Posted by: mike on Sep 18, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago River City

Clearly visible from the Sears/Willis Tower, River City (1986) – despite its incomplete form – is Bertrand Goldberg’s complement to Marina City, a free-standing residential complex.  Instead of the intended height of seventy-two storeys, the existing building is only seventeen storeys high, incorporating a boat-dock giving direct access to the Chicago River.

Its S-shape is reflected in the spinal ten-storey atrium, the River Road, which runs through the building, so that the wedge-shaped apartments alternatively face out to the river or inwards to the atrium.  Originally the building was intended to extend a further 400 metres towards Roosevelt Road.

Bertrand Goldberg was a Chicago-born Bauhaus student and graduate of the Armour Institute regarded Mies van der Rohe as his mentor, until he became repelled by the mechanical repetitiveness of modernist design.

Goldberg asserted a more humane design-language by his rejection of right-angles, spectacularly apparent in his Chicago housing-projects.

The fragment of River City that exists lacks the impact of the intended design.  Marina City is 65 storeys high;  the six clusters of “triad” towers at River City would have been 72 storeys, linked by bridges at intervals of eighteen floors.

Mies is regarded as an aesthetic hero by a whole generation.  The tall rectangular boxes that he and his followers erected in cities across the world look fine, but Goldberg’s towers feel like places to live in.

There’s an account of Goldberg and his life’s work at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 16, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago Marina City

The twin towers of Chicago’s Marina City (1959-64) – inevitably nicknamed the “corn cobs” – were a social as well as an urban landmark.  Their architect, Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997), insisted their floor-plans were derived from the sunflower, “where the core is the center of the flower and each of the bays emanating from the core are very much both in shape and organization - like the petal of the flower.”

These two concrete towers were an exciting practical departure from established development thinking:  their construction is transparent, with a spiral of car parks leading to cake-slice shaped apartments with open semi-circular balconies;  the intention – which proved highly successful from the start – was to provide downtown accommodation for single and childless city-centre workers who wished to live virtually, if not actually, within the Loop.

The first nineteen storeys form a ramped multi-storey car-park (staffed by valets, presumably to minimise misadventures).  The twentieth floor is given over to services, included a launderette, and the floors above consist of apartments with some of the most enviable views in Chicago.

Conceived as a “city within a city”, Marina City was equipped with shops, restaurant, entertainment facilities and hosted both radio and television studios, as well as a marina with direct access to the Chicago River.

To provide nine hundred apartments economically, Goldberg chose to build two sixty-storey towers, and rejected steel cladding as too expensive.  Consequently, they were for their time the tallest reinforced-concrete structures in the world.

At a time when “white flight” to the suburbs was a major problem for urban planners, Marina City helped to turn the tide, making inner-city living desirable and convenient – though its residents, driving in and out and sweeping home in high-speed elevators, need hardly set foot on the sidewalk for weeks on end.

A helpful description of Marina City is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 14, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago IBM Building

The towering figure of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) ensured that Chicago led the world in the development of the modernist International Style.  He arrived in Chicago, a refugee from Nazi Germany, in 1937 to head the school of architecture at Armour Institute, which subsequently became the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Having designed the IIT campus in the Black Belt area of Bronzeville, he took up full-time architectural practice on his retirement in 1958.

Rooted in the principles of the pre-war Bauhaus School,– that architecture is intended simply to define space, buildings should have absolute regularity unless variation is functionally necessary and there should be no applied decoration – the buildings of this style are instantly recognisable as rectilinear boxes floating above a ground-level podium.  They show no sign of their function, ignore their surroundings and could be positioned anywhere.  Mies van der Rohe’s principle was that “less is more”.

His last American commission was the 52-storey, 695-feet-high IBM Building at 330 North Wabash Avenue, built posthumously in 1969-71 (or 1971-3, depending on the source).  Its distinguishing feature is the use of dark aluminium instead of black structural members, and of bronze-tinted glass instead of clear.

It represents a landmark in building design because its owners, necessarily, specified features to accommodate what was then an unusual quantity of computers – an under-floor duct-system to permit cabling and reverse refrigeration to disperse the heat from the machines.

The building is a beautiful shape, but it could have been built anywhere.  Unlike the nearby Wrigley Building, which is carefully designed to fit with the bend in the Chicago River, the IBM Building is parked unceremoniously in a position that required the realignment of North Wabash Avenue.

It remains a practical building now that it’s to an extent outlived its original purpose.  As 330 North Wabash it is being refurbished to incorporate a five-star hotel on floors 2-16:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 8, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago Tribune Tower

The southern end of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is marked by two magnificent buildings, the grey limestone, Gothic Tribune Tower (1922-5) by the New York architects, John Mead Howells (1868-1959) and Raymond Mathewson Hood (1881-1934), opposite the white faience, Renaissance Wrigley Building.

The Tribune Tower was built for the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955) – a tall, authoritative, notably hard-working arch-conservative, described by an opponent as having “the greatest mind of the fourteenth century”.

His great-uncle was Cyrus Hall McCormick Snr (1809-1884), the developer of the mechanical reaper who brought its manufacture to Chicago.  His maternal grandfather was Joseph Medill (1823-1899), Mayor of Chicago and the founder of the Tribune.

The Tribune was never knowingly undersold:  it claimed to be the “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, and its radio- and television-stations each took the call-sign WGN.

McCormick turned the architectural competition to build “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world” into a long-running promotional campaign as part of a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst’s Herald-Examiner.

Howells & Hood’s design must have appealed to McCormick because of its essential conservatism:  it is the last of the line of Gothic skyscrapers that began with Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in Manhattan.  Its composition is a triumph of perpendicular lines, surmounted by a turret based on the Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral, 34 storeys and 463 feet high.

Images of some of the other competing designs can be seen at

McCormick encouraged his correspondents to obtain stone fragments from monuments around the world, 120 of which are now embedded in the lower storeys.

The entrance door is surmounted by a celebrated stone screen depicting Aesop’s Fables, and the architects are commemorated by a pair of rebuses, that is, heraldic puns – a howling dog and a figure of Robin Hood.

The Tribune Tower is a fine example of an honourable architectural tradition, yet it’s ironic that the more influential competition entry was second-placed:  the design by the Finn Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) was the basis for the Gulf Building (1929) in Houston, Texas.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 6, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago Wrigley Building

“Life is what happens…,” John Lennon wrote, “while you’re making other plans.”

William Wrigley Junior (1861-1932) arrived in Chicago at the age of twenty-nine believing he’d make his fortune selling Wrigley’s Scouring Soap.

As a marketing ploy he offered a tie-in with baking powder, and found the baking powder sold better than the soap.

So he took to selling baking powder, with an offer of chewing-gum.

The chewing-gum proved more popular than the baking powder and Wrigley’s fortune was made.

He launched his Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands in 1893 and at the end of the First World War, when the Michigan Avenue Bridge was under construction, he commissioned the Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to design the William Wrigley Junior Building (1919-24).

This much-loved structure heralded the opening up of North Michigan Avenue after the bridge opened in 1920.

The Wrigley Building’s odd geometry reconciles the curve of the river to the gridiron street-plan:  in fact, it divides into two buildings, of which the taller, 30-storey riverside tower has hardly more than half the floor-space of its 21-storey annex.

Its gleaming white surface, suggestive of the product that paid for it, consists of six gradations of faience, from a cream at ground-level to a blue-white at the turret.

Wrigley used part of his fortune to embellish Chicago in other ways.

As the majority owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team from 1921 he gave his name to their ballpark, Wrigley Field, in 1926, from which the surrounding area gained the name Wrigleyville.

In 1928 he paid for James Earle Fraser’s reliefs on the northern bridgehouses of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, literally outside the front door of his office building.

All this grew from a substance, chicle, that was originally imported from Mexico as a possible substitute for rubber, but proved marketable as a chewing product.

“Life is what happens…while you’re making other plans.”

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jun 4, 2013

Category:Exploring Chicago

Chicago River & Michigan Avenue Bridge

If any one structure can depict the entire history of Chicago it’s the Michigan Avenue Bridge, formally named since 2010 the DuSable Bridge after Chicago’s first non-Native inhabitant, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable (before 1750-1818)

Constructed between 1918 and 1920, it opened up the area north of the Chicago River and extended the city’s retail quarter into the area that is now known as the Magnificent Mile.

It was designed for the Chicago Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering, led by the engineer William A. Mulcahy in consultation with the planner Edward H Bennett (1874-1954), who had co-authored the Chicago Plan of 1909 with the better-known Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912).

There’s more to this bridge than meets the eye as you walk or drive across it.

It’s significant as the first bascule bridge across the Chicago River.  All previous bridges over this busy waterway were swing bridges, which were frequently closed to road traffic through the day.

It’s actually two parallel bridges which can be raised separately.  If either bascule needs repair it can be fixed in the raised position while traffic continues uninterrupted over the other.

And, though it’s not apparent from street level, it has two decks, the lower deck leading directly to the docks and riverside.

Furthermore, its northern abutment stands on the site of Du Sable’s original residence and the southern abutment occupies the location of Fort Dearborn (1803-4), the US Army base which encouraged the growth of the settlement that became the city of Chicago.

For these reasons the bridge is lavishly decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from the first discovery of the site by Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette in 1673 to the rebuilding after the Chicago Fire of 1871.

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Apr 13, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Chicago

Chicago Rookery Building

One of the most magnificent examples of the nineteenth-century revolution in construction is the Rookery Building in Chicago’s Loop, built by Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) and John Wellborn Root (1850-1891) during the explosion of innovation that followed the great fire of 1871.

Under pressure to rebuild the city quickly, the group of architects we now call the “Chicago School” mastered the techniques of building high buildings on a swampy site, and in doing so virtually invented the skyscraper.

The Rookery is externally conventional:  above the second storey its outside walls are entirely load-bearing masonry.  On the inside, however, the central light-court is framed by cast-iron columns, wrought-iron spandrels and steel beams.

Its spectacular atrium, lit by a glazed skylight roof and embellished by dramatic staircases to and above the mezzanine balcony, is one of the architectural wonders of Chicago.

It was modernised in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who encased Root’s elaborately ornamental wrought iron and terracotta with gilded, incised white marble panels that picked up the carved ornament of Burnham & Root’s exterior.

Burnham & Root – before Root’s untimely death – and, later on, Frank Lloyd Wright each based their practices in the building.

A further, clumsy refurbishment in 1931 obscured much of the quality of the original designs, and in 1992 a careful restoration by McClier Architects brought back the full impact of its 1905 appearance.

Indeed, McClier left exposed one of Root’s cast-iron columns to show the contrast between the original design and Frank Lloyd Wright’s radical make-over.

The lobby of the Rookery Building is freely accessible to visitors, on regular tours, but the light court is less often seen:

The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust offers tours of the Rookery Building on a regular basis – – and the Chicago Architectural Foundation includes the Rookery in their rich programme of architectural experiences:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Feb 25, 2012

Category:Transports of delightExploring Chicago

Chicago Loop

If ever you fly into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, don’t – as I have done repeatedly – take a cab into town.  It’ll cost you something like forty dollars that you could put to better use.  Catch the Blue Line for $2.25 or less:

The Blue Line is one of the newer (1984) sections of Chicago’s celebrated elevated railway, pronounced “El” and formally written as ‘L’.  All of Chicago’s urban railways were elevated above street-level, either on embankments or viaducts, until the construction of two subways which were intended to double as air-raid shelters, the State Street subway (1943) and the Dearborn subway (completed 1951).

The ‘L’ was the creation of a dynamic, unscrupulous, unlikeable tycoon, Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905), who followed up his attempts to gain a monopoly of the city’s streetcars by linking together the elevated railways which until 1897 stopped short of the central area, disgorging thousands of passengers into the congested streets of the financial and retail zones.

Yerkes provided the links, creating a four-sided loop round which all but one of Chicago’s ‘L’ lines gyrate.  Without him, there would be no meaning to the phrases “in the loop” and “out of the loop”.

Everybody knew Yerkes was not an honest man.  He’d been thrown into jail in Philadelphia for misappropriating public funds in 1871:  he served seven months of his 33-month sentence.

He moved to Chicago, with a new wife and a newly minted credibility, and quickly established himself as a financier and investor in streetcars and urban railways.  (Whenever he gained authority to build a line out of town, the out-of-town section generally didn’t get built.)

His methods were unorthodox:  syndicates, honeytraps, blackmail and bribery were his stock in trade.  When they failed he used more subtle deceit, hiding his identity behind proxies.  His self-proclaimed method was to "buy up old junk, fix it up a little, and unload it upon other fellows."

By fair means and foul, Yerkes imposed on the streets of Chicago the characteristic steel viaducts that to this day blot out the sun and fill the air with the rumbling of electric trains grinding round right-angle bends.

Only once does it seem he was beaten at his own game.  The newly-appointed University of Chicago professor of astronomy, George Ellery Hale, aged twenty-four at the time, manipulated – and embarrassed – him into funding not only the largest telescope in the world up to that time, but also the observatory to contain it, which to this day is known as the Yerkes Observatory [].

Eventually, city government and the city’s press combined to defeat his chicanery, and he sold up and left town in 1900.

He eventually ended up in London, where the practical and financial uncertainties that had dogged the planned deep-level tube system looked a fertile area for his type of enterprise.  He bought up existing companies and combined them into the London Underground Electric Railway Company.

He died before the Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly railways were fully operational, and the London Underground was directed to success by others.

This disreputable man gave London one of its greatest public assets, and an unmistakable icon. His estate was proved at $4 million – under a million pounds at the time.

There is an account of his career at

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Sep 5, 2011

Category:Victorian architectureExploring Chicago

Chicago Fine Art Building

Just as Chester's central library [see Westminster Coach & Motor Car Works] incorporates a fine example of early automobile architecture, so Chicago's Fine Art Building is based on the Studebaker Carriage Works of 1884-5.

The five Studebaker brothers started out in the 1850s building wagons for the military, for the California gold rush and for those pioneers' covered wagon-trains that figured in a landmark 1960s television series.

Gradually they extended their repertoire to more genteel passenger carriages.  Their works was at South Bend, Indiana, and in 1884 they opened their showroom, designed by Solon Spencer Beman, at 410 South Michigan Avenue in central Chicago.  It was designed to receive carriages in kit-form, which were lifted to the upper storeys in small pieces and then assembled floor by floor until they reached the ground-floor showroom where they could be sold and immediately trundled out on to the street.

Chicago's birth as a cultural centre grew from the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, celebrating the quatercentenary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World.  In the afterglow of the World's Fair, as it's more commonly known, the Studebaker building, which stands in the same block as the Auditorium Building of 1889-90 [see The Auditorium], was adapted in 1898 as a centre for artists of all kinds, and it continues today as a venue for painters, musicians, dancers and designers –

The adaption included two auditoria, the Studebaker Theater and the smaller Playhouse Theater, both of which were earmarked for restoration some years ago:

During the 1898 renovation a series of murals by Martha Baker, Charles Francis Browne, Frederic Clay-Bartlett, Oliver Dennett Grover, Frank X Leyendecker and Bertha Menzler-Peyton were installed on the tenth floor.  Take the ancient lift, and enjoy the sounds of the resident musicians going about their daily work.

The Fine Art Building provides regular events for the public:  see

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture 'Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago' please click here.

Posted by: mike on Jul 10, 2011

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Chicago

Chicago Auditorium

It's easy to walk straight past Chicago's Auditorium Building (1889) on South Michigan Avenue.  Once the tallest building in the city, it's now one of the magnificent group of structures that form the "streetwall" overlooking Grant Park.

The philanthropist Ferdinand Wythe Peck (1848-1924), supported by such luminaries as Marshall Field (1834-1906) and George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897), intended it as a major cultural centre and with a strongly egalitarian emphasis, following the bitter and tragic Haymarket Riot of 1886, which first provoked the celebration of May Day as a workers' festival.

Peck wanted a civic auditorium that would provide equally good sight-lines and acoustics for every seat and, as originally conceived, no private boxes.  Built at a cost of $3,200,000, it was one of the earliest American buildings to be air-conditioned and lit by incandescent electric lights.

The Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler combined in one structure a 4,300-seat auditorium, a speculative office block and a 400-room hotel.  Adler designed a foundation raft of railroad ties (railway sleepers, in British terminology) and steel rails to support the ten-storey structure, with its seventeen-storey tower, on the deep bed of clay beneath.

Unfortunately, the weight of the load-bearing exterior walls led to spectacular settlement, in places over 2½ feet, so that to this day the lobby floor slopes perceptibly.  Nevertheless, Sullivan & Adler's practice moved into an office suite on the top floor of the tower, where the young Frank Lloyd Wright served his apprenticeship as a draughtsman.

The auditorium is magical:  the ceiling arches are embellished with 24-carat gold leaf and the walls are elaborated stencilled to Sullivan's designs.  Albert Francis Fleury painted murals of Spring and Autumn on the side walls and Charles Holloway decorated the proscenium with forty-five life-size classical figures, all inspired by Louis Sullivan's poetry.

The building has provided the venue for many milestones in Chicago's cultural life:  it hosted the Republican National Convention in 1888, the year before the building was completed;  it was the venue for the debut of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891.

However, the Symphony Orchestra moved out in 1904 and the opera company followed in 1929.  The office space proved difficult to sell because of the noise of the elevated railway on South Wabash Avenue, and the hotel failed to thrive because newer competitors featured en-suite bathrooms.

The only reason the building survived the 1930s was because it was too expensive to demolish.  In 1941 the theatre company went bankrupt.  During the war it was used as a servicemen's entertainment centre, with a bowling alley on the stage and front stalls.

In 1947 the Auditorium Building was sold for $1 to the then Roosevelt College, now Roosevelt University.  The hotel rooms became classrooms and the former dining room became the college library.  A group led by Mrs Beatrice T Spachner campaigned for the restoration and reopening of the derelict auditorium, which took place in 1967.  The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975, and a further, thorough restoration took place in 2001.

The Auditorium has a regular programme of performances – – and Roosevelt University offers public tours of the building:

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here

Posted by: mike on Nov 6, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Chicago

Medinah Temple, Chicago 2

My Isle of Man friend John, whose antennae can detect a pipe organ over astonishing distances, has pointed me to footage of the interior of the Medinah Temple, Chicago, dating from 2000, when the Austin Opus 558 organ was intact and playable:

Perhaps Bloomingdales missed an opportunity when they stripped out this instrument to convert the building into a department store:  [see Shrine for shoppers].

Macy's in Philadelphia, the current owners of what was once Wanamaker's, have retained and restored the gigantic pipe organ which John Wanamaker purchased from the St Louis World's Fair of 1904.  Designed by the great organ designer George Ashdown Audsley, this exhibition instrument – the largest in the world with over 10,000 pipes – proved insufficient to fill the volume of the store's seven-storey atrium.  Enlargements took place in 1910-1917 and again in 1924-1930, so that there are now 28,500 pipes, controlled by six manuals.

The Wanamaker Organ, as it is still named, is a much-loved part of Philadelphia life.  Most recently it figured in one of the Knight Foundation's Random Acts of Culture in which 600 choral singers, disguised as shoppers, led by the chorus of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, burst into an impromptu performance of the 'Hallelujah Chorus' to the astonishment and delight of ladies trying on shoes and having their make-up done.

Footage of that event can be found at


For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Posted by: mike on Nov 4, 2010

Category:Fun PalacesExploring Chicago

Medinah Temple, Chicago

The first couple of times I visited Chicago I stayed at the Cass Hotel on North Wabash Avenue – at that time an inexpensive, serviceable place to stay with a fluorescent-lit coffee-shop on the ground floor and a dark bar by the entrance.  Now it's transformed into a boutique Holiday Inn Express:

On my first visit, in 2001, I was intrigued by the building on the next block, an exceptionally rich essay in Moorish Revival style, bristling with Islamic motifs, which I was told was the Medinah Temple – not in any sense a place of worship, but a Shriners' temple.

The Shriners – properly entitled the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – are virtually inexplicable to the British.  It's akin to explaining Oddfellows to an American (though there is an American connection, the Odd Fellows).

The Shriners is a philanthropic organisation, responsible among much else for operating children's hospitals.  The founders sought to combine Freemasonry with fun and fellowship, and their temples provided enormous auditoria in which huge fundraising entertainments could take place.

The Chicago Medinah Temple was a much-loved venue for circuses and graduations.  Built in 1912, it could seat 4,200, and because of its excellent acoustics and its huge five-manual organ it was regularly used as a recording studio by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Noël Coward, obliged to undergo an uncomfortable medical procedure in the nearby Passavant Hospital (now part of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital), was at first irritated by the noise of the massed bands of the Shriners marching to their temple, but later admitted that their rhythmic rendition of 'Darktown Strutters' Ball' "helped a little, spasmodically".

In 2000-3 the Medinah Temple's exterior was restored, but the interior was stripped out, apart from the proscenium, the dome and some stained glass, to create a spectacular branch of Bloomingdale's

To find out more about the Shriners, visit and

For details of Mike Higginbottom's lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

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