Monday, August 25, 2014

An Affectionate Last Look at a Building Not Worth Saving: Wreckers descend on the Downtown Court Club

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Looking at it from Wabash Avenue last Saturday, the looming presence of the former Lake Shore Athletic Club building at 441 North Wabash appeared almost normal.  It's only when you walked down the block to view it from the east that you got a true picture of what's going on.
What's in store for this prime square-block site is still a closely-guarded secret - until the first dispiriting renderings are released, we can always imagine it will be something fresh and wonderful - but what's totally clear is that the former Lake Shore Athletic Club is on the road to nowhere. 
The six-story building was originally constructed in 1978 - to a design by Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz - as the Downtown Court Club.  According to our indefatigable correspondent Bob Johnson, who was working at engineering firm Benesch at the time, the site was originally intended for a 20-story Howard Johnson's Motor Hotel, 95% designed by time a major recession finished it off. 
 At 60,000 square feet and a cost of $3.5 million, the Downtown Court Club was created as a state-of-the-art facility, with four tennis courts, four racquetball courts, two squash courts, a swimming pool, exercise room, saunas, whirlpools.  Two levels of parking were stuffed beneath the entrance level at upper Wabash, with cars entering and exiting at the lower service street level along Hubbard.   Furniture was upholstered in beige with “Gucci strips.” The lounge was decorated with the large ferns that were hallmarks of the age, as was the emerging racquetball craze that saw one add proclaim “Try Racquetball. It's Fun.  It's Easy.  It's Great Exercise.” When an indoor running track was added the next year, ads proclaimed the facility “the most complete Racquet Sports-Physical Fitness Center in Chicago.”  The club hoped to draw upon the nearby population in nearby residential highrises, and both secretaries and the executives of the district's office towers.
A elevated walkway over Hubbard Street ran by the side of the building to suck in patrons from  Michigan Avenue.  Memberships started at $55.00 a month.
The Downtown Court Club building and the square-block, 1.5 acre site it partially occupied at its southwest corner were owned by the William Wrigley Company, whose clock-towered, cream-colored terra cotta Michigan Avenue headquarters was less than a block away.
In 1992, operation of the sports facility was taken over by the parent firm of the Lake Shore Athletic Club.  A major renovation followed, but the company allowed its lease to expire in 2007.  The building has been vacant ever since.   In 2009, Wrigley hired a real estate heavyweight  to try to find a new tenant, without success.  By 2011, Wrigley, itself,  had been swallowed up by candy-maker Mars, Incorporated, which promptly began moving all of the Wrigley employees out of the namesake Michigan Avenue landmark that had been both the company's home and a gleaming trademark ever since its construction in 1921.  Finally, as reported byAlby Gallun in Crain's Chicago Business, both the Lake Shore Athletic Club structure and the its larger, full-block site were thrown in as sweetener to a $33 million deal that saw BDT Capital Partners LLC acquiring the historic but emptying Wrigley Building.  With the right development, that sweetener could prove more valuable than the Wrigley Building itself.

While there's still some of it left to see, let's take a moment to appreciate the qualities the Downtown Court Club building brought to the urban fabric.  Brawny and overbearing at the same time, its scored facades, framed within borders that clearly expressed the structure within, were like a Claes Oldenberg-scaled homage to aluminum siding. 
The largest strip of windows was placed at the base of the building, next to a skeletal steel stair painted bright blue, set in a open bay which was the only significant inset from the bunker-like shear walls.
 All at once, it's a visual joke on the order of the metal-clad base beneath two floors of heavy rusticated stone at William Le Baron Jenney's Manhattan Building; it's a bit of early Post Modernist mannerism devoid of the usual neo-classical confusion; and it's an effective anchoring of the building's corner in a way that both clearly demarcates the entrance and provides a mitigating counterpoint to the crushing monotony all around it.
No preservationist's picket lines were thrown up at 441 North Wabash when the bulldozers arrived. The Downtown Court Club may not be a building for the ages, but it's a child of its time.  And that's what architecture should be - a snapshot of an era's attitudes and concerns, priorities and fashions.  I probably won't often think of it when it's gone, but when I do, it will be with a fond smile.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Up on the Rooftop - Night and Art at Marina City with Luftwerk, soon to light Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House

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Saturday night marked another showing of the work of Luftwerk light sculptors Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero.
Marina City rooftop core at daytime
A large crowd made the trek up to the 60th floor rooftop of the west tower of Bertrand Goldberg's iconic Marina City to see a projection of  Luftwerk's geometric transformations wrapping around almost the entire circumference of the tall round service core that punctuates the top of each tower.
The presentation had major competition from the nighttime cityscape of Chicago stretching in all directions far into the horizon.

But then again, there was more than enough time to enjoy both.

Luftwerk has two other major projects coming up.  On September 17th to 20th, Couch Place, the theater district alley that runs between State and Dearborn behind the Ford Oriental Theater will be the site for the Chicago Loop Alliance sponsored FLOW/Im Fluss . . .
Inspired by the element of water and its all-encompassing connectivity, Luftwerk’s FLOW/Im Fluss visualizes the characteristics of the Chicago River and Hamburg’s River Elbe through video compositions projected on water screens.
Based on scientifically collected measurements like oxygen levels, currents, contamination, and chemical compounds FLOW/Im Fluss interprets data from the two rivers to create a visual experience. 
The projected video will illuminate screens made of water - inviting viewers to immerse themselves into the flow of data collected from both rivers.
The installation celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Sister Cities relationship between Chicago and Hamburg. (And since it's the Elbe and not the Rhine, you don't have to look for any shiny gold rings to grab at, or fear being pulled under by some river maidens with a funny sense of fun.)

There will also be performances of Birgit Uhler's Traces, for trumpet, radio, speaker, objects and tape feeds each night the FLOW/Im Fluss is on display.
Then on October 17th, through the 20th, Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House in suburban Plano will be the focus for INsite, in which Luftwerk will transform the iconic structure “into a canvas of light and sound, featuring original music by percussionist Owen Clayton Condon and curated by Steve Dietz.”  Tickets are $100.00 ($200.00 for opening night), which may seem a bit steep until you realize that it includes transportation from Chicago to the Farnsworth House and back, a trip of 58 miles each way.

Read More about Luftwerk in Chicago and Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House:

Luminous Field, at Millennium Park's Cloud Gate sculpture

Luftwerk takes over Cultural Center Facade and McCormick Rink ice to celebrate Chinese New Year

Glass House Struck by Gavel - the history and rescue of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House

The Little Farmhouse that Roared: Cycles of Time at Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Updates, Day One: No Casino for Wabash?? (And no walkway for you!)

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On Tuesday, the Chicago Architecture Blog reported that an invasion of wrecking equipment had shown up at the long-shuttered Lake Shore Athletic club at 441 North Wabash, best known for its windowless walls and inset blue metal stairway . . .
Back in 2013, we had proposed the bunkered building and its adjoining parking lot as the perfect site for a new Chicago casino.  Last year, we reported on how a developer had assembled the site plus the National Realtors Building on Michigan Avenue in the block just to the east, and was floating a proposal to replace it all with some kind of new mega-tower.  Before any details emerged, however, 42nd ward alderman Brendan Reilly quickly spiked the idea, citing the city ownership of the viaduct that is topped off by the Plaza of the Americas, which was also rumored to be part of the new tower plan.

Well, I guess it's time to fire up the rumors again.  Or is all we'll see in the indefinite future is still another surface parking lot?  Is the Goat again in jeopardy?  The most annoying part of all of this for us normal people is that the Hubbard Street walkway linking Michigan Avenue to Wabash, which re-opened after repairs not that very long ago, is again closed off.

Read More:
The Realtors Dream of a New Skyscraper, as Billy Goat's, Benito Jaurez and his plaza Contemplate their Future.

Alderman Reilly puts the brakes to the Realtors . . .

Please Tread on Me.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Butchered Burnham Monday - Will New Owners at the Bankers and Edison Buildings Rescue Massively Botched Facade Repairs?

The short answer would be appear to be “No”, but there's always room for hope.

Two vintage office buildings sit kitty-corner to each other at Clark and Adams.  Both began as elegant, upper-end structures, but neither has been treated kindly by time.

The Edison Building
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On the northeast corner, right across from the Post Office of Mies van der Rohe's Federal Center, is Daniel Burnham's Edison Building.  Completed in 1907 in Burnham's best late classical pompous style, it's anchored along both Clark and Adams by arcades of three-story high Corinthian columns. 
Above the base, the facade becomes very, very busy.  (Think Peoples Gas.) No surface remains unornamented.  It's all a bit over the top, but the Edison still has a kind of grandeur that you don't see much anymore, offering a nice counterpoint both to Mies' austerity and to its more restrained Chicago School neighbor, Holabird and Roche's 1895 Marquette Building, right next door.
The Edison tops out with another three story arcade, this one with arches sitting atop rectangular columns.  Just beneath, there's a base of inset windows set between ornament that alternates between the company logo and the lion heads that D.H. Burnham became so found of.   Lions were an extremely popular motif on Chicago buildings, a clear symbol of power.
In our own time, of course, lions are less a symbol of power than a lesson on how we're killing the animals we prize to the point of extinction.  The Edison Building is not about to become extinct, but it's certainly been battered.  In 1977, former Chicago Public Schools head Paul Vallas announced with great fanfare how much money the CPS was going to save by abandoning their offices in one of the great  Central Manufacturing District warehouses on Pershing Road and purchasing the 20-story building from Commonwealth Edison to serve as their new headquarters.  The purchase price was $8.2 million, with another $20 million was budgeted for renovations.

Little of that renovation budget seems to have been spent on the building's facade,  If the contract didn't actually go to someone's connected brother-in-law, it certainly looks like it did.  The exterior renovations read as shockingly cheap, with damaged textured terra cotta replaced with bare slabs that make the facade look like a fool's motley.
Late last month, Crain's Chicago Business's Ryan Ori reported that the CPS has sold the Edison to Blue Star Properties, for far less than the CPS had wanted.  (CPS will now be renting space in the former Boston Store building at State and Madison recently vacated by Sears.)  Ori says that Blue Star claim to be investing more than $30 million making the interiors more contemporary loft office space, removing drop ceilings to restore the original 11-foot floor heights.  No word if the facade is in line for much-needed TLC.

The Bankers Building - 105 West Adams

As with new residential structures, many developers seem to have taken the tack that people don't really care what their building looks like on the outside, as along as they have good light, a view, and the kind of interior amenities they've come to expect. 
That same principle may be at play at the building across the street from the Edison, which we wrote about last year.  By the time the 476-foot-high Bankers Building - now known by its address, 105 West Adams - was constructed in 1927, Daniel Burnham was long gone, and the design was done by the firm of his sons, Burnham Brothers.  At 41 stories, it was one of Chicago's proudest skyscrapers. Emporis cites it as the tallest Chicago building clad entirely in brick.  In retrospect, that may not have been a great idea, as over time that brick suffered the same fate as the Edison's terra cotta, but at an even greater scale.  On the inside, 105 West Adams remain a highly viable building, said to be 85% leased.  On the outside, it's become a massive billboard of visual blight, a mosaic of filthy original brick and lighter slapdash repairs stippling the facade like cheap makeup applied with a trowel.
Last week, Ryan Ori in Crain's reported that 105 West Adams is being purchased by developer John Murphy, who is also transforming nearby 100 West Monroe into a Hyatt Hotel.  On Sunday, the Trib's Blair Kamin had an article (behind the Digital Plus wall, unfortunately) on how Murphy is also planning to make the long-vacant Art Deco Chicago Motor Club Building into a hotel.  Ori says that at 105 West, Murphy's upgrades will include a new fitness center, and other renovations targeted to mid-size tenants who have seen their rental options shrinking.

It's probably too much to ask to expect something to be done about the facade, but in its present state, the exterior of 105 West Adams is a depressing presence.  Set within the landmark architecture of the South Loop, it's a civic embarrassment of major proportions.

Read More:

Image courtesy the Chuckman Collection
The Bankers Building: Improv of Decrepitude
Inside the Art Deco Chicago Motor Club: Has it Finally Found a Future?

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Friday, August 15, 2014

Two Tales of the City: Chicago - History to Rubble, Ice to Glass

One day, we will probably get around to writing a major post.  This is not that day.  Instead, a couple of updates . . .

158 years of Chicago History, Quick Reduction.
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Above is a photograph of the 1855 John Russell house at the time we wrote it about it this past May.  Below is what it looked like last Saturday.
Eric Nordstrom of Urban Remains obtained the salvage rights to the property, and spent many hours exhaustively exploring and documenting the historic structure, even discovering the original western gable all but perfectly preserved in the attic after an addition extended the house. 
photograph courtesy Eric Nordstrom
Eric wrote more on his discoveries here, here and here, and he has a photo gallery on the house's erasure from Chicago's built fabric here.

Skin Transplant at Fulton Market Nears Completion

For a very different trajectory than that of the Russell House, we give you 1K Fulton.  It began as this . . . .
The massive Fulton Cold Storage building, which dominated the Fulton Market food processing district since its construction in 1920.  Things began to change, subtly at first, as Randolph Street west of the Loop began evolving as a strip of trendy restaurants, and residential, art galleries and boutiques began to infiltrate the rough, working-day environment of the Fulton Market District.  Then the dam broke when the owners of Fulton Cold Storage saw the writing on the wall, moved their operations to the suburbs and sold their massive building to Sterling Bay, the developer that is acquiring more and more property in the district.  In a bold stroke, Sterling Bay announced the rebirth of the building as 1K Fulton to design by architects Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture.
rendering: Hartshorne Plunkard
After defrosting decades of accumulated ice within the cold storage warehouse's interior, the original facades were demolished as the building was stripped to its concrete skeleton . . . 
 . . . and a completely new annex builing was constructed to the south.  Last Saturday, the new facade was almost completely on the original Fulton Cold Storage, looking not dissimilar to the old, except that the original brick was now half-brick fused into a precast-panels.
The old terra-cotta ornament was replicated in a special concrete mix molded into the new panels.
The south wall of the old building has no middle piers, but is instead a continuous glass curtain wall, giving a clear view into the interior and the columns of the original structure, and mirroring the glass walls of the new annex building just to the south.  (Inexplicably terminated on the ground floor with incongruous, Prairie-style brick piers.)
When over 500 Google employees will move to 1K Fulton next year, it will mark a tipping point of what is now a booming and rapidly changing Fulton Market District.  In June, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks passed a proposal to make many of the approximately 125 buildings in the area a protected historic district, a move that is being fought by the district's long-term landowners, who appear torn between seeking to continue their businesses amidst a district in which they are increasingly outliers, and wanting to make sure no landmark restrictions lower the price they will get if a developer wants to knock down their building for another high-rise.
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In July, the Chicago Plan Commission approved the Fulton Market Innovation District plan, designed to provide guidelines for ongoing development that preserves the area's historic elements within the high-tech Boom Town that is also “the city's last remaining market district.”

Read More:
Preservation Scorecard: Wreckers 2, Violinists 0
Strippers Attack, Heat Up Fulton Market