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

Friday, November 28, 2014

One of-a-kind: ArchiTech Gallery of Architectural Art closes in December; but last exhibition - Burnham, Sullivan and Wright - closes Saturday

 A city's character is built out of the unique things that raise it above the generic underpinnings common to all.  As of the end of December, Chicago will lose one of its unique things with the closing, after sixteen years, of the ArchiTech Gallery of Architectural Art.  You only have through this Saturday, November 28th, to see the gallery's final show, Burnham, Sullivan and Wright, featuring "drawings, blueprints, photographs and objects" drawn from three of the architects associated with Chicago throughout the world.
The show is typical of those put on by the gallery since its opening in December of 1998, initially drawing on the collection of the short-lived Kelmscott Gallery, which specialized in works of Frank Lloyd Wright and was located in the former Krause Music Store,  whose ornamented facade was the last major design of Wright's Leiber-Meister ("beloved master"), Louis Sullivan.  ArchiTech owner David Jameson was manager at the Kelmscott, and for nine years ran the vintage shop Gallery Kitsch, "known for its outrageous fashion and decor".
Krause Music Store, former home to Kelmscott Gallery
Not long after opening ArchiTech, Jameson acquired the archives of sculptor, architect and designer Alfonso Iannelli, ultimately resulting in the 2013 book, Alfonso Iannelli: Modern by Design, one of
the essential volumes on Chicago's cultural history.  Lavishly illustrated, it covers, often in never-before-revealed detail, the life and work of both Iannelli and his equally talented wife Margaret.  Central figures in their time but then largely forgotten, Jameson's book does major service in restoring them to their rightful position in the timeline of Chicago artists and advocates.
The exhibition archive section of the ArchiTech website is a treasure trove both of amazing images and highly personal and informative essays on a wide range of topics, from Frank Lloyd Wright, to Bertrand Goldberg, iconic photographers Hedrich Blessing, Napoleon's engravings of the monuments of ancient Egypt, lesser-known architects and designers such as Alfred Browning Parker and Henry Glass, and even architectural toys.
I actually had a smaller version of the white plastic Skyline set when I was a kid.
I'm hoping the website will survive even after the gallery closes, but I'm making myself a pdf just to be safe.

As I'll be writing more on next week when I take on the controversy over the Lucas Museum, Chicago's pretensions to being a world-class supporter of architecture are often punctured by its real-life actions, and the way the ArchiTech Gallery has often had to struggle speaks to this fact.

I've never been astute enough financially to acquire enough capital to become a collector, but if you love architecture in general and Chicago architecture in particular, and would some of its history for yourself, there are wonderful things to be found at ArchiTech, and you'll find it well worth your while to stop by and have David walk you through his collection.  December 31st is the gallery's published "final closing", but the last show, Burnham, Sullivan and Wright, is up only through today, Friday, November 27th and Saturday, November 28th, noon to 5:00 p.m.

The ArchiTech Gallery is something quite special.  We shall not see its like again.

ArchiTech Gallery of Architectural Art
730 North Franklin, Suite 200

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Triple Fantasy: Chicago Architectural Club makes Obama Library focus of 2014 Chicago Prize competition

click images for larger view
The Chicago Architectural Club, originally founded as a sketch club all the way back in 1885, continues to be active in the city's architectural discourse over a century later.  In announcing on Saturday the topic of its 14th Chicago Prize architectural competition, it's also proven that it's not short on ambition.   The new competition seeks proposals for the Barack Obama Presidential Library . . .
. . .  to initiate a debate in order to rethink and redefine this particular building typology. Within the context of the city, is this institution a stand-alone monument or rather a forum of social-urban interaction and an active extension of a President’s legacy? Would it be considered as one of the civic components of Chicago’s public library system or does it remain autonomous? At its best this is a cultural institution providing a place for the exchange of knowledge, the creation of dialogue and debate, and last but not least an urban niche to read and write.
Many Chicago locations have been proposed for the library, including even Pullman and the old Michael Reese Site, both nothing so bold as the one chosen by the CAC - a prime riverfront site right across from Wolf Point.  And while architectural competitions are often unmoored speculations to let the creative mind roam free, the Obama Library competition is a triple fantasy.

In September, the Barack Obama Foundation narrowed down potential sites to four - one at New York City's Columbia University, one at the University of Hawaii, and two in Chicago, at the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.  CAC's riverfront site was not among them.
The competition's bare-bones brief includes three maps of the site, and five photographs, all of which show it as a parking lot.   Nowhere does the brief mention that the site is crossed by Metra mail tracks, or, more importantly, that a large structure has just been constructed on the site, covering those tracks, and forming the surface of a new 1.5 acre riverfront park that the city has already spent a large part of the $29.5 million it has committed to the project. 
Looming larger still is that behind that park, River Point, a 52-story-high skyscraper, is now rising.
So while the idea of a riverfront Obama Library is certainly a stimulating one, it's not just divorced from reality, but in a parallel universe, unless you could build it at the tip of Wolf Point where an even taller skyscraper is planned.  Or maybe the Library could be tucked next to lower Wacker to serve as one of the monetizing engines that the City of Chicago has put out to bid to pay back the loans that have funded construction of the new Riverwalk.  Other than that, the Chicago Prize competition is less of a "What-If . . ." than a "Hey, wouldn't it be really cool . . ." proposition.

Registration - $90.00, $50.00 for students - is now open, along with the opportunity to submit questions.  Submissions are due by noon CST on January 10th, with winners announced February 3rd.  First prize is $1,500, 2nd $1,000, with $750 for third with the possibility of non-cash honorable mentions.

Get all the details and download the brief here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

New Jesse White Community Center discussed by Ghafari's Joseph Gonzalez lunchtime today at CAF

click images for larger view
I had hoped to finish the story I'm doing on Ghafari's recently-opened Jesse White Community Center last week,  but personal obligations intervened.  Today, however, Wednesday November 12th, you have the opportunity to hear architect Joseph Gonzalez of Ghafari Associates talk about the design at a lunchtime lecture at the Chicago Architecture Foundation, 12:15 p.m., at 224 South Michigan.
The JWCC is a striking building that's at a gateway location to the redeveloping former site of the demolished Cabrini-Green public housing towers, providing the first permanent home to the Jesse White tumblers since the group's founding in 1959.
The 30,800 square-foot-, $12.8 million project includes  "fitness and assembly rooms, community meeting rooms, locker rooms,  upper floor will contain private offices and conference rooms, as well as a balcony overlooking the gymnastics room."
Look for the complete story here soon.
More information on today's lecture here.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Urban Spectacle in Clout City: The Harriet Rees House's $8 million Move

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 In 1888, wealthy widow Harriet F. Rees had architects Cobb and Frost build her a mansion on Prairie Avenue, Chicago's "Millionaire's Row".  She lived in it for only four years before her death, so she didn't get to see her posh neighborhood abandoned by Chicago's 1% for Potter Palmer's new Gold Coast along the lakefront four miles to the north.  She didn't see what was once the city's most desirable neighborhood transformed into a raw manufacturing and industrial district.   By the time the house was designated an official City of Chicago landmark in 2012, it was a lonely presence amidst the lofts and scrap yards around it.
It was also in the way of one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's most favored, if questionable, projects: a new sports stadium for DePaul University.  And so it had to go.  If this was the project of one of the city's clouted real estate developers, the Rees house would already be rubble.  Fortunately, it fell under the purview of two of Chicago's greatest money laundering systems - the TIF program and McPier - which are staggeringly adept at transforming general tax revenues and fees due the city into free-spending private mega-projects with massive fat contracts for all the usual suspects.

On Saturday, the Harriet F. Rees house sat in anticipation at a rotated angle to its original siting.  And if you're around 21st and Prairie on Tuesday (or Wednesday - reports vary) you can watch the spectacle of the 762-ton house being moved to a vacant lot a block and a half to the north.  According to an excellent report by Dahleen Glanton in today's Chicago Tribune, the house now sits on 29 remote-controlled hydraulic dollies with 232 wheels. Steel beams enwrap the building to keep it from falling off.  A pathway of nine-inch stone has been placed atop the asphalt roadway to facilitate the move. The home's 200-ton coach house was already moved last month.
Bulley and Andrews was hired by McPier for the project, with engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti also playing a major role.
 A Chicago landmark saved rather than demolished - it's a great success story.  So why do I have this nagging pain  in the pit of my stomach?  As with pretty much everything McPier is involved with, the Rees house move is a massive money pit.  According to Glanton, the move is costing $6 million.  The plot it's being move to cost $1.9 million.  And the house's current owners are being paid $450,000 in compensation for their substantial inconvenience.     That's right, dear taxpayers - we are paying over $8 million to move a house that we don't even wind up owning.

The Harriet F. Rees house is worthy of its landmark designation, but it is not in the same league as the Louis Sullivan/Frank Lloyd Wright designed 1891 Charnley-Persky house, now home to the Society of Architectural Historians.  Charnley-Persky suffered major damage earlier this year from a burst sewer pipe, and it's been putting together a successful campaign to fund the needed repairs. $5,000 from the Driehaus Foundation,  Another 5,000 from Alphawood.  A $10,000 challenge grant from Cynthia and Been Weese.  So far, $36,000 has been raised.   You can donate online here.
The Harriet Rees house is a middle-grade landmark by a prominent Chicago architectural firm.  Charnley-Persky is a masterpiece by two of the most important architects in the history of design.  It just doesn't have a sugar daddy like McPier.  In Chicago, even when it comes to preserving our priceless architectural legacy, it's still not what you are, but who you know.

Despite its continuing pretensions of being a global player in the art of architecture, Chicago remains, in many ways, a provincial cow town.  In this post, I've discussed how that plays out in the architecture of our past.  Later this week, I hope to be writing about the Lucas Museum, and how it plays out into our future.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Night Magic: Wallenda Walk Lights up Chicago's River Skyline

click for larger view (highly recommended)
Today the streets will be jammed with people as daredevil aerialist Nick Wallenda's will walk across the Chicago river on a 454-foot steel cable strung between two buildings: the West tower of architect Bertrand Goldberg's iconic Marina City (1964, 61 stories, 588 feet), and Roche Dinkeloo's -post modern Leo Burnett Building (1987, 46 stories, 635 feet). - but many of the distinctive skyscrapers along the Chicago River.   The differences in height between the two buildings will require Wallenda to walk up a 15 degree incline
photograph courtesy the Discovery Channel
Last night however, there was more anticipation that people, and the evening had a quiet magic all its own as the huge floodlights as bright as a second sun . . .
. . .  illuminated not just the two buildings involved in Wallenda's walk, but many of the iconic structures along the Chicago River, showing them up with a dramatic clarity against the night sky . .  .
 Left, Thielbar and Fugard's 1927 35 East Wacker (Jewelers Building).  Right, Shaw, Metz and Associates, at the time of its 1962 the tallest marble-clad building in the world.
 77 West Wacker, 49 stories, 668 feet, 1990, DeStefano & Goettsch, Ricardo Bofil ( to the left, 55 West Wacker (Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building), 16 stories, 256 feet, C. F. Murphy Associates
 Television production trucks have been lined up on Dearborn since early this week.
Electricity is being pulled from Marina City, with lobby offices being used as a staging area.
 Mist rising over the river is caught in the light.

 Lights from atop Mies van der Rohe's IBM Building (330 North Wabash), with SOM/Adrian Smith's Trump Tower to the right.
 A crane rises for the construction of the new riverwalk along several blocks of the south bank.
Many Marina City residents are getting lighting that is both free and artistically patterned from the massive floodlights set up along Wacker Drive.
Wallenda is scheduled to make two separate walks, the ropes for each visible in this photograph.  The first is from the West Tower of Marina City (left) across the river.   In the second, Wallenda, blindfolded, will walk on a rope 94 feet from the West Tower of Marina City to its twin to the East.  Live coverage will begin on the Discovery channel at 6:00 p.m., with the actual walks scheduled for 7:00.

Bread and circuses.  On Tuesday, an epic of power will play out at the ballot box.  Every day of week, life and death dramas play out, usually all but totally unseen, in cities like Chicago all across the world, often in innocent-looking buildings just like those on dazzling display last night.  Wallenda's stunt is a dual symbol.  First, of how easily our limited attention and action are diverted from the really important battles that affect our lives.  Second, of how tenuously - as secure as we may seem - our lives cling to their moorings amidst the underlying raw vulnerabilities of human existence.