Posts Tagged ‘Louis Sullivan buildings’

Chicago is Coming

July 22, 2010

The number of international tourists to Chicago has been climbing visibly in the last decade or so. Sure, this is more noticeable to me because I live in Oak Park, where the devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright are as likely to be German or Japanese as they are to be North American, but the shift is visible. It is clearly visible in Millenium Park, at age six the new symbol (s) of the city and a guaranteed attraction for visitors (the Bean) and locals (Crown Fountain) alike.

But in the last couple of months there have been more significant clues. In May, we learned that Chicago has the seventh best restaurant in the WORLD (Alinea), beating out New York City, and a couple of weeks ago Michelin announced it will finally do a Chicago red guide (that means restaurants – as many of you know, I used to write the green guides for Michelin, which are the cultural and historical ones) this fall. The number of five-star hotels has grown significantly, and despite low polling numbers in the city, Mayor Daley has lots of suburban and out-of-town fans thanks to his street plantings, graffiti abatement and thing for wrought iron. The city looks good.

We also have somehow become the center of summer music festivals, with both the established alternative (oxymoron check) festival Lollapalooza and the newer alternative alternative Pitchfork festival in Union Park, which is a part of the West Side that was not frequented by out-of-towners in the 1980s. They are filming Transformers 3 downtown right now and Batman took advantage of some of the cities iconic landmarks and streetscapes a couple of years ago.

We also have (again, despite recent poll dives) the President’s house, something every tour bus I have taken around in the last year has demanded. And we will have it for at least another two and a half years, if not longer. I think the city’s time is coming. We’re over 500 feet above sea level next to the fifth largest fresh water lake in the world, so we are in decent shape for global warming. We have a reasonably diversified economy and remain a vital transhipment point for every kind of good on every kind of vehicle. Our airports fly directly to China, India, Russia and most other places daily, and today Virgin America announced it will start hipster service to London (fixie planes?)

We have the longest and greenest lakefront of any world city (I didn’t fact check that but you would need a hell of an estuary to beat it) and a slew of cultural attractions and you don’t need a car to enjoy any of it. Plus, we have all of this famous architecture, which is what green guides (and iPhone guides, etc.) are made of.

the recently restored ironwork at Louis Sullivan’s famed Carson Pirie Scott store.

Robie House – restored and more interiors visible than ever!

Speaking of Chicago architecture, you MUST dash right over to the Chicago Cultural Center to see Tim Samuelson’s fantastic Louis Sullivan show – comprised of artifacts, drawings, photographs, big chunks of stone and iron and terra cotta, and a brilliant design by one of Chicago’s greatest artists, Chris Ware. Not only does the show offer a wonderful overview of a magnificent artist, but it offers new and intriguing perspectives from a man who has spent a lifetime studying Sullivan. Do. not. miss. it.

Chicago is coming. It is becoming the destination it always could be, and it is getting the recognition. And it isn’t just downtown. The transformation of the near south and west sides over the last decade is pretty stunning.

Yes, you could complain about political corruption and government budget crises, especially if you live in one of those cities known for clean government and bountiful budgets.

(Hello? Anyone?)

August 17 UPDATE: Chicago just rose to 6th in the global cities ranking. Read about it here.


Sharp Building 2009

December 26, 2009

Most people think of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as the institution that resided above and below the museum it gave birth to over a century ago. Yet for over 30 years the school has had its own building and in the last 20 years the School has grown even more, filling five different buildings in the Loop and occupying space in even more.

In 1976 the School occupied the Walter Netsch modernist building on Columbus Drive behind the museum, and 12 years later it purchased the Champlain Building, now the Sharp Building. A couple of years later it bought the old Illinois Athletic Club building (1908, Barnett, Haynes and Barnett) as a dorm, later converting it into classrooms and renaming it the Maclean Building.

A few more years and SAIC turned the Chicago Building (1904, Holabird & Roche) into a dormitory, which was particularly gratifying to me because I had helped save it from demolition in 1989 when I worked at Landmarks Illinois.

The School also saved a 1917 Christian Eckstorm Building on State Street and incorporated it into a new dormitory by Larry Booth, a building I had the pleasure of teaching in last year.

But I want to talk about the place I have taught for the last 15 years, the Sharp Building at 37 S. Wabash.

The Sharp Building was originally built in 1902 for the Powers school, which taught clerical skills like German, stenography and bookkeeping. My Research Studio students – first year BFA candidates – are working on an exhibit interpreting the history of the building, which is appropriate since it has just been restored.

This is also the building where we have our Master of Science in Historic Preservation studios, lab, resource center and faculty offices. We used to be on the 13th floor but now we are on the 10th, where we have two large studios overlooking the corner of Monroe and Wabash Streets.

The building’s entrance and ground floor has just been restored to the original Holabird & Roche design, which involved recreation of the elaborate terra cotta entrance, largely destroyed in the 1933 remodeling as the Champlain Building.

The restoration also involved bringing back the brick piers which originally defined the ground floor, lost in the 1947 Skidmore, Owings and Merrill transformation into a TWA ticket office.

That’s 1947.

That’s today.

There is a lot of fascinating history here: When TWA was selling airplane tickets here in 1947, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was on the 9th floor designing the Farnsworth House.

Thirty years later, my father had a travel business in the building. The TWA ticket office turned into a restaurant and then later into a bank and again into a restaurant before closing a half dozen years ago. Our program began in the building in 1993, the same year it was DENIED landmark status. Later in the 1990s it was landmarked as part of the Jeweler’s Row district. A controversial project saved the facades of three Jeweler’s Row buildings for the new 80-story Legacy highrise. That project is responsible for the restoration of the Sharp Building’s ground floor, which has just debuted this month.

It is exciting for our historic preservation graduate students to work in a building that is seeing such a sensitive restoration, expecially after the disappointing replacement of most of the original windows a decade ago.

That’s the BEFORE – note the profile and depth.

That’s the AFTER – butchered and blinded. And they’re aluminum which means they are REALLY COLD right now. This was one of the events which kicked off my window rants back in ’01. Our class even produced alternatives to replacement, to no avail.

The lobby has bits of each period – we apparently still have – in storage – the elevator doors decorated with relief French and Indian figures during the 1933 remodeling by onetime SAIC dean Hubert Ropp, who also designed lunette murals, long lost to a dropped ceiling.

My BFA students are exploring all of these themes as well as the history of the corner of Monroe and Wabash, which includes the legendary Palmer House hotel, and the Sullivan facades recently revealed on Wabash Avenue across the street, on buildings incorporated into the Louis Sullivan designed Carson Pirie Scott store at the turn of the last century.

It is a great place to work, and an especially great place to teach the many arts and sciences of heritage conservation.


Here is the show we had up this April from students in the BFA program first year:

Put Down the Torches!

November 13, 2006

How many buildings do we have to set on fire before the idiots put down the blowtorches? Now another building – on tony Lake Shore Drive in the Gold Coast – catches on fire thanks to another joker with a blowtorch in the basement! This fire was under control, but plenty of smoke and excitement, and a kid and an adult in hospital.

What do we need to do to get rid of idiocy? Another Chicago Fire?

Children With Matches

November 6, 2006

We don’t let children play with matches. Why do we let idiots play with blowtorches?

Idiocy is a long and storied element of the human condition, and we could hardly have a society without it, so anything that I might say about idiots and idiotic acts should be tempered by my strong belief that idiocy is a vital actor in, and indispensable element of human history. Merken sie sich z.B. unsere Regierung.

For many years I too, suffered fools gladly, but this constant burning down of Louis Sullivan buildings this year has savaged my natural tolerance, especially when both Pilgrim Baptist Church and The Wirt Dexter Building were felled by idiots with torches.

The latest fire – the Harvey House in Lakeview – does not have an official cause yet, so torches can’t be ruled out. It burned really fast and shot flames 50 feet into the air. Torches definitely can’t be ruled out.

Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois notes that the first two Sullivan buildings burned because someone was using open flames – unnecessary in both cases – inside buildings chock full of really dry timber. Roofers at Pilgrim Baptist and salvagers at Wirt Dexter. In both cases the idiot contractors phoned it in but it was already too late. You can set a hell of a fire with a blowtorch.

Blowtorches are essential for welding and a variety of metalworks. They are also handy for roofers and salvagers who want to get a job done quickly, just as leaf blowers are for those without the vigor or patience to rake. The more obvious analogy is the paint stripping gun, which has destroyed countless historic buildings during rehabilitation. These are all shortcuts – to disaster.

Sullivan buildings have been burning for a while. In 1989 the Brunswick Balke Collender Company warehouse burned down THE DAY AFTER one of the tenants took the owner to court for storing flammable liquids in open stairways – and lost. Flammable liquids in containers propping open stairwell doorways. Idiocy.

We should have seen Wirt Dexter coming too. Newspaper articles quoted the 76-year old owner as saying she saw it as her retirement. I am an idiot if I believe that. She owned this building for 24 years. Did she see it as her retirement when she was 52? She wanted to recreate the 1960s heyday of the George Diamond steakhouse. Romantic. Heart-in-the-right-place. Head-and-wallet-no-place. 24 years of swell intentions and a building getting crumblier and emptier by the day. It was not owned by the right person.

The case of the Harvey House is murkier. Earlier this year, it was not owned by the right person. She said she wanted to tear it down and develop the site. This raised an uproar (see old blogs below) so she decided to rehab it and live in it, thus becoming the right person. Now it burns down almost as conveniently as Christ Episcopal Church in Joliet, so we have to ask again whether this was the wrong person.

Jonathan Fine of Preservation Chicago and Ward Miller of the Richard Nickel Committee both raised the call for rebuilding the Harvey House. At first I thought, what silly sentimentalism. But then I thought again: what a great way to ascertain the true intentions of the owner: does she go back to the “bad owner” that wanted to demolish and gorge on zoning or the “good owner” that wanted to live in the Harvey House? Does she let children play with matches or not?

Another Sullivan Burns

October 24, 2006

dexter burns

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

October 24, 2006 – Louis Sullivan’s 150th birthday celebrations have been marred again. In January, one of his greatest buildings, Pilgrim Baptist Church, burned down to the walls and its rebuilding is a very open question. A year ago his own home in Biloxi was destroyed by the hurricane (Katrina) that everyone but the federal government saw coming. Now I am watching one of his early highrises, the Wirt Dexter Building on Wabash south of the Loop, burn. The fire started an hour and a half ago and there is still smoke billowing out at 5:00 creating columnar cumulus skyscrapers. It is really disheartening.

It is too early to say what will be left of this simple but elegant early highrise – its back wall marked by long vertical perforated sheets of steel that stiffened its spine. This was during the days of the development of the skeletal steel frame that made skyscrapers possible. Wirt Dexter was an attorney and developer who worked with Sullivan on several projects.

What makes it all so terrible is how much Sullivan was torn down in the 1950s and 1960s – the Garrick and the Stock Exchange being the most significant, both replaced by guileless dreck. Beyond were all the great little neighborhood buildings – a dozen on the south side, others north and west. Sullivan was Chicago’s great innovator, a romantic and a master who made buildings into the kind of material poetry that it will take our digital friends another generation to even approximate. He fathered Frank Lloyd Wright and in a sense, the entire 20th century, not just in America but across the world. Gropius., Aalto and Saarinen and even the painter Le Corbusier are not possible without him.

We treated this legacy like crap – Rich Cahan has a new book out, following up on They All Fall Down, and it is hard to look at what we have lost. It is positively nauseating when you see what is in its place. Go to 30 N. LaSalle where the Stock Exchange used to be and see if your eye doesn’t fall right off of the 30 stories of black glass nothing they put there. It has no presence at all, only the absence of the brick and terra cotta lyrics that made that a corner in a city rather than a lacuna of memory. I have been in that building but I can’t remember it. I could go into it tomorrow and I would not remember it the next day. It is a bicycle shed.

Now the Wirt Dexter is burning badly and I am burning its face – and its back – deeper into my brain, because I fear that may be the only place to find them in the future.

Sullivan’s Travails

October 5, 2006

pilg bap burned

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Last night we had a panel on restoring Louis Sullivan buildings over at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, also sponsored by the Chicago History Museum and Graham Foundation. I was the moderator and our featured speakers were architects Gunny Harboe, who directed the restoration of the Carson, Pirie Scott & Co. cornice, and Mary Brush, who directed facade restoration at the Gage Building. Then to make everything wonderful, Tim Samuelson agreed to join us.

Tim is often said to know everything about Chicago and everything about Louis Sullivan. It would be impossible to disprove this.

We learned a lot about Sullivan’s ornament – how he played with figure and ground to eliminate those signifiers and make ornament one with the building. We learned about the challenges of replicating the incredibly detailed elements of the Carson’s cornice from a few bad photographs and a lot of comparable. We saw how his highrise ornament was designed to be seen from below (something the designers of the Parthenon’s Panathenaic procession knew, but has oft since been forgot) and we heard how Sullivan could think in three dimensions. I reminded everyone of how much of Sullivan’s architecture was lost over the last 40 years, which is really tragic.

Especially the Garrick Theater. Torn down in 1961 for a parking garage. Parking garage torn down in 1998 for – – a theater. Ouch.

And we talked about the challenge of Pilgrim Baptist Church – how the documentation exists to restore it like it was – or pretty close – but that there are delicate political realities, like a small congregation with limited resources, perhaps $2-$3 million in insurance money and a reconstruction budget ten times that.

What do you do? Lots of preservationists offer advice, but there is the question of ownership. You could create a non-profit to raise the money for reconstruction, but then the congregation would be ceding some aspect of their ownership. You could build a temporary structure within the walls and leave reconstruction to the next generation. It is a fascinating question of community too, since this neighborhood was once perceived as a ghetto and is now very gentrified, although the congregation is less so. Whose building is it?

This is a much more interesting and real question of property rights than the one brought up by whingeing speculators who want to treat buildings like pork bellies. For them, “property rights” has nothing to do with ownership, stewardship or identity like it does for Pilgrim Baptist.

Which reminds me – some whingeing property speculator sued the city’s landmarks ordinance claiming it was being used to downzone and thus impinging on “property rights.” Duh! That is like suing McDonald’s for selling breakfast at lunchtime. Zoning was invented to protect property rights, and landmarking was invented at the same time for basically the same reason. The difference is that zoning is a crude tool (that can also be used to encourage demolition) and landmarking is a precise one. Besides, the whole flippin’ city was upzoned in 1957, so “downzoning” is often just putting it back to the way it was – or way it is.

But don’t expect everyone to understand that. Besides, some people don’t like working for a living…

Sullivan at 150

July 11, 2006


Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Louis Henri Sullivan, the architect who transformed the modern world with his prescient designs and philosophy of the skyscraper, who made Chicago the first city of American architecture and inspired the Chicago preservation movement, was born 150 years ago. How are we celebrating this most important of native sons?

By tearing down one of his few remaining houses, on Stratford Place on the North Side. For reasons inexplicable, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks is not moving to designate the house, nor even to act on Marty Tangora’s very reasonable approach that would allow a builder to erect something on part of the lot in order to save the house. Even the Alderman, Helen Shiller, not known as a preservationist, is interested in saving it. Why would the Commission on Chicago Landmarks be the last one out of the gate?

Is this any way to celebrate a Sesquicentennial?

Granted, it is not the coolest or most innovative Sullivan design, and it has been altered. But for Louis’ sake, we tore down most of his earth-shattering skyscrapers and innovative houses decades ago. Richard Nickel literally gave his life for Sullivan’s architecture (see the book by Richard Cahan) and watched and collected as the 1950s and 1960s demolished more Sullivan than we have left.

Louis Sullivan almost got the Euripides treatment, only it took 50 years rather than 2500 to erase 80% of his output.

So, let’s blow out the candles and let one more go.


More Fires

January 17, 2006

It has been a busy holiday season for landmarks in the Chicago area, but that is not surprising.

If you want to spring a landmark surprise/demolition gambit like the Berghoff, it is best to do it over the holidays when fewer people are paying attention.

Fires are also more likely to happen in winter, even a ridiculously mild one, although the big fires lately were avoidable – the reports today on the bargain-basement roofers who ran away from the fire that destroyed Pilgrim Baptist Church are maddening.

Blair Kamin’s article calling for the restoration of Pilgrim Baptist (reconstruction really) on Sunday was also welcome and echoed what I said two blogs ago. We are going to get our students together once school starts next week to discuss this.

Then there was the sloppy arson fire at the Frank Lloyd Wright Wynant House in Gary last week. Do you recall that one of our SAIC historic preservation students discovered that house back in 1996? Chris Meyers – he apparently went over after the fire and even the soggy lawn was scorched. Can you say accelerant?

There was also a fire at the Bradley House in Kankakee – what many consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s first Prairie House. Not life-threatening, but still of great concern.

Fires often happen when buildings are being rehabbed. Wright’s Hills-DeCaro House in Oak Park, 1976, Adler & Sullivan’s Brunswick factory in Chicago, 1989. One reason can be like Pilgrim Baptist, where undertrained workers are careless with torches. It is also common on home rehabilitations when people use things like heat guns to remove paint. One of those destroyed the 1835 Fiddyment House in Lockport back in 2000. Something underneath catches fire, invisibly.

The trick is that heat sources don’t need to actually catch things on fire – they can heat up a surface or some old newspaper in the wall crevices and next thing you know an invisible fire has found an internal chimney and is ready to blaze fast, like the buildings during the Great Fire of 1871 that caught at once all over, like a piece of paper held near a flame….