Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scaffold Salvation - GSA takes beast to beauty at 1915 Century Building on State

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.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Does anyone else realize that 2 awesome buildings which in the hands a private landlord with incentive could be making leasable office space but they sit empty, falling apart after the GSA paid the tenants to leave, and is now building, at considerable expense mind, fake palm trees and now this canopy to protect the public from it's own negligence. The GSA is a dam money pit and I for one am angry as hell they took this block by threat of eminent domain and then let it rot.

I fear we can no longer afford this type of governance.

Anonymous said...

I really doubt these buildings would enjoy high occupancy even with a generous TIF-sponsored renovation. That being said, destroying most of them would be a crime.

Anonymous said...

There are vacancies in most of the Loop buildings, even the modern office building across the street north of Adams. These buildings are going to cost a fortune to modernize IMO. I have seen the storefronts on this block replaced and the public space replacing the former alley is a wonderful improvement...

I imagine that the feds will realize a plan that will be in the taxpayers best intrest...hopefully!

Anonymous said...

"I imagine that the feds will realize a plan that will be in the taxpayers best intrest...hopefully!"

Hi Im from the government, and Im here to help you

Anonymous said...

Under private ownership, the Century buiding has been vacant for over twenty years, while the other building failed to meet many basic code requirements.

There is NO demand for office use for buildings of this type, and even the residential development bubble of the last 20 years didn't find anything attractive in them.

The only reason the Reliance building (now Hotel Burnham) is still standing is due to governmental involvement and funding....

Market driven development is what has destroyed most of Chicago's historic buildings, and will continue to do so in the future.

marko said...

Hi, interesting topic. I used to work in 220 South State ( The Quincy Building ) and while decrepit, old and tired, the giant windows and high ceilings made for a great little office space that was cheap and affordable for my small company. I have since relocated to Forest Park. I would have gladly paid a few dollars more a square foot if thats what it took to do some upgrades, to remain downtown. Every building cant be class A office space.

Anonymous said...

Marko is correct. I also used to office in that building with my small architecture firm. When we left, it was pretty full, mostly of design firms and public interest organizations ( Lake Michigan Federation, etc.). It was a pretty active building with a really good staff. And is still has a lot of original charm and ornamentation, mostly untouched. The lobby is a gem (except for the fluorescent lighting) We would gladly have stayed there. There is, in fact, a need for some smaller, less expensive buildings in the Loop.

Rick Lightburn said...

The streetscaping was desinged by Rios Clementi Hales of Los Angeles, including the improvements to Quincy Court (what the first commenter calls "fake palm trees" are actually stylized Honey Locusts) as well as the scaffolding and the improved storefronts along Jackson and State, and the interesting window coverings. I think the "trees" make an interesting contrast with the Calder sculpture that is visible through the first floor of the Dirksen building. Mark Rios, of Rios Clementi Hale, was well aware that in that site he was charged with complimenting Mies and Calder.

Mary said...

"Market driven development is what has destroyed most of Chicago's historic buildings, and will continue to do so in the future." I totally agree with this. everything has been demolished and replaced. Sad but true.

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Thiruppathy Raja said...

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Cody said...

"Market driven development is what has destroyed most of Chicago's historic buildings, and will continue to do so in the future."

I DISAGREE with this. Some, but not most. How many times have TIF funds been used to demo historic buildings?
And then there's...

Highways, UIC, Maxwell St, the medical center and the Valley neighborhood nearby SW of Roosevelt and Ashland, Cabrini Green, Robert Taylor, Stateway Gardens, ABLA, the limitless numbers of buildings targeted by the Daleys' fast track demolition programs, so many buildings that are casualties of the foolish war on drugs, racist FHA lending policies, destructive section 8, the wreckage of Fannie/Freddie... The list goes on and on... and on.

Market driven development? HA! Where?

In fact the most intact neighborhoods in Chicago are those in which the heavy hand of the state has been less present.. Bridgeport, Chinatown, Logan Sq, etc.

If we want to prevent thoughtless demolition, the solution is to get federal and state government out of it completely and literally put each block in charge of what can be built on their block. Local government to the extreme -- take the development discretion away from alderman and give it to each precinct, or indeed block. They should have development review and zoning authority.

It's working in Oakland-Kenwood.. quite well actually.

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