Wallpaper Buildings


1048 N. Marshfield Ave. at Cortez

Robert Venturi famously grouped the ornamentation of buildings into two types: “The Duck”, a building with an iconic and usually literal exterior shape (named for a souvenir shop on Long Island built in the shape of a giant duck), and “The Decorated Shed”, a constructed box with ornamental systems applied to it – exemplified by the Gothic cathedrals with their huge ornamental facades standing in front of vast warehouses of religious space.


Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica, 3121 W Jackson Boulevard

Nearly all common Chicago architecture falls squarely into the second group, to the extent that the city’s architecture is often a structural system with a layer of cladding and ornament applied to the front, visible in the most literal (and sometimes comical) of ways. My own shorthand for these is “Wallpaper Buildings”.


2900 N. Mildred Avenue at W. George Street. This is the back and side of a massive U-shaped courtyard apartment. At left, the facade continues on minus the structure without missing a beat, adding one last bay to shelter the rear stairs from the street. We are not meant to notice the disconnect.

When you see it, you’ll see it everywhere. It makes you think about the nature of a building, of construction and design. Is architecture a frame with an elaborate weatherproof sculpture in front of it? Is it still architecture if you remove the frame? What happens when the sculpture ceases to be sculptural, or ceases to have mass, or ceases to have decoration? The story of the Wallpaper Building, its evolution over the years, is the story of architecture itself.

Most Chicago buildings are meant for urban settings, where the front facade is more visible than the sides or back. As a compromise between cost and quality, builders would load up the front facade with higher-grade materials and most if not all of the building’s ornament. The sides and alley-facing walls usually were built of beige-colored Chicago common brick, a softer, cheaper, lower-quality material than the highly finished brick used on the front.

Polish housing

1363 N. Bosworth. This building does a double downgrade. The front facade (above) is the most heavily composed side, with stone and heavily articulated finish brick; the side comes second, with a lesser grade of brick but still ornamented with considerable corbeled brickwork; the utterly plain backside (below) is done in Chicago common brick.

Polish housing

Sometimes, though, the sides and back weren’t nearly as invisible as the designer would like to imagine. My favorite example is in Buffalo, New York (where Louis Sullivan’s towering Guaranty Building has two insanely ornate sides facing the streets… and two completely plain brick wall sides facing the alleys) but there are plenty of similar instances in Chicago. The idea, obviously, is that a tall neighbor would eventually cover up the sides not facing the street. Sometimes it might have even worked out that way.

And sometimes it didn’t.


A view north  from the Wilson Red Line stop in Uptown shows no less than 5 buildings with decorative facades and unornamented sides.

The design strategy was not limited to low-budget buildings. Some of the city’s most ornate and lavish buildings switch over to cheaper common brick on the sides. Many feature bay windows projecting from the common brick sides, a pointed acknowledgement that the sides are indeed visible and always would be.


2424-2428 N. Geneva Terrace, Lincoln Park


 1547 N. Dearborn Parkway, Gold Coast – an 1891 mansion by architect August Fielder, still a private residence. Yours for only $13.75 million!

The approach was more successful with mid-block buildings on neighborhood streets, where a builder could count on having similarly scaled neighbors only a few feet away from his sidewalls.


3000 block of S. Bonfield Avenue, Bridgeport

2700 block of S. Wallace Street, Bridgeport. The exposed wall bears a faded ghost ad for long-vanished Selz shoes brand, possibly a reference to the Selz Good Shoes Lady.

At some point, this common design response changed from an adaptive strategy to a default setting, used even when it didn’t make a lot of sense. Hence the full-lot houses in many neighborhoods with their plain brick sides exposed for all the world to see. A more cohesive design approach might have found a middle-grade material to use on all sides while evening out the cost between expensive front facade brick and cheap common side brick, or just left off the front facade upgrade altogether, since in these cases it only serves to call out the lower quality materials adjacent to it. But builders of the time just weren’t rolling that way. Why? I have only guesses.


1329 W. Chicago Avenue at Throop, West Town


1500 N. Walton Street, West Town

Polish housing

1301 N. Greenview Avenue at Potomac, West Town – Chicago

All this stuff drove the early Modernists crazy. They couldn’t stand the notion of buildings having hierarchy, fronts and backs, important sides and secondary sides, decorative skin and hidden structure. To the most dogmatic among them, these things reflected the hierarchies of unjustly stratified societies, the moral decay that precipitated the First World War.

Today, of course, we take a different view. The ornate facade is seen as a gracious gesture, a polite and noble contribution to the public space of the street. Decorating the front of the building is about living up to social norms and expectations, treating your neighbors well, showing respect for the people around you, saying “hello”, enhancing the public space.


1901 N. Bissell Street at Wisconsin, Ranch Triangle – Chicago

It does still raise the question, though: why is the person riding the Red Line or walking through the alley somehow less deserving of social graces than the person on the front sidewalk? Is the Bridgeview Uptown Bank building a gracious neighbor, or a dowager in a hospital gown, with the backside hanging open and flapping in the breeze, mooning the rest of the world?

The disconnect between the artistically designed components of a building and the bulk of its mass was a driver of Modernist philosophy, as its young masters sought to design buildings as complete entities – respectfully and properly clad on all sides, among other things. There would be no hidden back; all sides of the building would be forever visible as it sat on its site in splendid isolation.

UofC Law Library

University of Chicago D’Angelo Law Library, Eero Saarinen, 1958



The Esplanade Apartment Buildings at 900-910 Lake Shore Drive, Mies van der Rohe, 1956 – essentially an expansion of his famous 860-880 Lake Shore Drive Apartments from 1949, next door.

Structure and cladding would become one. The facade ceased to be a thing of mass, of sculpture, of elaboration, of separation; it became a mere cladding, a pattern, an expression of the structure that lay just beneath it.

Pre-war buildings are sometimes subjected to “facadectomies”, with everything but the decorative front wall torn down and a new structure erected behind the old facade. It’s physically possible because old masonry facades are structural entities, capable of carrying their own weight even if they weren’t structurally integral to the building behind them.


The facade of the Fine Arts Building Annex, 421 S. Wabash Ave, suspended in place after the rest of the building was demolished in 2010. It was subsequently had a new Roosevelt University building grafted onto it from behind.


Group facadectomy on the 000 block of S. Wabash Avenue, 2008


Citizens State Bank of Chicago, just off Lincoln Avenue, creatively remade into loft apartments circa 2007.

Chicago’s had its fair share of them, though usually the city’s ethos is just to knock everything the hell down and start over, because, hey, history don’ make money, know what I’m sayin’? An anyway, all dem old things is old, y’know? (By comparison, stronger preservation laws mean the practice is absolutely rampant in downtown Washington DC, where almost no pre-war buildings remain in their original state.)

No orthodox Modernist building could survive such an operation. Take down the building and the skin has to come with it.

The IBM Building – 330 N. Wabash Avenue, Mies van der Rohe, 1969

You do not tear down the building while leaving behind a Modernist facade; if you were interested, though, you could rip off the facade while keeping everything else, and transform the building into something different. This possibility was painfully rendered evident during the recent demolition of Prentice Hospital.

Prentice Hospital

Prentice Hospital
The “pedestal” portion of Prentice was a steel and concrete frame supporting a thin, non-structural outer skin.

However, late Chicago Modernists, as I’ve discussed before, weren’t always adherents to orthodoxy. Finish brick on the front, common brick on the side – step away from the Loop, and the old patterns rolled right on into the 1960s.


1111 W. 47th Street, Back of the Yards – Chicago

There’s beauty to be found in both approaches, and some part of me admits: a neighborhood street with a solid wall of elaborate facades is a lot nicer than a more middling approach. Who cares about those side walls anyhow? Some of Chicago’s most beautiful streets have been created this way. It’s not orthodox or pure… just pretty. Pleasant. Human. “Pretty” may sound vapid, but it’s hard to argue with “human”.

Modern construction techniques, however, have come down firmly on the side of the structure-and-skin approach.  One might say that the thin-skinned buildings of today are more covered in something akin to wallpaper than ever before – layers of thin and varied materials, each serving a particular function – sub-structure, moisture protection, framing, insulation. To build a structurally self-supporting facade – a facade with significant mass, heft and depth – requires a massive material, like stone, brick or concrete. Stone is too expensive to transport, cut and lay up; brick has been reduced to just another facade material, just another form of thin skin. Nobody’s managed to use concrete block in a way that doesn’t look hideously ugly, the lessons of Frank Lloyd Wright’s textile block phase apparently having been forgotten.

The last stand of the facade-as-mass approach could be found in Brutalism, since poured-in-place concrete is the last massive material that can be affordably transported. The style died out with the 1970s, when architects found that almost nobody liked the look of exposed concrete (except architects). It is currently one of the most hotly contested architectural styles around as its buildings age into their 40s and 50s, their structural skins flaking and spalling in the weather; beating up on it online is currently in vogue with folks everywhere.

Chicago never had many Brutalist buildings, and as of 2014 it has one fewer still.

Prentice Hospital Most significant remaining examples are likewise Bertrand Goldberg designs.

The Vic Theatre

The Vic Theater, 3145 N. Sheffield Avenue, Lakeview; architect John Pridmore, 1912

With the passing of Brutalism, the victory of attached skin over embedded mass is complete; the Modernists have had their way – though it was via the economies of materials and labor, rather than a triumph of philosophy. The Wallpaper Building as described above is now a relic of a bygone age.


Chicago’s Holy Corner

From the downtown intersection of Clark and Madison, you’re within a two minute walk of a Catholic church, a Protestant church, and a Jewish synagogue. And all three are well worth the visit.

First United Methodist Church (The Chicago Temple)

The Chicago Temple is the tallest church building in the world, and the only skyscraper in Chicago with a religious spire. It’s a 1922 design by architects Holabird & Roche, in a French Gothic style. When it opened in 1924, it was the city’s tallest building.




At ground level, the wood-lined main sanctuary is open for most or all of the day; you can wander in just about any time for a look. (Being downtown, that means there’s sometimes a few homeless folks hanging out in the colder months, though the forbidding entrance lobby with its security guard makes it a bit uninviting.)



Those stained glass windows are an illusion – there’s no trace of them on the outside of the building, and they remain brightly illuminated day and night.



The stained glass is done in a traditional style, but with some contemporary subject matter, including Jesus blessing the skyline of the city and the highrise itself.


The sanctuary reaches some impressive heights, particularly when you consider the load of an entire skyscraper is carried above it.


But those heights pale compare to those of the Sky Chapel, just below the spire.




Long-planned, the chapel wasn’t fitted out until 1952, when a bequest by the widow of the founder of the Walgreens chain made it possible. Despite the changing times, the chapel is fairly conservative in style – though the stained glass continues the theme of bizarre subject matter begun in the sanctuary below.




And once again, just in case you forget where you are…



City Hall's green roof

Chicago Loop Synagogue


This Midcentury confection is slotted neatly into the street wall. Designed by architects Loebl, Schlossman and Benett in 1957, the Loop Synagogue opened its doors in 1958. The building is adorned by a 1969 sculpture entitled “The Hands of Peace” on the outside, by sculptor Henri Azaz, with stylized hands against a background of Hebrew and English letters spelling out a traditional Jewish prayer.


There’s a sort of slow, deliberative elegance to this building. You can almost feel the architects pausing contemplatively, stroking their chins in thought perhaps, before finally selecting these wonderful huge wood door paddles.


Beyond those doors lies a simple passageway with offices and other spaces. The main worship space is on the second story.

The beautiful wall of stained glass was designed by American artist Abraham Rattner and installed in 1960. Based on the “let there be light” Torah passage, it depicts an abstract, metaphysical cosmos flecked with ancient Hebrew symbols.



The rest of the space is spare and clean, befitting its Modernist origins.




St. Peter’s Church


Wedged between two adjoining buildings, St. Peters Catholic Church gives the impression that it was carved out from a solid rock face. Solid, planar walls contrast startlingly with deeply hewn entrances and window openings, creating one of the best facades in the city. Unlike the contemporaneous Queen of Heaven mausoleum, this 1953 church (architects: Vitzhum and Burns) shows a mix of modern and historical influences.

A three-story high crucafix by Austrian sculptor Arvid Strauss completes this compelling composition.


Like the Chicago Temple, the doors of St. Peter’s are always open (again, meaning there’s usually a few homeless guys hanging around, along with a smattering of curious tourists and the usual downtown office workers.) The space inside is vast, befitting the epic facade outside. Seemingly every surface is gleaming polished stone.



Deprived of natural light, the designers had to turn to other tricks to give the space a sense of holiness. Illuminated sculpture niches serve in place of stained glass windows, portraying the life of St. Francis of Assisi.


The building’s lobby is notable primarily for its wonderfully ornate doors.


If you’ve walked past this place, take five minutes to duck inside. It’s well worth the time.


  • A history of the church from Heavenly City at Google Books.


  • Fine Arts Building Annex coming down

    The lovely thin little building attached to the back of the Fine Arts Building is being demolished. Already mostly gone is the dull skyscraper that stood alongside it.

    December 2006

    April 2010

    Dumb. Wasteful. Unlikely to be an improvement in the short or long run. Most unfortunate.

    The thick metal framing in front of the Annex indicates an intent to either disassemble the facade for later reconstruction, or else preserve it in place while a new structure goes up behind it. Either way, it’s the dreaded facadectomy, and is likely to lose the impact of this tall, thin facade with an incredibly long, thin building behind it. Nor will it preserve the old tiki restaurant sign painted on the side walls.

    * Link: Landmarks Illinois lists the building in its Chicagoland watch list, 2008.

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    Mostly I just wanted an excuse to post this composite photograph. Betcha can’t spot where I spliced ’em together!

    Carbide & Carbon Building

    The Carbide and Carbon Building went up in 1929 to the designs of Daniel and Hubert Burnham (sons of the famous city planner). It represents the absolute pinnacle of Jazz Age elegance. Its materials are sumptuously rich, its ornament lavish, its design stylishly geometric, its massing in harmony with the spirit of the age (not to mention the zoning codes.)

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    Carbide & Carbon, up close

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    If you’ve never been inside, do so. The public spaces aren’t huge, but they are as stylish as the outside.

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    The building was originally office space and display areas for Union Carbide. It was converted to a Hard Rock Hotel in 2004, meaning the lobbies are essentially public space. Feel free to wander in! There are no pubic spaces on the upper floors, sadly, though one group of upper-floor suites does have an entry foyer dressed up as a sort of medieval monastery.

    But it’s no substitute for an observation deck. Imagine what it must be like to go up in the lantern!

    Carbide and Carbon Building

    Mather Tower

    Mather Tower

    The AIA Guide to Chicago likens it to “a terra-cotta Gothic rocket poised for takeoff”. Unbelievably slender, the Mather Tower rise some 42 stories above the Chicago River at the north edge of the Loop. It is one of a half-dozen skyscrapers from the 1920s which form an unparalleled ensemble where Michigan crosses the river. Together with the river, the vast sidewalks, the ornate bridges, and the multi-level streets, these towers collectively make this intersection one of the world’s greatest urban spaces.

    Mather Tower

    Designed by Herbert Hugh Riddle, the building was once the Linocln Tower, and now goes by the uninspired title of 75 E. Wacker Drive; however, it was built as the Mather Tower in 1928. It was headquarters for the Mather Stock Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad cars. Plans for an identical twin next door were scrapped with the coming of the Great Depression.

    Mather Tower

    Mather Tower

    Mather Tower

    In the 1990s, the building’s terra cotta skin was deteriorating. Pieces had fallen off and reportedly hit pedestrians on the sidewalks below. Much of the building was wrapped in netting, prior to a complete restoration of the exterior.

    Mather Tower
    October 2000

    Mather Tower

    The building’s cap is actually a prefabricated replacement, installed in 2002 after the deteriorated original had been removed. Unfortunately, though intended to be a duplicate of the original cupola, it doesn’t integrate with the original tower in form or color. Compared to the original, it clearly reads as the tacked-on replacement that it is.

    Mather Tower

    Still, we’re lucky to have the cupola at all. Restoring it involved a few million buck in TIF money and tax abatement.

    Mather Tower

    Mather Tower

    Mather Tower

    The long view

    Oh, Chicago! It’d take a lifetime to know you through’n’through. Details and delights continue to unfold around me on a daily basis. Unnoticed ornament, secret pathsways, hidden spaces… the city’s wonders, charms and quirks are endless.


    Today I noticed this terra cotta boss on the building at 203 N. Wabash Avenue. With the sun falling just so, he appears to be rolling his eyes in exasperation. He sits on a wall with profuse ornament, floral and geometric designs that make the first three stories of the building a sheer joy to pass by. How many of the city’s rushing workers and scrambling tourists have seen him before me, and how many never took the time to look? Such long contemplation is the luxury of living and working in the core of a great city — the time to absorb the breadth and depth of all its treasures.

    The Fine Arts Building

    You’ve seen it; it’s one of the mile-long row of architectural gems lining Michigan Avenue south of the river, just north of the landmark Auditorium Building.

    Fine Arts Building

    The Fine Arts Building was erected in 1885 to the designs of Solon S. Beman, as the Studebaker Building. Predating the automobile age, its upper floor were used to assemble wagons and carriages, while show rooms were in the wide-windowed lower floors. 13 years later Beman returned to the building, lopping off the top floor and adding three new ones in its place, and converting the building to a center of studio space for artists. It remains in this function today, housing architects, photographers, piano instructors, a violin maker, and many similar tenants.

    Tarnished by years of grime, it has a raw feeling of age that many of the more polished buildings around it lack. Its rough stone facade, brawny and massive, belies the fact that its facade contains very large areas of glass.

    At the base, the Artist’s Snack Shop cafe offers outdoor seating, somewhat overpriced food, and an awe-inspiring neon and bulb-lit sign.

    Fine Arts Building facade detail

    Inside, the building offers a number of delights. The corridors retain their original wood and iron work. Murals decorate a central light well adjacent to the main stairs and other places. A top-floor ballroom features ornate light fixtures and sweeping views of the lake and Grant Park.

    Fine Arts Building

    Equally vintage are the elevators, with all their original metal trim intact. The system requires an operator, who flashes past the floors in a slow streak of light as the cars go up and down.

    Fine Arts Building

    Fine Arts Building

    Fine Arts Building annex

    Behind the building, facing Wabash and the rails of the L, stands an incredibly thin building, at 421 S. Wabash. Built as the Fine Arts Building Annex, it dates from 1924, was designed by architects Rebori, Wentworth, Dewey & McCormick, and housed heating equipment and additional studio space. The “Rebori” in the architectural firm is Andrew Rebori, who did renovation work on the main building, and went on to design some amazing Art Deco around Chicago. The building’s emphatic verticality, reinforced by two slender pilasters running the full height of the facade, is distinctly Chicago School.

    Fine Arts Building annex

    Fine Arts Building annex

    The side of the annex is a vast wall of common Chicago brick, with a painted ad for a Tiki restaurant called Pago Pago.

    Fine Arts Building annex

    The Fine Arts Building has its own web site, proudly proclaiming its continued status as a haven for artists.

    Randolph Tower

    This mighty mountain of Skyscraper Gothic rises from the western Loop at Randolph and Wells; the Loop elevated runs right next to it. Built in 1929 as the Steuben Club Building, and also known as 188 W. Randolph Street, it’s among the very last of its breed, the historicist revival skyscraper. Already declining due to the rise of Art Deco, large-scale period revival would all but vanish in the face of the Great Depression. This would not be the last historicist design by architects Vitzthum & Burns, but it was nevertheless the end of an era.

    188 Randolph Tower

    The building consists of a 28 story base and a 17 story upper tower. The amount of intricate ornament is impressive; it becomes astonishing in light of its inaccessible location, 26 stories above the street. Many of the shields, arches, medallions, crockets and finials are essentially invisible without binoculars.

    Lush with details, heavily weathered by decades of Chicago smoke and grime, this is a building that begs to be examined up close, and I’m only too happy to break out the zoom lens and deliver the goods.

    Randolph Tower

    Randolph Tower

    Randolph Tower

    Randolph Tower

    188 Randolph Tower

    188 Randolph Tower

    That magnificent upper tower, sadly, has had some problems with its skin in the past. Metal straps have been wrapped around the curvaceous terra cotta flying buttresses that surround the tower base, presumably to keep them from falling apart. Pieces of terra cotta broke loose from the tower facade and fell in 2001, landing on the lower roof. Nothing fell all the way to the ground, but the city shut down the surrounding streets and the Loop lines until protective scaffolding could be erected around the building’s base and over the adjacent L station. The building subsequently went into foreclosure.

    188 Randolph Tower

    Today, this is the bizarre sight that greets travelers walking east from Ogilvie Transportation Center, as half of the tower’s west face has been wrapped in protective scaffolding. The building has sat idle for several years, deteriorating as redevelopment schemes have been formulated. Latest word: construction is to begin in 2008, converting the building to 288 apartments — including 15 floors of penthouses in the tower, and a $15 million facade restoration.

    Randolph Tower

    More detail photos may be seen at my Flickr space.

    I saw a city in the clouds

    Chicago City Hall

    Among the many tours offered last weekend as part of the Great Spaces program was a trip to City Hall’s green roof. I though it’d be interesting… it turned out to be awesome.

    City Hall's green roof

    It’s not just some little patches of grass up there, folks; it’s a veritable garden — a little slice of prairie twelve stories above the street, planted with native grasses and flowers intended to survive the harsh conditions inherent to Chicago. Paths marked by concrete pavers wind through the garden and over its gentle rolls and rises. Magnificent buildings surround it on all sides, creating a dizzyingly grand space.

    City Hall's green roof

    City Hall's green roof

    According to the city’s architect (our tour guide), the roof has been a smashing success. It’s saved the city money on heating and cooling costs. It’s only had one leak in the 8 years or so since its installation, and the vegetation cover actually protects the roof membrane from sunlight and other weathering. Necessary paraphernalia like vent stacks are simply extended up beyond the level of the soil and vegetation; most other HVAC equipment is out of the way in a central penthouse. A couple of trees are strategically located over structural columns to avoid loading issues. The entire building was designed with a mind toward adding more floors (though it never happened), so the structure in general is up to the extra loading.

    Makin' the county look bad

    “City Hall” is actually two structurally and functionally independent buildings behind a united facade. The eastern half is home to Cook County administration… and its roof never got the green treatment. It still retains its old black rubber roof, and looks sad and desolate by comparison. A chain-link fence separates the two roofs.

    City Hall's green roof

    It’s truly a shame that this flabbergasting space is only open on rare occasions. If it had elevator access and two fire exits, it’d be the perfect setting for a garden cafe.

    City Hall's green roof