Sunday, November 30, 2014

Lump of Coal in Chicago Architecture's Holiday Stocking: Verizon lands with a Thud on the Mag Mile

Words I never thought I would write: Bring back Lucien!
click images for larger view
This is a photograph of 840 North Michigan.  Dating from 1992, it was another retro special from Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange, who, until he was tripped up by the economic crash of '08, was the undisputed king of a style of architecture that pretended the 20th century - and much of the 19th- never happened.

As detailed on a post on the indispensable Forgotten Chicago website, this was previously the site of Holabird and Root's 1928's Michigan Chestnut Building,  where much of the seven stories were taken by the Chicago outpost of Saks Fifth Avenue, which remained there for less than a a decade before moving to its new store down the street in a building that's currently occupied by Niketown.

Michigan Chestnut was the type of restrained, classically accented, mid-rise architecture that gave the Magnificent Mile its name.  Beginning in the 1980's, however, one by one, those buildings were demolished in favor of mega-projects.  Michigan Chestnut, itself was scheduled to replaced by a 30-story tower, but when that project fell through, we got Lucien Lagrange's low-rise Plaza Escada instead.

His design, complete with clock beneath a mansard roof, stretched the classical vocabulary like silly putty to accommodate the needs of a modern commercial structure.  The surrealism of it all was underscored by the ridiculously large upper window occupied by a massive teddy bear.
The window advertised toy retailer FAO Schwarz.  The store and fashion house Escada were 840's largest tenants.  A lavish Waterstone's bookstore soon opened the basement, but folded after only four years, shortly after a Borders superstore opened just a few doors south. FAO Schwarz closed early in 2002.  Finally, after declaring bankruptcy, Escada exited in 2009.  Eventually H and M took over the FAO Schwarz space, while the former Escada store remained stubbornly empty..

Cover of U.S. Equities brochure
In a slick brochure, U.S. Equities marketed 47,00 square feet of space in what they proclaimed "The most prestigious address on The Magnificent Mile."  Finally, last year, Verizon agreed to take over 27,000 square feet formerly occupied by Escada, split between a "destination" store and offices.
This past spring, scaffolding went up along Michigan and all the way down Chestnut, as Lagrange's elegant if quirky facade was ripped away . . .
. . . .and the building gutted down to its bare bones.
The new undercladding was neutral and featureless . . .
. . . but the finished design soon revealed itself as one of the most heavy-handed and graceless to ever land on Michigan Avenue.  It's best at night . . .
. . . when the funereal granite basically makes the building disappear as it merges with the darkness. leaving only the huge windows giving a direct view into over-lit interiors.
As a sign on the outside of the building, the above-pictured display would be blatantly illegal.  As a multi-story video wall mounted on 840's short side, carried directly to the street through a huge window, it's A-OK.
In the harsh light of morning, however, the new 840 is an architectural hangover.  It's hard to imagine anything so expensive could be more shockingly awful.  It's as if grave robbers had dug up the most oppressively pompous 1960's corporate design and strung up the corpse on one of the premiere facades along North Michigan Avenue.
The building permit attributes the $5 million project to architect William E. Abbot.  I'm sure he was only following orders.  Who in their right mind would have ever thought this design was a good idea? 

Earlier this year, the owners had refinanced 840 with a $52 million loan.  Then, just last month, an East Coast developer paid $144 million for what Crain's Chicago Business called "a stake" in now fully leased structure.  So the original investors got a windfall, the new owners got control of a prime Michigan Avenue corner, but as for the rest of us, all we got was this massive eyesore.
During the day it's like a giant black hole, sucking up all the oxygen off the street.  It's like a giant,  obscene tombstone for the destruction of all the elegance of the 1920's buildings that gave the "Mag Mile" its original character


Anonymous said...

I find the new version hideous. Especially the new red clock.

Anonymous said...

The older building had class, this new building looks like a hunk of shit. Why would the city allow Verizon to do this?

Anonymous said...

Lucien Lagrange has a problem with scale he is either on the money:
840 Lake Shore Drive, 65 East Goethe
2150 Lincoln Park West and the now dead 840 North Michigan, or way off:
The Waldorf Astoria and that enormous
mansard roof thingy, although the rest of the building is hansome, and The Ritz Carlton Residences. Why is the entrance to the condos so underwhelming?
The new Verizon store is almost too sleek. Bring back Lucien Lagrange's
adorable building.

Anonymous said...

Those buildings were all severely dumbed down.
You'll notice on his website that the original designs were all much less icky.
The Ritz Residences driveway is one of the worst offenses

William Zbaren said...

I agree _ bring back the french guy

Anonymous said...

The original design was Disneyesque theater and certainly had it's issues but the new design should never have been approved. It's awful.

Lucy Haines said...

What happened to class? This reminds me of Germany after the war. All the beautiful old buildings that were bombed out were rebuilt and look just like this monstrosity! Are we becoming a third world?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

How tacky. I was disappointed ten years ago by all that had faded away from the Mag Mile's past and truly mag reputation, but this is just too much. Been to Vegas? Welcome to the Strip of the Midwest!

Anonymous said...

Very ugly. No consideration for the neighbors. "...oppressively pompous..."