Saturday, February 6, 2010

DANIEL BURNHAM. The Conway Building. Rotunda

In 1986, Jack Train Associates scooped the insides out of Daniel Burnham's Conway Building, demolished the rotunda skylight, and skinned the terra cotta columns in marble. Coffered gypsum ceilings and indirect lighting replaced structure and glass. Brass wall sconces added a touch of contemporary grace. I remember a meeting in the building soon after its renovation. In the Commercial Division of Arthur Rubloff. At the time I specialized in Strip Centers. And I promise you, we all thought that the newly renamed "Burnham Center" was the "cat's meow." "QUITE Up to the Minute."  And it was. Is. Up to that minute. Noon. June 20. 1986.
The Conway holds some mystery. Fred Dinkelberg is credited with the 1912 design even though Peirce Anderson had become Daniel Burnham's senior designer in eaarly 1908. I wouldn't imagine Anderson handing off an important client like Marshall Field to Dinkelberg without good reason. Swagged columns, shields and lions on the Conway's facade weren't typically in Dinkelberg's design vocabulary. Octaganal columns and capitals, square piers, and what appears to be non-classical ornament on the original terra cotta, on the other hand, would not have been expected from Anderson. The round corners, complicated geometries of ornament, horizonal emphasis of window openings and the experimentation with the cornice suggest that something interesting was "going on" in the offices of D.H. Burnham. We traded that for the aesthetics of 1986.

Intellectually, I fully support adaptive re-use. But from the gut, I have to hate it. It seems that an aesthetic valued at a point in time should be shown continued respect. Just as our work, a hundred years from now, might also be found of value. It would not be so difficult for us to adapt. Just a little.

Luckily, the Conway's alley concourse survives. Ca 1933.


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