Friday, December 10, 2010

Monumental Lighting #1- 35 E. Wacker

View from E. Wacker Drive

Recently I've been interested in the massive lanterns found on many historic skyscrapers downtown.  Sure they're lousy at casting any useful light, but they seem to pull their weight in other ways. I thought it would be interesting to examine a few of these buildings and their light fixtures to see if I could identify some controlling principles related to their size,  location, and design.
Just to set the stage, 35 E. Wacker Building has been a Chicago Landmark since 1994.  Originally known as the Jewelers' Building, it was completed in 1927. The main building is 23 stories tall and is topped with an 18 story tower.  The first floor is covered with grey limestone and the rest of the building is beige terra cotta.  The domed pavilions at the corners of the main tower originally concealed water towers for the sprinkler system.

Main Entrance on Wacker Drive

The portals at the second and third floors are masterpieces of ornamentation with carefully composed cornices, frames and decorative spandrels.  The Chicago landmark designation report identifies the ornament as primarily early Italian Renaissance, borrowing liberally from church designs.  It notes that typical decorative treatments in this style present the most aggressive decorations at the street level, becoming more sophisticated (restrained) at higher elevations.  That works for this building, at least until you hit the domes, which are like a Baroque hallucination. 

Original marketing material for the building indicates that the design "was based on that of the 15th century chapel for the monastery of the Certosa of Pavia..."  Sure, I can see that. Kind of. 
Lantern details

But that's not to ignore the the most important part of the building-- the four enormous brass lanterns projecting out from the second floor!  These things are massive.  From a distance they look in scale with the building,  but up close it's clear they could crush an elephant if they popped off the wall.  They're covered with classical ornament.  Fluted colonettes support an elaborate crown topped with shields, scrolls and tiny urns.  The finial is an eagle with spread wings (although from an angle it looks like a parrot).  Inside the shields you can see an intertwined JB for Jewelers' Building.

The lanterns almost look like scaled-up pieces of jewelry, which would be appropriate.  But they also resonate with the four domed pavilions and the dome on the main tower (see below).  Their scale works, but mainly because they've been elevated above the first floor where they can read as sculptural rather than functional. 

I'll be taking a look at a few other buildings with lighting standards in and around the Loop over the next several weeks.
North Elevation of 35 E. Wacker, 1925
Original can be found at the Chicago History Museum