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Architect Explores Chicago's River North Neighborhood

Architect Lynda Dossey returns to the streets of Chicago for another walking tour, this time highlighting the hidden details to be found in the stylish River North neighborhood.

Released on 01/10/2023


Hi, I'm Linda Dossey,

I'm an architect

and today we are taking an architectural walking tour

through Chicago's downtown River North neighborhood.

[upbeat music]

Prior to the completion of the Bascule Bridge in 1920,

the North Side of the river was primarily wharves

and residential and very low slung structures.

One of the first people to take advantage

of this was the Wrigley Building.

The Wrigley Building itself sits

on a very regular shaped site, and therefore,

the building itself has a unique shape as it rises.

The organization of the building is such

that local ordinance capped all the buildings

at about 260 feet

with a provision to have an unoccupied tower

above it to go up another 200 feet.

So what we're seeing behind me is a building

that's at 240 feet tall and the tower goes up to 429 feet.

The design itself by Graham Anderson, Propst and White.

It was based on the cathedral in Sylvia

with its clock tower but it's also layered

with motifs from the French Renaissance.

The building was also cloaked

in white terracotta in six different shades of white.

So at the base, it's a little less white, and it gets more

and more gleaming white as you get to the top

of the building to actually increase the overall height

of the building visually.

So several years later,

as a consequence of a Chicago statute

a banking tenant who had offices at the same level

in both towers was required to connect them

so that they had to be all on the same level,

and thus, the bridge was added some years

after the building opened.

It's done in polished aluminum

and it gives this amazing, remarkable sheen to it.

A few years after the completion of this building,

construction began on the Tribune Tower

directly opposite of Michigan Avenue.

[upbeat music]

The story of the Tribune Tower actually starts

with a design competition that was launched in 1922,

an international world design competition.

Unheard of at the time, but pretty normal these days.

It's solicited over 260 entries from 23 different countries

and it was a kind of bell weather test artistically

for prevailing architectural styles at the time.

The design was eventually awarded

to Halzen Hood who created this neogothic fantasy

in front of us that is trying to merge the idea

of a neogothic church with a skyscraper.

More intriguing for this building though, is the fact

that over the duration of Chicago Tribune up to that time,

all of its journalists were traveling

around the world and bringing back relics

and fragments from all their different journeys.

When this tower was built, all of those fragments

have been incorporated into the base of the building.

So as you walk around the building,

you can see fragments of other remarkable places

like the Pyramids, Notre Dame Cathedral, Westminster Abbey,

so on and so forth from around the globe.

That tradition has carried on, and there are some new

more recent fragments that have been added

like a fragment of brick from the Berlin Wall,

fragment from World Trade Center, even a fragment

from the old Comiskey Park baseball stadium

that was torn down.

So even though Howells and Hood won the competition,

some of the more forward looking designs that loss

became influential in skyscrapers all across America.

You can see the samples

of them in Cleveland, Cincinnati, all across the country.

So in many ways it was the losing entries

that were more influential than the final victor.

[upbeat music]

We're standing in front of 875 North Michigan Avenue

on the Mag Mile.

This building is known to most locals, as the John Hancock.

It is the handy work of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

specifically Bruce Graham and Falzer Khan

who is a structural engineer, merging their efforts

together to create a seamless expression of form

and structure as the chief aesthetic of the building.

The building itself is acting as a giant cantilever

much like a flagpole would out of the ground

because it's so super tall, they had to come up

with a way for it to resist all the lateral forces.

The cross bracing is what actually stiffens all

the columns together and creates it as a structural tube.

It tapes as it goes down to the base

to also resist the overturning moments

of the lateral forces.

When they first opened

people didn't think they were gonna be able to rent

the units that had the cross bracing in them

but it turned out to be quite the opposite.

People were so excited to say

that they lived in a unit with the cross bracing

that they actually flipped what the rents were.

So they ended up being the more expensive ones

were the ones that had the piece of structure in them.

So during the mid to late seventies, there were a lot

of these super tall buildings that were going up.

You will see a lot of the express dressing

a lot of the express structure, just because

it was a requirement to actually go that tall.

And so it all gets expressed

on the outside and becomes the aesthetic.

So we are merging together architecture

and structure in a moment

but it's actually one big moment diagram of the forces.

[upbeat music]

We're standing in the park,

in front of the world famous Chicago Water Tower.

It's completed in 1869 by WW Boynton

who was one of the early Chicago architects

when the city was getting rolling.

He also, in addition to this building

did some of the early train stations in the city hall.

We've lost all those now, but we still have the Water Tower.

The Water Tower was intended to hide 138 foot tall

standpipe, which serves as a surge buffer

for the water coming in off of the lake

being pumped through the city.

The pumping station done at the same time

in the same style

is just across the street of Michigan Avenue.

Part of the feature is that are little bit

of a play on a classic gothic castle.

You can see the Castellation, you can see added torts

but they're hyper-extended,

pointed gables which are a very gothic feature.

Over on the pump house, you can see the sort

of the leaded diagonal glass that you see

in medieval buildings and medieval castles.

So it was very much a stylistic choice

and it was very much a flight

of fancy to make these civic buildings

as delightful as possible.

Because it was limestone it is one

of the few buildings that actually survived the 1871 fire.

When this was initially built

it was north of the city proper

and it was actually kind of out in a field.

And then as the city grew and developed

it grew closer and closer

but then when the fire hit and everything wiped out.

So this is one of the few things remaining standing

with just tragedy around it.

A great irony during the fire though is even

though the limestone of these buildings survived

the roof of the pumping house was wood.

So it actually burned, crashed in

and took out all the pumps

which rendered it unable to help any further

during the fire.

[upbeat music]

We're standing in front of the Nickerson Mansion

also known as the Driehaus Museum.

The original Nickerson home was burned

in the fire of 1871, so they came back and hired a firm

to give them what they considered a fireproof new home.

As such, it also became known as the Marble Palace.

When completed, it was at a cost of $450,000 in 1883 money.

It was the largest residence in Chicago.

The building itself is completely clad in marble.

This building represents what the standard fabric

of the River North neighborhood was up until the time

of the bridges being completed and the real estate moving

to the north and expanding the city.

Now, it's over shrouded by all of its surrounding neighbors

but it serves as a nice reminder

of what the original historical fabric was.

Although the foreman massing is effectively

a Queen Anne style, it's a Milan of style.

So at the base you can see the heavy restication

which is a nod to the Richards Sonian architecture.

You have the turret style that sort of emanates

from the Queen and Bay window style.

You've got Neoclassicism at the entrance

with the double Corinthian columns.

Those columns echo up

and then you have some really strong dentition

around the base of the cornus.

As a consequence of it trying to make it

a fireproof building, a lot of the details

were simplified and the stone was cut

in a way that would resist fracturing or breaking off.

So the Nickerson's sold the mansion in 1900

to another prominent family in Chicago

the Fisher family that actually developed some

of the old skyscrapers.

In 1919, a group of Chicago citizens got together

bought the building collectively, and gave it

as a gift to the American College of Surgeons

who owned the building until 2003.

In 2003, they sold it to a philanthropist,

Richard Driehaus, who then lovingly restored it

over five years and created the Driehaus Museum

which is now open to the public.

Those tenants were also very careful stewards

of the building.

So as a consequence, all of the interiors

are pretty much intact

from when the building was sold to the citizens in 1919.

[upbeat music]

Behind me, across the river is the Merchandise Mart.

It was commissioned by Marshall Fields and was executed

and designed by Grant Anderson Propst and White.

It was begun in the 1930s

and it continued on through the depression.

The goal of the building was to merge typologies together

warehousing, commerce, and a department store

with the expression of a high rise.

The results are very big building that was

the largest office building

and largest building in the world when finished.

The lower floors are the department store feel

with large storefronts selling house goods

and the upper floors were a variety

of textiles, fabrics, carpets,

wall coverings that are still being sold today to the trade.

Additionally, the building housed TV studios, radio stations

and a variety of other office buildings.

The details of the building are a little bit sparse

because of the mashup and the bulk of the warehousing

as it combined three different warehouses together

in one space for Marshall Fields.

So to try and delineate the broadness of the building

there's a heavy articulation and rhythm of the windows.

The edges are chambered and the center tower tries

to draw your eyes up and make it seem less big than it is.

The surface is clad and terracotta

and there's little medallions with the logo

of the Merchandise Mark set all across the building

especially at the ground level where it's actually carved

into the stone.

[upbeat music]