Earlier this week, we wrote about the winning design from New York City's urbanShed competition to come up with alternatives to the often unsightly protective scaffolding that crowd sidewalks around construction sites. We've already heard from a local scaffolding company expressing skepticism that - New York City's claims notwithstanding - the winning design could be executed for anywhere near what the company says is an industry standard of about $150.00 per linear foot for the type of scaffolding currently in use.
Now Jim Peters of Landmarks Illinois has reminded me about a remarkable beast-to-beauty story of bad scaffolding gone good.
In the fall of 2008, in a piece titled Uncle Sam: State Street Slumlord, I wrote about a truly despicable scaffolding job done on a federal government-owned building: Holabird & Roche's 1916 Century Building, at 202 South State Street, which at street level had been transformed into a dark, dank tomb sided with raw plywood in derelict applique.
Flash forward to last summer, and the situation had changed entirely.
Instead of the usual pipe-frame tunnel, the sleek, curving steel canopy protecting pedestrians from the crumbling terra cotta above is actually cantilevered from columns set close to the building. Set at a two-story height, it becomes almost invisible, leaving both daylight and free pedestrian movement unobstructed, and giving a clear view of the repaired and polished metal window frames of the elegant 1951 Art Moderne remodeling of the Century's entry floor.
Not quite so invisible are the intense graphic coverings, which actually reflect patterns in the original 1915 neo-Manueline Portuguese Gothic-styled terra cotta ornament climbing up the original, thin tower above.
The quality of the scaffolding's design is especially important, because the up-in-the-air status of the building may keep it in place for quite some time. It's part of the 1.3 acre parcel just east of the Mies van der Rohe Dirksen Federal Building that includes everything else on the block except for the buildings housing the Berghoff Restaurant. The structures were acquired in 2005 for what is called the Chicago Federal Center Expansion Site, actually a post 9-11 cordon sanitaire for the existing federal properties. In a report you can download here courtesy Chicago Carless's Mike Doyle, the General Services Administration executed an ambitious survey of possible uses for the parcel that range all the way from . . .
. . . an infill tower between the Century and Mundie and Jensen's 1913 Consumers Building to the South . . .
. . . to one demolishing everything on the parcel for a single megatower (which in this rendering, still seems to have the Century clinging to its side like a barnacle.)
Recently, the GSA has commissioned exhaustive Building Preservation Plans, done under the direction of Johnson•Lasky Architects, for both the Century and the Consumers, as well as for 230 S. State Street. Long overshadowed by its use as a McDonald's, 230 S. State is actually a structure designed by Alfred S. Alschuler for clothier Benson Rixson in what was, for 1937 State Street, a daring Art Moderne style, with a streamlined curving facade and seamless bands of glass block window that at night set the building aglow, as you can see in this Hedrich Blessing photo from the Chicago History Museum.
It's one of a generous number of illustrations that document each of the reports. You can see Benson Rixson's striking interiors and elegant, now hidden stair, just as in the Century report, you can get a feel both for both Holabird & Roche's original 1915 design, and the equally excellent 1951 remodeling. It's a reminder of what wonders can lie behind the dark, crumbling profiles of trophy buildings of times past, which we often walk past never taking the time to see.