Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Killing State Street's Character, one storefront at a time.

 click images for larger view
Blair Kamin may have gone tone-deaf last year when, from his Olympian perch at the Trib, he dismissed as beneath interest the destruction of Mies van der Rohe's Test Cell building at IIT, the modest building that was also happened to have served as the aesthetic south entry gate into the Miesian campus, but he's regained his bearings in an excellent piece on the threat to the sleek and suave Baker's store on State Street.

For decades the showplace for Chandler's shoes, it was part of the tardy arrival of modernism to what was then "that great street," Chicago's premiere shopping district. It had begun in the 1930's, with structures like Alfred S. Alschuler's Benson Rixon store at State and Quincy. You probably know it as that drab, dark building with the glass block that's been a McDonald's for as long as anyone can remember, but in 1937 it was an incredibly beautiful work of modernist elegance, as you can see in this shot sprinkled with the usual Hedrich Blessing pixie dust. (Still another view can be found here.)

Just to the south, the similarly elegant Bond clothing store was constructed in 1949, with Morris Lapidus as associate architect. It's striking granite facade was removed in 1981 and "modernized" with the banal glass curtain wall you see today.

Already lost is the incredibly handsome Baskin Store of 1947, which you can see to the right in this shot from Joe+Jeanette Archie's evocative Flickr collection of vintage photographs.
A classic international style design by Holabird & Root, it was destroyed in the 1990's without a second thought, to make room for the incredibly clunky chiller plant that stands on the site today.
As Kamin relates, the Chandler's store is now closed, and he writes that in the eyes of Thor Equities, which acquired the Palmer House just to the north in 2005, the shapely if derelict storefront is an affront "to the award-winning restoration of the Palmer House Hilton that his firm completed in 2008."

The irony of this is delicious. The truth of the matter is Thor had every attention of foisting on the Palmer House storefronts exactly the same kind of butchering "modernization" they have in mind for Baker's, with the blessings of a supine Commission on Chicago Landmarks. It was only when Landmarks Illinois and Preservation Chicago began to raise a stink that the Commission backtracked and mandated restoration of the original storefronts, which are what you see now.

If you want to get an idea of what Thor Equities considers good design, visit what was once the Palmer House's grand concourse between Wabash and State, now truncated at its midpoint into a small, ugly corridor, with the hotel's grand entrance on State, a street that the Palmer House was instrumental in defining as one of the world's premiere shopping venues, reduced to a clumsy, almost invisible service entrance.

That's the fate facing the Baker's store. It's ironic that so many seem to hate Miesian boxes, but they're quite content with retail design reduced to boxes with a vengeance, purged of any curves, irregularities - or character. (I hope I'm proven wrong, but just picturing in my mind what Target might do to the Louis Sullivan Carson Pirie Scott space makes me shudder.)

Blair sums it up well:
When Chandler’s opened on Nov. 26, 1948, it must have dazzled pedestrians accustomed to window-shopping at classically inspired State Street retail palaces like the Marshall Field & Co. store (now Macy’s). The store reflected a new preference for buildings that were airy, loosely balanced and abstract rather than massive, rigidly symmetrical and slathered with decoration.

A curving row of floor-to-ceiling windows (left) swept across the second-floor facade while splaying bands of display windows framed the deeply-recessed first-floor entry. The design, which anticipated the see-through Apple stores of today, sacrificed interior square footage for a visual drama meant to suck pedestrians in the door.
Sacrificing interior square footage? Sacrilege - he must be burned as a witch!

And yet, as Blair intimates, it seems to have worked out very well for Apple, which has some of the highest sales-per-square-foot in retail. But to get there, it means you have to "think different." Thor Equities appears to be interested only in picking the low-lying fruit.

Thanks to our reader BW, you can see a rendering of the new and "improved" facade to the right.  Thor Equities pitch for the site appears to depend on the gullibility of the lessee.  It describes State Street as home to "the original seven mammoth department stores,"  and brags of three of them being at the corner of State & Madison, while neglecting to mention that only one - Sears - exists today, and the second is on the verge of being turned over to a discount retailer.  (Also notice that in rendering, while the Baker's facade is destroyed the kitschy retrofit of the former Stanley Green's restaurant next door remains intact.)

You don't build brand equity for State Street by making it a generic could-be-anywhere.  You do it by building on its unique, historic qualities to set it apart and give people a reason to want to take a pass on the local strip mall to go there. We talk about constructed buildings having "embedded energy".   Well, historic architecture has embedded brand equity. Kamin quotes Lisa DiChiera of Landmarks Illinois as describing the Baker's store as "one of the last storefronts of this vintage style on State Street," and State of Illinois preservationist Anthony Rubano as calling it "the most progressive approach to high-end retail design."

The preservationists know we have a potential Apple quality store design in hand and want to restore its original quality and value. Thor Equities seem intent on replacing it with the kind of storefront only a Radio Shack could love.  If you want to create a premium product that commands premium rentals, upscaling the properties around it, why would you want to throw a splendid,  one-of-a-kind jewel like Baker's away?


BW said...

Rendering of the boring new facade.

Lynn Becker said...

thanks BW! info and pic added.

Anonymous said...

Nice job Lynn

Anonymous said...

Any Idea when the construction is supposed to start?

BW said...