Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Baron von Steuben Refashioned - Randolph Tower: Restored Faux Gothic with a Candy Core

Click images for larger view
 So, let's the negative stuff out of the way first.

If you're smitten by the beautifully restored Randolph Tower, at Wells, originally built for The Steuben Club in 1929, you can take a bit of additional pride that you, dear taxpayer, pretty much paid for it.  You just don't own it, and you won't get any taxes from to pay for schools or other city services until 2034.  As we wrote three years ago, Ronald Reagan may have thought it was some grandmother in Garfield Park, but it's a project like Randolph Tower that's the real Welfare Queen.
What started out in 2006 as a $78.4 million project with a TIF component of $8 million (about 10%), grew the very next year to a $97.5 million project with $10 million in TIF funds. After the crash of 2008 caused two of the project's three lenders to back out, a new Randolph Wells TIF was created just for the Randolph Tower.  The final tab?  It's estimated at $145,000,000 with the TIF contribution escalating to $34 million, nearly a quarter of the total investment.  Of the rest, there's another $8 million in a grant from the Illinois Housing Development Authority, $40 million in tax-exempt municipal bonds backed by IHDA (the AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust is picking $20 million of those bonds), $6.6 million in Low Income Housing Tax Credits, and $30.2 in historic tax credits.  The developer?  Their skin in the game consists of $13.9 million (less than 10% of the cost), plus another $3.2 million in deferred development fees.
The good news is that developer is actually making good on the standard mandate that 20% of the units in a TIF-backed project be affordable housing.  Unlike most developers, who simply weasel out of that commitment by kicking in just $100,000 per unbuilt affordable unit into a city trust fund, Village Green is actually offering up 63 affordable apartments to qualifying applicants at rentals priced at less than half those of the market-rate units.
Negative number two:   You can certainly understand why they did it - the salt and chemicals Chicago uses to combat snow are hell on terra cotta - but the dark granite at ground level looks much darker than the material used in the original design.  As it rises high from the sidewalk, it detracts significantly from the the part of the building seen by the most people.  The granite makes the first floor facades look like an old geezer with his pants hiked up to his armpits

After this article was originally published,  Brett Laureys of Wiss, Janney, Elstner, to which developer Village Green turned for the exterior restoration, took the time to write me about the investigations that went into the stone:
Please note that the historic photo you published is very washed out.  We did find some reference to dark colored granite bases in our historic review, and we found some small fragments of dark granite behind the 1950's granite.  On a building of this vintage, they commonly used a contrasting color at the base of the building as an accent.  From all the facts and data, we believe this is the original color.  The height of the granite matches the original drawings and is taller than normal due to the vertical scale of the elevation.  Look at it from a distance and you'll see why that height was used.
As anyone who remembers walking by the building during its long derelict period can attest, the restoration of the crumbling terra cotta facades is a major triumph.  The Chicago Architecture Foundation has left up on the web the visuals used for a great presentation by Laureys that gives a thorough, richly illustrated overview of the project.  To aid in their efforts, Wiss Janney turned to The National Building Museum.  In 1982 the NBM had acquired 50,000 drawings from the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, the Chicago-based firm which had produced terra cotta used on the Steuben Club.   For Wiss Janney, the museum digitized 80 of the original Steuben Club blueprints.
photograph:  Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.
The $22 million terra cotta facade restoration was “was one of the largest ever done in Chicago,” says Laureys.  “To be able to restore all the terra cotta and granite back to original is rarely done.”  Of the building's over 90,000 pieces of terra cotta, approximately 12,000 units were completely replaced, 10,000 reset, and about 10,000 repaired in place.  “Another really great thing we did,” adds Laureys, “was to restore the gargoyles at the 39th floor of the building.  They were removed in the 1960's and replaced with flat limestone.  Gladding McBean remade the terra cotta gargoyles for us from a historic photograph.” 
photograph:  Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.
So now, after half a century, the gargoyles again stand guard at the capstones of two-story-high flying buttresses.
 Considering how 1920s Chicago's coal smoke air could filthy up even the shiniest new surfaces in no time flat, the Randolph Tower may well look better now than the day it opened.
photograph:  Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc.
The path from Steuben Club to Randolph Tower can be said to have begun on March 15, 2001, when potentially murderous chunks of the building's terra cotta came crashing down onto the street and Loop L tracks.  Over the next three days, city crews hastily erected steel-topped canopies all the way across Randolph Street and the L tracks on Wells.  The city sought reimbursement from the building's owners for what was claimed to be “hundreds of thousands of dollars” of ‘Make-Safe’ repairs, which eventually led to the owners filing for bankruptcy.  Finally, in 2005 the property was sold to Village Green, which had previously done apartment rehabs of the historic Burnham/Atwood Fisher Building and, more recently, a handsome rehab of the MDA City Apartments on Wabash, which we wrote about last October.

A Century and half of History at Randolph and Wells

Not unlike Adler and Sullivan's Schiller Theater, the Steuben Club tower had its roots in Chicago's vibrant German-American community.  In the early part of the 20th century, nearly a quarter of Chicago's population was said to have been of German ancestry.  That didn't save it from the great wave of German-bashing that came with World I, when sauerkraut was renamed ‘Liberty Cabbage‘ and Boston Symphony Orchestera Music Director Karl Muck, born in Germany but a Swiss citizen, was arrested and interned in Georgia.

After the war, German-Americans sought to combat anti-immigrant prejudice by forming the Steuben Society of America, named after Baron Von Steuben, a Prussian-born Revolutionary War general who was said to have been the man who transformed George Washington's rag-tag army into a formidable fighting force.  When the 2,500 Chicago members decided to build themselves a clubhouse, they thought big.
image courtesy Chicago History Museum
They bought the corner at Randolph and Wells that since 1852 was the location of one of Chicago's first grand hotels, the Briggs House, which was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1871 and stood on the site until demolished for the Steuben Club.  John M. Van Osdel was the architects for both buildings. It was in his suite at Briggs House that Abraham Lincoln learned he had been nominated for the Presidency of the United States by the Republican delegates meeting at The Wigwam convention center, at Lake and Wacker, just a couple of blocks away.

In the wake of great fire of 1871, the hotel had featured prominently on the cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper in the drawing ‘The Terrified Population in Front of the Briggs House’.  (The image you see here is taken from the Chicago History's Museum excellent The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory website.)
Image courtesy Chicago History Museum
In May of 1927, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Steuben Club had paid $1.5 million to acquire the Briggs House and its site, beating out the Frontenac Athletic Club, which was also said to looking at the property for its own building.   The Steuben Club said they would be building a 32-story tower, with a hundred sleeping rooms and a 1,200 seat theater, for which a lease to a New York theatrical firm was said to be already under negotiation.

One day the following February, trucks lined up at Briggs House's rear door to cart away for auction the red plush sofas, wooden bedsteads, marble washstands and other furnishings.  A Tribune reporter described how a carelessly dropped cigar stub started a grease fire whose smoke “poured out into the surrounding streets . . . the savory odors of roasts cooked in the Briggs House ovens for more than two generations.  It was probably the odors of the buffalo steaks, venison chops, bear steak, and mallard ducks for which the old grill was famous.”

The next week, in a display of eminent domain, Chicago-style, City Commissioner Michael Hughes threw up a police cordon around the four-story Leonard Hotel, also on the Steuben Club site, stopping guests from entering, and shutting off the water.  In 1929, another lawsuit charged the club's officers with building themselves office suites so lavish  - 135 square foot reception room, 420 square foot office, plus full bathrooms - as to constitute a misuse of funds.  The case was ultimately resolved in arbitration.

The cornerstone for the new building was laid on September 17, 1928,  both Baron von Steuben's birthday and the 141st anniversary of the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.  City Building Commissioner Chris Paschen made an appearance dressed up in revolutionary-era attire, complete with “powdered wig, buff and blue uniform, and high boots.”  A similarly-attired trio portrayed The Spirit of 76.  Last year, workers at Randolph Tower came across the time capsule that had been placed in the cornerstone that day, which included a copy of the Constitution, a bible,  “that future generations may know that we were a God fearing people,” copies of newspapers, a 48-star flag, and a banana smoothie.  New, contemporary items were added to time capsule, just as when the it was first opened in 1955, and it was re-interred in the walls to again be rediscovered by a generation still to come, or space aliens investigating the ruins of our civilization.  Place your bets now.

As related by the commission staff's usual excellent report on the building, issued in 2006 when it
Karl M. Vitzthum
received official designation by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, the Steuben Club found its architect in Karl M. Vitzthum.  Born in Germany in 1880, Vitzthum had emigrated to America in 1902, and came to Chicago in 1914 to work for the Burnham Company.  In 1919 he founded K.M. Vitzthum and Company, and went on to design prominent buildings throughout the city, including a number of banks, the Old Republic Building and St. Peter's Church on Madison.

His design for the Steuben Club, like the one he did for another, nearby skyscraper, One North LaSalle, was a response to Chicago's first zoning ordinance.  Passed in 1923, it lifted the height restrictions on new buildings in exchange for mandating setbacks as buildings rose, to keep natural daylight from being blocked by shear-walled towers.  The final setback could cover no more than 25% of the site.

And so the Steuben Club has two basic parts. The 27-story base, containing retail and offices - many originally occupied by club members -  takes up pretty much entire site.  On top of it is an 18-story, telescoping polygonal tower that was home to the club, with a large ballroom and skylit swimming pool at the top of the large block below.  The basement held a rathskeller.

A great beginning to be sure.  Timing?  Not so much.  Not long after its opening in 1929, the club was hit hard by the Great Depression.  Optimistic revenue projections proved evasive. In the mid-1930's, the club wound up selling floors 31 to 43.  The interior was rehabbed.  A 1950's modernization erased much of the original design, and the building became a regular visitor to tax court.  Another 1980's remodeling removed “nearly all of the historic finishes.”  Which takes us into the 21st century, falling terra cotta, and the more recent history described above.
I actually first noticed the rehab last week.  Walking by the building, I stood looking through a window at this stairway inscribed with the names of Chicago architects, Karl Vitzthum on the bottom rung.  The manager on duty graciously came out to invite me inside, and I took the lobby shots you see here.

I suppose there could be some mourning that the original lobby design wasn't restored, but from what I can remember of it, it was dark and not especially distinguished.  Which is what I would say about the building, itself.   I know this will get preservationists upset, but a lot of money - TIF's, subsidies and tax breaks - has been poured into this building, and I still wrestle with the idea that, no timeless masterpiece, it would ultimately have been the wiser decision, in the larger view of the built city and its finances, to have let it go.
But we didn't, and so we have what could said to be a rather happy balance beneath the new, as represented in the sparkling restored Gothic-styled terra cotta of the exterior, and re-designed interiors by Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture that are refreshingly free from fidelity to the previous, rather bland historicism. 
In an interview in the January, 2012 CTBUH Journal, Ray Hartshorne and Paul Alessandro refer to what they did at Randolph Tower as less a restoration than a “rehabilitation . . . We try to restore not just the image of the building, but more so the life inside the building through combining old qualities with new ones.”
Ballroom turned fitness center.  Image courtesy Village Green
The huge old ballroom, with its tall, Gothic framed windows has been rehabilitated as a fitness center and club space, complete with super sized chess pieces and a . . . pig.  The Olympic-sized swimming pool again has light streaming in through the top skylight.
Image courtesy Village Green
If there were any doubt, the lobby proclaims clearly this is not a less-is-more kind of place.  It has a sort of overstuffed, modernist Baroque exuberance, with bold patterns, bright colors, and chairs that looked that they could be refugees from Pee-Wee's Playhouse.  (And I mean that it in a good way.)
Not at all what you'd expect to find within that smug girdle of glazed Gothic tracery, it's like opening up a potato and finding a party inside.  It may not age well, but right now the untidy, insistent eagerness to please is like a shot of caffeine.  It may make you a bit jumpy and nervous, but against the self-serious proclivities of the architecture of the Loop, it packs a youthful, welcome kick.


Anonymous said...

I've been watching this project with interest these past few years. Thanks for such an informative post. It's interesting to hear about the details.

Also, I just want to say how much I enjoy your blog and the things you write about here. I read them every week and appreciate the commentary and pictures you post about Chicago and its architecture.

- G

Lynn Becker said...

Thanks for the kind words!

Ioannes Batista said...

So much better than another bland glass tower, I would take a "historical pastiche" over a meisian pastiche any day.