Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Prudential Rediscovers its Shine

photograph: Bob Johnson (click images for larger view)
In Chicago's skyscape, the Prudential Building was once cock of the walk.  Today, it's a background building.  But if you happen to be walking by, look up.  The limestone facade of the Prudential has taken on a creeping two-tone, a kind of ghostly striping, and we're about to tell you why.
The Prudential has a storied history.  For two decades, from 1934 onward, through Depression and War, construction in Chicago had ground to a half.  The skyline whose towers had popped up like weeds in the 1920's became frozen in time. 

With an easement to build a trestle and breakwater a short distance from shore, the Illinois Central Railroad had controlled Chicago's lakefront since the 1850's.  From the bank of the river southward, the IC had created a massive railyard, dominated by a huge sign for Pabst beer as it met Michigan Avenue to the east was the most ambitious bit of construction on the site.
photograph:  Library of Congress
The Prudential Building would change all of that,  When it was announced in 1951, it became the first structure to be built over Illinois Central air rights, and the opening shot in the revival of major new office construction. It included new viaducts along its perimeter, and a completely new street, the one-block Stetson Avenue, named after Edward Stetson, an I.C. board president.  According to a post on the Connecting the Windy City blog, the air rights deed was 85 pages long and identified 500 small, individual pieces of property.

At 42 stories and 601 feet, the Prudential would fall just four feet short of overtaking the Board of Trade as Chicago's tallest building.  Designed by Naess and Murphy, it broke ground on August 12, 1952.  At nearly 22 million cubic feet, it was the fifth larger building in the city.  Each of its 2,617 windows were double-glazed, and designed to allow both sides to be washed from the inside. 
The Prudential was a compendium of superlatives.  At 1,400 feet-per-minute, it's elevators  were the world's fastest, and popping ears became standard elevator car conversation for first-time visitors.   The Prudential had the biggest floor-to-floor heights.  It's air conditioning capacity -  3,150 tons- also set a record.  Elevator service stopped at the 40th floor, and the world's tallest escalators carried visitors to the 41st floor and its observatory, which actually bested the one at the Board of Trade to become the tallest in Chicago.  The panoramic views from Stouffer's Top of the Rock restaurant immediately made it a destination dining location for tourists and locals alike.
A 73-foot-tall antenna for WGN was assembled on the 41st floor and welded in place into a nearly 12-foot-deep socket at the top of a 311-foot-tall tubular steel mast mounted on the roof.
According to David Jameson's essential new book on the noted Chicago artist and sculptor, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design, Prudential and their architects were determined to incorporate the company's Rock of Gibraltar logo in the design.  They considered making it a plaza-level fountain, or depicting it in a stained glass window above the entrance.  “In the end, the client and architects decided on a thirty-foot-high bas relief eight stories up the blank west-facing wall of the Randolph Street section.”  Iannelli received $14,120 for the commission.  It would be his last major work.

The Prudential had its own branch post office, with nearly 100 workers.   Overall, the building had a workday population of over 8,000 people.  It immediately became Chicago's prestige office address, with tenants including blue chip advertising firms Needham, Louis and Brorby and, from 1956 to 1989, Leo Burnett.  Prudential Insurance took up the first eight floors of offices, launching “Operation Crosstown” - 6 large vans, 30 movers and 80 trips - to transport its 1,500 employees from their temporary quarters at the Butler Brothers warehouse at 165 North Canal.

When the $40,000,000 building was dedicated on December 8th, 1955, newspapers and other memorabilia were placed in a time capsule to be opened in the year 2000.  Has it ever been uncovered?  There's no doubt it would have been a snapshot from a very different time.  Two of the four newspaper that existed in 1955 disappeared long ago, and the two survivors don't look too healthy now, either.
image courtesy The Chuckman Collection
More importantly, at the time of its opening, the Prudential, in its pristine, splendid isolation, immediately became a visual anchor terminating the view north from Grant Park.  It was an urban signpost of the fading power of the railroads. First with the Prudential, then Illinois Center, Lake Shore East and Millennium Park, those massive, once vital railyards were the grimy industrial soil out of which an entirely new sector of the city took root.
Originally the dominant alpha building of a new Chicago, the Prudential is now overshadowed by the newer, taller structures of a filled-out east Randolph streetwall.
Two Prudential Plaza
As the new towers rose, Prudential's status declined.  The Top of the Rock and observatory closed long ago.  In 1990, the Prudential became almost a subsidiary adjunct to the new Two Prudential Plaza, by Loebl, Schlossman and Hackl.  At 1.4 million square feet, it's larger than the original, and it's 995 height eclipses both the original Prudential and its tall mast.   The rings of lighting at its top set Postmodernist bling against 1 Pru's solid, sober massing.  The one shiny aspect of Prudential One - it's shimmering aluminum spandrels - became so worn and dull I had convinced myself that they had been removed sometime in the 1990's and that I was now looking at the concrete under the panels.
According to a report by Ryan Ori in Crain's Chicago Business, the two Prudential buildings have only recently emerged from being “zombie” buildings.  The owners had so highly leveraged the two towers that after the 2008 crash, and the loss of some key tenants, there was no longer enough cash flow to finance the basic maintenance and improvements needed to attract replacement tenants for the nearly 40% of the space - mostly in the original Prudential - now or soon-to-be vacant.

In June of this year, a NewYork-based consortium restructured the debt and gained control of the two Prudentials.  They've committed $100 million to upgrading the complex.  The most visible component of that process is the current bit of street theater, as workers on scaffolds at vertigo-inducing heights are restoring the facade of the Prudential to its original luster.
In the restoration by Alumitec, “each window frame and spandrel panel will be detailed by hand utilizing abrasive cleaning methods to restore the aluminum to its intended  appearance, then sealed with the Alumitec wipe-on sealer to protect the finish and restore its metallic sheen.”  South and west elevations are scheduled to completed this year, north and east in 2014.  It won't set back the clock to Prudential's original pioneering status, but when those panels catch the sun, they'll flash a moment of   architectural history, the mid-20th century set off against the free-form shimmer of Frank Gehry's 21st.

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  1. I love your blog and check in daily. The Prudential is one of my favorite buildings in the entire city. Thanks for the post and all that you do.
    I would love to see linkdin button to post links on my page.

  2. Thanks for reporting this. I wondered what they were doing. Regrettably, they will never be able to restore the terrific green/black marble and terrazzo lobby interior that they destroyed when they tried to make it segue with the Pru II. There was a little piece of it that survived - a staircase that led down to an office space on the east side of the lobby - but I don't know if it's still there.

  3. Russ Johnson2:34 PM

    I worked at Prudential from 1956 to 1969. What a wonderful building and company it was. Thank you for the pictures and story.

    1. My father, Ronald Brennan, worked for Prudential from the late 1950’s until his retirement in 1980. He was a photographer and copywriter, and he wrote the agent’s publications. He used to bring his family to The Top of The Rock observatory, and we would look out over Lake Michigan, and think how special dad must be to be able to bring us here! Then we would go to his office and meet his coworkers! What a magical and special time that was for us! Us Brennan kids still love the Prudential Building❤️

  4. Anonymous10:53 PM

    I stayed at the Conrad Hilton back in the middle 50's when I was about 15 years old and remember walking all the way down to the Prudential Bldg to get a strawberry Sunday from the icecream shop on the ground floor. Appeared to be a giant skyscraper to me all those years ago.

    Mike Buse

  5. E. Grant5:31 PM

    My Dad too was a Pru agent based in Chicago.
    We would always go downtown, and my Dad had so much pride in showing us the building.
    Great memories from the late 50's to the late 70s!