Friday, December 4, 2015

In Chicago, an overlooked midcentury gem vanishes

I saw and photographed this midcentury beauty during a quick weekend drive through Chicago's Northwest Side and adjacent suburbs back in 2011.

It's the American Management Association's Executive Conference Center, 8655 W. Higgins Road, right on the north edge of the city. Built in 1971, the building looks like a scaled-down work of Edward Durell Stone--particularly Stone's 1959 U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.

Given its location in an ocean of parking lots and near a parking garage, they could've gone with a bland structure--who would notice? Instead, someone had the good sense to give us a nice little surprise in a quiet spot where the city meets suburbia.

I never did go back to photograph the conference center a little more seriously. No need to bother now though: The building was demolished a few weeks ago.

Frank Butterfield, director of the Springfield office of the preservation group Landmarks Illinois, posted the bad news on the Facebook page of Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond.

His post was in response to images I'd put there, inquiring about the building. Frank found a demolition permit to wreck and remove the two story building. Then a short time later, he posted this photo of his own:

Gone. At 45.
 Groups like Landmarks Illinois, Chicago Bauhaus & Beyond and the international group DoCoMoMo are speaking up for postwar buildings. And praise to them. But we're still losing far too much midcentury architecture here and across the country. 

Structures like the AMA building--away from downtown, or in suburbia where landmark ordinance are toothless if they exist at all--are the most endangered. And while the birthplace of modern architecture should know better than this, the city lacks a real survey of postwar buildings. Without one, the city's ability to identify and protect these structures is severely curtailed.

And so is our ability to learn more about these buildings before the bulldozers roll. Who designed the AMA Center? What's went on structurally or architecturally that might've made the building worthy of saving? A survey can help us find that out.

If there were a postwar survey in place for the building, application for a demolition permit would have triggered a crosscheck prompting city landmarks officials to investigate if the center is worth saving. A survey of pre-1940s Chicago buildings has performed the same function for a decade now. And Landmarks Illinois' online survey of postwar buildings in suburban Chicago provides a current model.

The youngest of the postwar buildings are approaching 40. That's make-or-break time in the life of a structure. Without a postwar survey, we better get used to seeing more vacant parcels like the one above...where thoughtful pieces of architecture are wrecked as if they were no more than abandoned garages.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Interior design...with Soul: A look inside the former Ebony/Jet HQ Building

The interiors of the former--and now vacant--Ebony/Jet Building at 820 S. Michigan continue to fascinate me. And I'm not alone. A Chicago photographer shares the same fondness. More on that later.

Columbia College has owned the 11-story one-time headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company since 2010. I got a tour of the place in 2013 when I wrote an architecture photoblog for WBEZ.

What I said then:

"Behind pioneering black architect John Moutoussamy's four walls were offices designed with an exuberant, high-style and fearless mix of a color, texture, art, contemporary furnishings and pattern. Created by interior designers William Raiser/Arthur Elrod, the offices embodied an Afrocentric modernism that was well-turned, avant garde and quite hip--a perfect match for publisher John H. Johnson's groundbreaking magazines.. [and] those stunning, original interiors remain in the empty old building--virtually unchanged since the tower's 1972 opening."
"The colors of the '70s are still there--and boldly so: rusts, reds, harvest golds, deep browns."
I didn't have much time to shoot during my visit, but I got what I could. My favorite of the bunch is the above photo of the JPC's so-funky-it-is-almost-undescribable test kitchen. 

I have no idea what Columbia now intends to do with this building or those mind-blowing interiors. The college originally bought the structure to convert it into a library and a historic center that would remember and honor John H. and Eunice Johnson's incredible contribution to culture and society. 
But that was under a previous university president. Plans seem a bit mothballed now and the university won't return phone calls on the matter. There is a pop-up gallery that ends this week in the building's lobby. So at least that's something. But still..

Which brings me to Chicago photographer Barbara Karant. She's spent the last couple of years documenting those wild interiors and bringing them renewed notice recently. She appeared on my Architecture360 podcast on Rivet Radio to talk about the project. She also brought along some of her images (dig that crazy wallpaper and floor covering).

 Karant hopes to do a book with her images--and I hope does. Photos like hers are the only way most people will see this one-of-a-kind spaces. Columbia--which bought the building with such fanfare in 2010--rarely lets the public inside there. 
Which is a shame. A tour of that building could have been a high-point of the Chicago Architecture Biennial going on now, or the Chicago Architecture Foundation's yearly Open House Chicago, which happened last month. 
Such exposure could've only helped their cause.


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Aging Lakeside Center: Keep the building. Change the use

I spent a bit of yesterday morning at McCormick Place's Lakeside Center, architect Gene Summers' modernist beauty at 23rd and Lake Shore Drive.

The building turns 45 next year. And it looks it. Carpet is worn. I saw duct tape sealing a window crack on the east facade. A 1990s interior redo has somehow made the building look even more dated than it otherwise would have.

Lakeside Center feels as if it's playing for time. And it probably is. With newer and bigger McCormick Place buildings across Lake Shore Drive to the west, the aging lakeside hall with the table-flat roof, squatting on acres of parkland, could be easy pickings to get rid of now. In fact, the Chicago Tribune's editorial board and the paper's architecture critic Blair Kamin have openly called for the wreckers.

But that's a wrong and wasteful move I hope the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority does not seriously consider. Especially in a city known across the world for its architectural modernism. Not to mention the city is good at saving buildings--when it wants to, that is.

So keep the building; change the use. A building so clear, bold and well-executed, must be preserved, restored and given over to better service to the public. What might that look like? Check out the Nationaal Militair Museum, built on a former airbase in Soesterberg, Netherlands, in 2014:

The museum is a near-twin of Lakeside Center. And like Lakeside Center, the Netherlands building is inspired by Mies van der Rohe's New National Gallery in Berlin. (Gene Summers led the Berlin project for Mies in 1968 before coming to architecture firm C.F. Murphy to design Lakeside Center ).

The Netherlands museum shows how a converted Lakeside Center would be a true civic and cultural asset. Those vast spaces and huge ceiling heights could be used to bring in some one-of-a-kind, large-scale things for the public to see.

Here's an interior view of the military museum along with an iPhone snapshot I took of a Lakeside Center interior during my visit:

Here's another view of the museum along with iPhone grab.

The calls to demolish Lakeside Center--and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's equally wrong suggestion to do away with the Thompson Center--began right as the Chicago Architecture Biennial got underway last month. Could the timing be any worse? A city trying to reposition itself as a global thought leader on 21st Century architecture and urban planning shouldn't begin that bid by swinging the wrecking ball at its iconic buildings.

(By the way, many thanks for Ellen Schindler for letting me know about the Netherlands project. Ellen is a partner and CEO at Kossmann.dejong, an architecture firm that worked on the museum. She sent posted a link to her firm's work on my Facebook page after seeing my post advocating for Lakeside Center's reuse.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What's cookin' inside that old Schulze Bakery building?

Good to hear long-stalled plans to redevelop the former Schulze Bakery are starting to move forward.

The new venture promises to create much-needed jobs in the Washington Park community; a South Side neighborhood that, for the moment, sits between an unkind past of economic abandonment--and a future uncertain, given that a large private Midwestern university is now expanding its footprint there.

Architecturally, the planned new use is a good thing for one of the city's finest neighborhood commercial buildings. Built in 1914, the five-story, terra cotta clad Art Deco terra cuts a beautiful figure on wide and leafy Garfield Blvd between State and Wabash. It's been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1982.

For 85 years, bread was made in this industrial cathedral designed by architect John Ahlschlager & Son, filling the neighborhood with an warm, unforgettable--and dearly missed--aroma until the place went out of business in 2004.

Ghian Foreman, head of the Washington Park Development Group, owns the building. He let me and my camera inside last week. All of the breadmaking stuff is gone, as you can imagine. What's left? Tons of glorious empty space...and possibilities.

Huge columns line up like soldiers on each floor, holding up the massive building and the equipment that was once there. Still, enough care was taken to give the columns a bit of decoration.

The major machinery is gone, but countless details of the building's past remain.

This stencil is an example of the impromptu art that's popped on on the walls inside the building.

Bandit left his (or her) mark.
Light pours into the south-facing windows on the bakery's upper floor. The building has 700 windows.

Make it to the roof and you're rewarded with this fine view to the north. The downtown Chicago skyline, just seven miles away, is visible.
Foreman has partnered with 1547 Critical System's Realty, a data center company from Matawan, N.J. to get things going. The New Jersey will cough up the dough and data center knowhow. The $130 million project could take five years.

The renovated building will be called the Midway Technology Centre.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Chakaia Booker's 'Brick House' hits the 606

I took a peek at Chicago's 606 on yesterday and wound up meeting artist Chakaia Booker. She was installing her sculpture, Brick House, on the trail at Damen Avenue.

It's the first major piece of artwork to grace the 606, which opened last June. Even in its unfinished state--although it'll be completed in a couple of days--the 26-foot long serpentine work is a powerful, linear piece that compliments the active North Side trail.

Booker's work resembles an uncoiling serpent. It's composed of a stainless steel frame clad in repurposed tire rubber. The New Jersey-born artist has been making sculptures from rubber since 1990. Her work examines industrialization, economic  inequity, globalization and other issues.
By the way, this was my first time walking the 606 since the elevated path opened in June. The trail is a sweet piece of repurposed infrastructure (which makes a sculpture of repurposed tire rubber a pretty clever riff); what had been an industrial rail line atop a concrete embankment is a multi-use linear park with landscaping, texture--and art.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial began this month. And to my great surprise, the event reawakened my urge to photograph, write about and discuss architecture.

So today marks the return of my original blog, The Urban Observer. You might remember my WBEZ 'Beyond the Boat Tour' architecture blog I discontinued two years ago. But like Gilligan's Island, it lives on in reruns.

As part of my reawakening, I'll be giving a presentation October 15 on the historic role of adaptive reuse in black Chicago. Hosted by Landmarks Illinois, the gist of my talk will be this: Converting old South Side and West Side buildings into new uses is hip now--and that is good. But black people have always re-adapted buildings. And not out of trendiness, but out of economic (and sometimes racial) necessity.

One of the buildings I'll talk about is First Church of Deliverance, 43rd and Wabash. My camera and I paid a visit there this week as I prepare for my lecture.

The structure was a hat factory originally.  Then in the 1930s, the congregation bought the building and turned it into a church. Walter Thomas Bailey, the state's first black licensed architect and his pal, black engineer Charles Sumner Duke handled the renovation, which included cladding the outside in terra cotta panels, giving it a streamlined art moderne look. In 1946, the church went a step farther and added those marvelous twin towers--dig that glass block!--designed by Kocher Buss & DeKlerk.
The sanctuary is a knock-out. I'm talking to the congregation now about coming back to take interior photos. I'll put them in a subsequent post if that happens.

Meanwhile, mark your calendars to come check me out Oct 15th from noon to 1:30 at the Auditorium Building, 50 E. Congress. I'll be showing my images of First Church of the Deliverance and other smartly-reused buildings. 

And it's free.