Ghosts and relics in West Loop architecture
07/11/2012 10:00 PM
For students of architecture and design, Chicago is a virtual Disneyland. Think about it — you’ve got the world’s first skyscraper and the tallest building in the U.S. The Marshall Field Building, the Chicago Theater and the Palmer House are just a few of the iconic structures photographed by hundreds of visitors every day.
Those buildings are also in The Loop. That got me to wondering about our neighborhood, the West Loop. In the world of architecture, what are we, chopped liver? Given that the northeast portion of the area remains tied to meat processing, perhaps the analogy isn’t far off.
However, after a bit of digging, I learned that, au contraire, the West Loop has many noteworthy buildings and a few curiosities. After you read this column, you may never look at the buildings you walk by here the same way again.
Take a stroll through the neighborhood, and you’re likely to see the remnants of advertisements on the side of buildings. These are known as “ghost signs.” Paint used for these ads was often lead-based and didn’t deteriorate quickly. Some of these signs have faded to a point where you barely make out the image. Wichita Packing Company at Fulton Market and Elizabeth has a descriptive image of a pink pig atop the entrance, and another ghost sign above it that reads “Boarding Stable.”
Many buildings in the West Loop that now house offices or apartments were originally manufacturing facilities. These are utilitarian structures and are largely unadorned, with the exception of the front entrance, according to Jen Masengarb, senior manager of educational research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
“If it was a food manufacturing business, the owners generally wouldn’t invest much in the design of the building, but you can see where they used some flair in the design of the entrance where the sales people or wholesalers walked in the door,” she said.
You can find a true architectural oddity at the Tower Building on the southeast corner Green and Jackson. From many vantage points in the West Loop, you can see the clock tower rising above the top floor. But, its original purpose had little to do with telling time, Masengarb said.
“It’s a neat story about that clock tower,” she said. “There’s actually a water tower hiding under the clock. The sole function of the clock is to hide the water tower.”
Most of the exposed or hidden water towers above older buildings in the West Loop are no longer functional, Masengarb said. When they were built, those towers provided an important source of water to the building’s interior manufacturing facilities, and for fire protection. Remember, building codes changed drastically after the great fire and water towers atop buildings at the turn of the century were considered modern for that era.
Due west on Jackson, between Laflin and Ashland, you’ll find stately row houses, built between 1871 and 1900. The design is an excellent representation of turn-of-the-century styles, using Italianate, Queen Anne, Second Empire and Romanesque. The Jackson Boulevard District is essentially a one-block time capsule.
It’s also a comfortable walk, even in extreme heat, thanks to the canopy of trees that line each side of the street. Masengarb said in the late 1800s, the vision for the district was to extend the row houses along the length of Jackson, but those plans never materialized.
Art deco design is also on display in the West Loop in several buildings. Harpo Studios is faux art deco; if you want the real thing, head one block south to Randolph and Elizabeth. The building at 1313 W. Randolph originally housed the Chicago Floral Center, and the exterior mirrors its past with a floral pattern.
Walk east to Carpenter and you’ll see another interesting building at 1040 W. Randolph with a classic streamlined art deco design. It was originally the Richter’s Food building (now Gallery 1040), built in 1933. That was a somewhat significant year for Chicago and the country: the end of prohibition. If you look at the center section of the building, it rises up and, according to Masengarb, that’s a sign there could be a water tower hiding within it.
“It’s also a good example of terra cotta construction,” she said. “Terra cotta, or baked clay, was often used to clad the interior and exterior of buildings from that era. It was used primarily for fire protection, not necessarily for its design.”
A different type of art deco structure is located at 1340 West Monroe. It’s an AT&T switching station, built in 1932 and designed by Holabird & Root, whose work can also be seen at the Chicago Board of Trade building. Above the entrance doors to the AT&T building are granite panels depicting the transmission of sound.
Even the rundown New Jackson Hotel in Greektown merits a look. Igor Studenkov profiled the single room occupancy hotel in the Chicago Journal last month. The rundown hotel is housed in an Italianate building with a noteworthy detail at the top.
From the west side of Halsted, you’ll see a stepped brick design at the roofline. That’s known as machicolation, a design element borrowed from ancient castles, where it served a function. The defenders of the castles would drop hot rocks from the protected stepped brick armament down from the roof to ward off attackers.