A Modern Cloister in Chicago’s Hyde Park

12 Sep

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s chapel at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, built 1952. Photo from World Architecture Map

Since World War II, American architects, designers, and worshippers have debated: how “religious” does a religious building really need to look? Does a sacred space need to visually declare itself as sacred?  Does a religious building violate some spiritual rule if it looks like a secular building or is it okay, as we see in Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s design for the chapel at the IIT, for a church to look like a simple “God box”?

In their design for the Lutheran School of Theology built in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood in 1967, architects Perkins & Will joined Mies in the movement to release American religious architecture from its historic shackles.

The center lawn of Chicago's Lutheran School of Theology. Photo from Architectural Record, September 1968

The center lawn of Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology. Photo from Architectural Record, September 1968

In 1968, Architectural Record called the School’s design “refreshingly free of any trace of obvious religious symbolism, and indeed has as much 20th century technological elan as the most advanced secular building.”  The construction of the Lutheran School of Theology didn’t come without controversy, however, not because of its religion-free High Modernist aesthetic but because of the impact it and other Hyde Park urban renewal projects of the 1950s and 1960s made on the economically and racially diverse neighborhood which they eliminated in their wake.

Starting in the 1940s, residents of the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park watched as officials from city government and the University of Chicago expressed increasing interest in future redevelopment of what these powerful forces considered Hyde Park’s “blighted” areas, particularly the East 55th Street commercial corridor, one of the social and economic hearts of the community. Talk of a new vision for Chicago’s South Side soon became action, initiating decades of Hyde Park urban renewal projects funded by the federal government, the University of Chicago, and private developers.  The results were some of the most ambitious and controversial urban planning projects in the Chicago’s history.

Hyde Park Chicago's University Apartments, a Hyde Park urban renewal project completed in 1961. Photo by John Cramer

Hyde Park Chicago’s University Apartments, a Hyde Park urban renewal project completed in 1961. Photo by John Cramer

Most mid-century urban renewal activity in Hyde Park centered on the busy commercial thoroughfare along East 55th Street between the elevated Illinois Central Railroad to the east and Washington Park to the west.  Thousands of Hyde Park residents were relocated as block after block of commercial and apartment structures along East 55th Street were demolished.  In time they were replaced with an aspiring innovative kind of “new town,” a ready-made retail and residential community populated with modern-inspired structures designed by some of America’s most prominent architects and developers including I.M. Pei, Loewenberg & Loewenberg, Webb & Knapp, and Harry Weese.

With vast changes to its urban setting underway, Hyde Park remained a community friendly to large educational institutions. In fact, urban renewal issued a very visible invitation to outside organizations hoping to relocate to newly-cleared properties on Chicago’s South Side.  The largest of these new arrivals to the South Side was the Lutheran School of Theology, a seminary for young Lutheran clergy-to-be which relocated to Hyde Park in 1967.  The Lutheran School of Theology planted its new roots just steps north of the University of Chicago on a block itself had cleared of homes and businesses along 55th Street between S. University and S. Greenwood Avenues.

The Lutheran School of Theology today. Photo by John Cramer

The Lutheran School of Theology today. Photo by John Cramer

The School’s new home made of glass and steel was a giant leap away from how the organization had done things earlier in the century.  The Lutheran School of Theology’s first campus, established in 1891 at Sheffield and Addison as the Chicago Lutheran Seminary, was a cluster of modest classroom and dormitory buildings centered around a simple brick chapel.

The Lutheran School of Theology's original Lakeview campus later became the site of Wrigley Field. Photo credit: Flickr

The Lutheran School of Theology’s original Lakeview campus later became the site of Wrigley Field. Photo credit: Flickr

The Addison site was sold in 1910 and was replaced with a new sports stadium named Weeghman Park, better known today as Wrigley Field.  The Chicago Lutheran Seminary chose a more removed location for its new home: a collection of sixteen Collegiate Gothic style brick structures in a bucolic corner of Maywood, Illinois, approximately ten miles west of downtown Chicago.

The Lutheran School of Theology's second home in Maywood, Illinois. Photo credit ELCA.org

The Lutheran School of Theology’s second home in Maywood, Illinois. Photo credit ELCA.org

The decision in the 1960s for the Seminary to leave its idyllic Maywood home of over fifty years for a glass and steel box in inner city Chicago was driven first by the merging of the Chicago Lutheran Seminary with three other Lutheran seminaries from Illinois, Michigan, and Iowa, prompting demands for newer facilities and a new moniker – the Lutheran School of Theology. With residential development in Maywood on the rise, the Seminary’s grounds of untouched land fetched a generous price that aided in the construction of a new facility; the Seminary’s Maywood site was, however, never developed and today remains parkland with a few former educational structures remaining.

Architect James Lamantia's 1966 St. Pius Church in New Orleans' Lake Vista community - a good example of a Vatican II-era architect breaking the rules of traditional church design.  Photo by John Cramer

Architect James Lamantia’s 1966 St. Pius Church in New Orleans’ Lake Vista community – a good example of a Vatican II-era architect breaking the rules of traditional church design. Photo by John Cramer

Other motives for the School’s move into a metropolis were symbolic ones, reasons that reflected on the possibility of a renewed role for religion in everyday life. After World War II, religious communities worldwide found themselves at odds with age-old religious hierarchies and practices which many believed kept congregations closed off from the events and people in the outside world.  Religious from across the spectrum of world creeds, from Lutherans to Jews to Catholics, sought to integrate worship with social engagement both within and outside sanctuary walls.  Christianity’s religious struggles with and for modernity in the mid-twentieth century were best represented by new dictums issued in 1965 by the Roman Catholic church’s Second Vatican Council (known colloquially as “Vatican II”) which called for larger roles for laity, reorganization and relaxation of some of the church’s more arcane rules and practices, and incorporation of local customs and language into religious services. I discussed Vatican II and the moving sacred architecture that it produced in my post on Marcel Breuer’s St. John’s Abbey.

In a modern climate disjointed by social and political upheaval, American Lutherans of the 1950s and 60s, like their Catholic counterparts, sought newer and more relevant ways to express their faith.  Lay people took on a more integrated role in services, and modern music was allowed to replace more traditional hymns.  More controversial were efforts to accept women into higher clerical roles, culminating in the ordination of the first North American female Lutheran pastor in 1970.

Change in Lutheran communities in the United States prompted their own upheavals in the 1950s and 1960s, resulting in the reorganization of several Lutheran governing bodies, including the Lutheran Church in America of which the Chicago Lutheran Seminary was a part.  For students studying at the Chicago Seminary, moving from their tranquil Maywood home to what the Chicago Tribune called the urban “sociological turmoil” of Hyde Park was an affirmation of the importance of their faith’s modernization and of social engagement with those outside of the fold, particularly for those studying to enter leadership in the Lutheran church.  “It is there,” one staff member of the Lutheran School of Theology told the Chicago Tribune in the run-up to the organization’s move to Hyde Park, “in cities, in slums – that 90 per cent of our ministers will preach, counsel, and minister.  …The concept of training Lutheran ministers in meditative seclusion is passé.”

Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology. Photo credit Architectural Record, September 1968

For its new inner city site, the School commissioned a Perkins & Will-designed campus that used modern architecture as a billboard to express the new progressive mission of the American Lutheran faith. The new structure eliminated all the vestiges of religious function that characterized religious and educational architecture even just a generation before – no historic detailing and no obvious religious decorative imagery. Perkins & Will recalled ancient cloisters in grouping three low-rise glass and steel structures around a center lawn (hiding a 200-car parking area below).

Gillespie, Kidd & Coia's St. Peter's Seminary, completed in Cardross, Scotland in 1966. Photo credit Wikipedia

Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s St. Peter’s Seminary, completed in 1966 in Cardross, Scotland. Photo credit Wikipedia

Aspiring clergy in this modern seminary were, however, anything but cloistered.  Facades of clear glass allowed uninterrupted views out from – and into – the complex’s many classrooms.  The inner “cloister” was also easily visible and accessible from 55th Street with open air access points into the complex located at the site’s northeast and southeast corners.  This experimenting with a perforated, outward-looking religious architecture had already been explored in contemporary Catholic monastic architecture like Le Corbusier’s priory at Sainte Marie de la Tourette, completed in 1960, and the 1966 Gillespie, Kidd & Coia’s St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, Scotland (my personal favorite, designed by a former professor of mine, the late Isi Metzstein).

The Lutheran Theological Seminary's center lawn is fully accessible from surrounding neighborhood. Photo by John Cramer

The Lutheran School of Theology’s inner “cloister” and center lawn is publicly accessible from surrounding neighborhood. Photo by John Cramer

The School’s north edge was allowed to remain open to the Hyde Park neighborhood the seminarians intended to serve (the community-embracing “cloister” lawn is today fully enclosed by the 2003 McCormick Theological Seminary designed by M+W Zander).

The McCormick Theological Seminary (at left), completed in 2003, today fully encloses the center lawn of the 1967 Lutheran Theological Seminary. Photo by John Cramer

The McCormick Theological Seminary (at left), completed in 2003, today fully encloses the center lawn of the 1967 Lutheran School of Theology. Photo by John Cramer

The new Lutheran School of Theology complex offered its 350 active students updated classrooms, a 125-seat lecture hall, a common dining room, a library for 300,000 books, a 600-seat auditorium, and a small meditation chapel…

Chicago Lutheran Seminary Interior 2_Architectural Record Sept 1968

The Lutheran School of Theology’s Perkins & Will-designed auditorium. Photo from Architectural Record, September 1968

…all enclosed in stylized bronze glass and aluminum curtain walls.

Chicago Lutheran Seminary Exterior 1_Architectural Record Sept 1968

While the facades facing the center lawn are of simple Miesian glass planes, the street-facing facades of Chicago’s Lutheran School of Theology show more complicated compositions of glass and aluminum. Photo from Architectural Record, September 1968

These educational spaces were seemingly suspended in the air by pairs of enormous concrete Vierendeel trusses, declared “a structural tour-de-force”.  The Vierendeel trusses, seen almost exclusively in large bridge projects, transfer their structural loads to the ground by way of large cruciform-shaped concrete piers, metaphorically and literally anchoring the School to its site by way of the symbolism of the Lutheran faith.

The Lutheran School of Theology's cruciform concrete piers in 1968. Photo from Architectural Record, September 1968

The Lutheran School of Theology’s cruciform concrete piers in 1968. Photo from Architectural Record, September 1968

The School's concrete piers today. Photo by John Cramer

The School’s concrete piers today. Photo by John Cramer

Opposition to the School’s chosen site was vocal.  Though much of E. 55th Street had met with the wrecking ball in the 1950s, the site the Lutheran School of Theology chose in 1964 for its new Hyde Park home were still built-up functioning city blocks, home to about 600 residents, mostly African American families.  These blocks was described by the Chicago Tribune as “one of the best integrated middle rent housing blocks in the community,” a rare example of stable and affordable housing in the center of a neighborhood in flux.  Residents and business owners complained to church groups, to newspapers, and to the Lutheran School of Theology itself of the alleged lack of comparable housing in the community and disenfranchisement of local Hyde Parkers from the big decisions impacting their families and livelihoods.

The inner "cloister" of the Lutheran School of Theology today. Photo by John Cramer

The inner “cloister” of the Lutheran School of Theology today. Photo by author

Though the irony of displacing residents the new seminarians were intended to serve could not have been lost on many involved in the deal, land purchases proceeded and work on the new School kicked off on a cleared site in October 1965. The nearly $4 million project was completed and ready for students in 1967.

The Lutheran School of Theology remains a major architectural presence on Hyde Park’s E. 55th Street, still prompting debates about the complicated overlap of religion, architecture, and social justice.


Preservation Along the Piscataqua

30 Jul
Portsmouth's Market Square with the knockout North Church. Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Market Square with the knockout North Church. Photo by author

Last weekend in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I spent some fun down time with family and got an eyeful of American architectural history.  Portsmouth got an adoring travel write-up in the Chicago Tribune back in June, and for good reason. Once among the most prosperous seaports in North America, Portsmouth today has done a great job of translating its cache of intact 17th, 18th, and 19th century architecture into big tourist dollars, a very welcome income stream since the slowdown of the local shipbuilding industry and the closure of nearby Pease Air Force Base.

Portsmouth's Wentworth-Gardner House narrowly missed a disastrous dismantling by curators of the Met in the late 1910s. Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Wentworth-Gardner House narrowly missed a disastrous dismantling by curators of the Met in the late 1910s. Photo by author

The Wentworth-Gardner House is still open to the public and showing off its incredible 1760 hand-carved front door surround to passersby walking along waterfront Mechanic Street.  Wallace Nutting, the great circus barker of the early twentieth century Colonial Revival (and subject of an earlier post), once owned the Wentworth-Gardner and caused a stink among New England’s burgeoning preservation movement when he sold the house in 1918 to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The Met planned to dismantle the whole house and rebuild it in its new American Wing, but in the end the task of moving an entire mansion to New York proved too difficult. The museum ultimately did get something out of their bungled deal: Met curators crated up original examples of the Wentworth-Gardner’s furniture and wall paneling for display in their galleries.

William Sumner Appleton_credit Historic New England

William Sumner Appleton was one of the unstoppable forces of nature who demanded Americans face up to the destruction of our architectural heritage. All that and a nice dresser to boot. Photo credit: Historic New England

The Wentworth-Gardner was later operated as a house museum by SPNEA, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, one of the first and longest-lasting preservation advocacy groups in American history (it’s still active today under the moniker of Historic New England).  Manning SPNEA’s helm for dozens of its early twentieth century preservation fights was the organization’s founder, the formidable William Sumner Appleton (1874-1947) who brought influential social and financial connections and unrelenting persistence to campaigns for some of New England’s most important endangered early structures.

Appleton’s SPNEA helped protect two other great old Portsmouth houses.  One is the Governor Langdon House, home to prominent Portsmouth shipbuilder, state governor, and signer of the U.S. Constitution John Langdon (1741-1819).

Portsmouth's Governor Langdon House (1784). Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Governor Langdon House (1784). Photo by author

The Langdon House is a big Georgian pile befitting the station of one of Portsmouth’s wealthiest sons.  Around back is a later addition by the influential New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead, & White, a pretty demure composition that blends in well with the original house – on the outside at least.

McKim Mead & White's 1907 addition to the much earlier Governor Langdon House (at right). Photo by author

McKim Mead & White’s 1907 addition to the much earlier Governor Langdon House (at right). Photo by author

Inside the addition, however, architect Stanford White dropped any pretense of reserve with a spectacular display of high style Georgian Revival in his design of the first floor’s octagonal dining room.  The house has been operated by SPNEA (Historic New England) since the mid-1950s.

William Sumner Appleton had a personal hand in the acquisition and restoration of the Jackson House, a settlement-era house on Portsmouth’s North Side first constructed around 1664.

Portsmouth's Jackson House, built c. 1664. Photo by author

Portsmouth’s Jackson House, built c. 1664. Photo by author

Seven generations of the Jackson family called this timber frame structure home until the family sold the home in 1924 to Appleton who fended off efforts to “restore” the house by removing its eighteenth- and nineteenth-century additions.

Appleton saw the importance of retaining the later additions not just because they made for a more picturesque house (which was pretty important for contemporary Colonial Revivalists like Wallace Nutting).  Appleton believed the Jackson House’s significance lay not only in its connection to New England’s earliest settlement but also in its expression of the story of the entire Jackson family over time.  Early colonial history was important to Appleton but so was recent history and though it made for a more complicated interpretation of the house for visitors with their guide books, so the better Appleton believed for visitors to experience their region’s historical  complexity.

The original Jackson House building with 18th century and 19th century additions (at right and left) that William Sumner Appleton insisted remain intact. Photo by author

The original Jackson House is at center. During his restoration of the house, William Sumner Appleton insisted that the 18th century and 19th century additions at right and left remain intact. Photo by author

With no universally-accepted preservation principles to look to, Appleton invented his own, anticipating the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties by fifty years. He adopted a curatorial stance that retained later work, allowing the Jackson House to tell the story of all of its past residents, not just earliest ones. In a controversial move, Appleton retained the later additions and made only targeted interventions within the building including removing non-historic lath-and-plaster finishes and inserting diamond-paned casement windows where evidence showed they existed in the late 1600s.  In a fervor for “authenticity,” curators in the 1960s went against Appleton’s “leave-in-place” principle and removed the house’s later fireplaces (and any remaining evidence of the originals), replacing them with new reproduction hearths typical of the 1660s.  Other than these changes, the Jackson House stands essentially as the same house Appleton purchased in 1924, the same house the Jackson family called home for 250 years.

“A Recreational Masterpiece” on Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue

4 Feb
A 1929 advertisement for the Congres Arcade. Credit Billiards Magazine

A 1929 advertisement for the Congress Arcade. Credit Billiards Magazine

1920s Chicago was the unrivaled capital of early twentieth century bowling culture and was home to dozens of recreation centers, or “recs,” multi-story urban bowling and billiard halls that took indoor sports out of the saloon and installed them in settings more akin to movie palaces.  These early “palaces of pleasure” set the standard for recreation architecture across the country and were another few brilliant feathers in the cap of a city already known for its trailblazing architects and builders.  The Congress Arcade at 2047 N. Milwaukee Avenue, completed in 1925, is one of many great examples of Chicago’s recreation center building heritage that survive today.

The Congress Arcade (then-called Mill Bowl) c. 1975. Photo credit - Dr. Jake's Bowling History Blog

The Congress Arcade (then-called Mill Bowl) c. 1975. Photo credit – Dr. Jake’s Bowling History Blog

With an eight-bay four-story steel frame housing nearly 50,000 square feet of sports and entertainment space, the Congress Arcade was one of Chicago’s largest 1920s recreation centers.  Located just northwest of the Western and Milwaukee station of the Metropolitan West Side Elevated Railway Line’s Logan Square Branch (later the Chicago Transit Authority Blue Line), this large structure was among many new 1920s commercial developments facing the busy thoroughfare of Milwaukee Avenue. (The image of the Congress Arcade at right is from J.R. Schmidt’s fantastic bowling history blog, found at http://bowlinghistory.wordpress.com/ )

Chicago's Congress Theater (1926). Photo by author

Chicago’s Congress Theater (1926). Photo by author

The Congress Arcade was the creation of proprietor Frank E. Spengler who in advertising for his new venture declared that “in all the world there is no recreational building like this.”  The Congress Arcade went up  nearly simultaneously with the Congress Theater (2135 N. Milwaukee Ave.), the Byzantine Revival style Fridstein & Co.-designed movie palace that opened in 1926 one block northwest along Milwaukee Avenue.  Though we don’t know the names of the architects who designed Congress Arcade, there is no doubt that they attempted to translate the scale and opulence of their movie palace neighbor, facing the Arcade with the same kind of ornate terra cotta skin.

An Adamesque window surround at Chicago's Congress Arcade (1925). Photo by author

An Adamesque window surround at Chicago’s Congress Arcade (1925). Photo by author

The terra cotta façade of the Congress Arcade was crafted to resemble ashlar masonry and nearly matched the cream-colored terra cotta of the nearby theater.  The Arcade’s second floor windows and the spandrel panels below them were decorated with terra cotta medallions, urns, and swag reminiscent of the work of eighteenth-century English brother designers Robert and James Adam.

The Congress Arcade originally displayed a large marquee sign that stretched the height of the three top floors over the Arcade’s main entrance.  Collecting under the metal canopy beneath the great marquee, visitors stepped inside the main lobby and checked their coats.  Further in they found a counter for soda and lunch, and a café for finer dining.  Upstairs there were women’s parlors and restrooms, and a ladies’ beauty shop.  There were also men’s dressing and locker rooms and a barber shop.

After enjoying a trim or a bite, visitors were summoned by a state-of-the-art public announcing system to a reserved alley or pool table upstairs.  In all, there were twenty-four bowling alleys and twenty-four billiard tables distributed on two upper floors.  Boxing matches were also common events at the Congress Arcade; though documentation is unclear, these large public events were probably held on the top floor where spectator galleries could more easily be accommodated.

Chicago's Congress Arcade today. Photo by author

Chicago’s Congress Arcade today. Photo by author

Taking out full-page advertisements in Bowlers Journal and Billiards Magazine, Congress Arcade proprietor Frank Spengler announced to sportsmen across the country that “there are many larger recreation establishments but none combine the beauty of design, harmony of color and modern detail of class found in this building.”   Rarely had words like “beauty” and “class,” and been used to describe a bowling or pool hall, but at the Congress Arcade, Spengler raised the stakes for recreation centers on the West Side and across Chicago.

Its original bowling and billiards halls may be gone along with its marquee and its ornate top story, but most evenings, night owls still come out in droves to the Congress’ resident clubs and restaurants.  After nearly ninety years, the Congress Arcade still draws in the crowds.


Billiards Magazine

Chicago “L”.org (www.chicago-l.org)

Chicago Daily Tribune

The Chicago L (Greg Borzo, Arcadia Publishing, 2007)

Chicago Building Permit No.114075 (July 31, 1925)

Dr. Jake’s Bowling History Blog (bowlinghistory.wordpress.com)

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map

Back to the Future with Louisiana Architect A. Hays Town

24 Jan

Over this past December, I had a chance to take a look at two works by the late Louisiana architect A. Hays Town (1903-2005) in my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana.

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Town’s work is unique not just because his career was so long (Town was active in South Louisiana for nearly eighty years before he died in 2005 at the age of 101).  Town’s renown also comes from the fact that he had two careers, the first as a prominent mid-century Modernist architect of prominent Gulf Coast commercial and institutional works, the second as the architect of residences that seemed to altogether reject Modernist principles and instead embraced the vernacular of South Louisiana.

Town’s career spanned almost the entirety of the twentieth century and his work reflected the century’s changing tastes in architecture. In the 1920s, Town was an architecture student at Tulane University in New Orleans just as the Modern movement was picking up across the Atlantic.  In his early architectural career, Town was a dedicated disciple of Modernism, becoming one of the American South’s most-respected practitioners of Modern design.

But in the 1960s, A. Hays Town appears to have switched course. Instead of holding firm to Modernist ideals, he began to look back at the traditional architecture of his home state for inspiration.  Town’s work took on a distinctly regionalist tone that focused on interpreting (and in some cases recreating) Louisiana’s architectural past.

I’ve taken a took a look at two buildings in Lafayette, Louisiana, by A. Hays Town which, though only three blocks and fifteen years apart, show the great breadth of Town’s career.

The first was the Lafayette Oil Center, begun in 1952 and designed as a low-rise office complex for Lafayette’s growing oil industry.

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Town worked on the Oil Center complex for decades over many phases of growth. But it is probably this first phase of the Oil Center, with its attempt at marrying the needs of the automobile with attractive human-scaled architecture, that best expresses Town’s mid-century modernist optimism.

The Oil Center was conceived as an expansive campus of single-story office bars built with warm-toned common brick. These office bars are accessed from covered galleries that circle wide paved auto courts.

Gallery and auto court at Lafayette's Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Town balanced the automobile-focused site planning with opportunities for natural landscaping.  Town adjusted his design in order to incorporate several existing live oak trees which today have become sculptural centerpieces of some of the Oil Center’s landscaped mid-block courtyards.

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). The decorative column capitals and bases were added later. Photo by author

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). The decorative column capitals and bases were added later. Photo by author

The sometimes uncontrollable infiltration of the wild landscape strikes a great balance with Town’s rigid and rational Modern office blocks.

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Lafayette Oil Center (A. Hays Town, 1952). Photo by author

Three blocks away from the Oil Center is A. Hays Town’s University Art Museum built in 1967 for what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

University Art Museum (A. Hays Town, 1967). Photo by author

University Art Museum (A. Hays Town, 1967). Photo by author

No Modernism here.  Town’s University Art Museum is a simple translation of the architectural type that Louisiana is most famous for: the Greek Revival style antebellum plantation house.  Though Southwest Louisiana rarely saw antebellum homes constructed on this scale — the plantation mansion type is more likely to be found in southeast Louisiana along the Mississippi River Road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans — Town’s art museum used a traditional architectural language that was more familiar (and more popular) than the Modernist style he espoused in his earlier career.

University Art Museum (A. Hays Town, 1967). Photo by author

University Art Museum (A. Hays Town, 1967). Photo by author

For his plantation-style museum design, Town looked to the main house at Hermitage Plantation in Darrow, Louisiana, completed in 1814 and believed to be among Louisiana’s earliest examples of Greek Revival plantation architecture.  Town’s museum replicated several elements of Greek Revival plantation design including its 24 Doric columns, its hipped roof, and its traditional construction materials of wood timber, brick, and stucco.

University Art Museum (A. Hays Town, 1967) with new gallery building (Eskew+ 2003) beyond. Photo by author

University Art Museum (A. Hays Town, 1967) with new gallery building (Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, 2003) beyond. Photo by author

Town’s 1967 structure is today part of Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum and is flanked by a new gallery building designed by Eskew+Dumez+Ripple completed in 2003.  Though the two museum structures are generations apart in style, they are closer in age than first glance might suggest.

University Art Museum (Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, 2003). Photo by author

University Art Museum (Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, 2003). Photo by author

Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital: No Lessons Learned?

30 Oct

Eighty-one years ago, Chicago demolished a priceless piece of architectural history. Today, it looks like we may be about to make the same mistake twice.

Prentice Hospital shortly after it was completed in 1975. Credit: Landmarks Illnois

This Thursday, November 1st, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks will meet to deliberate on the possible landmarking of Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital.  The fight to protect Prentice has been led by the Save Prentice Coalition who has made an exceptional case for reusing the structure.  In the opposite corner is the property’s owner, Northwestern University, who is ready to demolish it, purportedly to build a new research facility on the site. The community’s alderman is unopposed to demolition and today we’ve learned our own mayor is willing to go along with Northwestern’s plans.

It’s hard to believe that a city famous for its world-class modern architecture would happily throw away one of its most significant buildings by one of its most celebrated architects. Then again, we have done it before.

William Le Barron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1931, the Home Insurance Building, designed by William Le Barron Jenney and constructed in 1884 at the northwest corner of Adams and Clark Streets, was demolished without much opposition. In fact, according to the Chicago Daily Tribune  it came down with much excitement (see the 1931 article below), replaced with Graham, Anderson, Probst & White’s Field (now Bank of America) Building.

Jenney’s Home Insurance Building may not have been much to look at but underneath that stack of Classical colonnades was something very new for 1884: a skeleton of cast iron and steel. Instead of relying on thick exterior bearing walls to hold the building up (a method taken to the extreme in the bulging base of Chicago’s Monadnock Building), Jenney constructed a metal frame that supported the building almost exclusively from within, turning the building’s façade into a wrapping or “skin” that simply hung off the inner structure. This innovation was the absolute pinnacle of nineteenth-century building technology, an achievement that served as a jumping-off point for the modern skyscraper.

Chicago Daily Tribune, Nov. 22, 1931

The Home Insurance Building was believed to be so important that in 1931, the American Institute of Architects performed a novel kind of post-mortem on the old girl, poking around the Home Insurance Building’s innards as she came down. At the end of the delicate dissection these early architectural pathologists declared that Chicago had in fact just torn down the world’s first fireproof metal-framed skyscraper.

And now, guess what?  Chicago officials are giving their shortsighted support for the demolition of yet another irreplaceable piece of architectural history: Bertrand Goldberg’s 1975 Prentice Women’s Hospital.

Prentice Hospital’s curved concrete bays, achieved using an early version of computer-aided design. Credit: Docomomo

Like the Home Insurance Building, Prentice Hospital was another architectural first. In developing Prentice, Goldberg was among the earliest architects to use the cutting-edge technology of computer-aided design or “CAD” in the building design process.  Historian Susannah Ribstein writes in Docomomo’s online information fiche that the complicated digital finite element analysis software Goldberg’s office used to design the hospital’s cantilevering concrete bays “had probably never before been used on a structure as large or complex as Prentice.”  In using freshly-developed CAD software in his design for Prentice, Goldberg created a new paradigm for architects across the world. Whereas headache-inducing engineering challenges were once avoided, complexity could now be embraced and celebrated.

Prentice Hospital today. Credit: John Cramer

The benefits CAD afforded Bertrand Goldberg as he designed Prentice Hospital – a quicker design schedule, easier coordination of his architectural documents with engineering drawings, less calculation mistakes and, most important of all, the simplification of complicated building systems – are seen by today’s architects as indispensable tools for doing what they do. Without CAD, ambitious designs by the likes of Frank Gehry and Jeanne Gang would be nothing but impossible daydreams (it’s not surprising then that these and many more prominent architects have lent their voices to the effort to save this groundbreaking structure). Prentice Hospital helped show the world the infinite possibilities afforded by computer-aided design and in the process led to a complete transformation of the architecture and design industries which today rely almost exclusively on digital design means.

It’s hard today to overstate the revolutionary role that large computer-generated structures like Chicago’s Prentice Hospital played in the reinvention of  the fields of architecture, engineering, and design.  Prentice Hospital reminds us all of the extraordinary times in which we live and the incredible feats of  architecture and engineering early digital technology made possible.

Home Insurance Building (1884-1931), Prentice Hospital (1975-2012?)

William Le Barron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building and Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital were both watershed moments in the history of building design and reinforced Chicago’s fabled pedigree of architects and architecture pushing the technological limits of their age. Let’s not make the same mistake we made demolishing the Home Insurance Building in 1931. Let’s keep a truly significant piece of architecture around for future generations to use, to study, and to enjoy.

Mercy Hospital 1968: A Prescription for Reinvestment on Chicago’s Near South Side

22 Aug

Mercy Hospital’s west facade. Photo by author

It was a fiery stroke of bad luck, and on Friday the 13th too, that really gave wings to the campaign to build a new Chicago Mercy Hospital.

New Mercy goes up, Old Mercy comes down – mid 1960s. Photo from Mercy Hospital

On Friday, September 13th, 1963, a blaze broke out on the top floor of the east wing of Chicago’s old Mercy Hospital at 26th and Prairie Avenue, about three miles south of the downtown Loop.  All patients and staff quickly evacuated and no one was hurt. Only days later the hospital was open again, albeit needing some serious cleaning and only offering limited services.  This time, though, there would be no renovation of the ninety-six year old hospital structure.  Fundraising efforts to rebuild the hospital were already underway and only two days after the east wing fire, hospital administrators announced in the Chicago Tribune their plans to demolish the old brick Mercy.

Old Mercy Hospital in 1910. Photo from Chicago Daily News Photos

Founded by Catholic Sisters of Mercy, this institution of healing received its charter from the State of Illinois in 1851 and the next year began administering medical care in a former boarding house in downtown Chicago.  In 1864, Mercy moved to a sprawling 20-acre site on Chicago’s South Side, remote enough a location to avoid the devastation wrought by the 1871 Chicago Fire.  From 1869 to 1917, Mercy expanded six times, growing to fill nearly an entire city block and becoming one of Chicago’s leading twentieth-century teaching hospitals and an important source of medical care to Chicago’s needy.

Plans to replace old Mercy with a new facility had already been in the works for a decade when fire broke out there in September 1963.  The hospital had earlier mulled over a move to the suburbs but resolved instead to remain and demolish its turn-of-the-century facility.  In old Mercy’s place, officials planned to construct a completely new facility, a modern medical center complex to be designed by the local firm of C.F. Murphy & Associates, well-known for their work at Chicago’s One Prudential Plaza (completed 1955) and for their long-anticipated Civic Center (now the Daley Center, completed 1965).

C.F. Murphy & Associates’ 1964 scale model of the new Mercy Hospital complex. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune

C.F. Murphy & Associates’ medical campus envisioned five low-rise structures – two identical six-story apartment buildings for nurses and interns, a five-story nursing home facility, and two four-story research facilities – all in the shadow of a concrete-frame twelve-story patient tower with enough room for 500 beds.  Finally released from the inefficient hodge-podge of Old Mercy’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings, the nurses and doctors of new Mercy would find a hospital designed with their needs in mind.  The new hospital would house a vertical conveyor system to aid in food, housekeeping, and medical supply distribution.  In the main medical building, outpatient care, operating suites, emergency rooms, and physical therapy spaces were kept on the main floor while patient rooms were lifted up into the tower, giving overnight patients peace and quiet, not to mention spectacular views of downtown to the north and Lake Michigan to the east.

A 1964 rendering of New Mercy Hospital. Photo from the Chicago Daily Tribune.

Staff and patients were not the only ones excited by the prospect of a new facility.  The new Mercy project, planned for the site of demolished neighborhood “blight,” was looked on favorably by city officials who saw not only a chance to improve local medical care but also the possibility to completely reinvent the physical and economic landscape of Chicago’s languishing Near South Side.  A new Mercy Hospital complex was intended to be only one of many neighborhood urban renewal projects and was hoped to become a focus of a reinvigorated inner city community.

Fundraising for C.F. Murphy’s new $24 million Mercy Hospital kicked off in earnest on November 9, 1963 at a glittering black-tie dinner held nearby at architect Alfred P. Shaw’s new McCormick Place Convention Center (completed in 1960, burned in 1967).  By 1965, enough money was raised to begin demolition of old Mercy and several surrounding neighborhood blocks and to begin the groundwork for the new complex.  In early 1968, after nearly three years of construction, patients were finally transferred from old Mercy into the new facility. Demolition of the old hospital was completed later that year.

Old Mercy (in the foreground), not long for this world, with its successor going up behind it. Photo from Chicago: City of Neighborhoods

Though new Mercy’s footprint has changed over its thirty-five year life, the centerpiece of the complex remains the twelve-story central patient treatment facility.

Mercy Hospital’s east facade. Photo by author

The tower’s two-story podium houses the hospital’s emergency services, accessed by a colonnaded entrance facing west, and the main visitor entrance pavilion facing east.  Perched above the visitor’s entrance on the second floor is the hospital’s original chapel (now closed for renovation), and cafeteria, its large windows looking east out onto an expansive parking lot, once the site of the Mercy’s Victorian era predecessor.

Mercy Hospital west emergency room entrance. Photo by author

In the tower above, Mercy’s patient bedrooms with their sweeping city views are set back within an exposed concrete frame. The colonnades of spindly white concrete columns hoist up the twelfth-floor penthouse which expands out beyond the footprint of the building like an abstracted and oversized classical cornice.

The underside of Mercy’s cantilevering twelfth floor. Photo by author

Inspiration for Mercy Hospital tower’s columns, modified groin/fan vaulting, and cantilevering twelfth-floor were most likely drawn from two notable American designs from the early 1960s:  architects Belt, Lemmon & Lo’s designs for the Hawaii State Capitol (designed in 1960 but not completed until 1969)…

Belt, Lemmon & Lo’s Hawaii State Capitol (completed 1969). Photo from Historic American Building Survey

… and Edward Durell Stone’s State Quad at SUNY Albany (1962).

Edward Durell Stone’s SUNY Albany campus (completed 1962). Photo from Wikipedia

Of Mercy’s planned outbuildings, only the 1964 intern resident apartment building survives.  This miniature-scale version of Mercy’s main tower gives us a glimpse at the scale of C.F. Murphy’s original complex design.

Mercy’s surviving intern residences (1964) just east of the main complex. Photo by author

Its twin to the north, an identical nurses’ apartment building, was slated to be built where the Stevenson Interstate-55 Expressway now runs just north of the complex (see the image of C.F. Murphy’s scale model above).  As the Stevenson was also in planning stages in the early 1960s, it is improbable that work on the nurses’ building ever broke ground.  The south intern apartment building, however, was completed as planned and sits intact on its original site just beyond the hospital’s east parking lot. This six-story structure, completed at the very beginning of construction on the rest of the complex, mimics its Mercy Hospital tower neighbor with its glass-enclosed flats suspended within a free-floating concrete exterior structure.

Expecting to build on the success of the nearby Michael Reese Hospital-Prairie Shores redevelopment district, the City of Chicago had ambitious plans for Mercy Hospital as a catalyst for rapid neighborhood growth.  The plans of civic planners did bear some fruit in the late 1960s.  Just south of Mercy, the South Commons redevelopment project, an ensemble of new high-rise and low-residential, education, and shopping facilities designed by Solomon-Cordwell and Gordon-Levin, was inaugurated shortly before the completion of the hospital complex.

A view of Mercy Hospital from the north with the South Commons development beyond. Photo by author

Despite its best intentions, the City of Chicago’s ambitious plan for Near South Side renewal came up short in returning the community to the level of vitality it hoped for.  Though Mercy was expected to spur a neighborhood building boom in the 1960s, the hospital’s twelve-story tower overlooks still-empty vacant lots cleared during Chicago’s urban renewal years.  Prairie Shores and South Commons remain attractive to residential buyers though the closure of Michael Reese Hospital in 2008 (and its subsequent 2010-2011 demolition) removed a major employer and life force from the neighborhood. With increasing focus on the return of South Loop as a vital commercial and residential neighborhood, it is yet to be seen how critical Mercy Hospital’s role will be in the Near South Side’s continuing revitalization.

Mercy Hospital’s east entrance pavilion. Photo by author

It’s Morning in Douglas Park

15 Aug

While doing some preservation reconnaissance on Chicago’s West Side yesterday morning, I had a chance to check out William Le Baron Jenney’s Douglas Park, one of the sprawling nineteenth century public parks that ring the city, all linked together by the green boulevard system.

Set within the center of Douglas Park is the Prairie style-inspired Flower Hall, a reinforced concrete pavilion built around 1907.  The Flower Hall was designed in part by the influential Danish-American landscape architect Jens Jensen (1860-1951) as the focal point for his semi-formal garden that unfolds to the hall’s west.

Douglas Park’s Flower Hall today. Photo by author

Along with Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory, Douglas Park’s Flower Hall was one of only a few buildings Jensen had a hand in designing during his career and was his own thoughtful effort at fusing architecture and landscape into one unified composition.

Thanks to a restoration undertaken a decade ago, Douglas Park’s Flower Hall and its gardens still look as good as they did when Chicagoans got their first look at them 105 years ago.  Being there alone in the early morning (except for a few joggers), it’s still possible to imagine the park as it once was back in1907.

Jens Jensen’s Douglas Park Flower Hall in 1933. Image from the one and only Chuckman’s Chicago blog chuckmanchicagonostalgia.wordpress.com