CHICAGO’S ARCHITECTURE—IS IT BEAUTIFUL?
A Century of Progress Exposition Ushering in a New Architectural Era
BY THOMAS E. TALLMADGE, M.A., F.A.I.A.
Author of “The Story of Architecture in America”
WRITERS on the subject of Chicago’s architecture have become very erudite in the last decade. In tracing our architectural history or in penning acid arguments on which was the first skyscraper we have often lost sight of the sheer beauty of some of our buildings. This little sketch, however, will be neither history nor controversy. It will merely be a humble attempt to appraise the beauty in its old fashioned meaning of our architecture in both old and new fashioned guise.
A RELIC OF OLDER CHICAGO
The Chicago Avenue Water Tower, the only structure of importance to survive the great fire of 1871. Once derided because of its mid’Victorian pompousness, the tower is regarded in a more favorable hght today.
Here we are brought face to face at once with age old questions as to what constitutes beauty and whether we can condemn today what our fathers unanimously considered as beautiful yesterday or praise without qualifications what our descendents may regard as ugly, but we will pass these by. What are the buildings in Chicago today that most delight the eye?
Long before the war everyone laughed at and apologized for the mid-Victorian Water Tower sticking up like a huge nail through the long silver tape that is Michigan Avenue; but when in 1919 it was proposed to tear it down a howl of protest went up from esthete and Philistine alike. Why? Because it was useful? No. Because it was historical? Perhaps, in a degree; but I think the most potent reason was because we had come to consider it beautiful. Age itself can throw a veil of loveliness over a face or a piece of architecture which in its youth was harsh and unpleasing, especially if we have learned to love it. Sentimentality, however, cannot lead us into praise on the strength of loveHness of many buildings left to us of the seventies. Built in the gaunt and awkward fashion that our architects thought was the last word in the fashionable English Gothic or the stylish Mansard Roof Classic of Paris in the decade succeeding the fire, their bodies today seem to be all shrouded and waiting for the grave digger. One other familiar example of this ilk is the Potter Palmer palace. Beautiful or not as you are at liberty to consider it, it still sits like a Frederick Barbarossa clad in the ermine of other days; waiting, undoubtedly in vain, for the time when architecture shall call it back to rule again.
Marshall Field Warehouse
Quincy, Franklin, Adams and Wells Streets
The Marshall Field Wholesale Building by H. H. Richardson and the Chicago Club by Burnham and Root were both glorious monuments of the Romanesque Revival, the style of architecture that overran the land in the eighties. These two buildings have been destroyed, the first, it would seem needlessly so. If one is interested in searching out other examples of this romantic and exotic style there is the Auditorium, the Congress hotel, the Newberry Library, and the Rookery Building, not lovely perhaps, but vigorous and interesting members of one family.
Chicago’s fame as a creator of the beautiful came with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Here if ever was tested the dogma that beauty is its own excuse for being. Without logic or practicability the skin-deep loveliness of the Court of Honor brought a nation to her feet and launched if not a thousand ships, at least ten thousand architects on a new course. The recent transmutation of one of these buildings, the Palace of Fine Arts, from plaster and wood to stone and steel has proved that beauty is more than a fleeting smile and that architecture cast down to earth may rise again. This old World’s Fair building reincarnated as the Rosenwald Museum is probably the most beautiful building in Chicago, surpassed in loveliness by but few in the whole world.
THE “GOLDEN ENTRANCE” OF WORLD’S FAIR MEMORIES
One of the glories of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1903, this “Golden Entrance” to the Transportation Building, is a striking example of the Chicago school of architecture established by Louis Sullivan. It is somewhat reminiscent of the Moorish
As a result of the World’s Fair the twenty-five years from 1893 through the World War is known as the Eclectic period. Classic architecture predominated but Gothic in a new and more attractive garment returned. Of the first species there is the Art Institute, the Union Station and numerous houses in various phases of the Classic such as Georgian, French and Italian Renaissance; and of the Gothic, buildings of the University of Chicago such as the Harper Library; of Northwestern University in the McKinlock Campus, and the Fourth Presbyterian Church are typical. Chicago as far back as 1888 had become known as the father of the skyscraper but the delusions of architectural grandeur given us by the Fair, caused such simple and logical, though perhaps not beautiful, solutions of an entirely new problem that existed in the Tacoma (destroyed), the Monadnock or the Reliance buildings to be discarded. The enormous number of huge office buildings erected in the loop in this Eclectic period, though painstakingly veneered by the architect with every ancient style and crowned, each one, with huge cornices, were not considered beautiful even by the man in the street. He called them “packing boxes.” Typical examples are the Marquette Building, the Commonwealth Edison Building, the First National Bank Building. The most meritorious example of this old type, as we call it now, of skyscraper is the Peoples Gas Building. Here a skillful attempt was made to force beauty by texture and pattern. The Woolworth Tower in New York in the latter part of the period turned architects away from the box type, so unpopular with the laity, to the tower and the picturesque silhouette. Of these we have successful examples in the Wrigley Tower, the Straus Building and the Methodist Temple.
Throughout this era Louis Sullivan, Chicago architect and now acknowledged father of modernism in architecture, stormed and swore at his confreres for trying to put the new wine of skeleton steel construction into the old bottles of the ancient architectural styles. He even built such structures as the Schiller Theater (now Garrick), the Gage Building, and the Stock Exchange Building to show how “form should follow function,” but in vain.
In 1922 came the famous Chicago Tribune Tower Competition. As a result, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in Chicago, the Tribune Tower by Raymond Hood, was erected. This building is Gothic and, as it proved, is the last of the Eclectics, for in this symposium of ideas for skyscrapers was an extraordinary design by a Finn, Eliel Saarinen. In Saarinen’s drawings lay the solution of the skyscraper, a veritable philosopher’s stone that would transmute the dross of eclecticism into the gold of the new architecture. Such corniceless and clean flanked buildings as 333 North Michigan, the Palmolive, the Daily News, the Marshall Field, one North LaSalle, the Board of Trade, are all children of Saarinen’s dream-mother.
The Chicago Daily News Building
The International Style as the new approach is being called, seems to be establishing itself as the architectural vehicle of the New Era now being born, as you have doubtless observed, with so much travail and with so much expense. Nor is it solely enveloping us in the cloudlike forms of the skyscraper. The Planetarium, the Chicago Motor Club, shops galore, residences in increasing numbers, and even a church or two proclaim the new dispensation. Even the 13th century architecture of the University of Chicago chapel owes its life to the new blood which is flowing in old veins. The Century of Progress Exposition is attempting to picture to you what the new architecture will be when the science of building has advanced so that its principles and forms can be applied to every sort of structure, and that brings us back to the problem that confronted us at the outset. What constitutes beauty? Will these strange shapes on the lake front, horrific to many of you, be acclaimed one day as were the colonnades on the Court of Honor? I feel that they may be. May I quote myself?
A Century of Progress will be the luna moth of exhibitions, and only when the sun goes down behind the skyscrapers and darkness laps in from over the cool lake will the great buildings really open their myriad eyes and spread their damasked wings. Then, bathed and adorned with Hght—light innumerable of stains and splendid dyes that changes form and substance, that transforms, with the touch of Midas, earthborn structures into towers of ethereal gold, that now denudes, now covers with veils of changing mystery—the Exposition will be one of the most beautiful things that man has created.
THE WOMAN’S ATHLETIC CLUB
Philip B. Maher, architect.