300 N. State St.
When Marina City was first built between 1960 and 1967 its towers loomed over the surrounding historic buildings and parking lots on either side of the Chicago River. Today glitzy new skyscrapers frame the complex, yet the Marina Towers still remain as two of Chicago’s greatest icons, and likely will for time to come.
When built, the towers were both the tallest concrete structures and tallest residential towers in the world. More importantly, they were an experiment in a new urban philosophy: building a city within a city. Chicago had experienced a long period of suburban flight, which left an abandoned and deteriorating downtown. Marina City was part of an effort to reintroduce downtown Chicago as an attractive place to live. Marina City is actually a complex of five structures: two residential towers (60 stories each, with the first 18 stories reserved for parking), an office building (10 stories), and a theater building all standing upon a large commercial platform. Every amenity imaginable could be found within – such as a swimming pool, gym, ice skating rink, bank, barbershop and even a grocery store. And of course there’s still the ever-popular marina – hence the name. The first of its kind, it truly was a city within a city.
An organization especially invested in the city’s revival – the Janitor’s Union (more formally called the Building Service Employees International Union) – financed the building of Marina City. When completed, Marina City would provide work for 100 janitors within the complex, and a downtown revival would promise work for many more still. It wasn’t uncommon at the time for unions to invest health, welfare, and pension funds in low-cost housing. The Janitor’s Union followed suit. Charles (Chuck) Swibel, a realtor and later chairman of the Chicago Housing Authority, proposed the idea to the union and was integral to pushing the plan to fruition. A staunch supporter of Mayor Richard J. Daley and his plans for downtown revitalization, Swibel was especially enthusiastic about the project. But it was architect Bertrand Goldberg who was responsible for Marina City’s design and instant emergence as a Chicago icon.
Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997) was born and raised in Chicago. After studying architecture at Harvard, in 1932 at the young age of 19 he left for Germany to study at the Bauhaus – the greatest school of modernist art, architecture and design of its day. While there he apprenticed under Mies van der Rohe and his partner Lily Reich. He only attended the Bauhaus for one year before it was closed by the Nazi regime. He eventually followed Mies back to the Armour Institute of Technology (today IIT) where he was the director of their architecture program. Despite his admiration for Mies, he never adopted the right angle that was so central to his mentor’s design philosophy. Instead Goldberg centered his attention on the circle.
The towers were the first circular apartment buildings in history. And Goldberg’s choice in the circle was based on more than just aesthetics. The circle gave the highest ratio of usable floor space to exterior skin. And to Goldberg the circle offered still something more. He once said, “(I) wanted to get people out of boxes, which are really psychological slums . . . those long hallways with scores of doors opening anonymously are inhuman. Each person should retain his relation to the core. It should be the relation of the branch to the tree, rather than that of the cell to the honeycomb.”
The structure of the towers is in fact like a tree. All of the buildings’ mechanicals are located in the cores of each tower (or the “tremendous tree trunk(s)” as Goldberg called them). On every floor 16 reinforced concrete beams radiate out almost 40ft from the core – just like branches – to 16 exterior columns. And similar to a tree, the structure of the towers is completely exposed and celebrated.
In Chicago the Marina Towers are rarely related to trees, though they are often compared lovingly to corncobs – making the towers more than just icons, but great monuments to the Midwestern fields surrounding this metropolis.
All of the information for this article came from reading Igor Marjanovic and Katerina Ruedi Ray’s fantastic new book entitled, “Marina City: Bertrand Goldberg’s Urban Vision.” Their book goes into far more detail than this post, covering everything from the politics surrounding Marina City’s construction to the Towers portrayal in contemporary culture . . . and goes highly recommended.
And to learn more about Bertrand Goldberg explore this website devoted entirely to him! One of his Chicago buildings, the Prentice Women’s Hospital, is currently threatened with destruction. Follow along the efforts to save this building and be sure to become a fan of Save Prentice on facebook.
Marina City Online is the number one resource for online information on Marina City – updated daily. For Marina City news, fun facts and even real estate listings visit the Marina City Online website.
And finally the construction of the Marina Towers was an impressive feat. It was also accomplished at high-speeds: the towers were built at a speed of one floor per day on alternating towers. Watch this fun old video showing the construction of Marina City produced by the Portland Cement Association of Skokie: “This is Marina City (Part 1)” . . .
Liked that? Watch “This is Marina City (Part 2)!”
Marina City is full of stories. Do you have any you would like to share?
716 W. Addison St.
John Wellborn Root (1850-1891) once wrote “Reason should lead the way, and imagination take wings from a height to which reason has already climbed.” And so it is with his design of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church. It is grounded in carefully massed, simple geometric forms: triangular steeped roofs, an octagonal tower, conical steeple, and circular arches. But it is in the details – found in the art glass windows, the barely visible spiral pattern of the steeple, and artfully carved interior trusses – where Root’s imagination takes flight.
The Lakeview Presbyterian Church was completed in 1888 – the same year as Root’s famous Rookery building in the Loop. At the time of construction, what we now know as Lakeview was part of a quiet suburban community called the Lake View Township. In 1889 the township was annexed to the city of Chicago (thus increasing the city’s population) in conjunction with our bid for the World’s Columbian Exposition. Led by Dr. Thomas H. Skinner, the church had its beginnings in 1884. Meeting sometimes in the town hall, and often under a tent where the church sits today, the congregation asked Root to design their church.
Root worked closely with his partner Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), and the two together were a vital force in shaping Chicago’s architectural landscape. They designed such history-making buildings as the Montauk Block (demolished), the Rookery and the Monadnock. Burnham later went on to be the chief planner of the World’s Columbian Exposition and the man behind the 1909 Plan of Chicago. Burnham was the firm’s business man and Root was the designer – each in awe of the other. Burnham once said to fellow architect Louis Sullivan, “My partner . . . is a wonder, a great artist. I want you to meet him some day; you’ll like him.” It would be hard not to like Root, or at least be impressed by him. As the historian Donald Miller wrote, “[Root] could sing before he learned to talk, began drawing almost as soon as he could hold a pencil, and played the piano as well as his teacher when he was barely twelve.” Root’s artistic sensibilities are seen all over the Lakeview church – inside and out.
Because the church was located outside the limits of Chicago’s control, Root was not restricted by Chicago’s ban on wood construction (implemented after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871). Cedar shingles in a spectrum of earthen colors decorate and define the exterior of the church. Though, it hasn’t always been this way.
The church has gone through numerous alterations since it was first built. By 1898 the congregation had already outgrown the building and built a large addition, nearly doubling the size of the sanctuary. A wide open space – what is now visually the back of the new sanctuary – originally was the front of the church. The windows, executed by Healy & Millet, that line the sides of the sanctuary once decorated the area behind the original alter. In the 1940’s the church was re-clad with asbestos shingles and painted white with green trim. Root’s carefully considered design was hidden for decades. In 2005 The Lakeview Presbyterian congregation finished restoring the building to its 1898 appearance under the direction of the their pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, and the architectural firm of Holabird and Root (the descendents of John Root and William Holabird’s firms). The church was re-shingled and fireproofed. The art glass windows were restored.
And so today we’re lucky to see what Root once saw. Burnham said of his partner’s composure at work, “He could really see it. I’ve never seen anyone like him in this respect. He would grow abstracted and silent, and a faraway look would come into his eyes, and the building was there before him – every stone of it.” Or in the case of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church – every shingle.
The transformation the church went through in the last decade is noteworthy – so much so that the church was awarded a 2005 AIA Distinguished Building Award for its exterior restoration and a Landmarks Illinois Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Preservation Award in 2008.
Visit the Lakeview Presbyterian Church to see this gem of a building yourself. Just walk right in — they’re a welcoming congregation.
Coming up next is a post on this beautiful church designed by John Wellborn Root — the Lake View Presbyterian Church. Stay tuned!
50 East Congress Parkway
The opening of the Auditorium Theater on December 9, 1889 was the grandest and most anticipated social event Chicago had ever seen. One after another, horse-drawn carriages pulled up to its Congress St. entrance emitting an endless stream of women in their most extravagant jewels and men in their finest tailored suits into the electrically lit theater. People cheered as Adelina Patti sang Home Sweet Home. Special guest President Benjamin Harrison was rumored to have leaned over to Vice President Levi Morton and murmured, “New York surrenders, eh?,” temporarily ending a battle of greatness between the two cities (from Chicago’s point of view). The Auditorium Building was the biggest building in the country and the tallest in Chicago. The theater was the greatest (and still is one of the best) in the world. At the time many referred to the Auditorium as the eighth wonder of the world. Its success was key in Chicago winning the commission for the World’s Columbian Exposition, and above all else it was what turned Chicago into a world-class city.
The idea for the Auditorium came from a wealthy Chicago businessman – Ferdinand Peck – wanting to build a cultural institution that would finally put an end to the city’s reputation for being a brawling frontier town. An unrivaled home for the city’s opera company and symphony orchestra was the perfect solution. Knowing that it would be difficult to financially uphold his vision, he decided that the building should be multifunctional. A hotel on the eastern side of the theater and office structure on the western side would hopefully provide the necessary income to support the theater. He chose Dankmar Adler, a man he knew well as a self taught acoustical genius, to be its architect. Adler’s partner at the time was a little known man by the name of Louis Henri Sullivan. The Auditorium’s completion was the beginning of Sullivan’s celebrated career – a career that would eventually award him the (popularly used) title of America’s first modern architect.
Sullivan ultimately chose to design the building in the Richardson Romanesque style that is characterized by massive rusticated stone walls, heavy rounded arches and deeply recessed windows. The building looks heavy, and it is heavy. It’s a masonry load bearing structure – the tallest in the city until the completion of the Monadnock building three years later.
It is inside the building however, where Sullivan’s gift for design truly shines. Sullivan quickly became famous for his lavish nature-inspired ornamentation that is found in every nook and cranny of the Auditorium Building. It’s found in the mosaic floors, column capitals, within the stair’s railings, adorning the walls and ceilings and light fixtures – few parts of the building were left untouched by the artist-architect Louis Sullivan (note that the firm of Healy & Millet were also instrumental in the Auditorium’s interior design). But Sullivan didn’t work alone, and though less visible, Adler’s contributions towards the Auditorium are of equal importance. While Sullivan handled the building’s visual design, Adler was responsible for its engineering. Adler had such insights as leaving the area above the theater’s wide arched ceiling hollow, and steeply inclining the seats – these details and more turned it into one of the most acoustically impressive theaters in the world.
Unfortunately it wasn’t long before the Auditorium began to struggle. One of its greatest selling points was also its greatest downfall – the theater’s unparalleled size. Seating 4,200 people it was too large for either the Chicago Opera Company or Chicago Symphony Orchestra to fill the theater and maintain memberships. By 1904 the Chicago Symphony moved to its own smaller building, and the Chicago Opera did the same in 1929. The office portion of the building began to struggle as soon as the elevated lines were erected in its backyard in the early 1900’s. And the hotel, lacking in private bathrooms, became dated as soon as the Congress Hotel was completed – with private bathrooms for every room – in 1893. The Auditorium would have been demolished if the cost of demolition were not more than the land was worth. The theater began its descent into disrepair.
After serving as a WWII servicemen’s center from 1941 – 1945 (the stage was converted into a bowling alley), the Auditorium Building was sold in 1946 to Roosevelt University (who still owns it today). The theater portion of the building remained vacant and continued to deteriorate until a group lead by Beatrice T. Spachner saw to its restoration. The Auditorium Theater reopened on October 31, 1967 with the New York City’s Ballet Midsummer Night’s Dream – and it hasn’t closed since. Let’s keep it that way.
Volumes of books have been written about this single building – going into far more detail than what you’ve just read. If you want to learn more about the Auditorium Building an excellent starting point would be visiting the Auditorium Theater website. The Auditorium also offers impressive in depth tours of the theater.
Chicago has been celebrating Louis Sullivan through a number of events and exhibitions this year. The exhibition, “Louis Sullivan’s Idea” at the Cultural Center should not be missed. BLUEPRINT has also covered many other Sullivan buildings of note in Chicago, such as the Carson Pirie Scott building, Charnley-Persky House, Krause Music Store and the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral.
The Auditorium is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets. Treasures lie behind every door. Be sure to look for the Sullivan Room (floor 2), Ganz Hall (floor 7) and the Dining Hall – turned Library (floor 10) . . . you won’t be disappointed (access through Michigan Ave. entrance).
APSE: A semicircular or polygonal recess of a building, usually vaulted and most often found at the sanctuary or east end of a church.
The pictured apse is not found in a church, but at the eastern end of the Field Museum’s main hall. This apse is an example of a lacunar ceiling meaning that it is adorned with a pattern of coffered panels.
Because Chicago isn’t the only place filled with architectural treasures (though I personally believe it has the most), I have decided that as I find myself in places of architectural interest around the country or the world . . . I will share some highlights of my explorations with you. First stop of the On the Road series is Tulsa, OK.
The air traffic criss-crossing the Great Plains passes over many hidden gems, and Tulsa has more than many travelers would ever guess. At the beginning of the 2oth century, oil was discovered not far from Tulsa. By the 1920s Tulsa became known as the “Oil Capital of the World.” Money was flowing, the population was rising and so were buildings. And what style of buildings were being built during the 1920′s and 1930′s? Art Deco buildings.
Art Deco is a style of art, craft and architecture popular in the U.S. and Europe during the 1920′s and 1930′s that was introduced through the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes (International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts) held in Paris in 1925. Art Deco architecture took on many different forms and went through numerous variations. But a few common themes remained consistent. Art Deco architecture was characterized by stylized forms — breaking forms down to their basic geometry. It was about movement, opulence and modernism.
Driving around Tulsa, Art Deco buildings are everywhere. So Tulsa has real bragging rights. Below is just a small sampling of the architectural wonders found in the great city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Next time, don’t just fly over the city — stop in and take a look. (Click on the images to ENLARGE them!)
#1: Boston Avenue Methodist Church (1929), Adah M. Robinson, Bruce Goff, Endacott & Rush,1301 S. Boston Avenue
#2: Tulsa State Fairgrounds Pavilion (1932), L. I. Shumway
#3: Warehouse Market (1929), B. Gaylord Noftsger, 925 S. Elgin Avenue
#4: Westhope, Richard Lloyd Jones Residence (1929), Frank Lloyd Wright, 3704 S. Birmingham Avenue
#5: Riverside Studio (1929), Rush, Endacott & Goff, Bruce Goff, 1381 Riverside Drive
#6: MTTA Downtown Transfer Center (1998), Myers-Duren Harley Davidson, 4848 S. Peoria*
(*Though the MTTA station was built only recently, it is an homage to Tulsa’s rich Art Deco history)
The Tulsa Preservation Commission offers a wonderful and thorough introduction to Tulsa’s Art Deco architecture as well as other buildings of interest in Tulsa. Be sure to explore their website.
What do YOU know about Tulsa? And what do YOU think about the city’s architecture? Please share your thoughts below.
Today is BLUEPRINT: Chicago’s FIRST BIRTHDAY! Over the past year BLUEPRINT has introduced you to 45 buildings from across the city — old, new, famous and forgotten. BLUEPRINT has its own expanding dictionary of architectural vocabulary, a calendar of architectural events across the city, and keeps you up to date on Chicago’s architecture news. And it’s still growing. So I want to thank you for reading and participating in my adventure through Chicago’s truly awesome architecture. And I hope you will continue to follow along . . .
71 W. Van Buren St.
When we think of prisons, sprawling complexes in the middle of nowhere with high barbed wire fences generally come to mind. What we don’t think of are skyscrapers in the middle of a bustling city. The Metropolitan Correctional Center is just that – a skyscraper-prison in the Loop. Not only is there a prison nestled in the heart of the Chicago, but it makes a lot of sense to see it there.
The Metropolitan Correctional Center was built as part of a federal demonstration program in humanitarian prison conditions. The program commissioned two other Metropolitan Correctional Centers: one in NYC designed by Gruzen & Partners, and another in San Diego designed by Sadler & Bennett. The prisons were intended to house mostly pre-trial prisoners, or prisoners serving only short term sentences. The bureau commissioning the prisons stipulated that each prison had to be divided into self contained units accommodating no more than 50 inmates per unit. This organization allowed the prisons to be easily separated: men from women, old from young, violent from non-violent offenders etc. Prisoners would be given individual cells, and free access to lounges and recreation areas (one per unit).
Harry Weese designed Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, completed in 1975. It’s no surprise why Weese was awarded the commission — he was famous for his creative problem solving skills (the architect designed the DC metro system after all). Weese’s solution to the bureau’s prison design was revolutionary. He designed a prison in the shape of a skyscraper – a triangular skyscraper no less. A skyscraper for a prison makes sense. With multiple floors it’s easily divided. It’s a 27-story building, with the administrative offices below and prison cells above. A large exercise yard sits on top of the roof (this was made possible by moving the building’s mechanical equipment onto the 10th floor – marked by deep indentations on the façade). And it’s well disguised as a skyscraper — visually blending into Chicago’s towering skyline.
Why the triangle? There are a few reasons. As Weese said, “The triangular plan provides the most perimeter for the space. We needed perimeter so each room could have an outside window.” It also cut out the need for long wasteful corridors. It’s a much more efficient way of organizing space. Placing the rooms on the outer edges of the building leaves the inner core of each unit free to be used as a lounge and dining area. Each unit of the prison is bi-level, with an open two-story lounge area in the middle. The stairs and elevators are located in the building’s three corners. Efficiency wasn’t the only reason Weese chose a triangular shape for the building though. As he said, “I’ve always wanted to do a triangular building. I find the triangle very sculptural, more interesting than a rectangle or circle.” Built of sand colored reinforced concrete – it’s also an attractive triangle.
For a prison, the Metropolitan Correctional Center isn’t half bad. There are no cellblocks with long intimidating corridors. No steel cages. The interior is carpeted and colorful. And each private room has a floor to ceiling 5 in.x7.5 ft. window. 5 in. was the Bureau of Prison’s maximum allowance for window width without bars (Unfortunately, after an attempted window escape, there are now bars running across the windows). The windows make for unconventional though elegant ornamentation for the building, which has often been compared to both a wedge of swiss cheese or an IBM punch card.
So it makes sense for a downtown prison to be in the shape of a skyscraper – even better if that skyscraper happens to be triangular. But why have a prison in the middle of downtown Chicago? That makes sense too. It’s only a couple of blocks away from the courts at Federal Center. And the central location is much more accessible for both lawyers and visiting families alike. The better question might be, why not have a prison in downtown Chicago?
You can’t get very far into the Metropolitan Correctional Center without breaking the law, but no one will stop you from walking into the front entrance and checking out the beginnings of their intense security setup (Hidden from view is a control room that has the ability to command all of the building’s doors, TV’s, elevators, telephones and in the most dire situations – knockout gas). The system has not stopped a few from attempting escape though. Rumor has it that someone attempted escape once via helicopter from the building’s roof, and this is why a net now covers the rooftop exercise yard. So it’s hard to get in, and hard to get out. But if you walk by be sure to look up. You might just see a prisoner or two doing some jumping jacks.
**Update (12/20/12): In the early morning of 12/17/12 two men actually managed to escape out of one of the windows and rappel 20 floors to the ground using a rope fashioned out of bed sheets. Read the full story here.**
Noah Vaughn is Chicago’s modern day Richard Nickel. An intrepid urban explorer, he documents vacant decaying buildings through stunning photographs. The following photographic essay will (hopefully) be the first in a series of entries written by guest bloggers who offer different perspectives on the field of architecture.
While Chicago’s building preservation community was wringing its hands over the impending demolition of the historic (but vacant and dilapidated) Johnson Publishing-owned YWCA building at 830 South Michigan Avenue, two other nearby buildings owned by Johnson were being torn down without much notice. Too bad, because while they didn’t have the historic pedigree of the YWCA building, they were noteworthy enough to merit a second look.
To be fair, I probably would not have noticed the buildings at 825-831 South Wabash either if it wasn’t for the old YWCA. I went there one afternoon to take some photos of the building facade, and I hoped to find a way inside to get some interior shots. I walked around back looking for an entrance, only to find the building sealed shut. But on the other side of the alley were two other buildings being prepped for demolition. I was dead set on photographing the inside a vacant building, and if I couldn’t get into the YWCA, these other ones would have to do.
At the time, I had no idea that the publisher of Jet and Ebony Magazine once owned the two Wabash buildings as well as the old YWCA. I tried to find more information about 825-831, but did not come up with much. They were built in 1906, probably for offices and light manufacturing. The buildings were purchased by Johnson sometime in the 70’s, probably as a real-estate investment (this information came from an online architecture forum and is thus a bit sketchy.) The buildings were barely used, and in 2008 (or so—more sketchy information) the financially strapped publisher sold the buildings to East-West University.
Getting into 831 S. Wabash was easy enough. Security at this demolition site consisted of a hastily constructed fence in the adjacent parking lot, with gaps wide enough to walk through. My only concern was being spotted by someone walking by on Wabash. I waited until it seemed like nobody was looking, went around the fence, and ducked into a hole in the side of the building. After waiting a few minutes for my nerves to calm, I turned on my flashlight and started to poke around.
Much of the interior looked like a turn of the century, nondescript office/warehouse building, stripped bare. It took a bit of exploring before I found anything left behind by the previous building tenants. One of the rooms had photos of civil rights leaders taped to the wall. Digging through a pile of debris, I found a Johnson Publishing shipping invoice from the 1970’s and some stationary from the offices of Ebony magazine. My favorite find was a poster advertising the “Black Book”, a directory of “Chicago area black owned-operated businesses”. I guessed that Johnson Publishing once used parts of the building as a warehouse and shipping department. Whatever went on here, it was obvious that the building had not been used for anything in at least a decade.
The two buildings were actually connected on several floors, effectively making it one building with two facades. A few days after taking my photos, I read that 825-831 were being torn down because they were a safety hazard. The concern was understandable: floorboards were badly warped, some of the wood-beamed ceilings were sagging, and the few interior walls that remained looked like they were about to cave in. The two narrow stairwells would not have passed even the most lenient building inspection. But unlike most other vacant buildings that I have visited, there was no graffiti tagging on the walls, and what little evidence I found of squatters looked very old.
I spent the better part of that afternoon and the next day taking photos inside 825-831 South Wabash. The buildings were not especially remarkable–just floor after floor of empty space, without much variation other than the paint on the walls. But in a neighborhood where many other older loft buildings have been either demolished or converted into upscale condos, 825-831 South Wabash were relics of a time when the South Loop was a blue collar commercial area. I thought it was important to make some sort of record of them before they disappeared. Plus, I enjoyed spending time alone inside a quiet, rotting loft building while outside the upscale South Loop area went about its business.
After I felt like I got enough shots of the interior, I went across the street to get a few more photos of the handsome facades. Built out of dark brick with subtle details, they were the most notable feature of the buildings. A man stopped to ask me why I was taking photos of the buildings. “Just a hobby…” We talked for a few minutes about how the neighborhood had changed. “Well, it’s a good thing someone is taking pictures, because a lot of these places will be gone,” he told me.
825-831 South Wabash were completely demolished by December 2009, and the land is now being used as a parking lot.
To see more of Noah’s photographs of the 825-831 S. Wabash buildings click here. And be sure to visit Noah’s website and photo blog full of similarly striking photographs from many other demolished or soon to be demolished Chicago buildings. Noah was also just featured in an interview on Chicago Photobloggers – check it out!
Dearborn between Jackson and Adams
The steel and glass buildings of Federal Center are simple and frozen at first glance. The many people who stop engaging with the Federal buildings at this point label them as austere, cold or inhuman. But those who are lucky enough to keep looking, inevitably find that Mies van der Rohe’s steel structures are just the opposite. They pulse with energy. Repeating bars of steel piers, mullions, and I-beams form the buildings’ metronome. Panes of glass large and small allow the eye to rest. And then there is the constant movement of lights, reflections and people throughout the buildings and surrounding plaza. The combination is musical. And so, as Mies famously said, “Less is More.”
Federal Center is composed of three buildings – the 30-story Dirksen tower (combined office and courtroom building), 43-story Kluczynski tower (office building), and single-story post office – built over a sixteen-year period between 1959 and 1975. The buildings were built to replace the old domed 1905 Henry Ives Cobb federal building – dated in style even before its completion. While the classically designed Cobb building was almost imperial in its grandeur, Mies’s design is democratic. His buildings are perfectly transparent – fitting for a government that strives to convey a sense of openness. Also important for government buildings is to embody a sense of order – of which there is no shortage of in Mies’s design.
Imagine that the three buildings are sitting on a huge piece of graph paper divided into 4’8” squares – as seen in the lines forming the plaza’s pavement. The squares are the module that the rest of the buildings are similarly built on. Follow the lines. Every line of the pavement leads to the exact center of a key part of a building’s form – such as the pilotis, piers or mullions. The grid continues through the buildings (the same granite used in the plaza is also used inside the lobbies – only polished), and up the buildings – in a repetition of evenly spaced I-beams forming the center’s only ornamentation. The same grid even continues uninterrupted on the roof of the post office. What’s more? The height of the post office is the exact height of the lobbies of the two towers. It’s no surprise that Mies’s other commonly used saying was “God is in the details.”
The details combine to form a perfectly unified whole. Mies’s buildings soar up into the sky sleek and modern. They’re both heavy in how they’re made of velvety black painted steel, and weightless for how they float above the ground over big open glass spaces. Their minimal facades reflect the historic buildings surrounding them. Standing in the middle of it all is Alexander Calder’s flaming red Flamingo sculpture. It simultaneously ties everything together and sends it all into motion.
Federal Center was not the work of Mies alone. Though the initial designs were his own, he died in 1969 – six years before the completion of the center. Gene Summers and Bruno Conterato from Mies’s office with the help of associate architecture firms Schmidt, Gardin & Erikson, CF Murphy & Associates, and Epstien & Sons, together carried out Mies’s plan to completion.
And you might have noticed that there’s a lot of construction going on right now on the plaza of the Federal Center. To learn more about this stimulus project read this article.
FESTOON: a decorative representation of a garland of flowers, foliage or ribbon hung in a curve between two points.
Pictured above is one of Chicago’s most dramatic festoons — on the entrance of the American College of Surgeons.
555 W. Madison St.
The story behind the Presidential Towers is not strictly about architecture. Instead, the four buildings tell a typical tale of Chicago politics — and all the greed, power and corruption you might expect from this city.
In the 1960’s the city demolished six blocks of low-income housing and single room occupancy hotels along Madison Street. 7,000 people were left without a home, to make room for five 90-story office towers that were never built. The land stood empty for years. Twenty years later, in 1986, came four 49-story luxury apartment buildings – one just like the other – called the Presidential Towers.
The buildings just over the highway and next door to the Presidential Towers offered a different reality. Housing projects, liquor stores, crime and people struggling to make ends meet was what defined the neighboring area. It’s no coincidence that the towers were built like a fortress. There’s a single entrance and security checkpoint for all four towers, and as you might expect it’s located in the tower closest to the safety of downtown. From there apartment dwellers take an escalator up to an elevated indoor pedestrian walkway connecting the buildings. Each tower is furthermore locked off from the other towers. What’s facing what was once the remainder of Skid Row? A barrier in the form of a large 3-story parking complex. The developers of the towers did everything they could to barricade the buildings from the surrounding neighborhood.
The buildings allowed apartment dwellers to further isolate themselves from the area by providing every imaginable amenity within the confines of the towers. The concept the architects of the Presidential Towers, Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz & Associates (SCB), had was to create an internal neighborhood within the complex. A supermarket, dry cleaners, floral shop, video rental store, and various restaurants were all contained within the buildings . . . not to mention an indoor swimming pool, exercise room, basketball court and running track. With so many conveniences within arms reach, there was little reason for those who lived in the Presidential Towers to ever leave the Presidential Towers.
The buildings were in great part made possible through hefty city and federal government subsidies. But thanks to Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (among others), the rules were bent so that the developers did not have to abide by the customary provision to set aside 20% of the apartments for low-income renters. Despite these favors, it wasn’t long before the development met with financial difficulties. In 1992 a $160 million bailout and refinancing of the Presidential Towers stipulated that 5% of the apartments would be allocated to lower income families. Today there are only a small handful of apartments reserved for low-income families. And it’s not surprising that now there are few signs of the urban blight that once marked the area. Instead, the West Loop is quickly growing to be one of Chicago’s hippest destinations.
Though the injustices represented by the Presidential Towers were once the source of public outrage, today their story is mostly forgotten. The protests ceased long ago and all that remains are the towers themselves. Though the general sentiment towards their design is as architecture critic Paul Gapp wrote, “banal by the most charitable description,” they’re still elegant in their own way. One after the other, they’re rhythmic. And when the sun is setting, sometimes they even seem to glow.
Many of the public amenities like the supermarket and flower shop left the Presidential Towers some time ago. But it looks as though construction has begun to bring many restaurants and other conveniences back to the Presidential Towers. To learn more about the towers remodeling or to learn more about life at the Presidential Towers visit their website.
The fight for equal housing opportunities is always present. One such struggle is found at the Lathrop Homes housing project. Recently announced were the plans to change the buildings from low-income into mixed-income housing. To learn more about the Lathrop Homes redevelopment plans read this.