CHAPTER THREE: THE IRON FRAME MAKES ITS CHICAGO APPEARANCE

I laid out the essential characteristics of my definition of the Chicago School “style/movement” in the first chapter to be able to reference these as I move into the buildings of 1888-91.  By no means did all of Chicago’s architects pursue this aesthetic as we will examine, in fact, even the ones who did could not just flick a switch and were able to design such buildings. Both Root and Sullivan continually stated that a new, “American style” could not be invented overnight, if ever… But if it did happen, it would be a slow, tedious experimentation with ideas, materials, and details, that might evolve such a style, citing the organic/natural metaphor of growth that the European modern theorists had used to describe how such a style, as any true style had before, would evolve. And don’t forget that just as it was in France and Britain, there were two sides of la querelle des anciens et des modernes, in Chicago that included not only architects, but owners and critics as well.

Cobb & Frost, Ownings Building, Chicago, SE corner of Adams and Dearborn, 1888. Looking from the Post Office Square, down Adams: the Exposition Center’s dome is at the end of the vista. (Chicagology.com)

3.1. THE OWINGS BUILDING

It would seem almost preordained, therefore, that the first new office building constructed in this post-Haymarket It would seem almost preordained that the first new office building constructed in this post-Haymarket period would be at the intersection of Adams and Dearborn. Francis P. Owings, a developer whose reputation could be described either as a flamboyant showman or a shady boodler, depending upon one’s personal outlook on life (either way, he eventually ended up declaring a $5 million bankruptcy that was purported to be “the largest schedule of liabilities ever presented for discharge under the National Bankruptcy Act”), shrewdly had purchased the southeast corner of Dearborn and Adams at the northeast corner of the Post Office Square, a site that offered an unobstructed view of the building, as well as from the building, he was planning to erect.

Owings’ planned building was a good example of the current competition between the Twin Cities and Chicago.    As a pure publicity stunt, he had held a design competition to determine the architect for his planned building. All designs were to have “certain picturesque features” in order to impart a unique visual image to the building that would hopefully generate more than the usual attention (and profit) such a building at the time normally would merit. As opposed to the “frugal” Brookses who would not pay for an unusable roof for their office buildings, Owings had challenged the city’s architects to give his tower a unique silhouette that would truly make his building standout within the city’s skyline.  In other words, he had no interest in architectural theory, he wanted a traditional design with as much flair that still looked reasonably tasteful. (Here I will once again invoke the contemporary French term, parvenu, to describe Owings’ artistic taste and appreciation, as I had in describing Potter Palmer’s association with “good taste” with copious ornament in Cobb & Frost’s “castle” for Palmer and his wife Bertha. See v.3, sec. 3.8.)

Cobb & Frost, Chicago Opera House Block, 1884. (Condit, Chicago)

 Cobb & Frost, who had designed the “Commercial Romanesque” 10-story Chicago Opera Block some four years earlier, won the commission as their submission was judged “as best combining with the convenience of an office building that strong individuality which the owner desired.”  The Owings Building was originally announced on March 10, 1888, to be twelve stories (compare its height to the twenty-eight stories of Buffington’s recently announced “Cloudscraper”).  The next week it was increased to thirteen stories, an apparent response to the announcement that St. Paul was going to build Beman’s twelve-story Pioneer Press Building.  Minneapolis entered the race in May by announcing the thirteen-story Northwestern Guarantee Loan (Metropolitan) Building, designed by E. T. Mix.  The Owings Building was then increased to fourteen floors that ended the argument once and for all.  Although it had a relatively small footprint (75’ on Dearborn, 50’ on Adams), when it was completed, the Owings Building became, momentarily, the tallest (number of floors) office building in the U.S.   

Cobb & Frost, Ownings, Building, Chicago, 1888. Looking south down Dearborn. The one-story building following the two taller buildings was to be the site for the W.C.T.U. Temple, but eventually the Great Northern Hotel would be built on it. (Gilbert, Chicago and its Makers)

Cobb & Frost’s design of the building’s exterior was definitely romantic or picturesque per the owner’s requirement. Stylistically, it could be called, if one wished to be kind, at best, eclectic.  Eccentric, however, might be a more accurate description in that the building sported a fashionable corner curved bay window that was topped with a tourelle capped with a copper conical roof.  This was uncomfortably framed by gable roofs of red clay tiles on both street fronts, whose ridges, unfortunately and awkwardly (especially when viewed from the northwest), were not at the same elevation.  The architects were forced into this solution by wanting to keep the angle of the two gables the same, but as the Dearborn elevation was 25’ wider than the Adams front, its gable extended to the top of the fourteenth floor, while that of the narrower Adams side stopped at the thirteenth floor.  The awkward intersection of these two gables at the building’s corner was somewhat masked by the corner turret with its conical spire, that was commonly referred to as its “Nuremberg Clock Tower.”  In defense of Cobb & Frost, however, in its review of the building, the Tribune reported that the architects were not “altogether responsible for the appearance of the tall slender structure with its animated top.”

Cobb & Frost, Ownings, Building. Roof from the northwest. Note the geometric finesse of the designer: the lower eave of both gables begins at the eleventh floor, while the other gable intersects the corner bay at the same, thirteenth floor. This was accomplished while keeping the same angle in both gables. Because the Dearborn façade (right) was longer than the Adams front (left), the ridges of the two gables did not meet. This irresolution was hidden by perspective. (Gilbert, Chicago and its Makers)

There are good examples of eclectic (Hunt’s Vanderbilt mansion) and there are examples of buildings that merely have details from a variety of periods thrown rather unresolved over a building’s exterior, that are also so labeled “eclectic.”  The Owings Building’s elevations revealed it to be of the latter category.  A Romanesque arch, à la Richardson and Root, was topped with a Gothic pointed gable (that surprisingly did not have the same angle as the two gables at the roof) including the requisite crockets, within which was located a glorious terra cotta tympanum sculpture employing a writhing Moresque organic pattern.

Cobb & Frost, Ownings Building. Entrance. (Wolner, Cobb)

I think we need to go back a minute and remember that this building was projected to be fourteen stories tall… We are still dealing with Chicago’s poor soil that could support a ten-story building without suffering excessive settlement. Cobb & Frost tried to use the same solution that Boyington had tried under the Board of Trade: a raft foundation under the entire building. They first detailed a two-foot thick concrete slab, reinforced with railroad rails throughout. They then, surprisingly, still placed stone cut pyramid foundations on top of the raft from which they then started construction of the building’s structure. The building’s exterior structure apparently was still masonry bearing walls, the first three floors being of a rock-cut gray granite that had a maximum thickness of 36,” while the upper floors were made with a roman brick of a matching color.   Its color and the repetitive window alignments, however, were the only elements that gave the exterior any aesthetic cohesion.  Two heavy cornices broke it into three, unrelated layers. The three-storied rock-cut base was topped with a four-storied layer of plain brick walls with punched windows that was articulated with shallow pilasters. This was topped by the third “layer,” using the term loosely: a two-story layer sans pilasters that was even plainer than the layer below it, was followed with three floors of the same window rhythm articulated with even thinner projected lines than the pilasters below that imparted a grid-like appearance.  It was into this layer that the gable on each street front was extended asymmetrically until it stopped at the eleventh floor. (This was detailed the same on both elevations which was a neat geometric trick!) The other end of the gable, on both sides, began from the thirteenth floor at the corner bay and met the other eave above the fourteenth floor (or the thirteenth floor on the Adams front). The Dearborn triangular gable front was given a voussoir rounded arch, recapitulating the arch at the entry. Unfortunately, the rather clever geometric design of the gable was overshadowed by the pedestrian inclusion of what appeared to be the building’s chimney, given a totally alien profile, undoubtedly an attempt to balance the thrust of the corner bay’s spire.

Cobb & Frost, Ownings Building. Detailing in the upper portion of the building. (Chicagology.com)

Its interior structure exhibited the construction evolution that had continued outside of Chicago during the aftermath of the Haymarket bombing: while the building’s interior columns were cast iron, the architects had used steel beams throughout the structure’s fourteen floors.  The building’s pioneering height made the architects take the unusual precaution of encircling the entire building with “heavy steel girders” at the third and seventh floors hoping that this would increase the building’s resistance to wind forces.

FURTHER READING:

Wolner, Edward W. Henry Ives Cobb’s Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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