Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Chicago Then and Now...

I was looking through some of my old photographs last month and came up with this one . It was made in 1985 of the old Florsheim shoe factory in the west Loop across the street from Union Station. I've admired this building ever since I began paying attention to architecture back in the seventies. It embodied the very essence of Modernism, and looked as if it could have been an early work of the great International style architect, Walter Gropius. In fact, down to the Helvetica font that proclaims its occupants, it bears a resemblance to the 1925 building Gropius built for the famous school of art, architecture and design, the Bauhaus, in Dessau, Germany.

That building was a ground breaking work of architecture. Stripped to it bare essentials, the Dessau Bauhaus is an unadorned box of brick and glass. Gropius's tremendous glass curtain wall served two functions: to provide the interior with as much natural light as possible, and to reveal the building's structural elements, Gropius's response to the axiom promoted by the Chicago architect Louis Sullivan, form following function in the purest sense.

Until now, I never did much research on the Florsheim building, and it has for the most part been overlooked as an important work of Chicago architecture. But I knew for certain that it could not have been a contemporary of the Bauhaus building, as we simply did not build buildings in Chicago that looked like that back in the twenties.

Nevertheless it is a significant Chicago building as it is, as far as I can tell, the first International Style building to have been built in downtown Chicago. Its architect was Alfred P. Shaw, one of the most prolific, if not well known of Chicago architects, whose career spanned six decades in this city. Like his contemporary and one time partner, Charles Foster Murphy, Shaw had a chameleon-like career.  Both architects' buildings, while not showing a strong personal style, nevertheless represent the eras in which they were built to a tee, some of them enough in fact to be icons of those very different eras.

Would you believe me for example if I told you that the architect of the Florsheim building is the same man who gave us the Merchandise Mart and Pittsfield Building? In the twenties, Shaw became junior partner in the firm of Graham Anderson Probst & White, (successor firm to D. H. Burnham and Company), and in that capacity nudged that firm which specialized in eclectic, neo Classical and Renaissance styles (like the Field Museum and Wrigley Building), to the more up-to-date Art Deco. Perhaps his finest work from that era is the LaSalle Building, the signature of which is classic setback exterior, and one of the greatest interiors of the city, a walkway that transverses the building providing an indoor passage between LaSalle and Clark Streets. If you use your imagination, you can almost imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing across the two bridges that cross over the walkway.

The LaSalle Building was completed in 1931 during the height of the Depression. Commissions were sparse that decade and continued to be during World War II. Shaw left GAP&W in 1936 and founded his own firm with C.F. Murphy, Shaw, Naess & Murphy. In 1939 that firm designed the Telenews Theater, which would later become the Loop Theater, just south of the Chicago Theater. The two movie houses could not have been more different, the palacious, baroque Chicago, and the very modest Loop, which in its efficient, clean line simplicity, may very well have been the paradigm for what was to come after the war.

In the intervening years Shaw left Naess and Murphy which became one of the prominent firms in Chicago in the fifties designing buildings inspired by the jet age with their boxy shapes and arriculated aluminum facades, exemplified by the Prudential Building, the one building of the firm still standing and not remodeled beyond recognition.

The Prudential is credited as the first major building in downtown Chicago in over thirty years, but the 1949 Florsheim factory predates it by five years. Shaw, now partnered with architect Carl Metz and mechanical engineer John Dolio, created a building that was groundbreaking in its own right. Its rugged, stripped down simplicity set the standard for Chicago architecture for years to come. The building's most distinct feature is its continuous band of cantilevered windows which wrapped around three sides of the structure, emphasizing the horizontal sweep of the building. It was a factory after all and its design, like Gropius's Dessau Bauhaus, is the pinnacle of form following function. The Florsheim building exemplified the principles of the Bauhaus which placed a high value on the merging of art and technology. To them there should be no distinction between a shoe factory, an apartment building or an art museum. This principle would be most boldly displayed on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, planned and designed by one of the most famous exponents of the Bauhaus, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. On that campus, save for his masterpiece, Crown Hall, there is little or no architectural distinction between the buildings in fact, sometimes the significance of a building is in inverse relation to its design. Case in point: Mies's tiny shoebox chapel has been compared to a garage, while his massive boiler plant at the south end of the campus has been likened to a contemporary cathedral, complete with clerestory windows, and a spire (the smokestack).

In contrast, the Florsheim factory because of its no frills design, looks like a factory, albeit a very elegant one, which could be one reason it never got much attention. It wasn't until the next decade when apartment buildings, office buildings and art museums began to look like factories, that people began paying attention to the International Style in this country.

Here's an artist's rendering of the building, sans the cantilevered windows, from the time of its construction:

As the Art Deco buildings that Shaw designed for Graham Anderson Probst & White in the twenties and thirties personified that era, the buildings he deigned with his own firm, Shaw Metz & Dalio personified the bold, International Style influence of the fifties, and the less than inspired post International Style gargantuanism that dominated Chicago architecture in the sixties. In that vein, SM&D is responsible for some of the worst architecture this city has ever seen including the original McCormick Place exhibition hall along the lakefront, and the enormously flawed Robert Taylor Homes housing project. 

SM&D's McCormick Place was destroyed by a massive fire in 1967 and the Taylor Homes vanished in the first decade of this century along with most of the high rise housing projects in this city. Most people would argue that the city is better off without both.

Shaw's Florsheim Building lives on today, however in a much altered state. As much of the Loop and its environs have become converted to residential properties, the Florsheim, whose original occupants sold the building in the nineties, went condo. The firm of Pappageorge Haymes Ltd., itself a hugely successful enterprise if not a household name is responsible for the conversion. 

As you can see, the building has been altered nearly beyond recognition, but you do sort of get the feeling of the strong horizontal components that defined the original building. But no one would ever confuse the current iteration of the building with Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus or the International Style which for better and worse, defined so much of twentieth century architecture.

Which in my book, is a bit of a shame.

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