Archive for January, 2005

Another Ground Zero


The following first appeared in eOCULUS – the magazine of the American Institute of Architects New York Chapter. Kristen Richards, who also compiles the indispensable ArchNewsNow, edits eOCULUS and occasionally asks writers on architecture who live outside of New York City – “what’s going on in your town?”
I wrote,

Another Ground Zero

I remember the buildings – they seemed so tall at the time. Their site is now a void in the urban fabric. But unlike Ground Zero in lower Manhattan, I think the “empty” Block 37 in the middle of downtown Chicago ought to remain building-free.

Block 37 is Chicago’s “Ground Zero.” Before being leveled by the Chicago Fire in 1871, this block bounded by State Street, Dearborn, Washington, and Randolph boasted some of the tallest buildings in the city. In 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley approved the demolition of the block for a mixed-use skyscraper. But then the economic bust of the 1990s hit and the skyscraper was never built. Today, the land is something between a lunar and a prairie landscape.

Plans for New York’s Ground Zero and Chicago’s are, in some ways, similar. So are the problems. Chicago would like to build an underground train station there, with express trains to O’Hare and Midway Airports (might we – American architectural Mecca – borrow Santiago Calatrava?).

The city is still searching for financing for what has become a spurned downtown area. Over the years, various efforts have been made to revitalize the block. Helmut Jahn drew up a hotel/retail complex. Kohn Pedersen Fox took a turn, and so did Solomon Caldwell Buenz. Lord & Taylor was to be an anchor tenant; even Harrods of London considered moving there.

All of these efforts failed to move beyond the drawing board. The Mills Corp is the latest developer, working with one of Chicago’s most talented architects, Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will. Tenants are nowhere to be found.

But that’s fine with me. Like many Chicagoans, I think Block 37 ought to be turned into a gorgeous contemporary public square. This block marks where the north side meets the south side. Blacks and whites mingle here more than in most parts of the city. On the east side of the block, you have the great symbol of retail, Marshall Field’s (D.H. Burnham & Company, 1892) with its fine narrow-wide-narrow Chicago windows. (Please, please put the cornice back on!) To the west, “government,” with City Hall and County Building (Holabird & Roche, 1905-1911). “Justice” is present with the courtrooms of the Daley Center (Jacques Brownson, C.F. Murphy Associates, 1965), and through its glass lobby you see Helmut Jahn’s po-mo State of Illinois Building (1979-83). And on the north side, “entertainment,” with the Goodman and Oriental Theaters, and the Old Heidelberg Inn from the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair. On the south side, “leisure” is represented by the Hotel Burnham in the Reliance building (Burnham and Root 1890-95).

Poking their heads into the square from beyond are the towers of the Art Deco Carbide and Carbon building (Burnham Brothers, 1929), and the dome of the classical Jeweler’s building (1925-27). Look up Washington Street for that great framed view of Gehry’s band shell, or if you prefer older metalwork, down State Street is Louis Sullivan’s Schlesinger and Meyer Department Store (1899-1904), where the cornice is being replaced!

All this around one block! What a great city. New York must rebuild Ground Zero. But Chicago ought to consider the minimalist approach at Block 37. Our “Ground Zero” is not empty; it’s full of what people need in a city: light, air, sky, and terrific views of great buildings.

—-Edward Lifson hosts “Hello Beautiful!” on Chicago Public Radio. He is also Editor of Arts, Architecture and Culture at the radio station, a position supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.

Block 37 photograph by Thomas Yanul. Thank you Thomas.