye Stevens

A New Addition to Ping Tom Park by Site Design Group's Ernie Wong

word of the week: PINNACLE

2012 February 2
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Pinnacles on the Tribune Tower, CNS 2011

PINNACLE: a subordinate vertical structure terminating in a decorative pyramid or spire. Most often found crowning gothic buildings.

These pinnacles are decorating a top level of Chicago’s gothic-styled Tribune Tower. Bonus words: crocket and finial — both are key decorative features to many pinnacles, including the ones pictured here. A crocket is a projecting ornament, usually in the form of curved foliage, used to decorate and soften the outer angles of pinnacles, spires and gables. And a finial is the (typically) foliated ornament terminating a pinnacle.

The Poetry Foundation

2011 November 22
by Caroline Nye Stevens


The Poetry Foundation, Intersection of Superior and Dearborn St. CNS 2011

61 W. Superior St.

John Ronan’s richly layered design for the Poetry Foundation visually reflects poetic verse. Thoughtfully, rooms connect through various levels of transparency, and planes of space float effortlessly together. Zinc window mullions form the building’s meter, which is repeated across its perforated shell. Like a poem, a walk through the building is a process of discovery.

The journey starts at the intersection of Superior and Dearborn streets. Instead of Ronan leading you directly to the building’s entrance, he takes you for a walk: first through a small garden that functions as a memorial to the Foundation’s benefactor, Ruth Lily, then past the building’s performance space, through a courtyard, until finally he deposits you at the entrance. A great wall of books greets you through transparent glass, confirming that you arrived at your destination.

Once inside, the journey continues. The same concrete floor from the outside is continued on the inside, as are the courtyard’s trees in the form of bamboo stalks in the stairwell. Lines are blurred between outside and inside, public and private. The interior is simple and transparent. John Ronan said, “The idea is that this spatial narrative unfolds as visitors move through and between these layers. We were trying to achieve a transcendent materiality where we take very humble materials and then ennoble them in a way – not unlike what a poet would do with words.”

Entrance to the Poetry Foundation, CNS 2011

This 22,000sf building contains a bi-level library for 30,000 non-circulating books, a gallery space, open-air offices, a 4,000sf courtyard, and a dedicated room for poetry readings. As minimal as it is, careful attention was paid to the design of the performance space in an effort to make the acoustics ideal for the spoken word – without the need for amplification. The combination of materials in the room was chosen to diffuse, reflect and absorb sounds depending on their placement – working as a buffer from outside sounds and enhancing the sounds from within.

The Poetry Foundation began as the Poetry Magazine, which was founded by Harriet Monroe in 1912 under the philosophy now written on the Foundation’s wall: “The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine – may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut against his ample genius!” One poet whose work never made it into the magazine, despite countless efforts, was Ruth Lily – a pharmaceutical heiress from Indiana who endowed the Poetry Foundation with a $200 million gift, making the building of its new home, and everything else the Foundation now does, possible. Despite her failure to print a poem in the magazine, Ms. Lily still felt welcomed by the Poetry Magazine to keep trying. The doors of the Poetry Foundation are likewise open to the great poet, aspiring poet, or simply lovers of poetic architecture.

Library of the Poetry Foundation, Chicago

Library, Poetry Foundation, CNS 2011


To read the Poetry Magazine and learn more about all of the offerings of the Poetry Foundation visit their website. To learn about John Ronan, one of Chicago’s greatest young architects, and to see other examples of his firm’s work click here.

And be sure to check out this photo album of images taken of the Poetry Foundation by Hedrich Blessing’s Steve Hall for Architectural Record.

word of the week: DENTILS

2011 April 17
Comments Off on word of the week: DENTILS
by Caroline Nye Stevens

DENTILS: a classical Greek decorative molding motif consisting of a row of small rectangular shaped pieces placed closely together  — just like teeth.

Dentils are found everywhere — inside and out of older classically designed buildings in Chicago, and especially beneath roof lines, cornices or pediments. Pictured here are dentils found on an apartment building in Logan Square.

Dentils, Chicago

SKYLINES — Cloud Strata

2011 April 3
by Caroline Nye Stevens
Logan Square Grey Stones

Logan Square, CNS 2011

Kedzie Blvd. Logan Square

Logan Square, CNS 2011

Garfield Park Conservatory

2011 March 20
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Garfield Park Conservatory, Aquatic House

Garfield Park Conservatory, Fern Room, CNS 2011

300 North Central Park Avenue

Before Jens Jensen (1860-1951) came along most greenhouses were like museums. They consisted of vast quantities of potted plants arranged in impressive though uninspiring displays. In the Garfield Park Conservatory Jensen revolutionized the concept of greenhouses. Thinking of it as “landscape art under glass,” he created scenic interior vistas complete with meandering pathways, lagoons and exotic plants. Unlike most greenhouses of his day, Jensen planted directly into the ground of the Conservatory. Therefore instead of just displaying the plants of a given region, he transported visitors to natural environments around the world. The fact that the Garfield Park Conservatory continues to do just that is a testament to Jensen’s groundbreaking vision.

Jensen was from the Slesvig region of Denmark where he would have happily stayed had his “high-class” parents not disapproved of his “low-class” fiancé, Anne Marie Hansen. So they settled in Chicago. Jensen began working as a day laborer for the West Park Commission, worked his way up to the job of gardener, and ultimately became the Superintendent and Chief Landscape Architect for the entire West Park System. Jensen’s job as Superintendent was no easy task – he was hired to save the parks from their rapid and extensive state of deterioration.

One reason why the parks hadn’t been faring well was because they were full of exotic plants. Jensen saw the error in the park system’s ways commenting, “There’s something wrong here. We are trying to force plants to grow where they don’t want to grow.” Jensen’s new role gave him (as he said), “an opportunity of trying out on a large scale this idea of employing indigenous stock.” Jensen did away with the exotic plantings and replaced them with naturalistic landscapes inspired by the Midwestern prairie using vegetation native to the area. The parks thrived under his leadership.

Garfield Park Conservatory, hay stacks

Garfield Park Conservatory, ca. 1908

Jensen similarly employed this philosophy on a grand scale at the Garfield Park Conservatory which opened in 1908. As he said, he didn’t want his greenhouse “to look like a palace, a chateau, or a Renaissance villa,” instead the form would be inspired by “the great haystacks which are so eloquent of the richness of prairie soil.” A budget of $160,000 allowed him to design the Conservatory with a floor area of 68,000 square feet in addition to another 30,000 square feet of propagating houses – at the time making it the largest greenhouse in the world. Each room he designed was an individualized composition in terms of its focus as well as use of space, but all rooms were designed in the prairie style. This is seen in the Conservatory’s water features, stratified stonework, and its emphasis on horizontality.

CNS 2011

Jensen left no stone unturned – literally. Jensen wasn’t just interested in the look of the Conservatory, but instead in the whole effect, including the auditory experience of the greenhouse. A frequently told story clearly explains Jensen’s personality and philosophy:

At the back of the Aquatic House (now called the Fern Room) is what Jensen called a “prairie waterfall,” made of layers of stratified stone. It’s the symbolic source of the room’s lagoon, and it was important to Jensen that it sound just right. He had the mason rebuild the waterfall many times over, not liking that it sounded like “an abrupt mountain cascade.” And the mason was growing increasingly irritated by Jensen. Finally Jensen instructed the mason to find someone to play Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” for him on the piano. The mason went home that night telling his wife, “Jensen’s gone cracked.” But when he did hear the music he understood. The next day was the last day he would reconstruct Jensen’s waterfall. Jensen was satisfied that the “water tinkled gently from ledge to ledge, as it should in prairie country.”

Dale Chihuly at the Garfield Park Conservatory, CNS 2011


Note that Jensen was an architect of landscapes and not of buildings, so he hired the firm of Hitchings & Company from New York to help in the building’s design. The firm specialized in greenhouse design. He also hired the firm of Schmidt, Garden & Martin to design the vestibule and interior work (all since removed).

The Garfield Park Conservatory is one of Chicago’s greatest treasures. And it’s FREE! Here’s the Garfield Park Conservatory’s website. And here is a link to the a website entirely devoted to Jens Jensen.

All of the information for this article was gleaned from reading the book, “Inspired by Nature: ‘The Garfield Park Conservatory and Chicago’s West Side” written by Julia Sniderman Bachrach and JoAnn Nathan. It goes highly recommended.

SKYLINES — Chicago Avenue Rodeo

2011 March 7
by Caroline Nye Stevens


Photos by Caroline

Garfield Park Fieldhouse

2011 February 27
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Garfield Park Fieldhouse

Garfield Park Fieldhouse, CNS 2011

100 N. Central Park Ave.

There’s an exciting building around every corner of Chicago – a city famous for its architecture. But even so, you’d think that after several years of searching out Chicago’s notable buildings eventually you would run out of ideas. And then just when you think you’ve seen it all, you come across the Garfield Park Fieldhouse.

Known to many in the area simply as the “Gold Dome Building,” its ornately sculpted facade is as impressive as its gold leaf dome. The building was designed in the Spanish Baroque Revival style – seen especially in its elaborately decorated entrance. Baroque architecture (characterized in great part by a dramatic use of extravagant materials) was popular in Spain from the mid 17th to mid 18th centuries. The style then found its way to Spain’s colonies in South and Central America during the 18th century. And it came back into fashion in 1915 through the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. Bertram Goodhue was the chief architect in charge of the fair, and he happened to be a proponent and scholar of the Spanish Baroque style. The Garfield Park Fieldhouse was most likely modeled after Goodhue’s design for the entrance of the fair’s California State Building designed in the Spanish Baroque Revival style.

More specifically, the entrance of the Garfield Park Fieldhouse is an example of “Churrigueresque” ornamentation. The Churrigueresque style was named for the Churriguera family of sculptors and architects who worked around Salamanca, Spain. The Churrigueresque style was the most extravagantly ornamented phase of the Spanish Baroque period, and the twisted or “Salomonic” column – featured on the Fieldhouse – was its trademark.

Garfield Park Fieldhouse

CNS 2011

It’s a flamboyant building. Terra-cotta twisted columns, sculptural figures, numerous cartouches, pinnacles, niches, scrolls and scallop shells decorate the front and back entrances. Above the middle window on the front of the building is a statue of French explorer Robert Cavalier Sieur de LaSalle. And the bust to his left is believed to be Christopher Columbus.

With marble walls, a terrazzo floor, and a two-story 50ft rotunda – the building’s interior is every bit as extravagant as its exterior. Low-relief sculptured panels dedicated to such themes as art and architecture, Chicago’s parks, and the Illinois highway system decorate the walls of the rotunda. They were sculpted by Richard W. Bock who frequently worked with Frank Lloyd Wright on a number of his local designs such as his home and studio and Unity Temple (both in Oak Park, IL).

The Fieldhouse was designed by Christian S. Michaelsen (1888-1960) and Sigurd Anton Rognstad (1892-1937) and was completed in 1928. The two architects of Norwegian descent formed a partnership that would last 17 years until Rognstad’s untimely death. Michaelsen & Rognstad served as the architects for the West Park Commission from 1927-1929 – one of the most critical times in the Commission’s history. It was during this time that the West Park Commission received a $10 million bond. They used the money to build 12 new park buildings all designed by Michaelsen & Rognstad. The Garfield Park Fieldhouse was built to be the headquarters or Administration Building for the West Park Commission. The basement also contained a large squad room for park police, prisoner cells, a warming room and refreshment booth for ice skaters, and storage for pleasure boats. However, it only served its original purpose for six years before all of the parks were consolidated into the Chicago Park District in 1934, and the building became a fieldhouse as it remains today.

Garfield Park Fieldhouse Rotunda

CNS 2011


Today the fieldhouse contains the Chicago Park District’s regional offices, as well as a number of recreational uses such as a dance studio, gallery space, theater, and boxing ring. In 1983 an addition was made over the west lagoon – a gymnasium topped by an outdoor swimming pool. Recently landmarked, the building completed a major renovation and restoration in 1995, and more improvements are still planned.

BLUEPRINT has also covered another Michaelsen & Rognstad building: the On Leong Merchant Association.

And here is the website for the Chicago Park District which also gives a good background on the history of Garfield Park.

word of the week: SOFFIT

2011 February 21
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Garfield Park FieldhouseSOFFIT: The underside of any architectural element, such as an arch, beam, cornice, eave or even staircase . . .

Pictured to the left is a soffit forming the underside of the balcony in the Garfield Park Fieldhouse’s rotunda. The picture below shows a glimpse of another soffit – the underside of one of the Art Institute’s greatest staircases . . .

On Leong Merchants Association Building

2011 February 15
Comments Off on On Leong Merchants Association Building
by Caroline Nye Stevens

On Leong Merchants Association Building

CNS 2010

Because I am heading to NYC  for the week and unable to profile a new building, I hope you instead enjoy this recycled article first published in April 2010.

2216 S. Wentworth Ave.

When plans for the On Leong Merchants Association Building were revealed in 1926, the Chicago Tribune ran an article calling it “one of the most expensive and elaborate buildings ever erected in America by the Chinese.” The On Leong Merchants Association, the original owner of the building, was one of the most prominent Chinese organizations, or “tongs”, formed in response to the rampant discrimination Chinese were facing in Chicago during the first decade of the twentieth century.

Due to escalating racial tensions, in 1902 the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited further Chinese immigration, and prohibited Chinese women from joining their husbands in America. The Chinese government responded by boycotting all American-made products. This infuriated Chicago’s western population who forced the Chinese from their small downtown settlement on Clark St. between Adams and Van Buren by drastically increasing their rent, and ultimately reappropriating their properties for the construction of a new federal building. With no where else to go, in February of 1912 the entire Chinese community moved from Clark street to present day Chinatown, around the intersection of Wentworth Avenue and Cermak Road.

Faced with a growing population and growing hostility, the On Leong Merchants Association quickly became a much-needed community organization. In Chinese, On Leong means “prosperity peaceful conduct.” The mission of the association was to help the Chinese community assimilate to American customs and laws, while also preserving their native culture. The association provided accommodations for new immigrants, organized community activities, offered job placement and match making services, and led a Chinese language school for children. Before long a headquarters was needed to combine all of the association’s services under one roof and serve as a permanent symbol of the Chinese community to the rest of Chicago.

Image borrowed from Chicago History Museum Blog

Completed in 1928, The On Leong Merchants Association Building was designed by the Chicago based architectural firm of Michaelsen and Rognstad. Having two architects of Norwegian descent design a Chinese business and cultural center might seem like an odd choice. However there were no Chinese architects licensed to practice in Illinois, and no existing examples of traditional Chinese architecture close by to use as inspiration. One of the association’s leaders had previously worked with Michaelsen and Rognstad, and recommended the firm. The architects gave themselves a crash course in traditional Chinese architecture through referencing a series of books on the subject. Michaelson focused his energy on the building’s engineering, leaving much of the stylistic decisions up to Rognstad. The community was pleased with the building’s design that both referenced classical Chinese elements, and adjusted to the association’s modern and unusual mission.

Colorful terra-cotta completely clads the first floor and provides decorative accents for the floors above. Terra cotta was similar enough to the Chinese material liu li that it worked well as a substitute.  Reminiscent of traditional Chinese buildings, the On Leong building is characterized by its tile roofs and overhanging eaves. Red, symbolic of joy, and jade green, symbolic of affluence, are the dominating colors of the building. White, the color of death and mourning was avoided.

Terra Cotta On Leong Merchants Assn. Bldg.

CNS 2010

Though the On Leong Merchant’s Association was the center of Chicago’s Chinatown community for decades, it no longer operates out of the building today. In 1988 the FBI and Chicago police raided and seized the building, having uncovered a large gambling practice. In 1993, the building was purchased by the Chinese Christian Union Church and renamed the Pui Tak Center. Still the loved symbol of Chicago’s Chinatown, it is the neighborhood’s only landmarked building.


If you’re interested in learning more about Chicago’s Chinatown be sure to check out the exhibit “My Chinatown” up now at the Chicago History Museum. And click here for the Pui Tak Center’s website.