Monday, August 31, 2009

PEOPLE'S GAS. The View from the Bridge

In 1917, Peirce Anderson listed what he considered to be the principal examples of his work. They included the Equitable Building in New York; Union Station, the Post Office and the Columbus Memorial in Washington DC; the Plan of Manila; and in Chicago, Union Station, the Continental and Commercial Bank, and the 1910 PEOPLE'S GAS LIGHT AND COKE COMPANY at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Adams. (If that were ME talking I'd include Marshall Field and Company and the Field Museum, too. But, Peirce was known for his modesty.) The earlier buildings were completed with D.H. Burnham and Company. The later buildings, with Graham Anderson Probst and White.

One of the best views of People's Gas is from the Nichols Bridge, near the entrance to the Art Institute's third floor dining room (on top or their new addition, behind the main building). The Bridge allows a spectacular view of the Michigan Avenue Wall, and in particular, the People Gas Light and Coke Building. (See the view below.)

1908/1909 would have been pretty exciting times in Daniel Burnham's office. Ed Bennett and Daniel were completing the Plan of Chicago. Peirce Anderson and Daniel we preparing designs for the People's Gas Building, and wrapping up the plaza improvements for Union Station in Washington. Burnham's office at that time was in the Railway Exchange Building, overlooking Grant Park. Those lean years of the mid nineties were all but forgotten.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


Its easy to say you know something, or understand it. But I'm beginning to believe that unless you write it down, review it, revise it, go away and come back to it, you may really only think you know. This is my sixth post on the Insurance Exchange. And I can say, after researching it, photographing it, thinking about it, walking away from it, and coming back to write more, I do like this building more than I knew and will regret moving on. Finally I know why.

Interior Public Space. This building is tied to the street, the sidewalk and the City. This is no dead- ended, securitized system. The ground level spaces are a continuation of the urban environment.

"Green" Planning. What could be more "green" than a light well, windows that open, and high ceilings to take advantage of natural light and ventilation. And as for materials, regionally made masonry and Terra Cotta add additional "points"

Conceptually in Context. Remembering the whitewash village at Mykonos, the Bazaar at Kashan, the cliff dwellings at Canyon de Chelly and understanding that unity of style is as important as style itself, the arbitrary style imposed by turn of the century Beaux-Arts planning gave Chicago the visual contextual rules to build "unity." This building belongs in this place. It is a contribution to the City.

A Bottom. A Middle. A Top. Its always good to know which way is up. And each of these elements relates to similar elements in adjacent architecture. And to the reality of"gravity."

Historically Referenced. This building is anchored in time. It is clearly identifiable as a turn of the century skyscraper. Tripartite design. Light Well. Public Space. Classic details. And its whiteness recalls the White City. I am aware of my past and present with the building.

Quiet Complexity. Walking by the corner of Randolph and Wacker's new tower, for example, you've "got it" in a minute. With little more to learn. The Insurance Exchange reveals itself more slowly. Nuances of space, circulation and ornament add value and richness of "place." And although buildings with similar design concepts exist (Railway Exchange, People's Gas, the Conway), this one is unique.

The last reason is not so easy. (Although there are theories.) Some people like Vanilla. And some people like Chocolate. Happily both flavors exist. And beyond logic or reason (although there is plenty of both) for me, the Insurance Exchange strikes the chord, rings the bell.
Next: People's Gas Light and Coke.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Chicago Skyscrapers ranging from the Chicago School "Rookery" and the "Auditorium" to the to the Classic Sky-scrapers of the early teens and twenties were usually of Tripartite Design. Simply said, they had a bottom, a middle and a top. In the earliest buildings (load bearing) the "bottom" tended to heavy stone or masonry. Later (with steel frame) a building's base could be more delicate, and a colonnade was often employed. In both cases, the "Skyscraper" had a flat roof.

The Insurance Exchange is an example of later Tripartite Design, an elegant interpretation of Classicism designed by Peirce Anderson after he became Daniel Burnham's chief designer. .

The Skyscraper's ''CAP" (above) consists of a Loggia and a Cornice. The 'SHAFT' (below) makes up the carefully simplified middle. The "BASE" (bottom) is defined by the delicate colonnade.

Tripartite design was largely abandoned with the Zoning Ordinance of 1924 and the nearly simultaneous application of Art Deco concepts to Skyscraper design. (Not, however, without a long and successful "run") There are some notable transitional exceptions where "Towers" sit on a tripartite base. The Pittsfield Building, The Straus Bank, and the Wrigley Building are all important Chicago landmarks.

Incidentally, Charles Beersman's design for the Insurance Exchange's south addition includes foundations for one of those "Towers." A change in the weather, just after 1929 derailed that plan.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


In 1893, what would become the largest architectural firm in Chicago listed 5 (count'em - 5) completed commissions: A cafe, two houses, a park monument (base only) and a hotel that hadn't realized that the City had been shut down by Financial Panic. Add to this a rocky 1894. Then imagine that in 1895 it got worse. In that year D. H. Burnham and Company listed one completed project: The Schroeder House.

Who might have guessed during those years, that for Daniel Burnham, the best was still to come.

Commissions are listed Thomas Hines' "Burnham of Chicago," Appendix A

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Daniel Burnham's 1909 Plan of Chicago is surely his most important contribution to the City. But his Architectural contribution shouldn't be overlooked.
Daniel Burnham's Architecture in Chicago's Loop falls into four time periods: Burnham and Root (through John Root's death in 1891), D. H. Burnham and Company with Charles Atwood (through Atwood's death in 1895); with a Design Team under Burnham's direct control (through the firm's reorganization in 1908); and with Peirce Anderson as Burnham's design partner (until Burnham's death on June 1, 1912). An example from every time period exists today in the Loop. Even though much of the earliest work is gone, we still have the Rookery and the Monadnock. Below is the list.

Burnham and Root

The Rookery 1885/1888
209 South LaSalle

Monadnock 1889/1891
53 West Jackson Bouleard

D.H. Burnham & Co.

Marshall Field (Old Annex) 1892
NWC Washington at Wabash Avenue

Reliance 1895
1 West Washington Street

Silversmith 1896
10 South Wabash Avenue

Fisher 1895
343 South Dearborn Street

First National Bank (Clock Only) 1902
First National Plaza

Marshall Field & Co 1902/1907
111 North State Street

Railway Exchange 1903/1904
224 South Michigan Avenue

Heyworth 1904
29 East Madison

Orchestra Hall 1905
220 South Michigan Avenue

Commercial National Bank 1905
(Commonwealth Edison)

Field Museum 1909/1920
1400 South Lake Shore Drive

People's Gas Light and Coke 1910
122 South Michigan Avenue

Insurance Exchange 1911
175 West Jackson Boulevard

Charles A. Stevens 1912
17 North State Street

Otis Elevator 1912
10 South LaSalle Street

Conway Building 1913
111 West Washington Street

Butler Brothers Warehouse 1912/1913
165 North Canal Street

Continental and Commercial National Bank 1912/1914
208 South LaSalle Street

If I've missed one, let me know. Graham Anderson Probst and White was organized within D. H. Burnham and Company. And although some members of the firm (notably both of Daniel's sons and Edward Bennett) went in other directions, GAPW faithfully continued Daniel Burnham's architectural legacy. Burnham himseld died in 1912, but his architecture was alive and well until the early 1930's.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

THE INSURANCE EXCHANGE. The View from Google Earth

Reading late nineteenth century poetry, I am sometimes teased into believing that Frederick Tuckerman, for example, is speaking directly to me. The Elizabethans, too, seem to have that capability. But we should remember that Art of any kind lives as perceived. And that there are inherent and unknown differences that will always separate us from "the original."
And so, while I may study Daniel Burnham's development of style and ornament, it may well be that style was not the primary thing on Burnham's mind. GOOGLE EARTH , in one easy sweep, shows Burnham's work (and his immediate successors) in Chicago not to be the solid presence perceived from the street, but instead a series of voids enclosed within each building's mass. Repeatedly. Across the Loop. The Insurance Exchange (above, left). Illinois Merchants Bank. 208 South LaSalle. The Rookery. People's Gas Light and Coke. The Straus Bank. The Marshall Field Annex. Union Station. The Conway Building. And each of these "voids" or "light wells" was used as an opportunity for a major interior public space. A public piazza or piano nobile with uses ranging from banking to retail. Each building also included a secondary public pedestrian system connecting street to street and in some cases building to building. The richness of the combined impact of these interior public spaces and walkways cannot be over-estimated. Below is a photograph of the original public space of the People's Gas Light and Coke Building (which will be the subject of later posts). Scroll down to see the original rendering of the Insurance Exchange (post dated July 26). Stop by the ArchiCenter to see Burnham's Public Space at the Railway Exchange. Take another look at the Rookery. The similarities of planning between each of these varying projects overshadow their differences of style.

It may not be the classically stylized architecture that puts distance between us and Daniel Burnham. It is reliable electric lighting and air conditioning that have eliminated the necessity of lightwells, and the security requirements of 9.11 that have precluded the concept of Interior Public Space. Burnham spoke to another generation. Another time.

That we measure Burnham's architecture within today's limited understanding speaks less of Burnham's architectural capabilities than our own incomplete knowledge.

Credits are due Google Earth for their astonishing aerial views of the Loop and Karen Schaffer's highly recommended book "Daniel Burnham, Visionary and Planner", page 189. (and don't overlook Paul Rocheleau's stunning architectural photography).

Saturday, August 15, 2009


Today was that perfect sultry summer afternoon to sit on the Lakefront. And watch the Thunderbirds wake up the sky. Summer has finally arrived (with the Chicago Air and Water Show).

An afternoon like this gives pause to think. Make big plans. Scrap them. Make more. Resdiscover perspective. I remembered that it is my intention to write two Reviews of the the AIC Modern Wing: one praising, one dishing. I think that I can convincingly do both. Though the dish might be more fun. But for now, the THUNDERBIRDS take first place. They skim the Lakefront from Gary to Waukegan.

And Zaha's embarassing little pavilion, that was to honor the City and Daniel Burnham, (that "ill-fitting brassiere", that " sow's ear", that "illusion of beauty") has already disappeared into Daniel Burnham's much larger scheme of things. Of blue and unbroken green, and summer. And the literally dozens of buildings, just beyond Michigan Avenue's Wall, filled with craftsmanship, tradition, detail, and a quiet poise that honors themselves, us, and the architects who created them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

ZAHA HADID'S MILLENIUM PARK PAVILION. In honor of Daniel Burnham. 02

I received a comment/question inquiring if yesterday's post regarding the Eyewash Station adjacent to Zaha Hadid's Pavilion in Millenium Park was some kind of joke. No, to all, it is not. Please find enlarged image below.

There is humor in neither yesterday's post nor today's clarification.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009






I couldn't help but notice ZAHA's glistening vinyl catching the late afternoon sun -- bringing to mind Burnham's white terra cotta at the Insurance Exchange. (See previous post).

Sunday, August 9, 2009


No question about it. Peirce Anderson knew terra cotta. And classic details. So well, in fact, that when George Beersman designed the Insurance Exchange addition 16 years after Anderson's original work, he saw little to improve with the primary street level ornament. It matches exactly.

Beersman did clip a 45 degree corner here and there, simplify the column details, streamline the glass and find room for creativity at the cornice line. But the line between old and new is barely discernable. Had his plans for a twenty story tower topper been completed (reminiscent of the Straus Bank) his contribution to the project would have been less likely to be overlooked. Instead, twenty years of Depression and War almost allow us to forget that George Beersman knew a little about terra cotta himself. He designed the Wrigley Building for Graham Anderson Probst and White.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


These elegant cast iron panels are a part of Peirce Anderson's work for D. H. Burnham & Company's 1912 Insurance Exchange at 175 West Jackson Boulevard.

We shouldn't be surprised at the quality. Anderson had already "shown his stuff" in 1902. Take another look (below) at the Marshall Field Clock at State and Randolph. More photos are posted at Chicago Sculpture in the Loop.

Cast Iron. Terra Cotta. Brass. Figural Sculpture. Solid. Void. Interior Public Space. Historical Reference. Architecture as Art was spoken in a different language during the early years of the last century.
Hey, BTW, thanks for the good comments, DESIGNSLINGER, the photos were taken with a SONY 4.5-5.6/75-300 Telephoto and a Sony Alpha 700. Click on the Chicago Images slideshow to connect directly with my FLCKR site.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

BATCHAWANA BAY. Fog Suite. 08.01.09

" What I love about language/ is what I love about fog/ what comes between us and/ things/
grants them their shine."

Architecture, somehow, seems another country. Credits to Mark Doty's Fog Suite, from FIRE TO FIRE, published by Harper Collins. Highly Recommended.
And for the best photography of Lake Superior I've ever seen take a look at this great site by Gary and Joanie McGuffin.
Tomorrow I'm back at the Insurance Exchange.