Monday, July 27, 2009


I will be away for a much needed vacation through August 4.

Notes to self: Research the humoresques at Willoughby Tower to see if they might have something in common at 203 North Wabash. Find original floor plans to compare the progression of atria, elevators, and street access between the Rookery, Masonic Temple, Railway Exchange, Insurance Exchange, People's Gas.

The vacation pic is posted at Chicago Sculpture in the Loop.

Sunday, July 26, 2009


Trust me. I know "modern".

I grew up in a pre-mid-century modern house, whose spare style was a statement of available materials and capital. In the fifties I watched with envy as the neighbors built their wooden house with sloped roofs, plate glass, and egalitarian bathrooms. In the sixties I saw Mies birth Mies Modern as he gutted a block of the loop. And tried to compete with the new Miami Beach Modern apartments on Lake Shore Drive for hearts and minds. I went to school in a Bauhaus inspired studio, learned of Corbu, the Wiener Werkhaus and the Fagus Works. Friends interned at TAC and came home wrapped in Marrimekko. "Total Scope with Grope, " they chanted (stoned out of their minds). My first apartment (seventies modern) had plastic furniture, an arc lamp, celery shag carpet, and a Macrame plant hanger. My cigarettes balanced on a Warren Platner ash tray. I participated in Post Modernisim (though the effect was somewhat diluted by the strip center building type that had become my specialty.) I've seen the granite and stainless elegance of nineties modern. The computer inspired millenial modern return-of-the-curve. And finally, (thank heaven) the come-to-Jesus, this-is-it, the-final-real-and-forever modern of the new age. Sensible. Sustainable. And nine-eleven secure. Designed by architects with head shots and windblown hair, and sales gigs ranging from "Magic Carpets" to "Deconstructivism".

Now, don't get me wrong. I can identify and relate to real masterworks of every decade of twentieth century architecture. (And in some future post I'll describe how Richard Meier's work in New Harmony, Indiana fundamentally changed my own work and way of thinking.)

But there is one thread of modernity that persists and repeats. It is the belief that "This time, we've got it right." "This time its real, lasting, permanent" There is an odor of infallibility. An arrogance that allows the destruction of even the finest expressions of generations now passed. Below is
the "elegant transformation" of the Insurance Exchange. The original building was designed by Peirce Anderson in 1911. I forget who did the 1995 remodeling.

The original space was a dead ringer for the Atrium at the Railway Exchange (Daniel Burnham, 1904), though larger and more finely detailed. These days, there is a CAF Daniel Burnham Exhibit at the Railway Exchange, that is well worth seeing. The model of Chicago is spectacular. But take a look, too, at the skylight, the ironwork, the light fixtures, the balustrades. And consider the weight of loss and gain.
Credits are due Sally A. Chappell Kitt and her highly recommended work THE ARCHITECTURE OF GRAHAM ANDERSON PROBST & WHITE, page 46, University of Chicago Press.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ARCHITECTURAL CRITICISM. Personal Responsibility

I like the Insurance Exchange. I like it a lot. 175 West Jackson Boulevard. D. H. Burham & Co (1912) and later Graham, Anderson, Probst and White.(1928) Peirce Anderson designed the building for Daniel Burnham.

My first job as an Intern Architect was at 309 West Jackson Boulevard. A job that became full time after graduation and lasted for enough years to tell you that I passed this building (more often in a hurry than not) nearly 3000 times -- to and from. Even in a cold rain, the Insurance Exchange had elegance and presence.

It fit. Cornice heights and details echoed throughout the immediate neighborhood. It worked. The Fed, the Continental Bank, and the Corn Exchange were up the street and around the corner. And the Board of Trade. Lunch, shoeshine, a drugstore, and a tobacco shop opened on to the skylit court. Custom suits were made there (for people with more money than me).. Everybody knew it was a Daniel Burnham building. And that it made Ernest Graham's fortune. (Perfect timing, I'd say.)

Over the years, it settled into gray disrepair. But the space was cheap and the location was good (especially for consulting engineers) . And though the white terra cotta never quite lost its sparkle, Chicago's Architectural "Critical Framework" tended to focus elsewhere. Daniel Burnham, of course, wasn't nearly the architect that......... So this piece of history was left to renovation (the architect describes his work as an "elegant transformation") rather preservation. No one said it should be any other way.

I think that those of us interested in Architecture need to remember that what surrounds us is not just an expression of effete style. To be criticized with a roll of the eye and a click of the very educated tongue -- to be dismissed because it is loved. It is a reflection of men (scroll down to that picture of Daniel Burnham as a teenager) and place and history. It is also a reflection of aspiration. And we need to remember this and talk about it and photograph it and share it as loudly and as often as we can. So when the time comes, as it apparently has, for Michael Reese, everyone would already know Walter Gropius and Peter Behrens and that mid-century modern was born in dreams already then 30 years old and that we were about to lose a piece of something irreparable. And every person whoever drank from the Rosenberg Fountain would, each day, know that Hebe (who holds the secret of eternal youth) is directly connected to those whose inspiration built a once great institution.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

ARCHITECTURAL CRITICISM. Chicago Style. Hold the Ketchup.

Root's ROOKERY "good" ..................................Burnham's PEOPLE'S "bad"..........................
If one is a part of Chicago's Architectural "Critical Framework" it is de riguer to criticize Daniel Burnham's Architecture (in this HIS centennial) and to praise Louis Sullivan and the Chicago School. Almost as if Sullivan's worth relies on Burnham's denigration. Even Lynn Becker, who occasionally speaks from what I thought was a "heart", who describes himself as the guy at the end of the bar spouting (truth) to the air, chimes in with perfect timing in his little article titled "An Odd Way........." published 07.16 in the CHICAGO READER. Quoting the Critic Becker directly, "genius had abandoned Burnham and the years to come also produced such curiosities as the pompous People's Gas Building." The sentence could have been " by 1912 Burnham had assembled a powerful and dedicated team of talent who believed so strongly in the conceptual value of the 1909 Plan of Chicago that both City Planning and Architecture in Chicago for the next 20 years could be traced directly to Burnham's genius and inspiration. At the time of Burnham's death, plans were underway for what would become the iconic Field Museum. And immediate groundwork had been laid for Chicago's Union Station. Louis Sullivan, on the the other hand, was in Iowa. CEDAR RAPIDS, I believe.

Now I appreciate interesting ornament as much as the next guy. And Sullivan's is good. But if its MY birthday, I kinda think that the cake should be for me. And this year, its Dan's. JZHEEEZ. PLEASE.

On the other hand, if you want to talk "POMPOUS" - and I can talk "POMPOUS" - look to Sullivan's doo-dads at the top of the Gage Building. If you want talk "POMPOUS," let's talk about Zaha Hadid in Millenium Park. Ooops. Becker and I agree on that one. And one thing more on which we can all agree -- no one can match the consistently incisive writing in Lynn Becker's ArchitectureChicago Plus'. And that for the most part, "Odd Way", after all, is a broad ranging , truly insightful piece.
And "Highly Recommended". Except for the areas in which I disagree. :-)
Now for some other good stuff, in this year of Daniel Burnham's Plan Centennial. The Insurance Exchange, ironically dated 1912, after the genius had left....... will be the subject of our next post.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

LaSALLE STREET. and Jackson Boulevard

Today, on the public sidewalk, across the street from the Rookery, a security guard asked me why I was so interested in "that" building. The light was playing delicately on the West facade. I was following it with my telephoto.

Not immediately realizing I was being scrutinized I told him I was comparing the proportions of John Root's street level colonnade to the columns and bay windows of Peirce Anderson's Peoples Gas Building on Michigan Avenue for a future blog post. Both are Daniel Burnham buildings and remarkably similar. (After all, HE ASKED.) His eyes rolled as he stepped back, smiling faintly. (That's when I saw the "badge".) He seemed truly satisfied that I was just an idiot and posed no immediate nine-eleven threat. Still, he watched until I left. I had to wonder where he was yesterday, when this guy, almost as tall as I am and twice my weight, walked up to me, put his hands on my shoulders, and then heavily, slowly, exhaled a week's worth of bad vodka into my face. He had just gotten out of jail (for assault), and begged that he needed a "human being" to give him bus fare. Luckily (on both days actually) I have the capability of "puffing up" and looking formidable for short periods of time.

Peirce Anderson knew how to deal with LaSalle Street's hoo-ha's. He just ignored them. When Louis Sullivan went into HIS alcoholic rant about Bankers and Romans and Togas, and what a stupid piece of crap the Illinois Merchant's Banking Room really was, Anderson didn't even bother to reply. I should be so calm.

I'm not.

Today, following the "incident", I wandered around the corner, remembering something about "discretion" and "valour" and began to photograph Peirce Anderson's work at the Insurance Exchange. (ca. 1911 at the corner of Financial and Jackson) As I focused and framed the full horror of Lucien LaGrange's "elegant transformation" of what I have always considered a Burnham masterwork (I've tried to ignore Lucien's renovations for some years now) I broke into a full rage. What kind of shocking arrogance would it take to believe one could "improve" on Peirce Anderson? Damn. The same arrogance, I suppose, that allowed some house designer from Oak Park, (what's- his- name Frank) to believe that frosting the inside of the Rookery with gold painted marble would make us forget all of John Root's nasty ironwork. And remember Frank, Frank, Frank. Amazingly, both of these "award winners" thought they were doing us a favor. And I thought LaSalle and Jackson was the intersection of the symmetrical and the sedate.

Architects are vicious. Architects eat their young.
Note the Deco Vampire Bat eating the Mosquito.

Friday, July 10, 2009

LaSALLE STREET. North from Jackson Blvd. A glimpse of the past

Standing near the corner of LaSalle and Jackson, between the Federal Reserve and the Merchant's Bank, I seem always dogged by half told stories. Histories just beyond reach. And suffer the inexplicable "need to know." I'm sure that Daniel Burnham is close, but can't quite see....

Original Ornament. The Rookery. John Wellborn Root. 1885


William Peirce Anderson (who knew Daniel Burnham), Architect of the buildings that flank me as I look north to the Rookery, would surely have regretted not having met Burnham's first partner, John Root. Something never understood is how Root's expression of Chicago School Architecture passed so completely from Daniel's vocabularly.

But in the longer run, even that matters little. For those near to him, the "Plan" or even the "Style" was always secondary to Daniel Burnham, the man. For Anderson. Even for Ed Bennett.

Anderson knew Daniel well before that "Plan." Before Daniel became gout ridden, overweight "Uncle Dan," Friend of Presidents. Before the legend of his accomplishments over- shadowed the power of the man himself. For the 13 years he worked for him and then for next 14 years, as he, literally, built The Vision, Peirce Anderson's ever present mentor and inspiration remained Daniel Burnham. It is possible that Daniel's wife Margaret showed Peirce the photograph, below, taken when Daniel was 19. And this is how Anderson might like to remember him. At the beginning. All determination and energy.


Daniel Hudson Burnham in 1865

And this is how, maybe, we should remember him too. Grateful for the Legacy, of course and the 1909 Plan of Chicago, but even more grateful for the man. And the simple proof that a plan, a grand plan, can exist. And that there can be dreams to inspire the next generation. Even in Chicago. In 2009.
Credit for Daniel Burnham's portrait belongs to Thomas S. Hines' BURNHAM OF CHICAGO, p10, published by the University of Chicago. And highly recommended.
Good things are happening at the Marquette Building. See CHICAGO SCULPTURE in the Loop.

Monday, July 6, 2009

LASALLE STREET. Fraternal Twins

Those twins of LaSalle Street, the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Illinois Merchants Bank are both solid, considered, and thoughtfully designed buildings. They both have a conceptual basis. They are designed to become a part of the "Plan". Despite the "quirks." (See June 27 post below.) Neither, though, could individually "capture the imagination" like the pair. Neither could, individually, call attention to their differences. Separated, Ionic or Corinthian matter little. Together, it seems more than a little odd that the staid Federal Reserve would be assigned those flamboyant Corinthian Columns ... and not the Merchant's Bank. A matter of question or conjecture. A little mystery.

This corner has made me rethink the value of order. Of symmetry. Of the variations allowable within seeming duplicates and implied order. Would these two buildings be better if they perfectly aligned? I think not. Both Ionic? No. Could just one of Mestrovic's Indians (just up the street) guard Grant Park? Of course not. Would exact duplicates weaken the power of their apparent symmetry? Hmm. Spearman, Bowman, Merchants Bank and Fed.

Staring at the rendered aerial view of Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan for Chicago (for the gazillionth time) I again notice that the Randolph Street Pier is not exactly the same shape as the Pier Planned for 12th Street. That the Chicago River curves and splits and plays in counterpoint to the gridded streets. Remember that the Field Museum is slightly off-angle from Soldier Field. And consider the possibility that the Beaux Arts tradition in Chicago could be significantly more nuanced than I had previously considered.
Credits are due for use of the image above, of course, to Daniel Burnham.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

LaSALLE STREET. 1924. At Jackson

Eighty years and the changes they've held, have mellowed the corner of LaSalle and Jackson. We see what we expect to see. Have always seen. But when the Board of Trade was constructed at the end of LaSalle Street, flanked by the existing classicism of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and the Illinois Merchant's Bank, it was a violent statement of modernity. A stylized expression of verticality, and height, leaving its two classical "framers" at street level. Beneath the tallest building in Chicago. A title to keep until 1965. (See previous post.)

Blame it on the kids.

Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, Architects of the Merchants Bank and the Federal Reserve, not only continued Daniel Burnham's legacy of Classicism that won the Chicago World's Fair, they continued the almost unstoppably successful corporate culture that serves as a model of organization for architects today. They literally carried Daniel Burnham to the next generation. Peirce Anderson's dedication played no small part in this accomplishment. But time has a way of creeping up on us. The symmetrical porticoes of LaSalle Street were already "on their way out" at their time of completion. A generation late.

In 1923, William Holabird, revered, accomplished Chicago School partner at Holabird and Roche was dead. (See Chicago Sculpture in the Loop for recent developments at the Marquette Building.) In early 1924 Anderson died of cancer. It was time for John Holabird and John Root ("the kids"), architects of the Palmolive Building and 333 North Michigan to take center stage, unopposed, with a small assist from the 1924 Zoning Ordinance that allowed the Board of Trade to rise 605 feet above the street below.

A remarkable accomplishment. But the next few posts will belong to Peirce Anderson. We'll give the future to Holabird and Root.

Below are details of the Brass Marquis that stands in front of the Illinois Merchants Bank (completed 1924). Think nothing of the Great War. The Panic. The cancer. The astonishing growth of density within an already dense City. Think nothing of the passing of a generation that knew the Fire and the Fair. Or the Depression to come. Just - look at this brass.