Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Belltower: Chicago — an architectural marvel


MANY SKYSCRAPERS along the Chicago River are designed to reflect the water in interesting patterns. Some also serve as yacht harbors. Democrat photos by Michael Raffety

Visiting Chicago in late May we figured it would be pretty warm, but not too warm. It was warm for our side trip to Rockport and our visit to Oak Park, and it was warm in New York City. But when we returned to Chicago to explore downtown, the weather turned cool. No problem. I always travel with a Harris tweed sport coat, which along with an umbrella served me well during rain in Boston several years ago that was the remnant of a hurricane.

The sport coat worked for a while in Chicago and then it turned cold. I mean really cold. So cold I did something I rarely do on vacation. I went shopping. Just a couple of blocks from our hotel was a Men’s Wearhouse. I got a heck of a deal on the last winter coat in stock and picked up a stylish raincoat for half price, which they shipped for free.

It stayed cold and I wore that winter jacket all over Chicago for the couple of days and on the airplane home. It took time to get over that Chicago coldness.

By the time we got to downtown Chicago I had finished a book on it that had come via my mother-in-law for me to give to Chicago native Mike Roberts, who was one of our writers until recently. He finished it and handed it off to me. Written by Gary Krist, it is called “City of Scoundrels, the 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago.”

The disasters included a burning blimp crashing into the skylight of the Illinois Trust and Savings, a race riot, the murder of a 6-year-old girl, a streetcar strike and finally the National Guard brought in to restore order. All of this happened in 1919.

But to round out the book it was largely about the mayoralty of William “Big Bill” Thompson, who became Chicago’s 41st mayor in 1915, serving until 1923 and then again from 1927-1931.

Col. Robert R. McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune, and Victor F. Lawson of the Daily News hated Thompson and labeled him corrupt. But few people are elected mayor of Chicago without politically juicing the system, putting a lot of your supporters in jobs. Thompson won by ensuring his South Side black voters got some key jobs as well.

My takeaway on Thompson was that he spent a lot of city money and ran up the debt to implement the Chicago Plan. That meant buying up property to widen the streets and spending money on bridges across the Chicago River.

The Chicago Plan by architect Daniel Burnham, designed to make the city the “Paris of the Prairie,” was not completely implemented, but what was done was begun by Mayor Thompson.

Burnham’s plan included widening Michigan Avenue, Wacker Drive and Congress Parkway and extending Ogden Avenue.

It also included building a regional highway system, opening the lakefront to the public and improving the railway terminals.

Between 1915 and 1931, 108 miles of streets were widened.

A good portion of those plans were implemented. When I walk down the wide sidewalks along six-lane Michigan Avenue I think about Mayor Big Bill Thompson. He may have been as corrupt as the newspaper moguls claimed he was, but he accomplished a lot for the future of Chicago — bridges, wide streets.

Chicago is famous for its architecture, starting with Louis Sullivan’s 1899-1901 Carson, Pirie, Scott Building that now houses a Target. That building and works by William LeBaron Jenny and Daniel Burnham came to be labeled the “Chicago School” of architecture.

Art history author Professor Frederick Hartt calls this building, “A still more revolutionary work, remarkably prophetic of much of 20th century architecture.”

“Here he (Sullivan) recognized for the first time the basic identity between the vertical and horizontal directions implicit in the steel frame. The areas between the windows on both facades are left flat and smooth, so that verticality and horizontality are perfectly balanced,” Hartt wrote.

The Second Chicago School included architects like Ludwig Mies Vander Rohe and Fazlur Khan. Khan designed the John Hancock Center and the Willis Tower.

The whole Miracle Mile along Michigan Avenue and along the Chicago River is an absolute symphony of stunning architecture. The Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out a lot of old buildings, so the city started fresh and continued to stay modern.

The one exception is the Chicago Tribune Building. We thought it was some sort of Gothic church until we realized the lower building in back with the words Chicago Tribune were attached to it. It is ugly. The guide on the river architectural tour said there were secret exits from the building because the publisher feared the potential for riots outside his building. Torches and pitchforks.

This Gothic skyscraper was actually built after McCormick ran a design competition in 1922. There were 260 entries, with the winner getting $50,000. The winners were two New York architects named John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood. Construction was completed in 1925. The building is 462 feet high. Sculptures and decorations were done by Rene Paul Chamberlain.

Among the decorations were the following egotistical additions by the architects: a howling dog carved over the entrance to represent Howells and Robin Hood to represent Hood. The top of the tower was designed after the “butter tower” of the Rouen Cathedral in France.

The Tribune Co. bought the L.A. Times in June 2000, thus comprising a newspaper empire that included the Baltimore Sun and its collection of community newspapers. In April 2007 it was bought by real estate big cheese Sam Zell for $2.8 billion. By December 2008 it filed for bankruptcy. Between 2005 and 2009 it laid off 203 editors and reporters, then laid off another 20 in 2011, the latest year I could get figures for.

The bankruptcy prompted the Tribune Co. to announce in 2008 that it was selling the Tribune Building in Chicago and the Times Building in Los Angeles.

The Chicago Tribune still uses 435 Michigan Ave. as its address for subscriptions and everything else. On the way out of town I saw another Tribune building in the inner suburbs, which I suspect is their printing plant. The Chicago Sun Times closed down its printing plant, laying off 400 employees and now contracts with the Tribune to do printing. The Tribune had been distributing the Sun Times anyway.

The latest financial news on the Tribune I noticed in the Wall Street Journal was that it was separating is newspaper business from its television business and it was moving more towards TV stations as being more lucrative. We’ll see.

It’s an exciting town, especially when it’s not to hot and not too cold. In other words the weather is best in the spring and fall. No sane Californian would want to live there in the winter, even though I am aware of two from Placerville who have taken up residence there.

Only in Chicago would you find world-class absolutely stunning architecture and the world’s ugliest newspaper skyscraper.

Michael Raffety is editor of the Mountain Democrat. His column appears biweekly.

Michael Raffety


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