Friday, March 28, 2014

The Prudential Building

To the best of my knowledge, the Prudential Building is not on anybody's top ten list of best buildings in Chicago. It might not even make very many top 100 lists either. That's too bad because the building sits on Chicago's most prominent site, just across the street from the vast open expanse of Grant Park. Because of that, the Prudential can be clearly seen for miles. My guess is most people hardly think about it at all as it seems rather insignificant today, dwarfed by neighboring skyscrapers.

When I was a child, it was the tallest building in the city and the most prominent building in the skyline. Going up to the observation deck on the top floor and if lucky, having lunch at the restaurant called The Top of the Rock, was an occasional highlight of my weekly trips to the Loop with my mother. Of all the lost possessions of my childhood including my baseball cards, my greatest regret is the loss of a souvenir model of the Prudential Building made of cast metal. It measured about nine inches high; it's detail was incredible, down to the building's trademark relief sculpture of the Rock of Gibraltar, the symbol of the company that built it. The sculpture carved into the wall of the stubby tower to the east (visible on the lower right of this somewhat out of proportion rendering), is the work of Alfonso Iannelli, a wonderful work of Modernist design.

The Prudential, completed in 1955, was the first major construction project in Chicago since 1934, the age of the great Art Deco skyscrapers. Its simple, no-frills design almost picks up where Art Deco left off. The "steamlined" articulated spandrels, and the facade punctuated by the pattern of light and dark coming through the windows that mimics a computer punch card, championed technology and modern industry back in an era when it was still acceptable to do so. Unlike the timeless quality of "International Style" buildings that were built around the same time, the Prudential speaks to the decade of the fifties more than any other building I can think of in Chicago.

The head of the firm responsible for the design of the Prudential Building had a long and distinguished career spanning several generations of Chicago architecture. Charles Foster Murphy got his start working in Daniel Burnham's firm and its successor Graham Anderson Probst & White in the twenties. He worked on several major commissions in those years including the Merchandise Mart, Union Station and the old Post Office Building. One common thread of those three projects is they all involved the development of property above the "air rights" of railways. Murphy's experience with this legally and technically complicated issue, was an important factor for the choice of his new firm, Naess and Murphy to design the Prudential, which was to be the first of many developments above the highly sought after property of the Illinois Central Railroad along the lakefront.

Here is a photograph of the site of the Prudential Building made by Jack Delano about a decade before the building's construction:

Just about everything in the photograph with the exception of the buildings at the extreme right and the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign on the left exists today, including the railroad tracks, now under the Prudential Building. On this earlier post, you can find another Delano photograph looking toward the sign.

Two other Loop buildings by Naess and Murphy very much reflected the style of the Prudential, the Executive House Hotel on East Wacker Drive, and directly across the river, the old Sun Times Building. The hotel was re-clad about twenty years ago and the Sun Times Building was demolished to make way for Trump Tower. Only the Prudential Building, now referred to as One Prudential Plaza remains in its original form, more or less, with the exception of the great sign at the top which is now in its third iteration. The vast expanse of windows on the south elevation of the Prudential has doubled as a message board throughout the years, a trend that has been picked up recently by neighboring buildings. For years at Christmas and Easter-time, at dusk, members of the housekeeping staff would selectively draw shades and leave on lights to create the image of an enormous cross on the building's facade. That highly charged symbolism hasn't been seen for a long time now but you'll still see messages produced in the same manner every now and then rooting on local sports teams of in support of a particular cause. 

The inspiration truth be told, for this post is that the building has recently undergone a cleaning of the facade. For the past several months on the way to work I walked in plain view of the building and watched the slow progress of the workers as the painstaking process of cleaning the building in vertical columns took place. After months of work, they finished and the result can be seen in the photograph below.  

My old friend the Prudential Building gleams once again; it's amazing but in just the right light, the fifty nine year old building looks as good as new.

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