Okay folks, I admit it. I haven’t blogged in ages. It’s just that I’ve been too darn busy helping to plan Chicago’s coolest event. That’s right — Open House Chicago 2012 (OHC)! And I thought you might want to know that the all NEW OHC website is now live! Visit www.openhousechicago.org to check it out for yourselves.
150 cool places. 48 hours. Go.
The Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago is a free public event that offers behind-the-scenes access to over 150 buildings across Chicago. No reservations are required and everyone is welcome. Explore the hidden gems and architectural treasures of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods — all for free.
And guess what, OHC needs your help! Please consider VOLUNTEERING. It’s simple to do and the rewards are great (including a priority pass to all OHC sites!). Thanks for the help, and please spread the word about this year’s Open House Chicago!
The decades old “Santa Fe” sign adorning the top of the Santa Fe Building (otherwise known as the Railway Exchange Building) at 224 S. Michigan Avenue was removed yesterday. It was as a nice reminder of the many railroad companies that once held their offices in the 1904 Burnham and Company building. Coming in its place? A Motorola Solutions sign is on its way.
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!”
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
You haven’t heard from me in a long time because I’ve been busy helping organize the coolest event this city has ever seen: openhousechicago 2011. The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) is ready for openhousechicago this weekend (Oct. 15th and 16th), are you?
Organized by the CAF, openhousechicago (OHC) is a FREE weekend festival (Oct. 15th and 16th) giving people a backstage pass to over 100 great places and spaces across Chicago. Sites range from the original Sears Tower in North Lawndale, Louis Armstrong’s Sunset Cafe in Bronzeville, the nation’s first organic rooftop farm in Rogers Park, to the basement of the Chicago Cultural Center and rooftop garden of Lake Point Tower . . . and much more.
Build your own OHC itinerary, sort and map OHC sites according to your interests by visiting myitinerary.openhousechicago.org (mobile-friendly). Make sure you have all the tips and tools you need for an awesome OHC exploration by visiting www.openhousechicago.org. Oh! And be sure to pick up a printed OHC guide in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday.
So . . . what OHC sites and neighborhoods are you planning on visiting this weekend?
When we think of the Sears Tower, a soaring glass and steel skyscraper comes to mind – today called the Willis Tower. But the original Sears Tower is not found downtown but rather in North Lawndale. The tower was once attached to a huge sprawling complex where Sears Roebuck & Company printed their catalogs and filled their orders. Today only the tower remains.