From Bungalow To Bauhaus
A survey of Chicago-area architecture
See Illinois (unpublished)
This near-book was but one chapter in four that made up one section of seven about Chicagolandia that made up one of the ten sections of the original manuscript version of See Illinois, my unpublished guide to Illinois history and culture. Chicago architecture has been written to death, and my account had no commercial future, but there is good stuff in this one for readers new to the topic.
Chicago means architecture to a fair portion of the world’s educated tourists. For a generation, tourists visiting Chicago have wandered the streets guidebooks in hand, or towed by guides, or rubbernecked from sightseeing boats on the river, at the downtown’s great buildings. the skyscraper is Chicago’s Alps, its Great Pyramids, its (here concessions to the times must be made) DisneyWorld. Tourists used to come mainly because the city’s buildings were tall—many still do—but the more discerning noticed that many were beautiful too; the last is not a term that Chicago likes to use about itself, but it is no less true.
A city known for its architecture must also be known for its architects. Critic Robert Bray is among those who noted that the best novels by Robert Herrick and Henry Blake Fuller cast architects as heroes who remade the city with their pencils the way the frontiersman had remade the Illinois wilderness with his ax. The region’s suburbs also have produced their Daniel Boone in the person of Frank Lloyd Wright, on whom (it was widely assumed) Ayn Rand modeled the architect-hero of her 1943 novel The Fountainhead.
The quality of its older large commercial buildings easily is the one field in which Chicago is No. 2 to no American city. It is no longer a center of architectural innovation but its stock of important commercial buildings from the 1880s through the 1960s—tall commercial buildings and suburban houses in particular—is among the best. In few other states would a WPA guide devote a chapter to architecture, but Illinois by 1939 had earned one. There have been appalling losses—the same urge to profit that creates buildings also destroys them if unchecked—but even so, parts of downtown one can scarcely there is scarcely a block that does not contain at least one structure worth risking a jaywalking ticket to get a better look at.
The Chicago Commercial Building
Given its commercial orientation, it was inevitable that Chicago’s most imposing buildings were not cathedrals, as in Europe. Chicago lacks even one religious building of real distinction unless one counts the Baha’i temple in Wilmette or Unity Temple in Oak Park—both, interestingly, conceived for fringe religions in the suburbs, and interesting mainly to the extent that they depart from the usual churchly norms.
Nor can the guide books point the architecture tourist to palaces; Chicago’s merchant princes were still, alas, only merchants. With very rare exceptions—the houses of James Charnley (out of the Adler & Sullivan shop, mostly designed by the young Frank Lloyd Wright) and John Glessner (by Henry Hobson Richardson) come to mind—the houses of Chicago’s rich were imitative at best and vulgar at worst.
Business was what Chicago did, and its business buildings were what received the attention of its best architects and its most daring developers. The centralization of production, sales, and management—the protoplasmic forms of the global enterprises of today—demanded new kind of buildings to house new kinds of work. Chicago, as the laboratory in which many of those new forms of enterprise were concocted, saw concomitant experiments in business building.
The boosters to the contrary, it is not quite true to say that “Chicago” created such monuments to the building art. The men who built and designed them were all born and trained elsewhere, and most packed their native aesthetic sense and method in their trunks when they prepared for the trains west. But Chicago’s innovations may owe less to Chicago architects than to the out-of-town developers who hired them. Most of what are now lauded as landmarks were not built for Posterity but for profit. The result was architectural “programs” that were pragmatic. Taller building squeeze more tenants on every acre, and steel frames were more fireproof—and thus cheaper to insure—than wood timbers. They exploited new materials to replace costly and hard- to-maintain stone ornament; terra cotta cladding, for example, was thought to be self-cleaning.
The skyscraper—the tall office building—is the icon of the Chicago style. The skyscraper’s physical form accommodated the demands of new forms of capitalism that were, as Donald Miller notes, centralized, specialized, and thickly bureaucratic. But the building did not invent the modern office; rather, it was invented by it. In the old days, firms had to house administrative staff next to production facilities, there being no convenient way for the two functions to communicate with each other than face to face meetings. The telephone and graph made it possible for firms to separate location from task. As Miller notes, the telephone was invented in 1876, and as soon as the 1880s firms such as Pullman, Armour, and McCormick had moved their central headquarters to the Loop.
Innovations in public transit shaped building design too. The city’s factory hands lived near the factory because they had to; the white-collar staff, who enjoyed the luxury of choice in housing, lived all over the city. Putting offices in the downtown, where transit lines converged, made it possible to convene that workforce conveniently. This was merely a new form of a locational specialization already familiar in Chicago; workers funneled to the Loop by transit rails, much as the cunning chutes of the stockyards funnel animals into the stockyards from all over the Midwest. ”Bureaucratic capitalism, along with centralized retailing and mass transportation and communications, created Chicago’s downtown concentration,” explains Miller, “and this concentration made the skyscraper almost a creature of necessity.”
There was still the problem of giving form to the new business machines—that’s what the tall commercial building was. According to the standard version, the "Chicago School of Architecture" was a proto-modernist style in which the rectangular outlines of a building’s steel underpinnings was reflected in the facade. By thus ‘fessing up to the basic nature of the building—it was a series of stacked boxes—the designers of the city’s classic skyscrapers were seen to be not only pragmatic but more honest. This resolve to make a building look like what it was rather than what it was not—a Greek column, a Gothic cathedral—was a big step toward the simplification (some call it frankness) of modern architecture.
The problem for engineers was how to make the new Chicago buildings tall; the problem for their architects was how to make them look tall. Early skyscrapers weren’t. (The Montauk Building, usually reckoned to have been the first, was ten stories tall.) Even when Chicago buildings became tall—within ten years the tallest had doubled in size—they didn’t look especially tall, only big. The Chicago practice of increasing apparent height by means of continuous projecting columns that cut through the interruptions of horizontal bands of windows was pioneered by Sullivan. Holabird & Roche used the trick in the Marquette, among many other examples, and it was emphatically revived in the Inland Steel Building, among others of lesser note, such the United States Gypsum Company building at Wacker and Monroe.
For example, the space between the upright columns (“expressed” as narrow piers) was spanned by broad windows—the three-part window with fixed center pane flanked by operable sash such as graces the Marquette Building is a Chicago classic—separated by spandrels that fronted each story’s beams. Such buildings were in fact built, and a few survive. Among the classic of the early Chicago style are the Manhattan Building (1891) in the South Loop, the Chicago Building (1904) on State (happily converted to loft housing for students of the nearby Art Institute), and the Marquette Building (1895).
But Chicago was never quite as bold as it likes to think. The downtown slate was wiped clean by the Great Fire in 1871, but the replacements hurriedly thrown up were mediocre imitations of the then-standard styles. Most of these “new” Chicago skyscrapers were old architecture—mainly classicism—adapted to a new kind of building. As the Guide notes, “More than half of the tall buildings on Michigan Avenue facing Grant Park, built during the eclectic period, attempt to hide the fact that they are skyscrapers. Their skeletons are disguised, the vertical lines are broken at intervals, traditional cornices are used.” Journalist Julian Ralph dropped by in the 1890s, and reported that the city’s new buildings were “so treated that the buildings look like heaps of masonry, but that is homage paid to custom more than it is a material element of strength.”
Miller notes that the amazing thing about Chicago’s post-fire recovery was that in less than two decades, two new cities were built, not one. The first was the old Chicago, reconstructed; the second, which did not begin going up until the 1880s, was a new Chicago that featured the innovative buildings for which the city became known.
Design For the Dead
Cemeteries themselves are historic places—pioneering examples of landscape design. The Graceland grounds themselves are historic in their way. Historian Norton Newton called Graceland “one of the most remarkable park-like cemeteries in the Western world” thanks to the important Midwestern landscape architect Ossian C. Simonds. Simonds was one of the designers who used it as model to develop cemetery-like pleasure parks at the turn of the 20th century across the Midwest. (Springfield has a lovely Simonds-designed park.)
Many of Graceland’s monuments and mausoleums were created by the city’s most adept artists and architects—so many that the AIA Guide to Chicago devotes four full pages to its treasures. Works by sculptors such as Daniel Chester French (he did the monument for Marshall Field’s tomb) and Lorado Taft may be seen. Architect Louis Sullivan (himself buried in Graceland) did the tomb for lumberman Henry Harrison Getty; it is one of the city’s most Sullivanesque buildings, happily erected on a spot not yet been cleared for redevelopment as so many other Sullivan building sites have been.
“A Walk Through Graceland” is available at the Chicago Architecture Foundation bookstore at 224 South Michigan Avenue; the CAF also offers The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers walking tours of Graceland on selected Sundays during August, September, and October.
Rosehill Cemetery at 5800 N. Ravenswood Avenue is the largest in the city, and the largest of its nonsectarian graveyard. The stone Gothic entrance gate to the grounds dates from 1864; it was designed by W. W. Boyington the architect of the Old Chicago Water Tower, which it resembles and today is an official City of Chicago landmark.
Consider Chicago’s pioneering use of glass. Charles Atwood’s Reliance Building at State and Washington is today generally praised as a forerunner of the International Style glass box of the 1950s and ‘60s, but its extensive use of glass was meant to open the buildings to natural light so as to be able to charge doctors and dentists higher rents for interior offices. All the new building innovations of the age—creating more window space (and thus free light) and more interior room or improving fireproofing—had the crass motives of enhancing the property leasability. Chicago was a crass as place as they come in the latter half of the 19th century, so it was no wonder that so many were perfected here. Anders Nereim, in the authoritative AIA Guide to Chicago, writes that the Reliance Building “exudes the logic of engineering under clear commercial pressure.” Critic Ada Louise Huxtable made the same point with plain brick. In such buildings, she wrote, engineering allied with greed somehow produced art.
Daniel Bluestone is the professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia whose 1991 book, Constructing Chicago, won the American Institute of Architects International Book Award and the National Historic Preservation book prize. In it, Bluestone makes clear that the Chicago skyscraper was a much more complex phenomenon in cultural terms than has usually been perceived. Through the 1920s at least, developers of large Chicago office buildings and the major tenants they catered to had a complex social agenda in addition to their economic one. Or rather their social and the economic agendas were linked in ways that brought forces other than profit to bear on design decisions.
For example, Bluestone explains what so many of the surviving buildings of that generation exclaim, which is that for practical men their owners spent an awful lot of money on display, ornamentation, and other varieties of symbolic expression. What Bluestone reads in the entrances and lobbies even the elevators of buildings like the Rookery is an attempt to transcend commercialism via architecture, not to embody it. The tourist may not see the resemblance between the Rookery and workman’s compensation statutes, but they were both products of the same impulse. Their builders borrowed liberally from the symbolic kit bag to dignify (if not ennoble) what went on inside them, to figuratively civilize commerce.
Second Chicago School and After
Apart from the Monadnock, the stripped-down tall building had to wait until the 1920s to become the norm in Chicago with what the Guide rightly praised as “soaring, clean-limbed towers.” As was the case in the 1880s, non-aesthetic factors drove design—in this era, the set-back provisions of the zoning laws—but the result was 333 Michigan Avenue the Board of Trade, and Palmolive buildings (Holabird and Root) and the Field building, Merchandise Mart, and Civic Opera (all by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, the firm that probably did most to shape Chicago in its era, as Burnham and Root and, in the more recent decades, Skidmore Owings and Merrill).
But again, the modern favored by the critics was not always endorsed by local firms. The famous example here is Tribune Tower. Good times enabled the flush newspaper in 1923 to commit to the building of a new headquarters across Michigan Avenue from the Wrigley Building. Raising the corporate profile mattered more than lowering building costs. The firm staged a contest for the design with a handsome prize that drew hundreds of submissions from around the world. A panel of architectural wise men assembled to review them awarded the laurels to the design of Finnish modernist Eliel Saarinen, but the Tribune’s management ignored that recommendation and awarded the prize to the fanciful Gothic tower concocted by New York’s Raymond Hood and John Meade Howells.
Saarinen’s rejected design for the Tribune tower is one of those influential buildings that was never built, at leats no for the Tribune, Saarinen’s scheme inspired the Powhatan Apartments that went up in 1928 on E 50th in Hyde Park and was flat-out imitated by Cesar Peli in 1990 for the PaineWeber Tower at 181 W. Madison; alas, neither building matches its model in gracefulness. The Tribune competition itself has acquired historical significance, being the subject of many books and exhibitions that made the submissions more famous than unbuilt buildings usually get a chance to be.
It should be noted that even in Chicago, every great building boom—following the Civil War, again after the Great Fire in 1871, after World War II—saw a thousand mediocrities go up for every building of distinction. The 1939 Federal Writers Project Guide, for example, complained that most of the buildings even in the golden age reflected not a brash American style but “a restless striving for grandiose formality, expressing itself in distorted imitations of the styles then popular in Europe.”
The antidote to Victorian frippery was for most clients was not Chicago-style modernism but classical revivalism, expressed most famously by the Beaux Arts desserts served up during the World Columbia Exposition in 1893. Good or bad, the style is not what people think of it as “Chicagoan.” The decision to look backward rather than forward for a design motif for the fair was made by the mainly New York architects in charge, but Daniel Burnham, who was in charge, made no objection to it.
Public buildings and mansions seemed especially prey to this virus, perhaps because both were so often commissioned by the same men. Today all of this work is labeled “Victorian,” a catchall term denoting bad taste, but two main classes: the Gothic style— “castellated” Gothic, exemplified by the Chicago Water Tower, and the Potter Palmer mansion by Cobb and Frost—and what the Guide called a florid version of the late French Renaissance, complete with the mansard roofs that are a trademark of the style. Such buildings moved Rudyard Kipling in 1882 to tell a Chicago audience, “It is a shame to spend so much money on buildings with such an unsatisfactory result. Your city looks positively dreary.” That many buildings in these styles are among the city's most beloved architectural icons—the Wrigley Building comes to mind, but it is hardly the only one—confirms the gap in taste between critics and public.
By the 1930s, the revolution wrought by the “Chicago school” in commercial design was over. It starved to death; the Great Depression put a stop to skyscraper building, indeed to all major building. For a quarter-century after the Great Depression, no major commercial buildings went up downtown. So overbuilt was the Loop and environs that it was not until 1952 that a new one opened—the Prudential. Its then-massive 41 stories towered over the lakefront, was built from plans drawn up before the Depression; it was in some ways the last of Chicago’s 1920s skyscrapers.
Rather than radical innovators, Chicago builders have in fact been quite conservative, even—the word fairly stings—Midwestern. John Zukovsky makes the point. He notes that the buildings constructed soon after World War II were similar to those done in the late 1920s and ‘30s, that is, masonry modernist or moderne a la the Prudential Building.
Since the turn of the century, the image of Chicago has been that of a town on the cutting edge of architecture. But the record shows that it was always slightly less pioneering than that, and more a part of America than a unique case. Even the famed Chicago School of commercial building and the Prairie School of residential design were. . . less individualistic and pioneering than was first assumed.
For example, Modernism in architecture was a movement that began in the 1920s in Europe but it was not until 1938 that the news reached Chicago. That was the year that the Bauhaus-trained Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, missionary of modernism, landed here. A refugee from Nazism, Mies was installed as chair of the Department of Architecture at Armour Institute, Illinois Institute of Technology’s forerunner institution. For years, the only buildings Mies did in Chicago were those that made up the core of the new campus of IIT, Crown Hall, constructed in 1955-56 to house the departments of architecture, planning, and design, is acknowledged a modernist masterpiece. Such projects alerted the cognoscenti at least that Chicago had an architect to rival Wright and Sullivan among the pantheon of local greats.
Mies was not the only modernist architect in Chicago but was far and away the best and the best known, and incidentally the most prolific. Few architects of note did more buildings in the Chicago area than Mies; by the time he died Mies’s office had designed more than forty buildings (almost all of them in the city), including twenty-two buildings at IIT and the federal complex on Dearborn Street in the Loop.
Oddly, in the city known for its tall commercial building, Mies did very few, and those not among his best work. (Most experts agree the best example of his tall buildings is the Seagram Building in New York City.) His best Chicago work was more modest in scale—the ITT campus, and the impossibly severe and beautiful Farnsworth house in Plano, and the two apartment buildings at 860-80 North Lake Shore Drive, built from 1949-52.
The new style pioneered in Chicago by Mies transformed the local skyline and also the architectural histories. A new chapter, usually headed the Second Chicago school, or (more accurately) the Chicago School’s Second Period, had to be written. As was the case in the first period, the actual buildings were more varied than the label stuck on them suggested. It is not clear that Mies was a Chicago architect in stylistic terms; his buildings had little in common with the old Chicago school, save the expression of the frame. There were however modernists who rephrased old concepts in a new vocabulary. Harry Weese did an apartment building at 227 East Walton Street in the mid-1950s that re-used the vertical row of oriel windows or projecting bays that went back to the Monadnock.
Soon nearly everyone was trying to design like Mies. The City of Chicago early on recognized some of this generation of building as worthy of admiration; the first official list of architectural landmarks drawn up by the first Commission on Chicago Architectural Landmarks included such icons as SOM’s Inland Steel Building and Mies's Illinois Institute of Technology campus (1947) and Lake Shore Drive apartments (1951). Then these buildings were evidence of the city’s embrace of the new but the tomorrow they foretold is long past.
Modernism also took root in and around Hyde Park, one of the rare areas in Chicago whose residents enjoy affluence and adventuresome taste. In 1937 the Keck brothers—see elsewhere this section—did a version of that Chicago staple, the three-flat, in which they resided at 5551 S. University Avenue; the buildings is praised by the AIA Guide to Chicago as “timeless first-generation modernism” and has been properly designated a Chicago landmark. Indeed, the Kecks’ house was on the first official list of architectural landmarks drawn up by the first commission on Chicago architectural landmarks. Carl Condit, an admirer, wrote that Mies’s influence on the built environment of the region so profound that “one could find a parallel only in imperial Rome, or Florence under the Medici, or Paris in the heyday of the monarchy.”
The Miesian era is much boasted of—he was the only architect of international repute based in Chicago after World War I. But while Sullivan, Root, et al left behind buildings that ordinary Chicagoans—at least those that bothered to think about them at least—liked or loved, Miesian Modernism was, and is, widely deplored. No new architecture movement is without its social pretensions, but the Modernism perfected in Chicago by Mies van der Rohe and his disciples was more pretentious than most. Under Mies, houses were conceived less as machines to live in than machines, period. They were to be admired for their formal aesthetic qualities, and liveability be damned. His Farnsworth house in Plano is an extreme—his fans might say “pure”—expression of that approach. It is an art work, a sculpture of some quality, but it is unfit for habitation.
Mies's Chicago was not the average Chicagoan’s Chicago. The modernists, happily, has scant effect on the ways that Chicagoland lived. Their effect on the commercial city and the campus has been less happy. They sought to divorce the contemporary city from history, from moldy notions of style, relying on new materials—and new architects—to create not only new buildings but a new way of life. Manifestations in Chicago include public housing, towers in windswept plazas, sterile glass-walled streetscapes. Most of the movement’s major buildings are unpopular, and its ideals discredited; Frank Gehry’s first proposal for the new band shell in Millennium Park was an homage to Mies, and it was rejected..
Ross Miller, in his 1996 history of Loop development, Here’s the Deal, sums up the complaints of a generation of critics and citizens:
Since Mies van der Rohe in the 1950s perfected glass-and-steel buildings on stilts, modern architects had learned to use the first thirty feet of a high-rise simply as a formal entrance piece . . . . Nothing went on at the bottom of a Miesian skyscraper. . . . Sanitized neutral spaces, these were simply attenuated entrances that led to the elevators and the floors, where the building really started. No distracting clutter or disorder was experienced on the ground . . . . ”
Franz Schulze, a doyen of Chicago architecture criticism, wrote of Mies, “Since the city’s building tradition was manifestly commercial and pragmatic, its practitioners were better prepared to admire the look and logic of Mies’s buildings than to pursue him into the rarefied atmosphere of German idealist philosophy.” There are plenty of people in Chicago who are glad they did not. After a Crain’s reader suggested that a Chicago with fewer Mieses in it would be a handsomer, happier Chicago, a spokesman for Mies’s successor firm defended the “logic, reason, and discipline” of the master’s buildings. In the hands of any but the master (indeed, often enough in his), logic meant narrow functionality, reason meant cost-efficiency, and discipline meant not letting architectural purpose be swayed by human needs. If Sullivan was a poet of Democracy, Mies was the poet of Bureaucracy; his two important large downtown buildings were done for the feds and for IBM.)
Geniuses should not be held liable for the failure of mere mortals to match their standard, but Mies has much to answer for. Mies came closer to realizing Sullivan’s maxim that form follows function, the function in this being the provision of simple enclosed space, adaptable for whatever purposes commanded the highest rents at the moment. His fans—Carl Condit is one—argued that Mies created a classic building form that could neither be altered nor subjected to further refinement, only repeated with subtle variations in proportions and dimensions. Trouble is, his successors did that repeating with less rigor than he did, and the Miesian ideal became expressed by the banal glass box that proved to be the ruin of the lake shore and much of the Loop in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Poet Dave Etter in 1984 spoke for most of Chicago’s average guys when he wrote in “Chicago:”
Chicago, build yourself a building even half as handsome and dignified as the Wrigley building and I will hop aboard the next train and go see it. But don’t expect me to get excited about a monstrosity such as the Hancock building, let alone the Equitable building and the rest of those boring skyscrapers that keep shooting up like tall weeds in some crazy farmer‘s onion patch.
Modernism led many critics to assume that the war for architecture’s high ground was over and that the modernists had won. Frederick Koeper in his 1968 guidebook of Illinois architecture, went well out on a critical limb and wrote, “The practice of historical eclecticism seems forever dead.” Pity the critic who outlives his predictions. Modernism was popular among developers and corporati because it was cheap, or fashionable, or “forward-looking” and thus good for image. It was not the style, as was assumed by Condit and Koeper and too many other critics who should have known that fashions in buildings like fashions in anything else, eventually pall.
Developers began abandoning modernism by degrees as early as the 1980s, mainly because all new buildings were beginning to look alike, which was death in a crowded market. An exception was the Crate & Barrel store that opened on Michigan Avenue at Erie in 1990; a product of Solomon Cordwell Buenz & Associates, it proved that it was not Modernism that was incapable of producing handsome buildings, but most Modernist architects.
By the 1990s it was back to historical eclecticism—now called postmodernism—with a vengeance. Post-modern architecture offers a conventionally modern “program” encased in an historicist shell, reflecting the developers’ desire for novelty and, perhaps, the architects’ paucity of invention. Not only is the old being made new again, the new is now being made old; for a time after it opened in 1892, Burnham & Root's Masonic Temple at Randolph and State was not only the tallest building in the world but "one of the handsomest," in the opinion of historian David Lowe, which is why architects Johnson & Burgee imitated it in their 1983 design for 190 S. LaSalle. The AT&T Center, NBC Tower, and 190 South LaSalle also explicitly incorporates elements of the designs of earlier Chicago skyscrapers. Booth Hansen Associates dormitory for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago at 162 North State Street Residences, which opened in 2000, was intended to see a “bookend” matching the Reliance Building a block up the street.
Honoring the city’s rich design tradition is one thing; embalming it quite another. Such projects threaten to turn downtown Chicago into the architectural equivalent of Madame Tussaud’s, well-decorated but dead. The new versions lack the vigor of the 19th century originals, perhaps because where the originals strove to impress, the imitations strive merely not to offend. Occasionally, Chicago’s postmodern pastiches have proved more than dull; the Harold Washington Library Center, for one, is a painful failure.
The Chicago School Reconsidered
The Chicago School as used by tourism promoters is a term of expansive meaning. In its loosest applications, it means any building that was built in Chicago. They are not troubled by the fact that many of even the classic buildings of the Chicago school are not very Chicago school as defined by critics. Most of the buildings from Chicago’s golden age of tall commercial architecture are not especially modern, nor especially expressive of the structural systems that support them, nor especially unadorned.
Consider the issue of ornament. A walk around the greater Loop will make plain that the talk in the book about the stripped-down Chicago style is relative. All have echoes of the old conventions, most commonly by giving the building facade—whatever was happening behind it—a base supporting (visually if not in fact) an upward thrusting column topped by cornice that emulates the classical column. Louis Sullivan never abandoned the classical tripartism he learned in school in Paris; his dictum was “form follows function” —so widely quoted and so widely misunderstood—but in his Chicago buildings form seldom followed function in any literal way.
In their eagerness to claim Chicago as the fount of Modernism, the mavens saw in the classic Chicago buildings what they wanted to see. The spareness of certain Chicago tall buildings was taken to embody the city's pragmatism, its freedom from received notions of taste. Because it was important that it be there, this spareness was seen even when it wasn’t there. Only a handful—the Monadnock building in particular—seem to anticipate the Bauhaus, and that building’s pared-down aesthetic was in response to the owner’s demand for easier maintenance and lower building costs.
John Mills Van Osdel was the Daniel Burnham of pre-Fire Chicago. He founded the city’s first architecture firm (in 1844) and designed many of the buildings in the first “State Street,” the retail strip along Lake Street. He also designed hotels (including its two most famous, the Palmer House and the Tremont) churches, the first city hall, and houses for several of the city’s first generation of swells, such as William B. Odgen.
Van Osdel was not an innovator in building design—his works, such as the Illinois Executive Mansion in Springfield, were competently designed in the Greek Revival style of the day. However, buildings were not all he designed. He also designed the first two grain-trade vessels built in Chicago, the first bridge across the North Branch of the Chicago River, and the pumps that moved water into the Illinois and Michigan Canal—a very handy man to have in a growing mercantile city. They don’t make ‘em like that any more—whether because the work gotten more complex or the architects less so, we will leave to others to decide.
Astonishingly, given the toll that the Great Fire took of his ouvre, more than a dozen of Van Osdel’s projects survive in some form, among them the north-facing cast-iron facade of the restored Page Brothers Building at State and Lake Streets (1872), which is one of only two cast-iron facades left in the Loop.
Most of the observers who have tended to see things more clearly have been, interestingly, historians rather than architects or architecture critics. One is Garry Wills, who in a 1993 article got to the point: “Stripped down, functional, revealing their structure, these buildings have often been presented as forerunners of Bauhaus modernism,” Wills wrote. “Yet it is hard to experience these qualities when one looks at the well-preserved specimens in the modern downtown—The Rookery (1888), the Auditorium (1889), the Carson Pirie Scott (originally Schlesinger and Mayer) store (1899). Far from revealing their structure, they hide it in heavily rusticated bases, ornate attic punctuations, surfaces elaborately patterned.”
The architects that Chicago businessmen hired adorned their buildings with decorative materials and motifs borrowed from more respectable realms such as the cathedral and the courthouse. This appropriation of symbols was not as preposterous as it might have seemed. Other world cities may have begun as ceremonial centers, but it was Business that put Chicago on the map. American 19th century materialism was as fervent a creed as any Old World religion, and Chicagoans worshipped money as devotedly as any god. The skyscraper was the most awesome realization of this creed. They were America’s new cathedrals, in effect, and were decorated as such.
There is room for demurrals here too. The richly adorned building owes to economics too. The more costly the building, the more attractive it had to be made to justify—or rather to make certain that tenants could justify—the higher rents that the developers were obliged to charge. You can’t charge cathedral rents for space in a warehouse. Such building confirmed Sullivan’s famous dictum: in an era in which classical forms (both of structure and ornament) served to dignify a building and thus the reputations of its builder and tenants—or at the very least differentiated these commercial properties in a crowded marketplace—form was very functional indeed. Sullivan, it must added, argued for ornament whose symbolism was more appropriate to a democratic people than that of emperors or kings or popes, but to nearly everyone his symbolism—lately interpreted as private and sexual—was scarcely less exotic than the classical ones it replaced; it did however make his building look expensive, which is what really impressed the tenants.
Chicagoland’s untall buildings
It is the tall commercial building that put Chicago on the architectural map, but the city had made contributions to other genres. Apart from a few houses and the odd factory or church there is not much of architectural note in the neighborhoods, but there is some. Two good examples are Louis Sullivan’s facade of the Kelmscott Building (4611 North Lincoln Avenue) in Lincoln Square on Chicago’s Northwest Side, and the Conrad Sulzer Library (4455 North Lincoln).
Rapp and Rapp were, with Chicago’s John Eberson and New York’s John Lamb, were pre-eminent movie house architects of the day when movie houses meant Architecture with a capital A. The firm was founded by George Rapp and brother Cornelius. Trained initially at the University of Illinois School of Architecture, George went with Cornelius to study in France. Rapp and Rapp drew heavily for their movie house designs on the Louis XIV era they absorbed there; through them, ornament meant for the delectation of royals was appropriated for the amusement of the American mob.
The firm designed over 400 theaters, most of them during the 1920s. The roster included several of Chicago’s classic theaters from the era, such as the Tivoli, which brought a bit of Versailles to Cottage Grove Avenue—not an easy task—and the Uptown. David Lowe praised them for delivering “stunning opulence without vulgarity.” The Rapps’ theaters were not merely decorated boxes, however—they offered excellent sightlines and acoustics—but their decoration was pure escapist fantasy, making them perfect venues for movie showings. Sadly, only one of these marvels, the Chicago, survives in anything like its original, astonishing condition.
For the architect, doing a tall commercial building is what starring in Shakespeare used to be for an actor—the pinnacle of the profession, the chance to make a name, the ultimate test of skill. As a result, many designers added substantially to the quality of the region’s built environment in other ways have been undervalued. The non-profit advocacy group Preservation Chicago, for example, has praised Clarence Hatzfeld, who designed field houses and like structure for the Chicago Park District. “His solid and well-crafted buildings never fail to enrich their environments,” stated Preservation Chicago in 2003. “This architecture should be recognized as a part of what distinguishes Chicago from other cities – it is solid, well crafted, honest, and reliable. The strong forms and materials speak ‘Chicago’ as can little else.”
Most building designs in Chicagoland’s suburbs strive to be inoffensive, and are, except in their Tastefulness. However, the suburbs occasionally produce interesting architecture, just as they occasionally produce poets worth reading. A school building here, a shopping center there rises above the rest. In Riverside it is a water tower—personally designed by William LeBaron Jenney in 1871—that has since become a town icon. (The building appears on the village logo.)
The Sullivan, Root, and Mies of the North Shore were Shaw, Arthur Gerber, and Adler. Architect Gerber designed nearly three dozen train stations on the North Shore and other nearby towns in the 1920s. Howard Van Doren Shaw did the R.R. Donnelly and Sons Co. Calumet printing plant, which has been praised as “one of the city’s—and perhaps the nation’s—finest essays in Industrial Gothic.” It was in the suburbs, specifically the North Shore that Shaw left his mark. His Market Square in Lake Forest (1916) is a landmark in mixed-use commercial complexes. Shaw also was to the Lake Forest College what Mies was to IIT or Walter Netsch was to UIC’s Circle Campus, having contributed seven buildings to that modest institution.
However, Shaw devoted his prime professional years 1905 to 1915 to doing country houses for the gentry, most in the suburbs of Chicago but also in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the Midwest. He designed more than forty-five in all, such as Havenwood for Edward L. Ryerson in 1914 in Lake Forest, and nearby a version of the English Arts & Crafts country house for Finley Barrell, a rich grain and stock trader.
Working for such clients makes demands on an architect but seldom on his inventive powers. Shaw is proof that the eminence of a designer varies with the eminence of his clients. One exasperated critic called Shaw “the godzilla of the 1900s building boom,” an architect who created “some of the most grotesque, inchoate, ill-thought-out, ludicrous, bombastic—and downright vulgar—buildings in the history of mid-west American architecture.” Such opinions are exaggerated perhaps, but not mistaken.
The fact that architects work mainly for rich people is dirty little secret that the profession has always been keen to conceal. (Stanley Tigerman, long-time head of the University of Illinois at Chicago architecture program, told the New York Times in 2006, “I no longer care about working on suburban villas for princes and princesses. I’d rather retire than do more of that.”)
Most architects are obliged to take such commissions, but those who do only such work tend to be derided by their colleagues. One such was David Adler. Ask a Lake Countian for the name of Chicagoland’s greatest architect and you will be given the names not of Sullivan or Mies but Adler, perhaps America's premier "country house" architect. His career of 38 years coincided with one of Chicago’s periodic booms, from the 1910s to the late 1930s—the Depression hardly existed for the city’s very rich—when families such as the Donnelleys, Fields, Palmers, Armours, Ryersons, and McCormicks were building.
Adler was born in 1882 in Milwaukee to a German-Jewish family and studied at Princeton, in Munich and Paris before coming to Chicago in 1911. Adler had tried and failed to graduate from Ecole des Arts in Paris, then the finishing school for architects of pretension. Unhandicapped by education, he was free to design in all styles to fit the setting and the mood of his clients. He did houses in all the flavors then popular—Georgian, American Colonial, French and Italian Renaissance—and he did them with style. He was good at staircases—an architect in that milieu had to be as good with staircases as a hospital architect has to be with plumbing. (Among his more famous: Attic Club staircase in Chicago's Field Building and the grand staircase from the Reed House in Lake Forest.) A Chicago Daily News society editor later would write "as status symbols go, a David Adler house makes a Rolls Royce look like a dimestore purchase."
Unlike the city’s more famous architects, Adler was neither a Personality nor a Thinker. While handsome enough, his were comfortable and safely conventional in appearance, being designed to make no statement other than the wealth and taste of the owners. By the time he died he was widely reckoned to be the nation’s top "country house" architect, and successful enough to be able to buy have his own 240-acre estate in Libertyville.
Of course, what looks like the judgments of History are usually only the fashions of a later day. It is not quite clear whether Adler and Shaw are considered important in the history of American domestic architecture because their houses were important or his clients. In any event, scholars and critics need new subjects to talk about, and the country house architects, after decades in which they were dismissed as hacks, are being talked about by scholars as well as real estate agents.
The International Style that debuted locally at the Century of Progress shaped new house design in only a few adventuresome upscale suburbs. Churches and synagogues were more enthusiastic for the style, as it suited the forward-looking image they wanted to convey. One of these is North Shore Congregation Israel, which hired Minoru Yamasaki to design a new synagogue in 1963—“sacred space made palpable”—on Sheridan Road in Glencoe. (A 1982 addition was by Thomas Beeby.) Few of even these buildings were distinguished, except by the low standards of religious buildings. and even they were not easy to get built. Architects of the time recall that it was difficult getting a loan to build anything that was too modern.
The Lake County Tuberculosis Sanatorium at 2400 Belvidere Street in Waukegan was designed by Bauhaus-inspired William A. Ganster and William L. Pereira in 1939; the old sanatorium is now used by the Lake County Health Department as a medical facility.
Helmut Jahn’s Oakbrook Terrace Tower, a thirty-one-story tower that dates back to the mid-1980s office boom, is the tallest in Illinois outside of the downtown Chicago market. But the skyscraper is not the model for the vast majority of suburban commercial structures. The college campus is the template that suburban developers handed their architects when they want corporate facilities designed. Most are loved only by local tax collectors, but a few bear looking at, such as the G. D. Searle and Company offices and laboratories in Skokie or the 1966 Glenview headquarters by Perkins and Will at 1900 East Lake Avenue of Scott, Foresman and Company, which is to textbooks what McDonald’s is to meals.
Retail developers tend more toward the village square as a model. The village square survives in the form of many a suburban shopping mall, most agreeably in the Old Orchard Shopping Center which opened in Skokie in 1954. Designed by Loebl, Schlossman, and Bennett, Old Orchard was one of the first, and still one of the better landscaped pedestrian shopping malls.
Schoolhouses With Advanced Degrees
There are school buildings of respectable age and comely mien in Chicagoland—River Forest School from 1860 is an example—but few are interesting architecturally. For generations school buildings were indistinguishable from factories, save that most factories were better lit.
The design of better buildings for children to learn in was one of the many ills tackled by the progressives at the turn of the 20th century. The Chicago school board, in one of its reformist spasms, named architect Dwight H. Perkins (late of Burnham & Root) as head of the architecture department. For a decade beginning in 1908, Perkins made schools that were better to learn in—lots of light, mainly—and better to look at. His Carl Schurz High School (1908) at 3601 N Milwaukee still graces that neighborhood. Other Perkins schools include Tilton Elementary (1908) and Albert Lane Technical High School (1908-1910). The fabled Lane Tech is recommended by the AIA Guide for its sculpture and frescoes—not usually reasons to visit a public school.
The North Shore, where education mattered in the way that religion mattered in working class districts, was a center for innovative school design. The Joseph Sears School, Kenilworth (1912) was done by Wright-disciple George W. Maher in his signature style. The most famous is Crow Island Elementary School, Winnetka. 1939—40 was a too rate instance of collaboration between open-minded s local school officials and innovative architects in the persons of Fuel and Eero Saarinen and Perkins (Lawrence, son of Dwight), Wheeler, and Will. The town had adopted a progressive child centered curriculum—see Education—and, in shocking departure from standard practice, the architects actually asked teachers how the new building could facilitate Winnetka’s innovative, child-centered curriculum.
The building was the product of still- radical approach in which the architect actually went to schools to study what went on in them, submitted a model of his design for comment not only to the board of education but the teachers and custodial staff, and maintained child’s scale throughout the building. It was designed by the office of Perkins, Wheeler and Will whose successor firm, Perkins and Will, became a leading school architect both in metropolitan Chicago and eventually the U.S.
Institutions, not having to please business clients or taxpayers and vulnerable to the power of new ideas, often were among the first to indulge in modernist experiments. In 1940 the Armour Institute merged with Lewis Institute to form the Illinois Institute of Technology. The new school cleared 120 acres of slums west of Michigan Avenue between 30th and 35th streets to create a campus that became the canvas on which Mies painted his vision of the future. The then-director of architecture eventually designed at least twenty new buildings that has been called “a triumph in steel and glass, “ among other encomiums. (What was new is by now a little musty; the university sought to regain its reputation as a hothouse for exotic architectural flowers with new buildings by Rem Koolhaas and Helmut John, who designed IIT’s striking new student center and living quarters, respectively.)
Universities took up cutting edge architecture with a vengeance in the 1960s and ‘70s, with usually dismal results. Northwestern University’s Evanston campus has one of the best collection of bad buildings in that style to be seen anywhere. For the University of Illinois’s new Chicago Circle campus, architect Walter Netsch of the corporate firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill borrowed an aesthetic, a construction material, and an organizational scheme from the nearby Eisenhower Expressway for. (The elevated walkways that crisscrossed the center of the campus were the pedestrian equivalent of the limited access highway.) While some admired the result in purely aesthetic terms, it was never popular with the people who used it; critic M.E. Newman called the concrete structures and plazas of the University of Illinois at Chicago "Fortress Illini."
The new campus proved hard to maintain as well, and in the 1990s large chunks of its were razed and replaced with more conventional college quad. The recent expansion of UIC has given architects a chance to do better, which they have mostly shunned. An exception is James Turrell's UIC Skyspace, a round, 43-feet-in-diameter observatory-type pavilion was that dedicated in 2006; the Skyspace is the saw focal point of the plaza that serves as a gateway to the new UIC South campus.
The original Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago, built in the 1890s, was a monument to an ideal of a university as outmoded as the football players’ leather helmets. The original University of Chicago was meant to be a place apart. It might have been paid for by businessmen, but they did not determine its ethos, as is the case on too many campuses today. The architecture was chosen to achieve this end; as the AIA Guide to Chicago tells us, gothic was preferred because Romanesque, the style favored by the architect, said “business” in those days.
The original U of C campus was, like the University of Illinois at Chicago, designed of a piece. And like UIC and IIT, that campus is largely the work of a single imagination. The vision may be studied in the Quads, the grouping of nearly three dozen buildings on the south end of campus. Henry Ives Cobb was to the UC campus what Mies was to IIT, designing most of the buildings erected during its first ten years, to a plan by him. On land donated by Marshall Field, Cobb laid out six quadrangles flanking a larger central one. (For years campus wits referred to the football stadium as Marshall Field.) The adornments were, and remain, an education in themselves, so many are the allusions to mythology, Christianity, and the classics. Neil Harris, in the AIA Guide, offers the best summary judgment: “Derided by modernists for their archaic conceits, the quadrangles survive as one of the country’s most remarkable expressions of commitment to a scholarly or priestly dream, one containing great stylistic variety within the larger Gothic vocabulary.”
Subsequent campus construction came in spurts. The new buildings were done by other firms, but all expressed them in Gothic, as Cobb had done, or rather in intelligent adaptations of the style. Alas, after World War II, the Gothic was abandoned, apparently in preference for Ugly, since the newer buildings offered little by way of style or coherent vision.
Of late, the university has tried to enliven the campus architecturally as part of a half-billion dollar capital improvement plan. The new South Campus offers not-bad buildings by Mies and Eero Saarinen, but even the university admits that the area is merely a collection of buildings, not the campus is the sense that Cobb’s original (now North) campus is. It is not only the lack of ensemble; the individual buildings, with too few exceptions, are not very good. Later modernists alluded to the Gothic when they would have better off copying it. A good example is the Joseph Regenstein Library on 57th Street, which dates from 1970. “Walter A. Netsch, Jr., brought the concrete brutalism of his University of Illinois at Chicago to this traditional campus, where it landed with a thud on the site of Stagg Field,” sniffed the AIA Guide, adding, “Fortunately, two of the seven floors are underground.”
Other recent additions include the Gerald Ratner Athletics Center at 55th Street and Ellis Avenue designed by Cesar Pelli and OWP/P, a new Graduate School of Business, designed by Uruguayan-born architect Rafael Viñoly, at the southeast corner of 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue, and a $100 million new arts center to be built on the Plaisance to designs by New York’s Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and scheduled to open by 2011.
If many of the older Gothic buildings look better than they worked as space, the opposite is widely considered to be the case with the Max Palevsky Residential Commons by Ricardo Legorreta which opened in 2002. Consisting of three separate wings that run the length of East 56th Street between Ellis and University Avenues, the 734-bed structure reflects the signature style of its architect, Mexico's Ricardo Legorreta. However, some students and many Hyde Park residents just plain hate it, saying it sticks out like a, well, purple dinosaur. One student told the campus newspaper, The Chicago Maroon, that the blocky dorm resembles "a Barbie prison house."
The results have not created the stir by, say, IIT’s newest buildings at about the same time. Interesting that the most exciting architecture is that of one of the campus’s older buildings—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Frederick C. Robie House at 5757 S. Woodlawn Avenue. Finished in 1909, the Robie House is universally praised as the best Prairie Style house, and by not a few as one of the best houses ever. In 1992, the University approached the Oak Park-based Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust as a potential partner to undertake the building's restoration, and since 1997 the Wright trust has been responsible for management, restoration and interpretation of the structure.
Oddly, government buildings, usually the nadir of architectural expression, have occasioned some very interesting buildings, and even some good ones in Chicagoland. No one save sentimental aldermen would mourn any of the city halls and county buildings, but Henry Ives Cobb’s Federal Building which opened in 1905—David Lowe, not unreasonably called it “the most notable example of civic architect in Chicago,” and its rotunda “among America’s supreme interiors.” It was razed in 1965–66 to make way for more of Mies’s glass boxes.
Wide windows set into bays demarked by the building’s framing made the 196s? Civic Center (now Daley Center) a very old-fashioned modern building. It was designed by C. F. Murphy Associates, a firm that could be called the Burnham & Root of the second Chicago school. Carl Condit noted that since Chicago “has no tradition but modern,” this was the first public building in the world which is both modern and conceived in the local building tradition.
An attempt to transcend—or at least to escape—that local building tradition was made by architect Helmut Jahn in his design for the 1985 State of Illinois Center. Since renamed the James R. Thompson Center after the governor who commissioned it, the Loop building excited controversy from the start for what many regarded as its mechanical and its aesthetic failings. One of the more flattering comparisons was made by the critic who likened it to a captured space station.
Housing types by the dozen
Of course, houses are the type of buildings there is most of in a city. The first houses in old Chicago borrowed more from the French poteaux en terre common to other French outposts in Illinois such as the American Bottom than they did from the traditional “American” (actually Swedish) log cabin. Subsequent residents built in the styles familiar from their respective homelands too, with the result that by the 1830s Chicago’s domestic architecture was as polyglot as it people. Today, of course, one can see examples of virtually every housing style known in the West—but very few that are distinctively Chicagoan.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks divides Chicago houses into twelve Popular Types. Most are familiar from any American city, such as the Queen Anne. None was really invented in Chicago, but some were so common here as to be considered typically Chicagoan. One is the two- and three-unit brick apartment house, the “two-flat” and its ilk. Many were built between 1910 and 1940, although their popularity peaked around the 1920s. Saul Bellow wrote lovingly about Chicago’s six-flats, which he described as “six-pack bungalows.“ Living up and renting down enabled many a working family to join the propertied class.
The standard Chicago Worker's Cottage were thrown up in uncounted numbers between the mid-1800s and the end of World War I to shelter the mostly poor pouring into the city. They were, in effect, wooden farm houses rethought for city life. Joseph Biggott explains that builders turned the earlier rectangular form of the New England-derived hall and parlor house ninety degrees to fit them onto city lots as little as 25 feet wide, and repositioned the front and rear doors on the cottage’s narrow gable ends. Most were one or one-and-a-half stories, rectangular in shape with a pitched roof and small extensions in the rear that housed the kitchen. As shelter they were minimal in all but square footage—many did not have running water, indoor plumbing or central heating when they were built.
Cottages sprouted like corn in the fields that then still could be found at the retreating edge of the city, which then extended from one to three miles around the Loop. This early form of low-density sprawl was generally considered a good thing, since the new cottages were arrayed in comparatively low densities compared to the classic tenement. However, tenement densities were achieved inside these buildings when several families crowded into them. The English journalist George Warrington Steevens visited Chicago in 1896 and described its working class neighborhoods in a book. “Away from the towering offices, lying off from the smiling parks, is a vast wilderness of shabby houses,” he wrote, “a larger and more desolate Whitechapel that can hardly have a parallel for sordid dreariness in the whole world.”
Houses for Chicago’s workers were shoddy and ill-equipped but they had the advantage to both builder and tenant of being cheap. They also were portable—a boon in a city in which developers worked city lots like farmers, planting and harvesting building as if they were crops. “West of the river the great majority of the dwellings are wooden structures of temporary aspect and uncertain moorings,” wrote Agnes Sinclair Holbhook in a Hull House report from the 1890s, “and almost any day in walking through a half-dozen blocks one will see a frame building, perhaps two or three, being carried away on rollers to make room for some factory to be erected on the old site. Suburban cottages of remote date, with neither foundations nor plumbing, travel from place to place, and even three-story tenements make voyages toward the setting sun.”
What Lloyd Lewis called ”these wooden kennels” were a scandal, and it is no surprise that workers, given a chance for something better, jumped at it. Samuel E. Gross was one of the most busiest developers of such housing in the late 1800s. By 1893, he had sold over forty thousand lots, put up over seventy-five hundred houses, and planned and developed more than sixteen suburban towns and 150 subdivisions. His firm virtually built Bridgeport single-handedly; the result can be seen in Bridgeport in the 3200 and 3300 blocks of S. Hoyne Street. Brick cottages that could be bought for $8 a month a parlor, kitchen, two bedrooms, and a small pantry and a seven-foot-tall basement—the height of luxury to a working family.
The most substantial collection of them is found, as one would expect, in the still-working class neighborhoods of the South and Southwest sides like Bridgeport and Back of the Yards, on the Northwest Sides in places like Bucktown and on the North Side in Old Town. Some of the oldest housing of the type in Chicago still stands on Cortez and Thomas streets in West Town.
They do not excite the zeal of preservationists eager to save architectural gems, nor the nostalgia of suburban preservationists. Keating states that no urban worker cottage has been preserved in Chicagoland; nor are there the grocery or saloon (which variations on the cottage) saved, compared to the town’s worth of farm houses, taverns, and one-room schoolhouses preserved across the region.
Time and redevelopment made them rarer, and nostalgia for the working class era—mainly by middle-class suburbanites, who never had to live in one, at least not until after it been gutted and refitted with all the modern appurtenances—has made the working family’s cottage precious. The demolition and replacements of such houses in the East Village neighborhood of West Town (as the greater near West Side was officially known) was a preservation cause in 2003. Following on the coattails of the renaissance of Wicker Park, directly to the north, developers soon learned that affordable property and unprecedented opportunity lay just to the south, in what had been the largely overlooked East Village.
Add a porch and dormer and refit it with better plumbing and heating and the workers cottage became the bungalow, the Ur-house for Chicago’s working class. The cognoscenti rave about Mies’s Lake Shore Drive apartments, but if you wish to drop by for a visit with the typical Chicagoan you are likely find yourself on the front stoop of a bungalow. It was around 1910 that Chicago began its long embrace of what remains the quintessential Chicago house—the brick bungalow. This was the old worker cottage with new class in every way—ceramic tile bathrooms, built-in cupboards, closets for every bedroom, exterior walls of solid brick rather than wood. The floor plans of these houses (which varied hardly a bit for a century after mid-1800s) were perpetuated in the guise of the two-flat and its variants, which were merely bungalows stacked atop each other.
The bungalow as a Chicagoland phenomenon was a creature of 1920s economic boom (which created the means), a 25 percent increase in population from 1920 to 1930 (which created the demand) and cheap land (which created the opportunity). The Depression put an end to the construction of the bungalow—as it did other housing, and while they were built again when home building restarted during World War II, the style was discarded by the 1950s in favor of the new ranch houses.
Alert reviewers noted that non-Chicagoans tend to call the Chicago bungalow middle-class housing while the natives prefer to think of it as working class. Both are correct, to the extent that most of them were built in middle-class type developments—urban subdivisions in effect—to which the newly risen working class fled.
The bungalow was not invented in Chicago, but it became popular enough here to constitute a important subspecies of Chicago house. Between about 1910 and 1940 some 80,000 bungalows were built in Chicago, and another 20,000 or so went up in its suburbs. Great swaths of the northwest and southwest sides—the fabled bungalow belt—were covered with them, Typical is West Rogers Park (west of Ridge Blvd.) which sprouted bungalows after World War I instead of the plants that had grown for decades in the area’s nurseries, truck farms, and greenhouses.
The bungalow was to nearby suburbs such as Cicero and Berwyn what the rowhouse was to Baltimore or the brownstone to upper Manhattan. Virtually every dwelling in Berwyn is a bungalow or derivatives such as the two-flat. developer John Mills built his company into what was Illinois' biggest home-building business building bungalows. Most famous is the 245 acre Westwood project in northwest Elmwood Park; begun in 1926, the project added more than 1,600 brick bungalows to Chicagoland’s collection.
Scorned by the post-World War II generation, the bungalow is today old enough to be regarded nostalgically. Museum shows and learned tomes have been devoted to it. its evolution attracts cultural and ethnic historians as well as architectural ones. (the editor of The Chicago Bungalow the 2003 collection of essays created as a companion volume to a Chicago Architectural Foundation, is the Gibbon of Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods, Columbia College history professor Dominic A. Pacyga.) City's Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative, which provides financing and other incentives to help bungalow owners improve and maintain their homes and communities.
Noting that Chicago has one of the greatest concentrations of bungalows anywhere—its estimated 80,000 surviving bungalows make up about one-third of the city's housing stock—the National Register of Historic Places in 2004 approved a "thematic" designation for the city's bungalows that qualify them for freeze in property taxes if they make substantial improvements.
Examples of what might be called the regular Chicago houses do not attract tourists, nor did they attract scholars until recently. (The recent spate of attention to the topic may be the product of a generation of democratic higher education that has seen kids who grew up in two-flats and bungalows trained to become critics and historians of building, although it is more likely simply the result of too many PhD candidates chasing too few topics.)
Marion Lucy Mahony
It is a puzzle that during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when so many women were making themselves necessary to Chicago in such new fields as social work, so few women achieved much in such established fields as business, science, or the professions. Male prejudice no doubt closed many a door to aspiring women architects, for example, but bias alone does not explain the remarkable absence of women in the field—as the story of Marion Mahony makes clear.
Marion Lucy Mahony was born in Chicago in 1871 and grew up in a liberal educated family in Winnetka. She received her architecture training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned to Chicago become the first registered architect of her sex in Illinois.
Mahony (pronounced MAH-nee) was on the staff of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park studio for more than a decade during the years when he became famous for his Prairie Style buildings. She won effusive praise from her fellow sufferers under that capricious master. She was lauded as the most talented among the staff, especially with a pen. She perfected the Japanese style then the rage in her renderings of Wright’s building plans; Paul Kruty, the University of Illinois architectural historian, is only one of the experts who argue that Wright’s fame owes much to her drawings. One critic has called her the greatest architectural draftsman of a generation in the U.S. or Europe. Certainly she seems to have been Wright’s superior as a draftsman—something he took pains to conceal.
But Mahony had trained to design buildings, not merely draw them. What about Mahony the architect? She finished some of Wright’s unbuilt houses, including some fine ones in Decatur. However, she completed few projects on her own, and some of those—such as the now-demolished Church of All Souls in Evanston from 1903—were not built as she designed them.
She expressed herself mainly through her collaborations with her husband, fellow Wright apprentice Walter Burley Griffin. Most reports have her willingly devoting herself to his architectural career. (In an autobiographical manuscript Mahony depicts herself as indissolubly fused with her husband.) After he died in 1937, she returned to Chicago, and spent more than twenty years living in Rogers Park but working little. It has been said that both Wright and Griffin were better architects for working with Mahony. Some feminists might cringe at the characterization, but seems she thrived in the role of the helpmeet.
Apart from her architectural renderings, reproductions of which are widely available in books, a mural by Mahony’s hand (Fairies and Woodland Scenes) survives in the George B. Armstrong elementary school in Chicago’s Northwest Side; the work is described as an expression of the artist’s belief in the existence of fairies in everyday life.
Stonefront houses were built for the middle class, often on the city’s posher avenues. (They are known locally as graystones because they were generally built with gray limestone quarried in Joliet.) Stonefronts are common across the city; a typical example is the south side of Addison Street, between Racine and Lakewood avenues, one block west of Wrigley Field. These structures likely would have been built as townhouses save for the post-1871 fire safety code that required their detachment from their neighbors by gangways.
These gangways, sadly, reveal the cheaper brick typically used in the sidewalls of such houses, thus exposing both the brick and the pretensions of their owners. Elia Peattie, describing them for The Atlantic in 1899, complained of “the hideous fashion which puts up a front of stone twenty-five feet wide, and confesses to the fraud with two hundred feet of common brick wall on the other three sides, broken with fire escapes and rear porches. Were the city more closely built, these crimes against sincerity might be partly concealed; but there is still space—space which, like the marshes of Glynn, is all revealing.”
An especially good collection of these houses survives in the Logan Square neighborhood on Logan Boulevard between Logan Square and Campbell St. Reader architecture critic Lynn Becker described the area as “a museum of limestone facing, dressed to impress with all manner of European detailing from Romanesque to Norman and everything in between.” The abandonment of these districts to absentee landlordism meant that the city’s early stonefront developments did not age well. A. J. Liebling, visiting Ashland Avenue in the late 1940s, wondered about these not-quite-mansions, not-quite-rowhouses. “Most of them have little spires and turrets that make them look all the more desolate now,” he reported, “like a bedraggled old woman in the remains of a spirited hat.”
The equivalent houses built for the city’s rich outdid the stonefronts only in cost. English journalist George Warrington Steevens in 1896 reported that the merchant mansions along Lake Shore Drive had been built in a style peculiar to Chicago—"almost prehistoric in its massive simplicity, something like the cyclopean ruins of Mycenae or Tiryns.” (“Red sandstone,” wrote the younger Mayor Carter Harrison, “seemed the proper building material for the homes of cravers of a high social status.”) The blockiness of these was eased by pierced by porches loggias, galleries and porticos, resulting in what Steevens regarded as “a combination of solid strength and breeziness, admirably typical of the spirit of the place.”
The really rich tended to build houses that were in Chicago but not Chicago houses. The French set the standard for fashionable Chicago, at least in houses. George Pullman lived in a Second Empire brownstone chateau on Prairie Avenue. the Joseph Ryersons in a Louis XIV style hotel particuliere on Astor Street; Cyrus McCormick rested from his labors in a mansion on Rush Street modeled on a pavilion of the Louvre. Some of these are handsome houses, expertly conceived and beautifully crafted, but it is hard to think of a single large house in the city that can be called architecturally interesting.
For a long time the suburban house was merely the standard city house plopped onto a larger lot. The vertical Italianate style fit crowded urban lots and was built in uncounted numbers in the middle-class suburbs too, where developers had instinctively platted lots with a relatively narrow street frontage, as they always had in the city.
Historian Robert Fishman makes the point that it took a while for architects and house buyers to find styles of housing appropriate to the new environment. Fishman writes, “The great achievement of American domestic architecture in the years before World War I was to recapture the horizontal for the suburban house,” inside and out.”
One of the archetypes of the new flat, open suburban house was perfected in Chicagoland— “Prairie Style” houses that Wright and associates first built in Chicago’s suburbs between 1894 and 1911. These houses were not built for the rich, merely the very comfortable, a fact that can be easily deduced from their settings. The William Winslow house in River Forest (1893) was the first to proto-Prairie Style house; it was followed by many others in Highland Park, Aurora, Batavia, Elmhurst, Evanston, Flosmoor, Geneva, Glencoe, Hinsdale, Kenilworth, LaGrange Lisle, Wilmette, and of course Wright’s own Oak Park.
While associated with suburbs, they in fact superb city houses, if only for their jealous protection of privacy from the street. Wright built a dozen houses in the city, such as the Heller House at 5132 S. Woodlawn Avenue built in 1897 for a meatpacker. Indeed, the masterpiece of the type was in the city—his Robie House, “magnificently poised, like a great steamship at anchor” in Hyde Park in 1909.
Wright, with typical vanity, insisted that his prairie style was sui generis; in fact the Prairie Style was an important sub-theme of the English Arts & Crafts country house. And while Wright’s are deservedly the most famous of the prairie style essays, as well as the most refined. Wright was not the only architect to work in that style. For a time, several young architects who would be important in the Prairie School—Frank Lloyd Wright Dwight Perkins, Walter Burley Griffin, the Pond Brothers, and Myron Hunt—all had offices or studios in Steinway Hall at 64 East Van Buren in the South Loop. As The Reader’s Lynn Becker has put it, “It could be said that this was the aviary where the Prairie School of Architecture was hatched.”
Several architects who studied under Wright and worked in his studio went in to distinguished careers, such as George Maher and John Van Bergen. Walter Burley Griffin is perhaps the best known of these. Griffin is to Beverly what Wright is to Oak Park; the Walter Burley Griffin Place District there includes seven houses by him, which the city’s landmarks commission calls the city's greatest concentration of Prairie-style architecture.
It may be important to recall that Wright, for all his preaching, had little influence on suburban house designs apart from his own apprentices. even in Chicagoland. The Prairie Style survived mainly in dumbed-down or bastardized forms. (As early as 1914 Wright complained, astutely, that his Prairie House design had become merely the thinking person's Colonial.) The ranch house, a Western import, offered the openness and horizontality that postwar craved. The hugely popular American foursquare was an outsized bungalow in Prairie School packaging; by 1920, stock plans for the bungalow that was then being built by the hundreds in Chicago sported the overhanging hipped roofs, deep overhangs and other features of the classic Prairie Style house—although squeezed into narrow lots as they were, they never achieved the horizontality that had earned them their name. Inferior versions of the prairie style are still being built in Chicagoland, but still in many fewer numbers than the faux farmhouses, the French maisonettes, the imitation Italian villas, and architecturally uncategorizeable McMansions that are the dream houses of the moment.
Roughly a half-century after Wright’s first acknowledged Prairie Style house went up, Chicago’s suburbs were graced by the work of another innovative firm: Keck and Keck is sometimes praised as the firm that gave America its first International Style glass houses. The Keck brothers, Fred and William, grew up in Wisconsin near Milwaukee and came to Chicago in 1921. Fred Keck was involved with several modernist cells in Chicago of the day that were populated mainly by German and Austrian exiles, including disciples of the New Bauhaus, under the directorship of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, where Keck served as architecture department head and part-time teacher for five years.
Among Keck's most important early commissions was the Miralago Ballroom in Wilmette (from 1929, on the present site of Plaza Del Lago shopping center). His most spectacular projects were the House of Tomorrow (1933) and the Crystal House (1934) two “concept houses” designed for display at Chicago's Century of Progress World's Fair. (See in “Making a More Perfect City” in Ready for Reform: Chicagoland’s Tradition Of Innovative Social Action.”) The buzz they caused created a local demand for them among the more adventuresome suburbanites on the North Shore.
Fred Keck was the designer, brother William, who joined the firm in 1946, the businessman. Designing such houses would make up the substance of Fred Keck’s living and his professional achievement. Fred designed hundreds of them, many of which are still standing. They include such gems as the Bruning House in Wilmette, a white stucco beauty with a two-story staircase encased in glass block.
Fred Keck was a engineer as well as a designer. His Spence House in Bensenville (1941) has a louvered ventilation system, and the Weinrib House in Highland Park (1961) featured a motorized retractable dome over the central courtyard swimming pool. Fred Keck also had a precocious interest in energy conservation. During the '30s Keck experimented with shallow rooftop pools meant to cool a house in summer by evaporation; during the 1940s Keck implemented new ideas in passive solar heating in such projects as the Sloan House (1940) and in some two dozen houses that made up the Solar Park subdivision (1942), both in Glencoe.
The Chicagoland house-buying public may have forgotten Frank Lloyd Wright by the 1940s and ‘50s but architects hadn’t. Fred Keck’s earlier houses had been fashioned from the standard Modernist ingredients such as concrete and steel and prefab panels, a materials palette to which he returned In the '50s and '60s. In the 1940s however he reverted to a Wrightian palette of wood, stone and brick, which gives his houses from the period a family resemblance to Wright’s Usonians. Unlike Wright and the later modernists—each of whom had a social and aesthetic program for a house that often did not include the people who were to live in it—the Kecks made houses that people liked to live in—one reason Keck houses retain their cachet, according to North Shore real estate agents.
Houses intentionally architectural cutting-edge in Chicago’s hinterland are as rare as shocking opinions. Wright is identified with Oak Park, but he did work all over Chicagoland—in Highland Park (the Winslow house, on Sheridan Road), in Aurora (the 1912 William B. Greene House, at 1300 Garfield Avenue,) and Riverside (the 1907 Avery Coonley Residence, 281 Bloomingbank). George Maher, a once-colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, maintained a broad list of social contacts and club memberships, which resulted in numerous residential commissions from important figures on the North Shore and in Oak Park. Maher and George Grant Elrnslie designed a huge granite house in Evanston in 1901 for James A. Patten, a patron of Northwestern University. Were it built today the Patten house would raise eyebrows, indeed hackles.
By the 1940s it took more to shock the suburbs. Architect Bruce Goff was just the man to do it, however. Goff was born in Kansas in 1904 and in 1934 Goff relocated in Chicago and the office of architect Alfonso Iannelli. Self-educated, Goff developed his version of Wrightian ideas in the form of “organic” architecture. Goff thought architecture—his architecture anyway—was akin to music, sculpture, and dance rather than engineering. He was a familiar 1960s type; his natural environment was not the office, and he was happier teaching at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. Goff left Chicago after only a few years for a busy life in California and in Oklahoma, where he maintained his studio in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Price Tower in Bartlesville. “In 1955 Goff left the campus as set up his studio in the Price Tower in Bartlesville.
Goff’s local clients tended to be artistic types. His Bachman House at 1244 W. Carmen Avenue (1947-48) is an official City of Chicago landmark and a neighborhood curiosity; in 1938-39 he did the home and studio for artist Charles Turzak at 7059 N. Olcott Avenue which incorporated elements of Wright’s Usonian houses and his brand new Fallingwater. But Goff’s most significant house in Chicagoland, and one his most significant anywhere, was built in the suburbs. The “Round House,” the “Umbrella House,” or the "Coal House"—there were other, less flattering names—was designed for painter Ruth Van Sickle Ford and Sam Ford in 1949 for a site on Aurora's west side. The resulting domed residence, made of anthracite coal, steel, glass, cedar, and hemp, has been compared to an umbrella and a Tibetan nomad tent, among other less flattering things. The place was not merely unusual—it made Life magazine in 1951, satisfying that magazine’s criteria for visual arresting images—but was unusual in unfamiliar ways. Local lore has it that the harried owners eventually put up a sign on their front lawn saying "We don't like your house either." The “Coal House” still stands, at 404 South Edgelawn Avenue in Aurora. Locals these days indulge it as they might any familiar eccentric.
On the face of it, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe would seem as out of place in the suburbs as a camel in a parlor. But he ventured into the suburbs too. In 1951 the architect was commissioned to build a weekend and summer home in Elmhurst for Robert H. McCormick. Mies gave that publishing heir one his typically severe composition in glass and white steel. The house was moved to its current site in nearby Wilder Park in 1994, where it was incorporated into the Elmhurst Art Museum's new facility; as a former curator nicely put it, "The most significant piece in the museum’s permanent collection" is the building that houses it.
Mies’ most famous adornment of suburban Chicago is the Farnsworth House, built in 1951 as a country retreat for a wealthy Chicago woman named Edith Farnsworth. The 2,100-square-foot house stands on 61 acres along the Fox River in Kendall County, 2 1/2 miles north of downtown Plano. Many a critic regards the Farnsworth House probably the most important house of the 20th century in aesthetic terms. The problem was, Mies’s client asked for a house, not a piece of sculpture. As a dwelling the Farnsworth was a disaster. Architecture writers may have lauded it as an expression of Mies’s ideas about art and nature, but the owner came to regard it as an expression of Modernism’s arrogance. (Mies reputedly replied to Farnsworth’s complaints about the lack of closets by reminding her that she would there only on weekends and thus needed only one dress at a time.)
Chicagoland’s designers of landscapes are not as well known as its Wrights and Roots, but they are as esteemed within their profession. Among the many adept practitioners a few should be singled out: Swain Nelson, whose hand shaped the early Lincoln Park; O. C. Simonds who laid out Graceland Cemetery and the Morton Arboretum, and designed the expanded Lincoln Park in the early twentieth century; William Le Baron Jenney, who was the first chief engineer of the West Parks; Frederick Law Olmsted, whose gifts to the region include Riverside, Jackson and Washington parks, and the 1893 world’s fairgrounds. Among the more recent practitioners, Alfred Caldwell stands out. As a senior draftsman in the Chicago Park District until 1940. Caldwell created landscapes for Montrose Park, Northerly Island, Promontory Point at Burnham Park, Jackson Park Riis Park, and the Lily Pool at Lincoln Park.
At the turn of 20th century, landscape designers as a body were split in the same way that architects were, and over the same issues. The City Beautiful aesthetic, as embodied in the World Columbian Exposition Court of Honor and in Burnham’s 1909 plan for the city, looked to European models (specifically Parisian ones) for urban parks. That model called for formal gardens and monumental statuary, a legacy that one still sees in Grant Park, where each summer hundreds of thousands of T-shirted tourists traipse about in a mini-Versailles.
A few designers found a parks model in the rolling hills and twisty lanes of the countryside, as developed by the 19th century English picturesque school of landscape design and perfected on English country estates. New Englander Horace William Shaler Cleveland was of this school; Cleveland had moved to Chicago in 1869, where he had a hand in the design of the then-South Parks and Graceland Cemetery and laid out such self-consciously picturesque suburbs as Highland Park. The Hausmann of this branch of the profession in the U.S. was Frederick Law Olmsted, who had stressed the importance of natural-looking (if not quite natural) land forms and plantings in his schemes for Riverside and for Chicago’s Jackson and Washington parks.
When it came to designing a sylvan alternative to the city, any old countryside would do. Later designers however looked for models closer to home than England. estate. Frank Lloyd Wright drew inspiration from the fondly recalled landscapes of his native rural Wisconsin.
Pre-eminent among them, at least in terms of local reputation, is Jens Jensen. Jens Jensen found the Midwest comfortingly similar to his native province of Denmark, and began incorporating local land forms and plant species—marches and swales, oak-and-prairie grass woodlands—into his redesigns of Chicago’s West Park District’s Humboldt, Douglas and Garfield parks and in its concept for Columbus Park.
The last was Jensen’s masterwork, and embodies what is now known as the Prairie Style. It is an example of a place where, as Sally Kitt Chappell, author of Urban Nature, described it, “where architecture and landscape were not only both present but where each had been conceived in response to the other,” where the “widower’s realm missing grace and ease” of the business street merged with the “widow’s realm” of the plain park in need of “an energizing virile element” to create a single artistic whole.
Jensen is usually lauded as the Frank Lloyd Wright of landscape architects, not only because the two men shared (at least during their Illinois years) certain aesthetic principles usually cataloged under “Prairie Style.” Jensen was opinionated, self-righteous, and imperious, as Wright was, and like Wright, Jensen eventually left the city for the greener pastures of the suburbs.
Jensen’s private parks
When Jens Jensen was driven out of public jobs in Chicago by politics, he took up private commissions to design the grounds of Chicagoland’s grand suburban estates, such as the estate in Riverside that Jensen completed in 1917 for the Coonley family. Most of Jensen’s work was done on the North Shore, however, where he devised plans for dozens of properties between 1900 and 1935. (There are roughly 40 in Lake Forest alone.)
A few of Jensen’s North Shore landscapes survive. In 1915 Jensen designed a formal English Tudor-style garden at Northwestern University to mark the 300th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare; the garden was deeded to the university in 1930, which maintains it with the help of the Garden Club of Evanston;The Shakespeare Garden was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. The Evanston Art Center since 1966 been housed nearby in the Harley Clarke House, a three-story Tudor mansion on the shore of Lake Michigan just north of Grosse Point Lighthouse, whose grounds were designed by Jensen.
In 2005 the Village Board of Lake bluff designated the Jensen landscape done for the William V. Kelly Estate (now the Harrison Conference Center) along with the estate’s Coach House and Manor House as local historic landmarks, and plans were underway for the grounds’ restoration. What is today the Mahoney Park Bird Sanctuary in Kenilworth also boasts a restored Jensen design.
Jensen was hired to design parts of the grounds of the Lake County estate of meat-packing heir Ogden Amour known as Mellody Farm. Remnants of Jensen's work survive in the form of a teardrop-shaped pond—restored in 1998 by the Open Lands Project—plantings of eastern red cedars, and a stone retaining wall are still evident today.
The Armour estate is today the Mellody Farm Nature Preserve. The Mellody Farm Nature Preserve is located at 350 North Waukegan Road in Lake Forest. Open daily from dawn to dusk.
Highland Park is a significant Jensen outpost. He landscaped estates belonging to such prominent local families. Clients included Armours and Fords; four of these properties are on the National Register of Historic Places. Jensen also designed the grounds of the Julius Rosenwald estate, which is today’s Rosewood Park; a reflecting pool in the upper section of Rosewood Park is what remains of his work there. The city park in the Ravinia neighborhood of Highland Park, two blocks from his former studio, was designed by Jensen and was named after him; after years of the usual neglect, the park was restored in 1980.
In 1908, Jensen opened on Highland Park’s Dean Avenue a summerhouse and studio that he called the Clearing. The designer worked there until 1935, when he moved to Wisconsin’s Door County, to found a school, which he also called the Clearing. The Dean Avenue studio is today a guest house; its conversion was superintended by Jensen partisans, the City of Highland Park Preservation and Architectural Review commissions to ensure that the grounds remained faithful at least in a general way to Jensen’s style.
Most of Jensen’s landscapes, alas, were subdivided or simply neglected. Others face more exotic threats. The 17-acre Becker-Segal Estate at 405 Sheridan Road in Highland Park is a National Register property that was seized by the government and put up for sale so the IRS could recoup some of what its owner owed after his conviction on racketeering, fraud, embezzlement and other charges. The sale agreement called for the subdivision of the estate, but the Jensen garden is to be restored by the developer as a condition of the deal and protected by a conservation easement that will be conveyed to a local landmarks group.
Jensen’s legacy to the region is comprehensive, not only in designs for public parks and private estates but in his crucial work as an advocate for conservation. It is arguable whether Jensen’s name “deserves to be emblazoned on the portals of Chicago history with Jean Baptiste Du Sable and Jane Addams,” as one partisan has suggested. However, his contributions to public park design in the old West Parks system were considerable.
One can detect the familiar pattern of an avant garde charting out new territory from which to launch attacks on established taste. The Prairie Stylers inverted the familiar categories. If the bourgeoisie derided the Midwest landscape as primitive, it was because they lacked an aesthetic sense that was subtle enough to appreciate them. Horace Cleveland, for example, sneered at what he called “so called cultivated people” who swooned over contrived rustic bridges as expression of “nature.” He even suggested that Chicago build two systems of parks—one for the substantial majority of citizens “for whom any work is artistic in proportion as it is artificial,” another for the much smaller group who really want seclusion and the beauty of nature.
The upstart Midwesterners also resented the professional domination of the East, Coast and, through it, of Europe. The Midwestern landscape may not have offered a superior alternative in aesthetic terms, but it was inarguably Midwestern. In a city that borrowed everything from elsewhere—including its people—the landscape was the one thing that was Chicago’s own, and thus acquired a patriotic cachet. Spirn notes that Jensen’s landscapes had a chauvinist agenda, that he campaigned less for the prairie than against the established aesthetic standards of the East Coast and Europe.
Whatever the claims made for its on grounds of patriotism, few Chicagoland citizens rallied ‘round the flag. The overall preference is still for the manicured and the manufactured in private gardens and public landscapes. Jensen, the prophet of the movement, was put in charge of designing only one major park in Chicago. If Prairie Style landscape have come to be restored in the last 20 years, it is because they are now recognized as historic examples of Chicagoland’s only original contributions to landscape design.
Chicago’s unseen architecture—innovations in engineering
The general public, including that part of it that writes articles in architecture journals, rates buildings according to what they can see of them—usually the façade and the lobby. One can argue, as many historians of the buildings arts do, that the real revolution in 19th century building in Chicago was in the parts of the building that the public never sees. New building forms both demanded and made possible new engineering, construction techniques, and structural materials, and Chicago came up with many of them.
Consider for example the ways that Chicago’s peculiar geological situation forced some new thinking about foundations. The absence of bedrock under much of the Loop, for example, meant that engineers had to build foundations on floating pads that distributed the building loads so they could safely be supported by clay. Chicago engineers learned to devise new truss systems appropriate to buildings instead of the tricks they borrowed from the bridge-building trade at first.
The most famous Chicago innovation, used in tall building everywhere, was the iron, later steel frame. In this kind of construction, the façade is hung on a skeleton of metal beams that bear the weight of the structure rather than resting it on massive exterior walls of stone or brick. The latter method meant that bearing walls had to be so massive that they took too much rentable space from the ground floor—the kind of architecture that developers and bankers consider really ugly. The first Monadnock Building by Burnham and Root—a brilliant building in aesthetic terms—was crude in engineering terms, as the weight of its 16 stories sat on ground-floor walls six feet thick.
One advantages to the builder of suspending buildings from a steel skeleton rather than piling it atop piers of stone or brick was speed of erection. Also, because metal girders take less room than stone piers, the steel frame also left more rentable space room on the lower floors. And since a steel frame weighed very much less than masonry of equal strength, a foundation could support a much taller building.
Early models were in the nature of experiments, the ultimate methods arrived at only after some trial and—thankfully—not much error. The ten-story Home Insurance Building, which opened in 1885, was the first fully metal-frame skyscraper, and as such is generally honored as the first American skyscraper, and its architect, William LeBaron, Jenney, the Father of the American skyscraper. Making steel an essential building material was a boon to that industry, and in gratitude the Bessemer steamship company, sister firm to the giant steel-maker, named one of its ship after Jenney.
Because of their steel frames, the perspicacious journalist Julian Ralph likened that first generation of really tall commercial buildings to enclosed bird-cages. “The exterior walls are mere envelopes,” he wrote in 1893.
They are so treated that the buildings look like heaps of masonry, but that is homage paid to custom more than it is a material element of strength. These walls are to a building what an envelope is to a letter, or a postage-stamp is to that part of an envelope which it covers. The Chicago method is expeditious, economical, and in many ways advantageous . . . .
If the skeletons of Chicago’s tall buildings were new, so were their circulation and nervous systems. The steel frame removed one of the impediments to taller buildings but tallness imposed problems of its own. One was stairs. The human capacity for climbing stairs limited the first generation of office building to five or six stories. Elevators broke that barrier; as Donald Miller notes, the Otis safety elevator was to the skyscraper what the electric streetcar was to suburbanization. The limits to building height were no longer physical but economic—how much it cost rather than how large it was. Tall building also needed new systems for delivering water, fresh air, heat; their size and complexity demanded new systems for lighting, internal communication, fire protection.
Chicago engineers and architects have continued to pioneer in structural engineering. Both the John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower offered novel solutions to the problem of the very tall building. (See more below.) Another triumph was the roof of the 1968 McCormick Place (now the east building of that Brobdinagian complex), in which the firm of C.F. Murphy managed to cover the 300,000-square-foot main exhibit space using only eight supporting columns; the AIA Guide calls it a “structural tour de force.” Bertrand Goldberg’s essays in cast concrete—the Hilliard Homes, the Prentice Women’s Hospital, River City, and, most famously, Marina City—were more admired than imitated; the Prentice Women’s Hospital from 1975 pioneered in the creation of column-free interior space by cantilvering the building’s floors and curtain walls from a central core.
Chicago structural engineers are celebrated by their colleagues around the world. In 1999, one engineering journal listed Fazlur Khan, the Skidmore head of engineering who did the structural systems for the Sears and Hancock buildings, among the top 125 people in the trade from the last 125 years, along with the likes of Thomas Edison and Gustave Eiffel. Today’s more sophisticated public is less inclined to overlook the contributions of engineers who build tall buildings (as compared to architects, who merely decorate them). The architecturally-savvy Gov. James Thompson in 1986 dedicated a memorial to the late Khan—a tile wall mural and memorial plaque—in the lobby of the Onterie Center at 446-448 E. Ontario Street, his last skyscraper; in the late 1990s, a street near the Sears Tower was given the ceremonial name of "Fazlur R. Kahn Way."
Chicago buildings pioneered the use of materials too. Cor-ten steel (a trade name derived from “corrosion-resistant high-tensile”) was developed by the United States Steel Corporation in 1933 for railway hopper cars, but it does not appear to have been used in building before the Chicago Civic Center and Eero Saarinen’s John Deere Company administration building in Moline.
Something superior and apart
A city built on one of the flattest places in a flat state would perhaps inevitably yearn to elevate itself in every way. The home town of the skyscraper placed a premium on the tall. (Rizzoli’s fine history of a century of Chicago skyscrapers, published in 1990, was titled The Sky’s the Limit.) But in Chicago, tallness was as much a civic imperative as an aesthetic one. Chicago, having early on given up attempting the best, settled for the tallest as the criterion of civic achievement.
Writing about the Chicago of the 1860s, journalist Frederick Francis Cook observed that the then-County Court House in those days “so dominated the town that none could help looking up to it as something superior and apart. The courthouse boasted an observation deck of sorts near the top of its dome, from which visitors could see the beaches of Michigan on the other side of the lake.
Profit, not pleasure, saw many a building over-top the courthouse and its successors. Inevitably in the early years of the skyscraper, the city that more or less invented the form had the tallest versions of the new form. All such claims are disputable, but William Le Baron Jenney’s metal-framed, ten-story Home Insurance Company building erected at LaSalle and Adams in 1883, probably deserves to be called “the true father of the skyscraper.” After the Home Insurance building came a succession of tallests, such as the Rand McNally Building (120 feet) in 1890 and the Monadnock Building at 16 stories in 1892.
The Masonic Temple Building at State and Randolph reached twenty or twenty-one stories, (depending how one defines “story”) in 1893; visitors in town to see the World’s Fair gasped at its awe-inspiring height. They were promised that they could see Council Bluffs, Iowa, from the public observation deck at 302 feet. Poet Edgar Lee Masters asked his Uncle Henry to take him there so he could see for himself—hardly worth the trouble, one would have thought, but then the chance to see Council Bluffs without having to actually go there has an understandable appeal.
It was not only office buildings that set records. The Water Tower built at the town of Pullman, which was fatally damaged by fire in 1957, was the world's tallest structure for a brief spell in the 1880s. For nearly 20 years after it opened in 1874, the German gothic Holy Family Church at 1080 W. Roosevelt was the tallest building in Chicago but only if one counted its steeple, which few did.
Land economics may have dictated tallness, but Chicago did not always build as tall as it might have. During the first half of this century, Chicago was officially dead set against the very tall building. In 1893, in reaction to the towering height of the Masonic Temple, the city council limited new buildings to eleven stories, Skyscrapers were turning Loop streets into windswept canyons. The tall structure caught and deflected the wind, and funneled it between buildings. One observer at the turn of the 20th century found that “the gorges and canyons of its central district are exceedingly draughty, smoky, and dusty. Even in these radiant spring days, it fully acts up to its reputation as the Windy City.”
Tall buildings also made life difficult for firemen, and they made life darker for everyone else. Pressure to limit building heights building also came from owners of older office buildings and land that would lay unused if offices could be piled unendingly atop each other; shadows thrown onto nearby buildings limited the leasability of the latter. was convinced that “the heaven-storming era is probably over” in Chicago, but he was wrong.
The advent of electric light eliminated the problem of blocked sunlight, and growth eliminated the shadows and removed that impediment, and buildings rose again.
The official city building ceiling was relaxed, and stood at the equivalent of 25 stories or so for 30 years. In 1923 the city enacted a zoning law that allowed towers to soar above blocky bases; the setback skyscraper allowed light onto the street, and gave Chicago some graceful buildings and fine public spaces. (A later generation grappled with canyonization and solved it with the tower-in-a-plaza, which produced neither.) With developers thus liberated, the 1920s saw a new tall building boom—the Straus Building (now Britannica Center), the Jewelers Building (1926), the Field (now 135 S. LaSalle), the LaSalle-Wacker, the Trustee System Service (now Skyline Century of Progress) Building, the Palmolive—but from the 1940s until 1956 the city again reduced heights, effectively to twelve stories.
Chicago usually loosens its reins of upward building under pressure from developers eager to capitalize on (always temporary) demand for new office space. There being no theoretical limit to the ambitions of developers, or the willingness of aldermen to cater to them, but at present the ultimate limit is set not the City Council but the Federal Aviation Administration, which bans buildings taller than 2,000 feet as menaces to aircraft.
Bracing very tall buildings poses unique problems. It is not the weight of very tall buildings that is the issue but the tendency of wind to push them over. The Sears and the Hancock, begun only one year apart by the same firm, devised two very different but equally effective means of coping with the problem.
Anyone wishing to impress at a cocktail party might drop mention of the fact that the famous system of diagonal bracing that gives the exterior frame of the John Hancock Center its distinctive look is a known as a trussed or braced vertical tubular cantilever or (in the phrase of the chief engineer on the project) an “optimum column-diagonal truss tube.”) In the Hancock, which for a few years in the early 1970s was the world’s tallest building, engineering is the aesthetic; the distinctive exterior cross bracing is, with its tapering form, distinguishes it from a hundred other looming boxes. The scheme, by Fazlur Khan of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, allowed the one-hundred-story behemoth to be built for the cost of a conventional forty-five-story building.
The Sears Tower became the tallest in the world at 1,450 feet in 1973. The 110-story Sears Tower has always been praised for being well-made rather than beautiful—in that way, it was the perfect symbol of the store that originally paid for it. For a time the undisputed tallest building in the world, and still is by some measures, the Sears stands rather than staggers thanks to a clever system of “bundled tubes”—Khan again—that are in effect nine skyscrapers that reinforce each other against the wind.
The observatories atop each building have offered fine views to millions, and an unparalleled opportunity for advertising slogan-makers to indulge themselves. (“Will meet your loftiest expectations!” promise the people who run the recently renovated Hancock Observatory, which in recent years was already attracting more than 400,000 people a year. The dome-on at the Sears Tower’s deck is more direct—“Get up here!” “Up” is the word. The Skydeck is on the 103d floor, or 1,353 feet, making it the highest observatory in Chicago. One can see as far as 50 miles on a very clear day (other sources put it more modestly and probably more accurately, as 35) This takes in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin as well as Illinois. That the view beyond the Loop is composed of Gary and Joliet rather diminishes the romance. But the view of the city itself is dazzling.
Very tall buildings satisfy the vanity of city boosters and their developers, but while they improve skyline they do bad things to the streets. As far back as the 1890s, there were complaints about the crush of people drawn into a Loop crowded by buildings whose workday populations numbered in the thousands. “Our Broadway,” reported one visiting New Yorker, “is a deserted thoroughfare compared with, say, the corner of Clark and Jackson streets” at 5 o’clock.
That argument carries as much force as ever, and is usually just as ignored by building authorities. The Sears Tower for example brought more than 25,000 persons every day to an already congested part of downtown when it opened. The Hancock was wildly out of scale with on a street formerly known as a European style shopping boulevard when it opened in 1969; that it is no longer out of scale is because of the plague of tall buildings on Michigan Avenue that Big John inspired, which has turned the famous Boul Mich into a west Loop with Prada.
Architecture critics have been sickened by such grotesqueries, but they have not—yet—been killed by one. Migrating birds are not so lucky. Very tall buildings or rather their lights, confuse the flocks of feathered migrants that move through the city on their seasonal peregrination up and down the Lake Michigan shore. Thousands of them fly into them and die each spring and fall. A thousand birds (mostly small songbirds) have been known to die in one night against the John Hancock building alone. Another bird beacon is 311 S. Wacker, whose lighted wedding-cake crown has proven a fatal attraction. In 2000, bird-lovers prevailed on Mayor Richard M. Daley to issue an official request that building managers turn off their lights during each migration season; not since mayors of old allowed the saloons to stay open for the conventioneers has the city been so solicitous of visitors.
When Chicago put he brakes on the race upwards, it lost the title of tall building champ, in 1895, to New York City. The Big Apple held it for the following 79 years with a succession of buildings—Metropolitan Life, Woolworth, Chrysler, Empire State—that until the World Trade Center were gorgeous as well as tall. Chicago did put itself back on the map beginning in 1969 with the Hancock, which was followed by the Sears, and for a quarter-century the city’s chest swelled at the thought that it had, finally, found something it could lead the world at. It was beaten again by builders to the east—way east, in Malaysia. Developers of the Petronas Towers, twin office towers in Kuala Lumpur that in 1996 surpassed the Sears. Seven years after their opening the buildings were still half-empty but they achieved their real objective, which was to win for the Indonesian capital the cachet as a builder.
That left the Sears merely the Tallest Building in North America, and Chicago is not quite over the loss. (Some locals insist they didn’t lose the title; there is much grumbling that the Malaysian twins are tallest only by counting their broadcasting antennae.) In any event, Chicago lost little time in coming up with plans to take back the title. Miglin-Beitler’s “Skyneedle,” which at 125 stories would have been a whopping fifteen stories higher than the Sears, was okayed by planners in 1989 but was left unbuilt when the Loop real estate market went into one of its periodic swoons. A newer proposal for 7 South Dearborn would have put a 108-story tower at that address—at 1,550 feet it would have been the world's new tallest building too. Alas, it also was canceled. In 2005, the Chicago Spire condo tower by architect Santiago Calatrava was proposed; if it had been built as planned at 400 N. Lake Shore at the Chicago River, it would have loomed 150 stories above the lakefront.
Chicago remains home to three of the world’s ten tallest buildings—the Sears, the Hancock, and the Standard Oil Building (later the Amoco Building and now Aon Center). The last retains some distinction for Chicago, as it is said to be the tallest building in America to change its name.
What has gotten built was never as audacious as what was proposed. In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright amused himself by sketching a mile-high skyscraper for Chicago whose 528 stories would accommodate 100,000 people, parking for 15,000 cars and enough office space to house the entire state government. An Arlington Heights developer in 1973 proposed building a Schaumburg Space Needle at I-290 & Meacham Road, this centerpiece of a mixed-use development would have been three times the height of the original in Seattle, and at 2,000 feet would have been the world's tallest structure by far. It never got off the drawing board.
Chicago influences the world
Interestingly, Chicago once set the agenda for building design around the nation, but that agenda did not advance the Chicago School of design. It happened at the end of the 19th century. Chicago’s Daniel Burnham was appointed chief of construction of the World Columbian Exposition. He named his partner John Wellborn Root—in design terms, the firm’s better half—the architect in charge of design. The architecturally literate public can put Sullivan and Wright and Mies on the list of Chicago’s heroic designers but these days many an expert includes the Root.
Alas, Root died before work got underway. Design of the main buildings were trusted to the safe hands of established, academically trained architects of Boston and New York such as Richard Morris Hunt and the firm of McKim, Mead & White, among others. Many of these men had been educated at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Chicago, then the heart of new American architecture, thus became the showplace for old European ideals.
The exposition’s buildings were meant to be temporary; they were fashioned from staff, a hemp-and-plaster compound that was easy to work with but gave the appearance of stone. Designers thus had a free hand, which they indulged extravagantly in a series of neoclassical concoctions. Chicago’s own architects contributed little apart from Louis Sullivan, who was given his freedom in the design of the Transportation Building. The Guide notes that this shed with a spectacular arched door was the one exposition building unanimously acclaimed by European critics, who found old hat the neoclassicism that was thrilling the yokels of America. Thus we are left to savor how Sullivan, trained in Europe in the old ways, earned the acclaim of Europeans who found the old ways sterile and stale, while the Americans, purveyors of the new and enemies of tradition in so many other ways, embraced the old, and bored cultured visitors to death.
From the 1890s until the modernist virus took hold like the ague in the U.S. in the 1930s and ‘40s, the White City was widely pointed to as the pinnacle of achievement in the building arts. (The fair also midwived the urban planning precepts known as the City Beautiful movement; see “Making a More Perfect City” in Ready for Reform: Chicagoland’s Tradition Of Innovative Social Action.”) What people seemed to like about the buildings was their classical kitsch. They liked too the fact that the buildings, executed in the same material in a like style, “matched”—the same aesthetic applied to uncountable kitchenettes and living room “suites.” Louis Sullivan famously grumbled, “The damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer.”
Sullivan, as usual, spoke for himself. Until well into the 1930s most critics agreed with Henry Adams, who said of the exposition architects, “If the people of the Northwest actually knew what was good when they saw it, they would some day talk about Hunt and Richardson, La Farge and St. Gaudens, Burnham and McKim, and Stanford White when their politicians and millionaires were otherwise forgotten.”
The 1939 Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide had this to say:
The influence of the Columbian Exposition on both contemporary and subsequent building was tremendous. In one year it turned the tide of public taste away from the romanticism of the Romanesque revival to the white classicism of its Court of Honor, and sounded the death knell on the profuse elaborations of the Victorian Gothic and the Romanesque. That this transition, in itself, was salutary few have denied.
Only a few years after the Guide’s verdict was published, exactly the opposite critical opinion prevailed. Historian Norman T. Newton is among those who note that the real achievement of the fair was not design, but the model of inter-professional collaboration that became standard on large projects. Newton adds “It is simply too bad that for so long after 1893 both the collaborative process and public interest should have been marred by uncritical acceptance of the Fair’s ‘classicism’ as though this were its essential merit.” As Newton put it, “everybody knew” that the Columbian Exposition represented the very bottom of a thoroughly muddy barrel.”
A Century of Progress
In what proved to be history’s little joke on Chicago, the centennial of the city’s founding came up in 1933. A brave city invited the world to the birthday party in spite of the Depression. It mounted on the lakefront a Century of Progress Exposition. This new fair was to be in many ways the forward-looking world exposition that Olmsted and Burnham had failed to provide in 1893.
Fair architects in particular chose the role of prophet rather than that of historian,” in the nice phrase of Susan Talbot-Stanaway. Instead of the wedding cake confections of the White City, architects would show off to visitors the International Style that was then raising eyebrows. The Century of Progress this became a showcase of the modern that resolutely, even defiantly looked forward.
Of course, the future displayed at the 1933 fair was no less fraudulent than that put on display at the 1893 version, except insofar as it correctly forecast a future that would be dictated not by the gentility but by corporate advertising. Carl Condit was one of many who found merit in it nonetheless as a showcase of architecture. “The fair represented a second renaissance of modern architecture in the United States, in the city of its original birth, and a new consciousness of its character and meaning,” he wrote in Chicago, 1930–70. “There can be no question that just as the Columbian Exposition gave rise to the City Beautiful movement, which left a permanent residue in the philosophy of American planning, so the Century of Progress played a major role in the rapid acceptance of modern architecture in the thirties and forties.”
Fred Keck’s House of Tomorrow and Crystal House were radical designs even compared to other Century of Progress houses. Prefabricated steel frames allowed the house interior to change as family needs changed. The Keck House Of Tomorrow was twelve-sided, had molded fireproof plastic wall panels, lots of glass, aluminum-coated Venetian blinds Movable wardrobes instead of closets, it was equipped with appliances such as dishwashers and central air conditioning that in 19233 were as loony as spaceships. One of its two garages was intended for the family airplane that the family of the future was assumed to own. After the fair, the House of Tomorrow was purchased by a Chicago real-estate developer who floated them by barge across the lake to his new resort subdivision, Beverly Shores, in Indiana, as a publicity stunt. Keck built a second house, the Crystal House, for the reopening of the fair’s second season, in 1934. Progressive Architecture found the steel and glass house “the most remarkable building of its day.”
The Keck houses were reminders that Chicago, while most famous for its innovations in the tall commercial building, also has a distinguished history of innovations in the design and construction of houses. For example, balloon frame structures first appeared in Chicago in 1833. The balloon frame is a lightweight, easy-to-build wooden structural support system using manufactured lumber and nails. Heavy timber beams and masonry walls were abandoned in favor of lighter but more numerous structural members held together by thin sheathing—hence the “balloon” of the name. (The term was originally a term of derogation, because of its presumed flimsiness.)
That first balloon frame was devised by untrained craftsmen whose identity historians still dispute. (The AIA Guide credits one George W. Snow of Chicago.) Housing historian Joseph C. Bigott dismisses that as a myth, arguing that the method was the product of many hands over many years as American carpenters sought faster building methods to meet demand for city houses after the Civil War. (Carpenters in Illinois, for example, combined timber framing and balloon frames in buildings during a transitional period from 1830 to about 1880, according to Biggott.)
However it happened, the balloon frame was perfected. The first known result locally was the St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the first Catholic church in the city. Balloon frame buildings were cheap and quick to build, not much more than wooden tents, which made the technique especially suited to construction of one- and one-and-a-half-story wooden cottages in a city that beginning in the 1830s seemed always to have more people than it did houses.
If Chicago’s innovations in tall buildings affected American architecture, the balloon frame affected America. No other innovation did more to change the way Americans live, and invest. Balloon framing turned house-building from craft into industry, and thus turned the house into one more cheap, standardized, mass-produced appliance. The cheapness and relative lack of permanence of houses made this way has allowed mobile Americans to use and discard houses the way they do their automobiles.
As Chicago made the frame house popular (in the eastern U.S., the method was called Chicago construction), so did the frame house help make Chicago rich. Demand in the burgeoning West for the 2 x 4 lumber from which balloon frames are fashioned made Chicago for a time the biggest lumber market in the country.
A century after the invention of balloon framing, Chicagoans tried to revolutionize housing again. Affordable housing was a chronic problem during Chicago’s boom years. Various experiments were tried, mainly to with novel ways to finance conventional houses and apartments. (See elsewhere this section.) Architects and engineers sought to reduce costs by building innovations—new assembly techniques and materials.
Frank Lloyd Wright for example had long tinkered with ideas for housing for people of moderate means. He worked up a series of designs for prefabricated housing to be marketed under the name of "American System-Built Houses." Two were built in Chicago—one at 10541 S. Hoyne and another at 10410 S. Hoyne, the latter the model home for a whole subdivision of these houses by developer Burhans-Ellinwood & Co. (Both of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hoyne Street houses are City of Chicago landmarks.) Another American System-Built house—one of only 15 known to exist, all in the Midwest—is the Charles C. Heisen House from 1920, which stands at 346 Highland Avenue in Villa Park. Alas, shortages in labor and materials occasioned by World War I saw the project abandoned.
The modernists sought to exploit the technologies of their day as the inventors of the balloon frame exploited cheap milled lumber. Using mass-produced parts they would design houses that would be, as Le Corbusier famously put it, machines for living. Inevitably, a city that had pioneered in making machines for so many other purposes would tend to this challenge. Buckminster Fuller—inventor of the geodesic dome and coiner of the term Spaceship Earth, engineer and inventor—moved to Chicago after World War I, where he worked for a company marketing building materials invented by his architect father-in-law. While in the city he designed a lightweight single-family home for an exhibit of modern furniture in 1928 at Marshall Field's department store. The house was to be heated and cooled by natural means, generated its own power, and was earthquake and storm-proof. A cunning baseboard ventilation system filtered dust, and its materials promised virtually no maintenance.
A Field publicist coined the name "dymaxion" for the Fuller house from the phrase used by the architect to describe the house’s novel structural engineering, "dynamic, maximum tension.” (The house was supported by a central mast, making the interior walls movable.) Twenty years after it debuted in Chicago, a prototype of a production model of Fuller’s Dymaxion house was built, to be produced by the Beech Aircraft Company which needed a new product once warplanes were temporarily out of fashion. In full production, was meant to sell for the price of a Cadillac but never went into production. (The prototype survives and is on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.) While the Dymaxion did not revolutionize housing, it did revolutionize Fuller’s reputation, and the word became Fuller’s trademark.
Little if any new housing was built during the Great Depression, and war production consumed materials that otherwise would have gone into reducing the backlog. The result was that returning servicemen confronted what widely called the worst housing shortage in U.S. history. Prefabricated and manufactured housing seemed the answer, or at least an answer.
World War II had proved that U.S. businessmen could build almost anything and do it fast if they had to; why not houses? One businessman who want to try was Carl G. Strandlund, an emigrant Swede who had settled with his family in Moline, where dad worked in John Deere’s plow works. Strandlund was a self-taught engineer of the type that northern Illinois used to produce by the battalion who made novel improvements to farm tractors and combines and air conditioners. As general manager of the Chicago Vitreous Enamel Product Company he made his living coating steel with porcelain, but during World War II he devised a faster way to armor plate for tanks, which earned him the ear of government procurement officials.
Strandlund talked Washington into backing his plan to build houses quickly that offered the efficiencies of factory mass production and the durability of steel. His Lustron houses were conventional ranch houses in appearance but covered with panels of enameled steel. An old aircraft factory would have been ideal for the job—the Midwest had several—but the Dodge aircraft plant in Chicago he coveted had already been leased to the Tucker Motor Company. Lustron houses ended up being made in Ohio but they were otherwise Illinois products. The prototype was the creation of Chicago architect Morris Beckman, and it was set up on a lot in Hinsdale in 1946.
Chicago might or not still be the capital; of big-time architecture but it reigns unchallenged as the capital of big-time architectural prizes. The Pritzker Architecture Prize, usually described as the profession’s Nobel Prize. (As England's Sir Norman Foster, 63. "Every award is special," says Foster, "but there's only one Pritzker.” The award was established in 1979 by the late Jay A. Pritzker and wife, Cindy. Administered by the family’s Hyatt Foundation, the annual prize (which carries a grant of $100,000 grant as well as enormous prestige) in 1979 to honor annually a living architect whose built work demonstrates “consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture.”
Surviving family members credit their commitment to architectural excellence to their growing up and living in Chicago. By now virtually every eminent architect in international practice has won his or (finally, in 2005, her) Pritzker and there would seem to be a risk that the juries will run out of architects before they run out of prizes.
Winners of the Pritzker, whatever their stylistic tendencies, tend to be devoted to the new. Not so the Richard H. Driehaus Prize established in 2003 by Chicago financier Richard H. Driehaus, an ardent preservationist and patron of the more traditional building arts. Administered by Notre Dame University, the Driehaus prize brings more money ($200,000) but less prestige, at least for the moment. Because it is awarded to designers whose work embodies the principles of traditional and classical architecture and urbanism in contemporary society,” it is sometimes referred to as the anti-Pritzker, There are many fewer accomplished practitioners working in conservative modes than in modernist styles, and whether the Dreihaus can reliably find deserving winners remains to be seen—although it is one of the purposes of the award to encourage more young architects to work along these lines.
Strandlund promised his government backers that he could put up 100 houses a day, but actual production was not close to that figure. His approach threatened the craft unions and banks, both of which were happy to remind lawmakers of his failure to make good his promises. Once hailed as the best hope for the industrialization of housing, by the early 1950s the Lustron experiment collapsed amid foreclosure and bankruptcy proceedings, although Lustron homes are known to still stand in at least 22 states—35 of them in Lombard alone.
Keck and Keck got rather farther down the road toward affordable mass housing than most. During the 1940s the firms designed pre-fabricated houses that combined economy and style that were sold as part of the Green's Ready-Built line, among others. (A subdivision of these homes went up in Rockford in 1945.) But the only genuine success in making and selling prefabricated mass housing came from another Chicago firm—Sears and Roebuck. They pioneered in precut, easy-to-assembly house kits, selling more than 100,000 between 1908 and 1940; Downers Grove has more than 150 of these Sears Catalog Homes still in use.
Architecture as art
There is no museum of Chicago architecture, but some architecture has been turned into Art. The Art Institute’s main lobby and grand staircase was renovated in the 1980s. The space includes narrow second-floor balconies overlooking the staircase which was converted into display space. There were mounted decorative objects from the AI’s collection of architectural fragments, such as elevator grilles from Louis Sullivan's Stock Exchange building and leaded glass windows by Frank Lloyd Wright, ornamental friezes, finials and lighting fixtures, even a column capital. Impressive as the best of these knick-knacks are as objects, they are only that. Out of context, the pieces look a bit forlorn.
Also at the Art Institute, sections of Sullivan's elaborate stenciled decorations, molded plaster capitals, and art glass from the Trading Room were preserved and can be seen in the reconstructed Trading Wing in the Art Institute’s the Trading Room in its new wing in 1976–77. (The arch from the main entrance has also been preserved, and stands outside.)
The Chicago Athenaeum calls itself The Museum of Architecture and Design, and offers photos models, computer-generated graphics, furniture and decorative buildings elements touching the city’s buildings and the various schools of architecture that developed here, urban planning, and industrial and product design. One recent guidebook described it as “for those who just can’t get enough about Chicago architecture.”
Chicago’s reputation as an innovator
Chicago’s reputation as a seedbed of good architecture is not entirely deserved. Sullivan was driven out of town. Wright left voluntarily, Mies ended up here because he had little no choice, and had to wait nearly 20 years before Chicago would trust him to build a commercial building. Its movers and shakers in the banks and at City Hall have abetted the destruction of many masterworks and they shrank from building several potential masterworks.
Chicago today is a museum of great architecture, not its laboratory. The city managed to get through the 1980s and ‘90s, for instance, without seeing a single major new work by an important established architect, and none by a promising young one. As 2000 dawned, the debate was not about new buildings, but about why Chicago no longer seemed to matter architecturally. Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, referring to a series of major projects completed in the first half of the 1990s with disappointing concluded, “When Cleveland of all places is outdoing this city in putting up acclaimed modern architecture . . . alarm bells ought to be going off.”
Chicago now doesn’t make architects, it borrows them. Its major commissions go to “name” architects from outside the city, who in the 1980s and ‘90s gave Chicago several second-rate buildings.. Frank Gehry was commissioned to design the orchestral shell for the Millennium Park Music Pavilion and Great Lawn—a pet project of Mayor Richard M. Daley, who probably would have hired Gehry to do bus stops, just to be able to say his city had something by Gehry.
The profession has changed too. In his influential history of modern architecture, Henry-Russell Hitchcock expresses puzzlement as to how Chicago, with “no established traditions, no real professional leaders, and ignorance of all architectural styles, past or present,’ produced some of the finest architecture of modern times.” Donald Miller answers, in effect, that it was because Chicago architects had no established traditions, no real professional leaders, and ignorance of all architectural styles, past or present that they produced some of the finest architecture of modern times. Such people would not win a major commission today, indeed would not be able to get a license to practice.
The city has changed too. The fact that no world-class buildings have been built recently in Chicago cannot be blamed entirely on the city’s architects. There are very few world-class clients left in Chicago. Today the city is a back office, a branch operation, a subsidiary, and no sane corporate leader will lavish to a budget much less the firm’s image and reputation, on daring building. ●