Sunday, September 27, 2009

PEOPLES GAS. Light Fixtures and Lions.

I'm not quite sure how Peirce Anderson was able to incorporate state-of-the-art electrical fixtures in a vaguely French Beaux-Arts Office Building that housed the largest public utility company in the country, and still evoke the "Glory of Rome."

But he did. This while Louis Sullivan designed a local bank in Owatanna. And Frank Lloyd Wright ran off to Europe (in hopes of avoiding scandal) with Mamah Borthwick.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS. Electric Lights and Decorative Panels

In 1893 Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse introduced Alternating Current to Chicago and the World by using it to power Chicago's Columbian Exposition. Just 17 years later Peirce Anderson (an electrical engineer himself) used lighting as a design element of the new People's Gas Light and Coke Building.

Today, we take lighting for granted as a component of a building's design. In 1910 it would have been remarkable. But what could have been better advertising for People's Gas Light and Coke than a building on Michigan Avenue that lit the night -- especially when viewed from a horse-drawn carriage. The world was about to be a very new place.

Take a look at the Encyclopedia of Chicago for a "take" on electric lighting in 1908.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS BUIILDING. Indignities of Age

A close inspection yesterday of the bay windows at the People's Gas Building showed significant general deterioration of base, sill and cap. Two kinds of stone irregularly meet the sidewalk.... Also possible modifications of the enclosure are indicated at the entry doors.... Multiple storefront frame types and materials....
I had previously assumed that the Bays at People's Gas were original and an obvious reference to earlier Burnham Buildings. They are not. (They had me fooled. I have some retracting to a later post).
People's Gas Bay Windows are not original to the building. They are a later addition. A closer look at existing construction detail and the original floor plan revealed this and more. The revolving doors are not original either (of course). Their location in relation to the building line is altered. The Adams Street entrance has been removed and is now occupied by Patty Burger. The original interior space is gone, replaced my some "maximized retail gross leaseable area." These, and deferred maintenance issues complete the "diminished" character of the People's Gas Building I referenced in an earlier post. Summarizing:

1. The huge cornice "cap" is gone.

2. The Loggia that once overlooked the City is surrounded and dwarfed by newer structures. Columns with delicate capitals and highly ornate flutes and swags have been replaced with yellow brick.

3. The masonry of the building's Body has been significantly discolored by airborn dirt and moisture.

4. Painted Metal Panels meant to emphasize both loggia and colonade have faded.

5. A deeply recessed line of storefronts, which would have allowed the building to "float" on those massive ionic columns has been pushed outward, their protrusion is highlighted with applied signage. The entrances, whose deeper recess would have "keyed" their visual location have also been brought forward.

6. The columned, skylit interior space has been "downsized" and is no longer scaled to the building, no longer adds to its depth or richness. (What happened to the brass lamps?) And is no longer visible through a line of plate glass windows from Michigan Avenue.

7. Electric Lighting as an architectural element is now commonplace. People's light fixtures would have been a remarkable site when viewed from a horsedrawn carriage.

7. And then, there are those Missing Eagles. With corporate restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, this Building along with many others (particularly of the early twentieth century) is no longer broadly associated with the with the men who built it. It is no longer a building and a symbol of power and accomplishment. It is simply, a building.

I have photographs documenting each of these problems, but have decided not to post them. Instead I hope that you can allow your imagination to visualize the original Building, (take another look at that Pat Sabin postcard) and understand why Peirce Anderson, the most powerful and prolific Architectural designer in Chicago for nearly 20 years listed People's Gas Light and Coke among his most important accomplishments.

Credits for the Floor Plan to Kristen Schaffer's DANIEL H. BURNHAM, Visionary and Architect,
which is considerably more than a coffee table book.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The People's Gas Building was meant to be the "Big Boy on the Block." From this photo it looks like "mission accomplished." The loggia, which looks somewhat arbitrary on today's skyline, literally overlooked the City in 1910. Corporate offices in the upper stories would have been spectacular. (Except for the smoke) And the cornice certainly befits a utility company with aspirations to be the largest in the world. People's only competition for prominence on the street was the Railway Exchange, and the half-completed McCormick Building.

We all talk about the change of scale we're facing today with the "supertalls". In the early 1900's Chicago went through a similar transition. The Ward Tower (a little to the north) looks almost delicate. And Sullivan's Auditorium (to the south) which was the tallest building in Chicago and the largest in the country is dwarfed. .


I have always felt that this Building has been somehow substantially diminished. I attributed it to difficult repairs and renovations. (More on this to follow) But looking at the full impact of this structure in its original context, I realize that I entirely misjudged what I was seeing. People's Gas was the biggest and best that 1910 Chicago had to offer. And the resources were significant.
Credits to and that incredible postcard collection. And wikepedia.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


First and foremost, when analyzing PEOPLE'S GAS, the FIELD MUSEUM, or UNION STATION, we must remember that these structures are Twentieth Century Building Types, using state of the art technology. The reason they exist today is that they were all soundly planned and constructed. These buildings are not just outdated antiques -- although at 100 years, they qualify as such. All these, incidentally, were designed by Peirce Anderson. In addition to an Engineer's mentality, (Harvard. Electrical Engineering. 1894) Peirce Anderson, Design Partner at Graham Anderson Probst and White had the uncanny ability of applying the elements of Classic Architecture to Modern Building Types in such a way as to truly recall the "Glory of Rome." He did this so well (and with such huge popularity) that Louis Sullivan published his famous Banker's-Toga-Rant in Kindergarten Chats. Architects love the "rant" to this day, but it did nothing to stop those Bankers from hiring Anderson to design the Fed and the almost astonishing interior banking space at the Bank of America. (If you ever have the opportunity to take a look at the great banking room at this LaSalle Street Institution- you should take it.) The combination of Anderson's training as an engineer combined with his later Beaux-Arts education in Paris was unstoppable. Carrying the Architectural Legacy of Daniel Burnham didn't hurt either.

The best way to enumerate classic elements is, simply to look at them. (Listed below are multiple Posts with some interesting views - looking at the Field Museum, in particular, helps with Union Station) (I'll recommend here, too, a copy of Sir Bannister Fletcher) Columns, of course. Coffers, Arches, Keystones. Plinths. Acroterion. Caryatids. Eagles. Symbols and themes (note prevalence of the backward Swastika.) Barrel Vaults. (Be careful here - the Barrel is truly Roman but the application of steel frame and glass is completely "modern") More complete constructs include the loggias (steel columns and beams allow them to overlook the City some 20 floor up) and colonnades (punctured with plate glass and bay windows ala John Root). You can also see clear references to the Erectheum, the Baths of Diocletion, the Agora and even the Temple of Mausolaus (Credit George Beersman for carrying this to completion).

Although there are many classic references and reinterpretations (Anderson was a fan of Latrobe) in all these buildings, my particular favorites are the Classic Allegorical sculptures that flank the concourse entry at Union Station. No Goddess Janus here, seeing past and future, it is Henry Hering's interpretation of "Day" and "Night." With binoculars you can see that in addition to the owl/rooster reference, Day's eyes are wide open. Night's are closed. This level of subtlety is not isolated. It is repeated again and again in a perfectly detailed architrave, the turn of a corner that would earn the respect of Mies, and in those little squirrels, hiding among the grapes on the light fixtures that glow perfectly at dusk in a skylit hall.

UNION STATION. Another Question of Scale.
UNION STATION. Waiting Room Access.

FIELD MUSEUM. Site. Symmetry. Scale. Size
FIELD MUSEUM A Few Quiet Surprises
FIELD MUSEUM Unexpected Vaults, Arches, Modified Pendentives

FIELD MUSEUM Coffers. Keystones. Acroterion.
FIELDMUSEUM The NorthPortico


Monday, September 14, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS BUILDING. Brass. Beautiful Brass.

Turn of the Century Burnham Buildings have much in common. In addition to the tripartite facade, the light well and the interior public space, each building had its Brass. People's Gas is no exception. Below is the Marquee.

...could use a bit of polish. It is impossible to photograph an historic building that has been modified over time without some regrets. I would like to have photographed the light fixtures that lined the People's grand interior space. They may have been similar to the lamps at Union Station. See Post dated March 10 for some idea of the detail we might be missing.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS. Tripartite with a Twist

The People's Gas Building contains the typical facade elements of an early turn-of-the-century Chicago Skyscraper. A Bottom, a Middle and a Top define the Tripartite design. The level of detail, however, exceeds the Chicago norm. The street level colonnade is punctuated with bay windows and decorative panels (reminiscent of the Insurance Exchange...and the Rookery). The transition to the building's body is made with Lions and Light Fixtures (newfangled and electrified). Every inch of the "Middle" is covered with ornament. And the highly ornate loggia is topped with a cornice of even more Lions and Victory Garlands. But one thing is strikingly different. The cornices that typically divide the Middle element from the Loggia are omitted at the corners. This emphasizes both the building's height and stability, and contains the diverse design components within a single mass. (See August 31st post and photo.)

All this seems a little over-the-top these days. But remember the construction date is 1910. This building is part and parcel of Daniel Burnham's vision of Chicago. It is a Beaux-Arts re-interpretation of Paris. Built right here. On South Michigan Avenue. It must have made quite a statement overlooking the railyards that bordered the Lakefront and Michigan Avenue for those so many years.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS. The Missing Eagle

When a man in his forties or early fifties proposes a course of action, the proposal is debated on its merits. It then succeeds or fails. For a man in his later sixties, actions are more difficult. He must first prove, simply, that he is not just some old fart. And if this "old guy's" proposed course of action is accepted, he must accept the fact, despite any victory, that he will be judged "remarkable" for the ability to stay "in touch." Later successes will be accompanied by "tough old bird."

In his eighties, though, and especially early nineties, a remarkable change begins to take place: accumulated longevity allows wisdom and perspective. "Old" ceases to be equated with the out-dated. And instead becomes an honorific. Age (that was so recently a problem) now allows a rare but informed view of a time other than our own, and a remarkably candid perception of the present. Should anyone care to listen.

So with Buildings.

At the age of 99, the People's Gas Light and Coke Building is no longer "old fart", nor "tough old bird." It has become an extant piece of Chicago whose continued presence is a glimpse of time and place. Daniel Burnham's time and place. It is a statement of the best turn-of-the-century technology available. And an aesthetic that gives us a material example with which to compare our own. In exchange, it only requires care.

The Eagles were removed from the facade of People's Gas during some previous renovation. (Along with their purpose and story.) Only their claws remain on the spheres that supported them. Tough old fart claws that hung on during years when neither survival nor honor was quite so certain.