A Ghost Facade on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue

26 Aug

Gensler's proposal for 618 S. Michigan's new facade. Photo source: http://forum.skyscraperpage.com/showpost.php?p=5376824&postcount=13277

When historic facades are not around anymore to restore,  architects and builders sometimes attempt reconstructions of historic elements – with varying results. In a downtown Chicago rehab project, Columbia College and Gensler are trying a new kind of graphic reconstruction that doesn’t quite mimic their project’s historic façade but doesn’t allow to past to simply fade away either.

618 S. Michigan Avenue was originally built in 1913 two doors north of Marshall & Fox’s great Blackstone Hotel and was designed by prominent Chicago architects Zimmerman, Saxe, & McBride. First known as the Dennehy Building, then as the Arcade Building and the Barnheisel Building, the structure went through a major facelift in the 1950s when Zimmerman’s terra cotta façade was removed and replaced by architects Shayman & Salk with a simple Miesian-style aluminum and glass curtain wall. Longtime occupant the Spertus Institute vacated in the last decade for a new Krueck & Sexton-designed facility next door.

Now, 618’s new tenant, Columbia College, is giving its new home a second facelift. This time,  Gensler will take down Shayman & Salk’s mid-century work and replace it with a new glass curtain wall whose style is not uncommon in the Loop area. What would be uncommon about this proposed work is its applied frit pattern that will recall Zimmerman, Saxe, & McBride’s fanciful 1913 front.

Herzog & DeMeuron's Ebserswalde, Library (Eberswalde, Germany, 1999). Photo source: http://wvcarch64.wordpress.com/tag/herzog-and-demeuron/

Large-scale graphic fritting on architectural glasswork often produces in my experience a ghostly, sad effect. One project that comes to mind is Herzog & DeMeuron’s Eberswalde Library that had similar affected fritting and scoring on both glass and concrete, resulting in a kind of misty spirit box that might have done as much to entice in readers as to scare the hell out of them. At 618 S. Michigan, Gensler is channeling a little of Herzog & DeMeuron’s material wizardry by seeking to burn a memory of old Boul Mich into Columbia College’s glass façade. And frankly, though I’m always wary of one-liners, I’m surprised at how much I like the idea. I don’t think it’s so bad for a new project to show if not quite reverence then at least awareness of site and city history, and in such an innovative way to boot.

If Gensler’s vision for 618 S. Michigan is realized, it will certainly be a radical but not unwelcome addition to the gallery of architectural masterpieces and oddities that make up Michigan Avenue’s famous parkfront street wall.

618 S. Michigan today, clad with Shayman & Salk's aluminum and glass facade. Photo by author.

Zimmerman, Saxe & McBride's original 618 S. Michigan facade. Photo from "Chicago at the Turn of the Century in Photographs," 1984.

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