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.

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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