Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mirrored Courtyards on Farwell

Parapet Detail, 1425-1433 W. Farwell
 A few years ago I found an amazing book called "The Concise Townscape" by Gordon Cullen. This
is a collection of essays published in 1961 and adapted from a series of articles printed in The Architectural Review after WWII.  Cullen was English, and worked as an illustrator, townscape consultant and planner.  His book is an extended exercise in documenting built environments and drawing out urban design principles which could inform the work of planners and architects.  Knowing these studies were created in the aftermath of the war gives a certain intensity to his work. Just to give a quick impression, his photos and graphics illustrate unusual concepts, including viscosity, insubstantial space, thereness, and deflection.  And there are many many more.

When I finished the book I wanted to recreate it using examples from my neighborhood to illustrate the dozens of principles Cullen identified.  It was a stretch.  Actually, it was impossible.  There's a big difference between a 120 year-old Chicago neighborhood built on a grid and a medieval English town (OK, multiple towns) which developed over hundreds of years.  But the exercise itself had some value, and it affected how I looked at the neighborhood.  I began to identify some interesting things I had never noticed before. 

Often  in a gridded city with rectilinear lots it's the negative space which creates unique effects.  This is never more true than with courtyard buildings, which create their own landscape and interior plaza, typically in densely developed neighborhoods.  Rogers Park is a mecca of courtyard buildings, with nearly 200 scattered throughout the neighborhood (yes, I've counted).  As far as I know, no one has done a definitive study of this building type.  While this is on my drawing board for the future, I want to take a closer look at a condition that's relatively rare--  two courtyard buildings of comparable size and character mirroring each other across a street, creating a secondary, axial path in the center of a block. This takes us to Farwell Avenue, directly west of the Red Line elevated train.

You can appreciate these courtyards best while standing in the middle of the street (briefly please).  Suddenly you're in a different city, where the streets are narrow and the buildings loom above.  There's a sense of enclosure and intricacy not usually found in Rogers Park (note the Cullenesque reference words!). I imagine the most interesting views would be from the third floor from the back of the buildings, where you can appreciate the entire 380 foot combined courtyard. 

Was this alignment accidental, or were larger forces of design and organization  at work within the grid? But first maybe a closer look at the spaces defined by the buildings.

The buildings themselves are so similar that it makes sense to talk about both of them at the same time.  Both are built on lots with 100' frontages and 175' in depth, and are 3 stories with a raised basement.  Both use a combination of face brick and stone (or cast stone) ornamental surrounds and accents.  They make use of false mansard roofs with Italian tile and have castellated bays that project into the courtyard, providing additional light as well as views to the street.   Both were built within a year of each other, 1422-1430 in 1927 and 1425-1433 in 1926.  And the final argument for intent rather than accident, both were designed by architect Anthony H. Quitsow. 

Some cursory online research (mostly the Chicago Tribune) shows that Quitsow was basically a specialist in the design of large, multi-unit buildings with eclectic details.  There are several in Rogers Park, and a number remaining in Evanston, just to the north. He's an architect who might be identified as typical of  the period, someone who worked with builders and developers to provide solid, predictable results with good curb appeal.  Not much information about him, except that he had offices downtown and at some point became a developer himself. 
Parapet Detail 1422-1430 W. Farwell

Why this block went from entirely single family homes in 1914 to accomodating several large, multi-unit buildings by 1937 (dates of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps) is difficult to say precisely, but it would make sense in the larger context of the neighborhood.  The 1920s saw Rogers Park develop from a suburban enclave to an urban neighborhood due to improved transportation (especially the elevated train) and an influx of new residents.  And there was an increasing acceptability of living in large multi-unit buildings, which had been considered "anti-family" by the previous generation.  A larger scale of residential development had become possible due to improved financial instruments, more standardized construction, and plenty of skilled (and cheap) labor.

But did Quitsow anticipate that combining courtyards (at least perceptually) would create a unique design feature?  Or did he just draw up the buildings based on the most profitable use of the lots permitted by city codes?  I like to think that both were considered and had their impact on the final result.  But it hardly matters.  Even in a neighborhood with limited history and tighly controlled development there will still be fortunate (and sometimes unfortunate) accidents.  I intend to explore a few more of these in the coming months.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Monumental Lighting #3- 212 W. Washington

This 1911 building has a lot in common with the one at 311 W. Washington.  Both were commissioned by the Chicago Telephone Company and both were designed in the historicist mode by their favorite architects, Holabird & Roche.  And of course, both have huge metal lanterns flanking their main entrance.  While 311 Washington was used for switchboards and mechanicals, this 20-story building was the administrative headquarters.  It has the same quasi-public feel that all of these phone company buildings assumed.

This view is a little narrower than I would have preferred (reference photo taken from the 12th floor of a nearby parking garage),but you can see that it's in keeping with the classic skyscraper formula of base, shaft and capital.  This has been somewhat obscured by hanging metal balconies along Washington, which accompanied the 1990s condo conversion.  It was a pleasure to eliminate these from the sketch.  Several of the lower floors were hollowed out to provide indoor parking, which they've made no attempt to hide.  It looks pretty odd from the street, although probably most people don't notice.
The main entrance to the building is indicated by these two story arched openings with decorative keystones.  Above are stone balconies hung with stone festoons.  The 3-story base is capped with a substantial projecting cornice.  The rusticated stone blocks really give the building a distinct identity.  The ornamentation is best described as a combination of Classical and Rennaissance Revival. 

Looking at this drawing I realize how much I've let this project get out of hand.  My first intention was just to focus on the decorative entrance lanterns in the Loop.  Then I thought, "Wouldn't it be nice if a reader could place these in context with the rest of the building?"  So I decided to include a couple of rough sketches.  This rough sketch took a week and a half to finish.

Of course the whole point was to look at the lanterns, and these are particularly good ones, weathered to a noble green patina.  Leave it to Holabird & Roche to get the details right, from the dome decorated with a leaf pattern (similar to the keystone design) to the acanthus patterns and scrollwork.  And the brackets that support the lights are works of art in themselves.  I'm also impressed that they accomodated the lantern attachment by eliminating a portion of the rustication to create a unbroken area of flat stone.  It also points out how artificial (a modernist might say unnecessary) the ornamental scheme is to the structure of the building. 

I think this will be the last entry in this series.  I have reference photos for one more building (on Washington, of course), but it's probably time to move on to some other things.