Category Archives: Exploring Chicago

Birthplace of gospel music

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville, Chicago

Pilgrim Baptist Church, Bronzeville, Chicago

Buildings by the Chicago architects Dankmar Adler & Louis Sullivan are precious both for their quality and their rarity.  In Chicago itself, their Auditorium Building and the exquisite Getty Tomb are celebrated, but their Old Chicago Stock Exchange Building was demolished in 1972, and one of their most powerful and resonant surviving structures in the city faces an uncertain future.

The Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville, south of the Loop, was originally built in 1890-1 as the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Synagogue.  Dankmar Adler’s father, Liebman, was rabbi there.

This powerful corner-site building was sold in 1922 to the Pilgrim Baptist Church which had been founded in 1915.  It is celebrated as the birthplace of black gospel music:  its music director from 1932 was Thomas A Dorsey (1899-1993), writer of – among much else – ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’.  In 1936-7 the interior was decorated with murals by the African-American painter William Edouard Scott (1884-1864).

Its spectacular interior and excellent acoustics [] derived from the metal-clad timber superstructure  that almost doubled the height of the robust masonry walls, which feature round-arched windows and a monumental entrance, embellished with the inscription, in Hebrew and English, “Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them, to praise the Lord” [Psalm 118 v 19].

When the roof caught fire during restoration work on January 6th 2006 [] the interior was completely destroyed but more than three quarters of the walls survived.  They remain supported by an obtrusive steel scaffold while plans for either a complete restoration or conversion to a memorial garden are stalled by controversy and litigation:

There is an extended essay about the Pilgrim Baptist Church by Lynn Becker, ‘Kaddish for a Legendary Church’, (2005-6).

Graceland Cemetery: Carrie Eliza Getty

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago:  Clara Eliza Getty mausoluem

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago: Clara Eliza Getty mausoluem

If you have the money and you want a mausoleum you might as well go to the best designer in town.

Henry Harrison Getty (1838-1919), the Chicago lumber baron (not related to the more famous oil-rich Getty family), commissioned Louis Henry Sullivan to design a family mausoleum after the death of his wife Carrie Eliza Getty (1843-1890).

Louis Sullivan (1856-1924) is one of the three greatest architects who worked in the city in the aftermath of the catastrophic fire of 1871.  With his business partner Dankmar Adler (1844-1900), his pupil Frank Lloyd Wright and the distinctive Romanesque-revival architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1866), Sullivan rose to the challenge of building quickly and building big to rebuild the devastated centre that we now call The Loop.

Sullivan and Adler were particularly adept at using the new steel-frame construction to contrive new stylistic rules to make sense of the changing proportions of the high buildings that became known as “skyscrapers”, such as their Auditorium Building (1889).

But Sullivan could work exquisitely on a small scale, and his Getty Tomb in Graceland Cemetery is a gem.

Sullivan is the modern originator of the expression “form follows function”, which he himself drew from the Roman author Vitruvius – “firmitas, utilitas, venustas” – “solid, useful, beautiful”.

So Carrie Eliza Getty’s tomb combines immaculately plain ashlar with a delicate pattern of octagons in which is set a fine Romanesque doorway of plain stonework finely decorated, that frames delicate bronze doors by Yale & Towne.

The sides of the mausoleum echo the doorway with semi-circular bronze windows.

Henry Harrison Getty was laid to rest with his wife, and in due course their only daughter Alice (1865-1946) joined them.

Frank Lloyd Wright said of the Getty Tomb, “Outside the realm of music, what finer requiem?”

Graceland Cemetery: George Mortimer Pullman

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago:  George Mortimer Pullman monument

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago: George Mortimer Pullman monument

George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897) was a great man who did great things, but he was not popular.

He first gained wealth as an engineer who specialised in moving and lifting wood-frame buildings. He made his fortune jacking up structures when the street-level was raised 6-8 feet to accommodate a sewage system in the low-lying delta of the Chicago River. His party-piece was the lifting of the six-storey Tremont House hotel while the guests remained inside.

His fame, however, rests on the development of the railroad sleeping car, which first appeared in 1864. Again, he pulled off a publicity coup by offering his “palace car” to convey the coffin of the assassinated President Lincoln to his burial in Springfield, Illinois, in 1865.

Pullman’s “hotels on wheels” gave middle-class riders a taste of high life, and rail passengers the world over benefitted from his invention of vestibules between passenger carriages in 1887.

His practice of hiring black men, emancipated slaves who had trained as housemen, to serve as highly skilled, disciplined and well-presented porters in his Pullman cars, is credited with helping to found the African-American middle-class, but the work was onerous and badly paid. The black historian and journalist Thomas Fleming remarked that being a Pullman porter was, paradoxically, “the best job in his community and the worst on the train”.

Even less visible was the smaller number of black women whom Pullman employed to take care of female passengers and their children.

The eponymous company town, Pullman, Illinois, begun in 1880 and designed by the architect Solon Spencer Beman (1853-1914), was an unashamed attempt to create a community of workers untainted by vice, political agitation or freedom of speech.

Crucially, the housing and the apparently generous civic facilities were intended to make a profit from the wages he paid his workers, and when Pullman felt compelled by a downturn in orders in 1894 to reduce wages and increase working hours, he saw no reason at the same time to reduce rents.

The resulting strike, which practically shut down the nation’s transport system, was quashed violently by federal troops provided by President Grover Cleveland.

When George Pullman died in 1897, he was buried in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery.  His elegant monument, a single Corinthian column, was designed by Solon Spencer Beman.

His family were so concerned that union members might defile his grave that he was buried in a lead-lined mahogany coffin, encased in a room-sized block of concrete, pinned down by railway rails and covered by another layer of concrete.

The forthright American journalist Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce commented, “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the sonofabitch wasn’t going to get up and come back.”

No-one will ever exhume George Pullman in a hurry.


Graceland Cemetery: Victor Fremont Lawson

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago:  Victor Fremont Lawson monument

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago: Victor Fremont Lawson monument

As well as the ‘Eternal Silence’ figure for Dexter Graves, the Chicago sculptor Lorado Taft supplied the thirteen-foot granite statue of ‘The Crusader’ (1931) for a monument that carries no name, but only the motto “Above all things truth beareth away victory”.

This is the tomb of Victor Fremont Lawson (1850-1925), who ran the Chicago Daily News from 1876 to the year of his death and was a co-founder and first president of Associated Press.

The Chicago Daily News broke new ground by publishing concise stories and popular features, aiming for a wider readership than its rivals. It depended on Lawson’s business acumen and capital – derived from his father’s real-estate fortune – to support its low cover-price.

In journalism he was an innovator, developing the use of foreign correspondents, syndication and classified advertising. He made the Daily News a platform for advocating urban reform and improved civic infrastructure and services, particularly during the period of the World’s Fair of 1893 and the creation of the Chicago Plan of 1909.

Lawson was also a philanthropist, supporting such organisations as the Daily News Fresh Air Fund and the YMCA.

He was a member of the Chicago Commission on Race Relations which reflected on the city’s race riots of 1919. Its influential report, The Negro in Chicago: a study of race relations and a race riot (1922), was compiled by the Commission’s Associate Executive Secretary, Charles S Johnson:

The monument was commissioned by Victor Lawson’s younger brother, Iver N Lawson. The crusader, bearing his sword and shield, was intended to symbolise the campaigning spirit of the great journalist, businessman and philanthropist.

Graceland Cemetery: Dexter Graves

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago:  Dexter Graves monument

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago: Dexter Graves monument

One of three major Victorian cemeteries in Chicago, Graceland Cemetery (1860) is located alongside a railway line that brought mourners and coffins over two miles north from the city-centre, like Brookwood Cemetery in England and Rookwood Cemetery in Australia.

The original eighty-acre site was landscaped as parkland by Horace W S Cleveland (1814-1900), who had also designed Sleepy Hollow Cemetery at Concord, Massachusetts in 1855.

It was enlarged to the north-west and the east by the architect Ossian Cole Simonds (1855-1931), who also designed Lincoln Park on the site of the former City Cemetery which closed after the Civil War.

The Graceland Cemetery chapel, recently restored, was designed by the Chicago practice of William Holabird (1854-1923) and Martin Roche (1853-1927) in 1888.

The 119-acre cemetery continues to operate under the control of the not-for-profit Trustees of the Graceland Cemetery Improvement Fund. It is freely open to the public:

The most haunting of all the magnificent monuments in Graceland Cemetery is the tomb of Dexter Graves (1789 – 1844), with its bronze figure of ‘Eternal Silence’, the work of the sculptor Lorado Taft (1860-1936), cast by Jules Bercham of the American Art Foundry.

Originally the entire figure was painted black, and over the years the metal has oxidised to an eerie green everywhere except the face.

Dexter Graves was a member of an early contingent of Chicago settlers who, according to the inscription at the back of the monument, “brought the first colony to Chicago, consisting of 13 families, arriving here July 15, 1831 from Ashtabula, Ohio, on the schooner Telegraph.” A former tavern-keeper, Graves opened the Mansion House hotel on Lake Street, but died, soon after his daughters Lucy and Emeline, in April 1844.

Father and daughters were interred in the Chicago City Cemetery on North Avenue, and when that cemetery closed they were reinterred at Graceland.

It was Dexter Graves’ last surviving son Henry who, having no immediate heirs, commissioned the monument.

Henry Graves died in 1907, and the monument was in place by 1909.

Goldberg Variation

River City, Chicago

River City, Chicago

Clearly visible from the Sears/Willis Tower, River City (1986) – despite its incomplete form – is Bertrand Goldberg’s complement to Marina City, a free-standing residential complex.  Instead of the intended height of seventy-two storeys, the existing building is only seventeen storeys high, incorporating a boat-dock giving direct access to the Chicago River.

Its S-shape is reflected in the spinal ten-storey atrium, the River Road, which runs through the building, so that the wedge-shaped apartments alternatively face out to the river or inwards to the atrium.  Originally the building was intended to extend a further 400 metres towards Roosevelt Road.

Bertrand Goldberg was a Chicago-born Bauhaus student and graduate of the Armour Institute.  He regarded Mies van der Rohe as his mentor, until he became repelled by the mechanical repetitiveness of modernist design.

Goldberg asserted a more humane design-language by his rejection of right-angles, spectacularly apparent in his Chicago housing-projects.

The fragment of River City that exists lacks the impact of the intended design.  Marina City is 65 storeys high;  the six clusters of “triad” towers at River City would have been 72 storeys, linked by bridges at intervals of eighteen floors.

Mies is regarded as an aesthetic hero by a whole generation.  The tall rectangular boxes that he and his followers erected in cities across the world look fine, but Goldberg’s towers feel like places to live in.

There’s an account of Goldberg and his life’s work at

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

The Corn Cobs

Marina City, Chicago

Marina City, Chicago

The twin towers of Chicago’s Marina City (1959-64) – inevitably nicknamed the “corn cobs” – were a social as well as an urban landmark.  Their architect, Bertrand Goldberg (1913-1997), insisted their floor-plans were derived from the sunflower, “where the core is the center of the flower and each of the bays emanating from the core are very much both in shape and organization – like the petal of the flower.”

These two concrete towers were an exciting practical departure from established development thinking:  their construction is transparent, with a spiral of car parks leading to cake-slice shaped apartments with open semi-circular balconies;  the intention – which proved highly successful from the start – was to provide downtown accommodation for single and childless city-centre workers who wished to live virtually, if not actually, within the Loop.

The first nineteen storeys form a ramped multi-storey car-park (staffed by valets, presumably to minimise misadventures).  The twentieth floor is given over to services, included a launderette, and the floors above consist of apartments with some of the most enviable views in Chicago.

Conceived as a “city within a city”, Marina City was equipped with shops, restaurant, entertainment facilities and hosted both radio and television studios, as well as a marina with direct access to the Chicago River.

To provide nine hundred apartments economically, Goldberg chose to build two sixty-storey towers, and rejected steel cladding as too expensive.  Consequently, they were for their time the tallest reinforced-concrete structures in the world.

At a time when “white flight” to the suburbs was a major problem for urban planners, Marina City helped to turn the tide, making inner-city living desirable and convenient – though its residents, driving in and out and sweeping home in high-speed elevators, need hardly set foot on the sidewalk for weeks on end.

A helpful description of Marina City is at

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.


Less is more

Former IBM Building, 330 North Wabash Avenue, Chicago

Former IBM Building, 330 North Wabash Avenue, Chicago

The towering figure of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) ensured that Chicago led the world in the development of the modernist International Style.  He arrived in Chicago, a refugee from Nazi Germany, in 1937 to head the school of architecture at Armour Institute, which subsequently became the Illinois Institute of Technology.  Having designed the IIT campus in the Black Belt area of Bronzeville, he took up full-time architectural practice on his retirement in 1958.

Rooted in the principles of the pre-war Bauhaus School,– that architecture is intended simply to define space, buildings should have absolute regularity unless variation is functionally necessary and there should be no applied decoration – the buildings of this style are instantly recognisable as rectilinear boxes floating above a ground-level podium.  They show no sign of their function, ignore their surroundings and could be positioned anywhere.  Mies van der Rohe’s principle was that “less is more”.

His last American commission was the 52-storey, 695-feet-high IBM Building at 330 North Wabash Avenue, built posthumously in 1969-71 (or 1971-3, depending on the source).  Its distinguishing feature is the use of dark aluminium instead of black structural members, and of bronze-tinted glass instead of clear.

It represents a landmark in building design because its owners, necessarily, specified features to accommodate what was then an unusual quantity of computers – an under-floor duct-system to permit cabling and reverse refrigeration to disperse the heat from the machines.

The building is a beautiful shape, but it could have been built anywhere.  Unlike the nearby Wrigley Building, which is carefully designed to fit with the bend in the Chicago River, the IBM Building is parked unceremoniously in a position that required the realignment of North Wabash Avenue.

It remains a practical building now that it’s to an extent outlived its original purpose.  As 330 North Wabash, it is being refurbished to incorporate a five-star hotel on floors 2-16:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Tribune Tower

Tribune Tower, Chicago

Tribune Tower, Chicago

The southern end of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is marked by two magnificent buildings, the grey limestone, Gothic Tribune Tower (1922-5) by the New York architects, John Mead Howells (1868-1959) and Raymond Mathewson Hood (1881-1934), opposite the white faience, Renaissance Wrigley Building.

The Tribune Tower was built for the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955) – a tall, authoritative, notably hard-working arch-conservative, described by an opponent as having “the greatest mind of the fourteenth century”.

His great-uncle was Cyrus Hall McCormick Snr (1809-1884), the developer of the mechanical reaper who brought its manufacture to Chicago.  His maternal grandfather was Joseph Medill (1823-1899), Mayor of Chicago and the founder of the Tribune.

The Tribune was never knowingly undersold:  it claimed to be the “World’s Greatest Newspaper”, and its radio- and television-stations each took the call-sign WGN.

McCormick turned the architectural competition to build “the most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world” into a long-running promotional campaign as part of a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst’s Herald-Examiner.

Howells & Hood’s design must have appealed to McCormick because of its essential conservatism:  it is the last of the line of Gothic skyscrapers that began with Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building in Manhattan.  Its composition is a triumph of perpendicular lines, surmounted by a turret based on the Butter Tower of Rouen Cathedral, 34 storeys and 463 feet high.

Images of some of the other competing designs can be seen at

McCormick encouraged his correspondents to obtain stone fragments from monuments around the world, 120 of which are now embedded in the lower storeys.

The entrance door is surmounted by a celebrated stone screen depicting Aesop’s Fables, and the architects are commemorated by a pair of rebuses, that is, heraldic puns – a howling dog and a figure of Robin Hood.

The Tribune Tower is a fine example of an honourable architectural tradition, yet it’s ironic that the more influential competition entry was second-placed:  the design by the Finn Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) was the basis for the Gulf Building (1929) in Houston, Texas.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals:  past views of English architecture, please click here.

The benefits of chewing gum

William Wrigley Junior Building, Chicago

William Wrigley Junior Building, Chicago

“Life is what happens…,” John Lennon wrote, “while you’re making other plans.”

William Wrigley Junior (1861-1932) arrived in Chicago at the age of twenty-nine believing he’d make his fortune selling Wrigley’s Scouring Soap.

As a marketing ploy he offered a tie-in with baking powder, and found the baking powder sold better than the soap.

So he took to selling baking powder, with an offer of chewing-gum.

The chewing-gum proved more popular than the baking powder and Wrigley’s fortune was made.

He launched his Juicy Fruit and Spearmint brands in 1893 and at the end of the First World War, when the Michigan Avenue Bridge was under construction, he commissioned the Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White to design the William Wrigley Junior Building (1919-24).

This much-loved structure heralded the opening up of North Michigan Avenue after the bridge opened in 1920.

The Wrigley Building’s odd geometry reconciles the curve of the river to the gridiron street-plan:  in fact, it divides into two buildings, of which the taller, 30-storey riverside tower has hardly more than half the floor-space of its 21-storey annex.

Its gleaming white surface, suggestive of the product that paid for it, consists of six gradations of faience, from a cream at ground-level to a blue-white at the turret.

Wrigley used part of his fortune to embellish Chicago in other ways.

As the majority owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team from 1921 he gave his name to their ballpark, Wrigley Field, in 1926, from which the surrounding area gained the name Wrigleyville.

In 1928 he paid for James Earle Fraser’s reliefs on the northern bridgehouses of the Michigan Avenue Bridge, literally outside the front door of his office building.

All this grew from a substance, chicle, that was originally imported from Mexico as a possible substitute for rubber, but proved marketable as a chewing product.

“Life is what happens…while you’re making other plans.”

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.