Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Thompson Commissary Update - Blame Alschuler!

After I wrote some less than kind things about the new polished granite at the base of the Thompson Commissary Building on Clark, an anonymous reader, whose depth of knowledge launches me through the five stages of reaction - envy, annoyance, despair, acceptance and admiration - brought to my attention that the material used in the rehab was chosen after a careful historical investigation that found that it closely matched the base pieces' original color and patterning.

It's impractical to carry terra cotta down to the sidewalk level. Rain, snow, ice and our city's addiction to the liberal use of melting salts, coupled with time, eat through the material like Kobayashi through hot dogs. So, another material is substituted at the base.

For the Thompson Commissary Building rehab, they were able to find some broken panels that still held the original color and pattern, along with a historic photograph that confirmed the original base was much darker than the facade's terra cotta, presenting the same high contrast that's found in the new polished granite replacements.

So it turns out that if I've got a beef with anyone, it's not with developer Albert Friedman, whose been a conscientious custodian of historic buildings in the booming River North district that's largely his creation, beginning with the rehab of the Otto Matz's 1893 Cook Country Criminal Court Building at 54 West Hubbard, now known as Courthouse Square. Yes, I still think the polished granite is a poor match for the rising cream of the terra cotta above it, and yes, I'm second guessing the Thompson's highly accomplished architect, Alfred Alschuler.

His contemporaries found ways of dealing with the same, inescapable problem with solutions that seem a lot more fitting.

In the case of the Reliance Building, Charles Atwood didn't even start the terra cotta until the second story. The double-height entrance floor is faced in granite with bronze trim. At the Wrigley Building, the terra cotta carries all the way down through the ground floor, but the bottom pieces, replaced only a few years ago, are of Bedford limestone.

I'm glad the base of the Thompson has been restored with such an attention to historical accuracy. It doesn't falsify the past to make it fit our current aesthetic preferences, but brings it back to us with the bark off. I still say it's spinach, but what do I know? Stroll by and check it out for yourself, and come to your own conclusions.


Brian said...

I don't know... you do see a lot of pulsichrome terra cotta imitating granite at the bases of buildings and it's very often not badly damaged; that was probably what was here in the first place. And pulsicrome tends to not be quite as shiny as the polished granite shown. I think the main problem is with the level of luster.

Brian said...

And Reliance isn't really a good comparison, since the facade differences are more a byproduct of John Root's death and the construction sequence.

Anonymous said...

Your site is generally very good, but you compounded your errors in the description of the Thompson Commissary. You said "In the case of the Reliance Building, Charles Atwood didn't even start the terra cotta until the second story. The double-height entrance floor is faced in granite with bronze trim." Well, Charles Atwood didn't start the terra cotta until the second story because, I'm pretty sure, JOHN WELLBORN ROOT dod the first floor nearly 4 years before Atwood continued the upper floor project. Two different architects for the firm (Burnham and Root) working several years apart, this wasn't a case of a coherent strategy to have different ground-level material/coloring...

Lynn Becker said...

The genesis of the Reliance Building is a complex story, beginning with the jacking up of the upper stories of the previous building to start building the Reliance underneath it.

You have to assume that Root left designs for the entire building, although biographer Donald Hoffman says no full elevations have survived. However, Hoffman also notes that "the Burnham office chose to follow Root's intentions only at the entrance of the office tower, where it replicated his bronze and granite detail."

There was nothing stopping Atwood from carrying the terra cotta downward, as would later be done in the same firm's Railway Exchange Building. He choose - or was encouraged - not to. Sometimes the decision not to redesign is a design decision itself.