Chicago holds a special place in the history of American cities. It frequently assumes the role of the great American exaggeration, the place where common characteristics are stretched to their limits. Other cities grew during the nineteenth century, but Chicago mushroomed. Every town had its boosters, but the Windy City’s were obstreperously boastful. Crime and political corruption were everywhere, but in Chicago they seemed to be elevated to an art. More positively, Chicago became a synonym for ‘the new’ and ‘the first,’ leading the way in architecture, literature, and social reform – in part because, as a brash upstart, it possessed few encumbering traditions.
(Perry R. Duis, ‘The Shaping of Chicago’, in Alice Sinkevitch’s AIA Guide to Chicago, 2003)
I’ve wanted to visit Chicago’s architecture for a long time. My interest in the city began with an undergraduate lecture in Victoria BC in which Louis Sullivan’s 1890s designs for tall buildings loomed large and changed my way of thinking (it was pretty fledgling and malleable at that point anyway) about the connections between ornament and structure. Whenever I’ve seen the main entrance of the Carson Pirie Scott and Co. building reproduced in books or on screen, I’ve felt a ripple of wonder.
Chicago has a wealth of modern Gothic architecture, much of it concentrated around Henry Ives Cobb and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s contributions to the University of Chicago campus and the details of the skyscrapers, churches, and even an eccentric nineteenth-century water tower that dominate State Street and Michigan Avenue. During my final hours in Chicago after a few intensive days of research and zealous socialising (over zealous? I lost my voice entirely by day three…) at the College Art Association’s conference, I went in search of Gothic gems. Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue’s Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago is a tight late 1920s essay in what my architectural historian colleague Jonathan Mekinda and I decided must be ‘Gothic Deco’, a style Goodhue virtually invented and refined together with the sculptor Lee Lawrie. Ralph Adams Cram, Goodhue’s Boston-based architectural partner for the first years of their prominent design careers, also made his mark on Chicago sacred space. Cram’s Fourth Presbyterian Church facing the Hancock Center combines brightly painted figural carving and Gothic ceilings with soaring height and restrained details suited to a Presbyterian context. Completed on the brink of the Great War, the church is the product of a collaboration between Cram and the local mural painter Frederic Clay Bartlett. Pomegranates, angels, and symbols of the four evangelists are deployed in an array of interlaced combinations over the heads of clergy and laity.
When I finished my PhD a couple of years ago and turned towards a deep investigation of modern Gothic architecture in America from the early twentieth century, my interest in Chicago grew exponentially. One building in particular captured my curiosity. The Tribune Tower competition in 1922 produced a building that remains one of the most prominent and complex early skyscrapers in the history of architecture.
Both a beacon of industry and communication as well as a structure that made a tacit link between the success of New York’s Woolworth Building and the growth of Chicago’s own Midwestern quest for height and power, the Tribune Tower is a key part of the story of American twentieth-century medievalism. It’s the subject of a recent and truly brilliant book by Katherine Solomonson, from whom I’ve learned a great deal. The tower, designed by Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells, negotiates microcosm and macrocosm with an uncanny historicist sophistication. Small portions of other buildings, from Hagia Sophia and Cologne Cathedral to a tile from the Sydney Opera House and a scrap of twisted metal from the World Trade Center are embedded in its ground floor exterior skin. The cultural memory of each place, filtered through American parlance and experience, clads the Gothic bulk of the building, connecting its architectural heft to human civilizations across borders and periods. Inside the Tribune Tower, material spolia are traded for bold and monumental inscriptions which make their way around the lobby and down the hallways towards the elevators and office spaces. Appropriately enough for a newspaper headquarters, Voltaire’s ‘I do not agree with a word that you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ is the last maxim one can see before the threshold closes in between semi-public and private space.
In the centre of the lobby floor, medieval-style script contained within a thin inlaid circle connects the Gothic impetus of 1920s Chicago and its most powerful newspaper to the Victorian reflections of John Ruskin upon the Middle Ages’ capacity of inspire better architecture for a brighter future by considering the power of cultural legacy:
Therefore when we build let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for and let us think as we lay stone on stone that a time is to come when those stones will beheld sacred because our hands have touched them and that men will say as they look upon the labour and the wrought substance of them, ‘See! This our fathers did for us.’