Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Telescoping Chicago

click images for larger view (recommended)
Don King tree

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Schizoid Plaza: What Does Illinois Center Want to Be? Another Answer Emerges

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It was last August when we last wrote about the changes at one of the best-kept secrets in Chicago - the raised plaza at Illinois Center.  While the cold and unwelcoming shopping arcade on the lower level has long been the object of disdain and revulsion, the under-used plaza just one story up was the saving grace of Illinois Center, a collection of look-alike glass box office towers begun under the office of Mies van der Rohe and completed by his successor firms in the 1970's.
Down through the decades, the plaza's original paving, following a geometric pattern that synced with the Miesian grid of the buildings, grew derelict through wear and poor maintenance.  The first renovation came in 2011, when the paving on the northern half of the plaza was ripped out and replaced with a seamless - and boring - carpet of herringbone pavers.  
Last year, work began on the south half of the plaza, a collaboration between Goettsch Partners and Wolff Landscape Architecture.  It's still under construction, but after many long years of being shuttered, the great stair on South Water Street is now open again.  We're still waiting to see if the day-glo magenta seating depicted in the rendering actually materializes, but we thought we'd give you some early views of how the thing is turning out.
First of all, I really miss the old trees.  Rising, like the towers, high above the visitor's line of sight, they were the objects that provided the brawny counterpoint the taut Miesian minimalism buildings needed.  Unlike the grid-like curtain walls, the trees achieved their own minimalism, but with gloriously irregular, almost improvisatory expressions of form, their decoration not I-beams but a velvet canopy of an infinite variation of green leaves.  The loss of those trees is tragic.

The new plaza design offers up a very different kind of counterpoint.  Rectilinear and flat gives way to curving and bermed.  The rounded, seeping forms override the grid with flowers and shrubs   Long concrete benches, that probably looked more graceful in the drawings that they do in reality, form the hard backbones that anchor the soft, amoeba-like planting islands to the plaza. 
The new design has a passive-aggressive relationship to the buildings. While the old trees were strong enough to compete with the buildings as self-contained installations, the new layout is clearly subservient.  Replacing a rigid geometric pattern of paving that was read instantly and then disappeared from consciousness, there's now a complex interplay of form and materials that defies quick visual resolution.  At the same time, the new design is as insistent as a fog, seeping into the building itself as it wraps around perimeter columns.
It's too early for a final judgement, as the construction is far from finished.  This past Saturday, the plantings were still incomplete, the shrubs had yet to blossom, and work continued on a massive new steel and glass canopy along South Water.
The Illinois Center plaza has become the ‘battle of the landscaping concepts.’  For now, at least, tucked away in a far corner, there's even a remnant of the original Miesian geometry . . .
The north half of the plaza along the river showcases the carpet-bombing school of paving - complete with temporary wicker furniture - still waiting for the more active public uses, from exhibitions to outdoor cafes, for which it seems custom-made.
The new southern half, with its clearer relationship to the street below and more irregular plan, now brings a different approach to the party, at once more conventional and more subversive to Miesian purity.  Start writing your angry comments now, because I think I like it.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Heartbreak Hotel

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The problems started almost at the beginning.  The 60-story, ultra-luxury Elysian Hotel, one of the most ambitious designs of retro-architect Lucien Lagrange, was conceived in the midst of the great hotel condo bubble, in which large numbers of otherwise sober investors convinced themselves there was a looming boom market in people wanted to allow the luxury condos they owned to be rented out as hotel rooms when they weren't using them.  This high concept started to die almost as soon as it was born, with the 2008 crash providing the coup de grace.
Little more than a month before the Elysian's 2009 opening, its 188 hotel condos became simply 188 hotel rooms.  The late chef Charlie Trotter, lined up to run the hotel's dining room, backed out of the project.  Investors who loaded up on high-priced condo's expecting to quickly flip them in a boom condo market often found themselves, after the crash, holding on to their investments far longer than they expected and selling out for far less than they had imagined. 

That didn't stop the hotel from winning rave reviews and immediately taking its place at the top of the luxury heap, rated number one in the nation by  U.S. News and World Report and the readers of Conde Nast Traveler.

Unfortunately, condo sales only paid back part of the Elysian's $263 million cost, so when the Bahrain-based investors who owned the project grew restless, the hotel portion of the building was sold in 2011 for $95 million to a group led by billionaire Sam Zell.  The Elysian would not only not spawn a new chain of ultra-lux siblings, it's name was erased, taking on the branding of its new operators, Waldorf-Astoria, which has been much more successful leveraging a storied New York hotel whose name had become synonymous with luxury into a chain of over two dozen properties worldwide.
While the tower's interiors feature the best of modern amenities, the distinction of Lagrange's design drew from his commitment to keeping alive traditions that were dead long before he was born.  The stripped-down French Second Empire style offers a classically detailed courtyard that allows monied residents and guests to imagine themselves old-school royalty pulling up in their carriages even as the lower orders are kept safely outside the gates.
Enveloping the carriage court to the south and west is a four-story pavilion, complete with Mansard roof.  The roof is supported by metal rather than wood, and covered not with felt but steel, making it look less like classic Paris and more like an extended Quonset hut, but it's the thought that counts.
Yet even here, trouble lurked just under the surface.  Along State Street at Walton, a 1,650 square-foot retail space was occupied by a fashion boutique with the now ironically prophetic name of Perchance.  According to a report by Micah Maidenberg in Crain's Chicago Business, Perchance, in a lawsuit filed just this month, claimed their high-end space was beset with “leaking pipes, mold and a lack of heat.’  Then, early in January, as a numbing deep-freeze held Chicago in its grip, the store was flooded by a burst pipe.  It closed, and has not reopened, leaving behind only stripped shelves and naked mannequins.
Just weeks later, the Waldorf's 6,738 square feet of retail space was acquired by Acadia Realty Trust for $44 million, translating to a whopping $6,530 for each precious square foot.  Despite the sky-high price, Crain's reported that Acadia considered the purchase a safe investment.  So it must have come as a bit of disappointed when Perchance, less than one year into their ten-year lease, stopped making payments on their $2.6 million annual rent.  A day before Acadia fixed the pipe in March, Perchance gave notice it wasn't coming back.  Acadia declared the retailer in default.  Late this month, Perchance filed a countersuit, alleging the space had been incompetently constructed.
Really, for a building that's only five years old, there's enough colorful mishaps to fill up a cable reality show.  But we've saved the best for last.
Just a year after the tower's opening, the facades surrounding the courtyard already required some major touch-ups.  No ugly pipe-metal scaffolding here, however.  The repair work was covered up with an exact photographic fabric replica of the actual facades.  Being fabric rather than stone, the fabric didn't hang exactly straight, and was prone to wrinkles, creating, for a brief time, one of the more delightfully surreal sites in Chicago architectural history, a phony copy cover-up for a phony copy of an expired style.  You can read more and see how it looked in my post, The Limp Building:Lucien in Dali-land, or The Persistence of Mediocrity.

I'm tempted to claim the building has become possessed by the Curse of Walton Street, but through it all, the Elysian Waldorf-Astoria soldiers on, at once one of Chicago's most desirable luxury locations, and something faintly absurd, probably the world's only luxury hotel tower whose shaft resembles a twist-top glue stick . . .

Tactical Insertion: Friedman's 45-story 740 North Rush revealed (from a distance)

It's the blue one in the center (click images for larger view)
We had seen below-the-knees renderings before, but Monday, April 7th, we finally got a look at the rest of the body.  At a public meeting sponsored by 42nd Ward Brendan Reilly, long-time River North developer Albert Friedman presented plans for a 45 floor, 600 room hotel on Superior just west of Rush.  The new building seeks to demolish not only a seven-story building in the center of the block, but slice in half the east-west Superior street frontage of 740 North Rush, the brick-columned structure that was the long-time headquarters of Crain Communications and continues to be home to the popular flagship of Giordano's Pizza.  (which is scheduled to remain open even as the new building is constructed.)

As he usually does, Reilly promised to publish the renderings and presentation on his website, but since they're still not up, for the moment you'll have to settle for the lower-quality photographs we made of the presentation boards.
Although the Chicago Zoning Map shows the site with the designation DX-12, Reilly repeatedly referred to it was a Planned Development, as are most of the recently developed tracts in the area.

Friedman talked about the team of architects and designers he's assembled, all of whom have worked for him on previous projects, beginning with the Aria Group “who really  understands the retail and restaurant side of the equation, and this transition for Giordano's”,  NORR Architects Planners, “who really gets the nuts-and-bolts and the basic design of a hotel [and] . . . our aesthetic architect . . . Todd Halamka. Collaboratively, they're coming to us and saying, ‘What's the best we can do?’  Keep challenging yourself - within reason, of course, cost-wise - but to make something special.”  (Wolff Landscape Architecture is the landscape architect.  Friedman pledges that all of the new building's roofs will be green. ) 
Albert Friedman
None of the architects were called on to talk about their work at 740.  It was Friedman's show, as he both explained and defended his project.

Like his development at Clark, Illinois and Grand, which opened last year with three different hotel brands sharing a single site, Friedman's hotel at 740 North Rush will combine two moderately-priced Hyatt brands in a single building.   An all-suite Hyatt Place will take up the lower floors, with an extended stay Hyatt House on the upper levels.
Addressing comments about there already being too many hotels in the city, Friedman explained his concept for 740 North:  “I'd like you to consider if there's another hotel north of the river currently that would be extended stay and have suite product at an affordable price that would be new just off Michigan Avenue that you would want to stay at, and there isn't any.  Any of these developments that you're hearing about are south of the river, or they're very boutique and chi-chi.  That's not what we're doing.” 
Two things 740 won't have?  Banquet rooms and parking.  This “sleep and get out” concept probably helps hold down costs, but Friedman is also claiming it will keep traffic problems in check.  Reilly came into office thinking his ward was seriously short of parking spaces, but he's since has come round to a diffrent view.  “If you build lots of parking storage, they will come.  It's like Field of Dreams.”

Peter Lemmon of parking consultant TADI told the meeting that in an area like this, about 30% of the hotel guests come by car, and 80% of those via taxi, translating to a maximum of 40 to 50 cars a day for the new Hyatt tower.  Standard Parking's Jim Buczek added that overnight hotel parking averaging $50-70 a night would probably be considered a bit steep to guests taking advantage of the Friedman project's more moderate room rates.  Although residents in attendance expressed their skepticism, Buczek claimed that Standard Parking's nearby properties could accommodate up to 300 additional cars in nearby garages at such buildings as the Fordham and 900 North Michigan, with an additional 4,000 spaces available in garages serving Northwestern's Streeterville campus.
old and new in Friedman's River North -
Courtyard Marriott, Courtyard Place, Dearborn Plaza
Beginning in 1970 by inheriting a flophouse at Clark and Hubbard,  Friedman built his career out of rehabbing historic buildings.  In 1976, at 500 North Dearborn, when the area around it was largely skid row, Friedman provided the space in which Gordon Sinclair created his pioneering namesake restaurant. As Friedman told Michigan Avenue's Dawn Reiss, it was an epiphany moment. “I had people pulling up who had never been here in the past.  All I had before were drug dealers, pimps, and prostitutes.  All of a sudden I was actually seeing people who had money in their pockets.”  Friedman recalled that when he lured a second restaurant to space in on of his properties, it set Sinclair into a panic. “Why would you do that?  You're going to kill me!"  Instead, Sinclair found that more attractions brought more people to River North, and his business actually improved.  “I have 52 restaurants today,” Friedman concluded, underlining the moral we're to draw from his tale.

As Friedman became more successful, he acquired the 1892 seven-story Romanesque rockpile on west Hubbard (architect Otto Matz) - originally been the Cook County Criminal Courthouse - and renovated it into premiere office space as Courthouse Place.  A similar rehab of Alfred Alschuler's 1912 John R. Thompson building on Clark soon followed.  Over time, Friedman took on one old building after another, until his nameplates have become so ubiquitous that he's come to be known as the “King of River North.”
Albert Friedman three hotel development, River North
Although Friedman now seems to be moving from rehabber of old buildings to builder of ambitious new constructions, he still sees himself as a different kind of developer.

“Anything that I've ever done over the last forty-five years,” he said at the public meeting on 740, “has been a reflection on myself. I'm not a fee developer.  I'm someone who builds things, develops things, owns things, and keeps them . . . I take pride in everything I do.  And I do want everyone to be as satisfied as I am.”  Friedman once served a stint on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, “so I'm very sensitive to landmarks and architectural integrity.    When you see the presentation you'll see why I wanted to preserve as much of the character of the buildings that are here.  I know that there has been some misunderstanding thinking that I  somehow I would take the brownstones down to the west and that's not the case.”
Friedman is proposing a tall, slender tower, 65 feet by 123. Unlike the proposed Hilton Garden Inn on east Wacker, which will have a 25-story-tall shear wall rising without a single window, the 740 North Rush tower will be encased entirely in windows, a “nice glass, clean-lined product”.  The building is also carefully set back on all four sides from its neighbors, providing a moat of air space that will afford every guest a view of something other than an air shaft.  The tightest fit is along Superior, and even there the building is to be set back an additional five feet from the lot line.   To the west are the two low brownstones, to the north, a 54-foot setback from the lot line, plus a 20-foot wide alley.  To the east, a 72-foot setback from Rush street.  According to Friedman, the design of the curtain wall is still being finalized.  While only the south and west elevations were revealed in the renderings shown at the meeting, the north and east are supposed to mirror them in design.

When the hotel project was first announced, many assumed that the old building at 740 North Rush was a goner.  That's proven not to be the case, but the structure is to be both truncated and reconfigured.
Designed by the firm of Thielbar and Fugard, 740 North Rush was originally built in the 1920's as the Chicago home of the Methodist Book Concern.  Its two street facades, along Rush and Superior, are essentially identical, a tall first floor topped by three-story colonnades, each with four tall rounded columns, book-ended by half-columns abutting thick anchor piers with three inset windows at each floor.  The tall spandrels carry simple, king-sized geometric terra cotta ornament.  The heavy, flat cornice, flush with the corner piers and top of the column capitals, puts a firm lid on the building.
The first major change Friedman is planning is to get rid of the English basement windows looking down into the commercially unviable lower level.  Instead, the building will be configured to create a Superior street entrance to Giordano's, whose dining room will be moved to the building's second floor.  A second restaurant space is being configured at the north end of the building along Rush.
The second, more radical change is that Friedman is dramatically truncating the current building along Superior.  Although the building itself is anything but square, with a courtyard and cut-ins, along the street, 740 North Rush now reads as a symmetrical cube, with identical facades along Rush and Superior.   Friedman will demolish as much of the building as possible without having to relocate its elevators and stairwell., cutting the Superior street elevation in half.  To the west, it will no longer end with a balancing three-window anchor pier, but a sheared corner that appears different in two different renderings.  In one (the rendering above) it appears as a full rounded column next to a slender brick pier.  In the second, it looks like that the rounded brick column itself becomes the building's new corner.
Putting aside the practical requirements, the demolition is an ungainly hack of Thielbar and Fugard's careful design, destroying its original symmetry.  While the Rush Street facade remains untouched, that along Superior now takes on the feel of a side street afterthought.  If Friedman's architects had recreated the full three-window pier as the new corner, there'd scarcely be room for two columns, so now, at the west end, the design doesn't so much conclude as simply run out.  (If it has to be done, I'm pulling with the rounded column as the corner.)
One comment to this blog suggested Friedman simply make a facadectomy of the demolished part of the building and extend it over the base of the new tower, maintaining the original design, although this would muddy up the clean lines of the new tower, and create its own problem of how the floors  of the new structure would line up behind the windows of the old facade.
The bottom line is that 740 North Rush is Friedman's building to do whatever he wants with.  It has no official landmark protection.  He could probably just demolish it outright, and create a new, modern bustle for his hotel tower.  Instead, he's saving as much of the old structure as doesn't get in the way of his sleek (and lucrative) new skyscraper.  While I'd much prefer to find a way - even through a dreaded facadectomy - to preserve the integrity of Thielbar and Fugard's original, distinctive and graceful design, the juxtaposition along Superior of the glitzy glass tower, next to a multilating retrofit of the nearly century-old workhorse commercial structure of brick and terra cotta,  provides its own kind of poetry, a representation of the clash of old and new in a living, still-hungry city.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Brick Stackers

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No city in the world, not even New York, has found such general use for common brick as we have found here on Lake Michigan.  Chicago brick, in addition to being used in business blocks, factories, residences and other buildings is widely used in building sewers and other construction work.  The outside demand for Chicago brick has been beyond the ability of the local plants to supply with their present equipment.  Millions of brick are  shipped to every surrounding state, as many as thirteen states being served with Chicago brick.
Chicago is fortunate in possessing a supply of what is known as “surface” clay.  This clay is the result of the glacial drift and is entirely suitable for the manufacture of what is known as common building brick.  In fact, it is superior to many other clays for this purpose, because of the ease with which is is prepared and the rapidity with which it can be fired and burned.  It is of a quality that can be manufactured into brick by what is known as the stiff-mud process, the most rapid method for making brick, and Chicago is now consuming brick at the rate of over a billion brick annually.

             - Chicago The Greatest Brick Center,
                   the Chicago Examiner, 1910
As with so many other things that were once the city's pride, Chicago stopped making brick a long time ago.  And yet the demand remains for what has come to be known as Chicago brick.  Not the high-toned glazed or polished brick with which buildings prepare the face to meet the faces of the other buildings it meets along the street, but the homely, rock-solid, non-face brick for secondary elevations along the side or alley,  There's still a strong demand for that unpretentious work-a-day brick retaining an abject beauty all its own.
And so when we knock down buildings, as we're wont to do, the crews move in to sort through the rubble for the bricks not ruptured in the wrecking, to chip them clean to be neatly stacked and strapped and recycled.

As we've written previously, the Sterling Bay Companies is slowly becoming Lord-of-the-Manor to Chicago's historic Fulton Market District, transforming it from its century-plus role as home to the city's meatpackers and food and dairy resellers to a high-tech district replete with health clubs, art galleries, fashion boutiques and trendy restaurants .  Sterling Bay's first assault was its most audacious - taking over the massive, windowless fortress of 1920's 12-story, nearly four million cubic foot Fulton Market Cold Storage building, melting decades' buildup of ice, stripping off the old facades down to the bare concrete bones, and converting the structure into office space where Google will consolidate its Chicago operations.
Last week, Fulton Market Cold Storage, now renamed 1K Fulton, was well on its way, with a new annex rising just to the west and retro-styled piers - of newly manufactured brick - being put in place on the spare concrete frame for the building's redesigned windowed facades.
Now Sterling Bay is mopping up the scraps. Among other Fulton Market acquisitions, last fall they snapped up a series of properties along Lake Street west of Morgen, old one-story buildings of no particular aesthetic merit but that had served a succession of business well for nearly a century.
No more.   Those buildings are dust.  With some surviving bricks left behind.  Good Chicago bricks, finding a new home at a place where their character -  if not their provenance - still finds respect.

Gustave Courbet, The Stonebreakers (destroyed)