Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bestiary on Wabash

203 N. Wabash is one of only two office buildings designed by the firm of Rapp & Rapp, best known for their lavish movie palaces like the Chicago, Palace, and Oriental.
Overall, the slim, 25 story structure, built in 1928 as the headquarters of the Old Dearborn Bank, an official Chicago Landmark, has a restrained, streamlined profile.  The firm's fantasist roots, however, can be seen in the ornament.
Click images for larger view.
At sidewalk level, it's very subdued, squirrels, rams, and human heads that look like they might have come off a Gothic cathedral.
It's at the building's crest, all but invisible from the street, that things go a bit mad . . .  with a very ornate top accented by the usual lions . . .
  . . . and a flock of massive, truly strange birds as the building's sentrys.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Final Curtain: Urban Remains selling the Esquire Theater sign

click images for larger view
Even though it's been closed almost four years, the distinctive profile of the Esquire Theater, its marquee and soaring sign, remained Oak Street's most iconic landmark.  Designed by architect William L. Pereira and opened in 1938, it was a unique and indispensable alternative to the Baroque fantasy movie palaces of the 1920's, done in a streamlined Art Moderne style as elegant as an ocean liner.

Of course, our crack Commission on Chicago Landmarks never lifted a finger to protect it.  The 1,390 seat auditorium was destroyed in 1989, re-engineered for retail on the ground floor and above it a two-level multiplex with ungainly shoebox theaters that were already obsolete the moment they were built.  A proposal to replace the building with a 10-story hotel went nowhere when then Alderman Burton Natarus refused to support the necessary upzoning. After the collapse of the real estate market, the property was foreclosed on last November, and eventually wound up in the hands of currency trader Donald Wilson, Jr., obviously not a man of excess sentimentality.

But a big piece of the Esquire can now be yours.  The sign is being sold by Urban Remains.
So the building that gave Oak Street it's character is trashed and destroyed.  What else is new?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Skyscrapers of the Sea Redux - the Tall Ships are Back, only through Sunday

click images for larger view
It wasn't quite as romantic as the last time they were here, in 2006, when they made their way into the city through a heavy fog that made the scene look like an animated J.M.W. Turner.  But the Tall Ships are back, 20 of them versus 17 in 2006.  Instead of deployment all the way down the river towards Michigan avenue, this year, they're all around Navy Pier.
In 2006, we wrote of them as the Skyscrapers of the Sea, "among the tallest man-made structures, scraping the heavens on water as the spires of churches and cathedrals did on land. The way their lightweight sales were borne on the soaring, interlocking skeleton of masts makes them seem a precursor to the steel-frame construction that made Chicago architecture famous."
Included in this year's collection is the replica of the HMS Bounty, created for the 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, where the real mutiny was that of lead Marlon Brando, sacking director Carol Reed, who had initiated the project, and torturing his replacement, Lewis Milestone, along with pretty much every member of the cast and crew.  Milestone estimated that Brando had been the cause of at least $6 million in overruns towards the film's eventual cost of $19,000,000, a phenomenal sum in those days, and several million more than that of another 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia. (Apparently, sand was cheaper than ego.) Brando's career would not recover until The Godfather, a decade later.
The Bounty at Navy Pier was built in Lundenberg, Nova Scotia at a cost, in 1960 dollars, of $700,000.  It was sailed 7,000 miles to the Tahiti location.  According to IMDB, it was set to be burned at the film's conclusion, but Brando insisted on substituting a 40-foot model, which was only fitting, as the surviving ship has had a more successful afterlife than the movie for which it was created.  After filming, it was sent on a highly successful publicity tour for Mutiny, including stops at the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle.  It continued touring, including to the 1964 New York's World Fair, until it was acquired by Ted Turner in 1986, as part of Turner's acquisition of the MGM film library.  The ship has gone on to roles in other films,  including a 1989 version of Treasure Island with Charleton Heston and, most recently, portraying The Edinburgh Trader (not, as often claimed The Black Pearl) in episodes two and three of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
This year's event runs through Sunday, August 29th.
Despite the stiff tariff of $44 to $54 per passenger, excursions on the ships have long been sold our, but you can still see all the ships for $15.00; $20.00 including dockside boarding.
There are fireworks each evening.  Lemonade, candied nuts, churros, and Japanese parasols, in abundance.  More information at the website here.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

22 West Washington Watch: from Mirrored to Mottled to Bifocal

Back in June, we brought you the story of Block 37's 22 West Washington, the Perkins+Will designed tower whose west wall suffered nearly 40 broken windows from a storm with 77 miles-per-hour peak winds. The saga continues.

This is what it looked like pre-storm . . .
post storm  . . .
And yesterday, courtesy of another photo from our indefatigable correspondent Bob Johnson  . . .
What was originally a uniform reflective curtain wall is now a full-scale deconstruction of the building.  The removal of temporary glass from the top two floors reveals, not office penthouses, but a razor-thin cover for the mechanicals, more honestly expressed along the north elevation.
So, for now, we have the original glass panes, interspersed  with various chads of temporary windows, board-ups, and, as of yesterday, voids.   Stay tuned - who knows how it will all turn out?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Chicago Streetscene: Hotel Housepets offer Service with a Snarl

Tough economic times and the increasing use of CGI in film production has reduced these two mythical beasts to working as greeters at the Drake.
click image for larger view

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Limp Building: Lucien in Dali-land or The Persistence of Mediocrity

One of these things is not quite like the other . . .
click images for larger view
can't quite put your finger on it ? . . .
Lucien Lagrange, the Chicago architect who recently announced his retirement, built a fabulously successful career out of creating high-rise buildings in a stripped-down classicism that allowed his patrons the fantasy of living as royalty in the French Second Empire.
His ideas tend to be most coherently expressed, and gracefully detailed, at the base of his buildings, and to begin to fly out the window as a tower rises and he has to fit in all those ugly balconies that buyers seem to require.  His latest achievement is the Elysian, a 60 story hotel/condo tower that terminates in a massive, clunky metallic crest that looks like the cap on a stick of lip balm.  It's  heavy, vaguely Germanic feel almost seems to suggest that Lagrange wasn't really raised in the South of France, but in Alsace.
At the bottom is the Second Empire calling card, with a four-story pavilion along State Street with a Mansard roof would look a lot more convincing if it were executed in traditional tar paper rather than ribbed metal that makes it look like a Quonset hut.  Adjacent  is a full-up "carriage court" where limo's and sports cars can make their entrance with a backup of appropriate Parisian splendor.

A few weeks ago, the previously completed Mansard roof was encased in scaffolding - apparently some touch-ups were required to the original construction.  Now, similar rehab work is going on in the carriage court, and that's the source of the photo's you see above.  The usual ugly open scaffolding just wouldn't do, so the building has created fabric replicas of the facades to place over the scaffolding.
It's one of the trippiest architectural visions you're likely to see.  In it's emulation of a dead style, Lagrange's designs are already a fake.  So now, with the fabric hangings, we have a fake of a fake.  (Is it too much to hope that the irony was intentional?)  The way the hangings droop and crinkle, it's like the courtyard facades are melting under the heat of their own strained artifice.  Christo couldn't have done it any better.

It's not to be missed. Stop by Walton just east of State, and make up your own backstory.  

Give Marina City a Hand - or else

The condo board of Bertrand's Goldberg Marina City, the same crack crew who gave you the claim that you couldn't take pictures of the iconic corn-cob towers from the street without paying them a fee, has come up with a new way to harass residents.  In a move to avoid tailgating - the practice of non-residents getting into the building by following residents in once they've unlocked the door - the board is now demanding that all residents have their hands scanned to use the plaza entrances.  Hand sanitizer will be provided.

Entering those entrances now becomes a cumbersome procedure that Apple's product development center security would envy.  Residents use a card key to open the first door.  The door closes behind them into an interlock, where more closed circuit cameras are being installed.  The resident then must scan their hand.  And they're in, right?  No, then they have to wait for the security guard to view the scene via video camera  at their station downstairs to see if  the resident should be let in their own building.  Then they get buzzed in a second door.  The condo association doesn't even claim this will solve the tailgating problem, only make it "far less likely."

The board blames everything from "ex-boyfriends or ex-girl friends", "economic times," to the inevitable "terrorism", to director Michael Bay, whose filming of Transformers3 across the river presumably brought hoards of stragglers looking to sneak into Marina City, for the move.  The board also investigated scanning iris's ("not available for our software") and facial recognition ("changing hair styles, hats or facial expressions could cause accidental refusal of access") but settled on the hand scan, instead.  No word on why they rejected the Body Orifice Security Scanner.

Are any other iconic buildings - the Hancock, Aqua, the Elysian - pushing the envelope this far?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Samuel Mockbee documentary debuts on PBS tonight - just not here

Thanks to Andrew Spatz for reminding me that PBS is debuting a new documentary: Citizen Architect, on Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio.  Good luck finding it in Chicago.  I did a search on the WTTW program guide for August and came up with nothing.  You can watch trailers for the film through either of the links above.  If anyone has any info on where this can viewed in the Chicago area, please pass it on.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Apple North Avenue Store emerges - it's very shiny. (And don't worry; it's taken charge of that ugly duckling next door)

click images for larger view
The dark tent  that had enveloped the new Apple store at North Avenue and Halsted is finally coming off.  The design, by regular Apple architects Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, appears to be a larger retread of an existing store in Scottsdale, Arizona, a rectangular box enclosed in glass at either end.

According to Gary Allen's incredibly exhaustive infoAppleStore.com, initially created in 2003 to support the "Overnighters" camping out before a new store's opening and now grown to nearly 2,000 pages, the 15,000 square foot store has essentially been finished since June, down to interior furniture, but is awaiting the completion of the broad plaza to the building's west and the rehab of the adjoining North and Clybourn Red Line subway station.
The store is clad in stainless steel panels imported from Japan's Kikukawa Kogyo Company.  They are primarily large and vertically placed.  At the building's crest, the last several inches of the gaps between them are left open.
 Much taller panels clad a bustle along the structures west side, and much smaller, square panels serve as coping above the canopied entrances.  Strips of small display windows are placed within the stainless steel sides. The plaza, which runs all along the building from North to Clybourn, is paved in stone slabs with a marbleized look, and are also used to clad the large planters on the plaza.
Two temporary sculptures now punctuate the perfection:

. . . Green squares in polished metal
 . . . and, at each end facade,  logo shroud
The control-freak nature of Steve Jobs and the company he both founded and resurrected can be seen just to the west of the store.  The area around North and Clybourn has undergone its own resurrection in recent years.  Originally an industrial, working class area, it had grown increasingly derelict.  Frederick Ahlschlager's 1887 Yondorf Hall housed a liquor store that was a magnet for local wino's.
Now, the area has gentrified, and grown into one of the city's most successful shopping districts.  In 1998, the Yondorf was acquired as office space by the Stepenwolf Theatre Company.  The exterior has been beautifully restored, and the liquor store is now a jeweler's shop.  All up and down the streets, there's a vibrant mixture of big box retailers like Best Buy and Borders, and popular chains like Crate and Barrel, Banana Republic and Restoration Hardware.  The massive old Seeburg jukebox factory is now, thanks in large part to a $8.5 million TIF payout, a spiffy Grossinger auto mall.  A shiny new Vitamin Shoppe has just opened on one of the corners, the final certificate of authenticity for the district's yuppyfication.
The one major holdout in the revival has been the North and Clybourn Red Line station, originally opened in 1943. As reported in a history on another invaluable website, Graham Garfield's Chicago_L.org, the station was unique in a number of ways.  It was the only one with an above-ground headhouse replacing the standard below-ground mezzanine.  Designed by Shaw, Naess and Murphy, it had a distinctive Art Moderne feel, with curved elevations to the east and west, and the interior was generously lit through tall windows, subdivided into panes in a geometric grid.
As the area declined and the passenger load dropped, the building became increasingly decrepit.  The corner entrance was sealed up and made a commercial space.  While both the Green and Blue lines have recently undergone major rehabs, the Red Line has not. Amidst the pristine festival of consuming all around it, North and Clybourn had become a jarring, discordant reminder of the inevitability of decay.  Hardly a suitable neighbor for Apple's vision of an ever-brighter future.

So last October, Apple entered into an agreement with the CTA.  In exchange for being able to repave the area east of the bus turnaround that is now the new store's plaza, Apple is kicking in nearly $4 million towards the rehab of the station, now serving 4,500 passengers a day.  $2,100,000 is going directly to the CTA to update the interiors. 

Apparently being informed of how things can actually work in Chicago, Apple claimed the rights to rehab the exterior of the station - the part in immediately vicinity to their gleeming new outpost - for themselves, allocating another $1.8 million to the task.  Much of the original character of the station has been stripped away along with the grime.  The original  mottled brick that gave the building a subtle polychromatic accent has been completely replaced with bricks of monochrome buff.  The geometric grid-paned windows have been supplanted with something much more contemporary - and generic, the major feature being top transoms that should aid natural ventilation.   The former curving entrance along the west is now choppily angled.  It's a much brighter, much blander building.
Not surprisingly, the best work appears to be on the east side that actually faces the Apple store.  The same bland windows prevail, in the center bays with entrance doors below, but the generous glass still  provides a feeling of openness, lighting up the interior.  The great, curving canopy has been retained, it's red edge repainted.  Handsome, free-standing stainless steel lettering are a welcome addition,  spelling out the station's name in a curve that follows the canopy's perimeter.
Maybe we would have been better off if Apple had kept control of the interior rehab, as well.  It seems to be going as a snail's pace.  In truth, the project has its challenges.  The head house never married very gracefully to the station below.  Long corridors branching out in confusing ways must be traversed to get to the cramped stairway to the platform, bisected to insert an almost impossibly narrow escalator.  When I was at the site on Saturday, the headhouse was a hollowed out disaster zone, and one stair had been closed off to allow for the original red tile treads to receive replacements of light gray.

The Apple store is expected to open this fall.  How far along,  do you think,  will the CTA have the interior rehab by then?

What Do You Do With a Problem Like Blago-a?

Some men suffer most when you take their lives. Life is what is sweetest to them. For Filargi money is sweetest. We'll leave him with his life and without money or anywhere to get it
Don Corrado Prizzi

He's the crazy relative who escaped from your cellar and keeps eluding the authorities.

It's easy to forget that former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was convicted on a charge that could carry a sentence of five years.  This is a man so addicted to the red light of the cameras that just seeing a stoplight can launch him into a twenty minute rant.  It had looked as if the media had finally grown bored of Governor Goofy's overbearing Alfred E. Neuman cluelessness, but last week's jury verdict renewed his passport to talk show ubiquity.

Will no one rid us this of walking pool of sleeze? Our prospects seem to be either another long, painful retrial on the 23 counts the jury deadlocked on, or just throwing up our hands and giving up.  Or . . .

In any other trade, he'd be pushing a broom and buying his overalls at Wal-Mart.  In politics, Blago's mastery of B.S. is bleepin' golden.  Even when we know he's talking nonsense, he's the car wreck we can't look away from.  So if we can't get him to prison, how do we get rid of him?  Where else could his unique gifts find suitable employment?

As is clear to anyone listening to the infamous tapes, Blagojevich has two primary obsessions: money and being the center of attention.  The untimely death of Billy May last year has opened up a void crying to be filled.  Could Blago be the man to do it?

Think about it.  Imagine Blago on TV at all hours of the night, extolling the wonders of the Sham Wow,  Oxy-Clean and What Odor?, products with far more credibility than his innocence.    Forever and ever, he'd have an audience of millions.  People recognizing him on street would call out his name in delight, just wanting to shake his hand.  He would be able to continue as a subject of parody, guaranteeing him a continued presence on more respectable media. 

Step two:  the Cindy Crawford route.  A full line of Blago hair care products.  A complete natural.  Who knows hair better than Rod Blagojevich?  It would be infomercial nirvana. Even if you can't help but break out laughing when he blathers on about his "dedication to the people", when he speaks about great hair, you know you'd better listen. 

Rod Blagojevich would become a very rich man, his closets filled with $4,000 suits, with more than enough left over for a vacation home in Capri and sending his kids to Harvard.  He would remain a very famous man.  And we would be happy for him.
Only don't tell me that you're innocent. Because it insults my intelligence and it makes me very angry. 
Michael Corleone.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mies Burnhamized - ICA&CA approved

click image for larger view
A reflection of D.H. Burnham Company's 1907 Edison Building transforms Mies van der Rohe's Federal Center Post Office.

Death in Venice: Who was Geo. H. Macomber and what's he's doing on the Chicago Athletic Club?

Once a playground of the city's elite, the Chicago Athletic Club had fallen on hard times by the time it announced it was shopping around its landmark building at 12 S. Michigan and an annex on Madison that had been added in more flush times.  Last year, the property was forced into foreclosure as a project to convert it into a hotel collapsed.

Today, the building is a faded curiosity on the Michigan Avenue streetwall, but in 1898, it was described as "a rival in grace and symmetry to the great Palace of the Doges on St. Mark's Square, Venice, and loses nothing by the comparison . . . The interior is magnificent and costly, every atom of material and every article of the equipment being placed with a thought to defy the ravages of time . . . "
 The 6,000 square-foot dining room was finished in "quarter oak . . . and overhanging all a stucco ceiling, with hundred's of drooping tips, studded with incandescents . . ."
Att the time of its construction, the ten-story-high Club, designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb in a style that could said to be Ruskinesque Venetian, qualified as a an outstanding example of the new, fireproof steel-frame skyscraper.  Unfortunately, according to contemporary report, "the full efficiency of this fire-resisting groundwork was largely nullified by introducing large quantities of combustible materials . . ."  On Halloween night, 1892, a fire broke out in the two-storied, oak-paneled gymnasium on the 4th floor.  "The ceiling being attached to one-inch nailing strips, which were so fastened to the terra-cotta arch blocks as to leave spaces between the floor arches the paneling, in which air currents and flame could freely circulate."
The flames burned through the oak paneling, burned up the wood strips that had inserted into the terra-cotta panels that were supposed provide structural fireproofing, causing the tiles to fall and exposing the steel columns to flame.  The wood with which the club was lavishly appointed throughout became the pathway carrying fire to the upper floors.  The pressure of water from the fire hoses was enough to knock off more of the terra cotta protection.  Still, all but two columns on the eight floor resisted deflection from the heat of the flames.  The tab for the damages was a then astronomical $200,000.  In the end, the building would cost $600,000 but it was still opened in July of 1893, in time for the World's Columbian Exposition.
It was 1891, however, the year construction began, that was carved into the building's facade: Anno Domani MDCCCXCI.  Not far below, in small lettering invisible from the street, there's another inscription:
Who was Geo. H. Macomber, and why did he deserve this honor?  In 1902, he was listed as Second Vice President, George H. Macomber, George A. Fuller Company, a major construction contractor out of NewYork, which had its Chicago offices in the Marquette Building.  Perhaps he supervised the Club's construction.

The faded grandeur of the Club's facade is like the a dust, the sole surviving residue of the energy that once surged throughout this building, as Chicago's power elite gathered to dream, to plan,  to cut deals and an occasional throat, to conspire over the city's future and their personal ambitions, or maybe just get a rubdown and fall asleep, brandy and cigar in hand, in a club chair. 

The husk is all that's left.  The husk, and a small, hidden tribute to a forgotten man once of great importance.