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word of the week: APSE

2011 January 2
by Caroline Nye Stevens
Apse, Field Museum

Apse at the Field Museum

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.


2010 December 28
by Caroline Nye Stevens

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!)

Boston Avenue Methodist Church

#1. Boston Avenue Church, INTERIOR

Boston Avenue Methodist Church

#1. Boston Avenue Methodist Church

Boston Avenue Methodist Church

#1. Boston Ave. Church Detail

Fairgrounds Pavilion, Tulsa

#2. Fairgrounds Pavilion

Fairgrounds Pavilion, Tulsa

#2. Fairground's Pavilion Detail

Warehouse Market, Tulsa

#3. Warehouse Market

Warehouse Market, Tulsa

#3. Warehouse Market, Detail

Westhope, Frank Lloyd Wright

#4. Westhope

Riverside Studio, Bruce Goff

#5. Riverside Studio

Tulsa Bus Depot

#6. MTTA Bus Station

#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.

Happy Birthday BLUEPRINT!

2010 December 22
by Caroline Nye Stevens
Francisco Avenue

Snowy Scene in Logan Square, CNS 2010

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 . . .

Happy Holidays!


BLUEPRINT (Caroline)

Metropolitan Correctional Center

2010 December 22
by Caroline Nye Stevens


Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago

Metropolitan Correctional Center, CNS 2010

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 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.

Metropolitan Correctional Center Interior

MCC Interior, borrowed from Hedrich Blessing Photographers (Chicago Architecture and Design)

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?

Metropolitan Correctional Center, Chicago

MCC, CNS 2010


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.**

BLUEPRINT has covered a couple of other Harry Weese buildings: The River Cottages and Chinatown Square. Be sure to check them out too! What do you think of our prison in the Loop?

Guest Blogger: NOAH VAUGHN

2010 December 16
by Caroline Nye Stevens

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.

Noah Vaughn

A Last Look at 825-831 South Wabash

Noah Vaughn

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.

Black Book, Noah Vaughn

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.

stairs, noah vaughn

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.

noah vaughn

noah vaughn

825-831 South Wabash were completely demolished by December 2009, and the land is now being used as a parking lot.

-Noah Vaughn

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!

Federal Center

2010 December 9
by Caroline Nye
Federal Center, Mies

Federal Center, CNS 2010

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.

Federal Center

photographer unknown

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.

Alexander Calder, FlamingoMAP IT

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.

word of the week: FESTOON

2010 November 26
Comments Off on word of the week: FESTOON
by Caroline Nye Stevens

FESTOON: a decorative representation of a garland of flowers, foliage or ribbon hung in a curve between two points.


Festoon, American College of Surgeons, CNS 2010

Pictured above is one of Chicago’s most dramatic festoons — on the entrance of the American College of Surgeons.

The Presidential Towers

2010 November 18
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Presidential Towers

Presidential Towers, CNS 2010

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.

Pedestrian Walkways at the Presidential Towers

Pedestrian Walkways at the Presidential Towers

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.

Pedestrian Towers

CNS 2010


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.

333 W. Wacker

2010 November 9
by Caroline Nye Stevens
333 W. Wacker

333 West Wacker, CNS 2010

333 W. Wacker Drive

Located at the junction of the Chicago River’s three branches, 333 W. Wacker is much more than just another skyscraper dotting Chicago’s skyline. It’s a tribute to the river below, sky above and buildings all around.

Sheathed in blue-green glass stretched taught across its curved façade, it appears to be an extension of the glistening green river below. It’s almost as if the river has risen into a wall over the city — like a frozen tsunami. Whereas the river stretches out wide, open and curved, the loop is quartered off and angular – the same is true of 333 W. Wacker. While the side of the building facing the river references the river in curve and color, the sides facing the city reference the city. 333 W. Wacker is shaped like a truncated triangle (or better yet, a piece of pie with a bite taken out of it). The loop facing sides of the building follow the hard lines of the surrounding structures and elevated tracks. 333 W. Wacker is textbook contextual architecture.

Contextualism is a key principle of postmodern architecture – a label that easily fits 333 W. Wacker. Completed in 1983, it was designed at the height of the postmodern period. Postmodernism was a reaction to the minimalism and severity of modernism. Suddenly architects were keenly aware of the relationships between their buildings and surrounding environments. 333 W. Wacker is the greatest example of this philosophy in Chicago. Notice how it even converses with the Merchandise Mart across the river. While the Mart is rectilinear, opaque and emphasizes its verticality, 333 W. Wacker is curvilinear, reflective and emphasizes its horizontality.

333 W. Wacker Building

CNS 2010

333 W. Wacker was designed by the New York based firm of Kohn Pedersen Fox. When built, it was rare to invite an outside architecture firm to design in Chicago – especially for such a prime location. They were also a small lesser-known firm, without a national reputation. However, the success of 333 W. Wacker put Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) on the map as reputable architects in Chicago and beyond. Today the firm is considered to be one of the greatest architecture teams for large-scale international building projects in the world.

KPF gained a reputation for smart design through 333 W. Wacker for more reasons than its aesthetic sensibilities. They were one of the first firms interested in sustainable building practices, seen foremost in their choice of glass cladding. KPF chose to use 6 acres (or 275,000ft) of Ford Motor Company’s special reflective architectural glass (at a cost of $1.2million). The glass had an inside coating of reflective metallic oxide film which blocks up to 65% of the sun. This allowed for cooling costs to be kept at a minimum during Chicago’s hot summer months. Another smart and not so obvious choice the architects made was to raise all of the offices above the elevated tracks that cut behind the building. Instead of putting offices on level with the roaring trains, large circular air intake and exhaust fans create unlikely decorations seen by curious train passengers.

However few buildings go without any criticisms – and for 333 W. Wacker, the building’s river-facing base is a subject of controversy. Clad in lines of alternating heavy grey granite and green marble – the base seems disconnected from the crystalline façade above it. When architecture critic Paul Goldberger made a similar criticism, William Pedersen (chief architect on the project) rebutted by saying, “if the base matched the shaft, it wouldn’t be a base, would it?”

Whether or not it’s perfect, 333 W. Wacker has made it into Chicago’s architecture hall of fame. A timeless classic it will continue to be a favorite of many for years to come.


How can we be so sure it’s deserving of such praise? Kohn Pedersen and Fox were since asked to design the two buildings on either side of 333 W. Wacker (225 W. Wacker and 191 N. Wacker), not to mention countless more around the world. It was awarded the AIA National Honor Award in 1984. Check out KPF’s website here and their thoughts on 333 W. Wacker here. And Perkins + Will were the associate architects of the building. Here’s their website.

SKYLINES — Pilsen Clouds

2010 November 7
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Approaching Storm in Pilsen, CNS 2010

word of the week: MULLION

2010 November 3
by Caroline Nye Stevens

MULLION: a vertical member dividing a window or other opening.

Mullions on the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, IIT, CNS 2010

Notice that the mullions of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center are more than just the glue that holds the windows together. Instead they are also the piers that support the building, and the ornament that helps to visually define the building. One after another they give the building rhythm and make it almost musical.

SKYLINES — Happy Halloween!!!

2010 November 1
Comments Off on SKYLINES — Happy Halloween!!!
by Caroline Nye Stevens

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral

A full moon at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, CNS 2010