Previous mistakes undone in a rapid and impressive transformation
July 7, 2013
Hideous changes to cherished buildings, like the antiseptic, refrigerator-style wall that was glommed onto the Wrigley Building three years ago, are rarely reversed quickly. Usually, they stick around for decades, giving bitter meaning to the truism that architecture is an inescapable art.
So there’s reason to cheer a nearly completed transformation of this beloved 1920s skyscraper, which happened, relatively speaking, on a lightning-fast schedule. The offensive metal-and-glass wall that marred a stretch of the building’s north tower has disappeared. In its place: gorgeous new terra cotta, complete with sculpted flower and leaf patterns that restore the original design’s festive glory.
Conventional wisdom holds that artistry and craftsmanship like this can’t — or shouldn’t — be done because ornament costs too much and doesn’t comport with the modernist preference for clean, crisp surfaces. Nonsense. All you need is a willing owner, skilled artisans and architects, and historic preservation tax credits that ease the sticker shock associated with using top-drawer materials.
“Here’s the living proof,” Michael Kaufman, a partner at Chicago-based Goettsch Partners, the architectural firm that led the restoration, said as he and firm principal Leonard Koroski showed off the gleaming, glazed terra cotta.
The remade ground-level facade, which faces the heavily trafficked plaza between the building’s north and south towers, is among the most visible parts of a $70 million rehab that has modernized the aged and still mostly empty office building at 400 and 410 N. Michigan Ave. with new or refashioned windows, sprinklers, toilets and lobbies.
Reopened June 30 after nearly a year of construction, the plaza conveys an austere elegance, having been resurfaced in two tones of gray granite that put to shame the dreary, concrete-surfaced Plaza of the Americas that is just north on Michigan Avenue.
In another smart move, the architects boldly removed the metal-and-glass screen that used to separate the plaza from Michigan Avenue, creating a grand passageway that has the further virtue of opening dramatic views to neighboring skyscrapers to the east and west.
The rehab follows a long-overdue City Council vote last summer to grant official protected status to the iconic riverfront tower.
Designed by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst & White and completed in two phases (1921 and 1924), the skyscraper is an eclectic but unified synthesis of such diverse sources as the Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain; 16th century French Renaissance designs adorned with urns and floral motifs; and the pioneering, steel-frame Chicago skyscapers of the 1890s.
Along with the prow-shaped profile and clock tower of its prominent south section, the Wrigley’s visual calling card has long been its light-reflecting skin of terra cotta. As historian Sally Chapell has written, six varying shades of a special enamel finish were baked on the material, shifting from gray to bright white as they approached the building’s summit. The result was a permanent echo of the spectacular but temporary “White City” that Chicago built for the 1893 world’s fair — a skyscraper with the cheery disposition and stepped profile of a wedding cake.
In that spirit, the terra cotta’s return is a visual feast.
The rehabbed skyscraper has more than 870 pieces of it. They were made by Gladding, McBean, a Sacramento, Calif.-area firm that also turns out clay sewer pipes. The cost: about $300,000, according to Janice Goldsmith, a senior vice president at the Zeller Realty Group The company is part of a consortium of investors, led by BDT Capital Partners, that includes Groupon co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell as minority investors
The terra cotta’s warm, tactile look is a welcome change from the cold, clinical modernism of the 2010 renovation, which was designed by the Chicago office of Gensler as part of a failed attempt to lure a restaurant to the empty space once occupied by the Wrigley Building’s 410 Club. Faux historic light fixtures that were affixed to the building are gone, along with air-intake louvers that were right out of a Sub-Zero catalog.
A simple ethic of restoring the old has wisely supplanted the previous attempt at sharply differentiating old from new. Yet the architects, members of their design team and the landmark officials who regulated their work have been flexible enough to give the rehabbed Wrigley Building a shot at being a vibrant part of the present, not a frozen-in-time museum piece.
Deftly placed night lighting, designed by Chicago’s Schuler Shook, shows off the Wrigley’s ground-level terra cotta without lapsing into garishness. Ornate bronze window frames, designed to lure high-end tenants, line the plaza even though the old frames were considerably plainer and the new frames confuse the issue of what’s authentic and what isn’t. Storefront entrances are sliced into the facades on the plaza’s north and south sides.
Now the owners need to sign up tenants, especially restaurants with outdoor cafes that spill onto the plaza and enliven it.
“We are in active negotiations,” said Goldsmith, declining to elaborate. She also won’t provide details on lease negotiations for the building’s 460,000 square feet of office space. About 65 percent of it was expected to be unoccupied after the departure of the building’s longtime owner, the William Wrigley Jr. Co.
“We have completed some deals,” Goldsmith said, again declining to reveal specifics.
However the leasing goes, it’s disappointing that the owners haven’t placed tables and chairs in the plaza.
True, according to Goldsmith, the owners spent $2.7 million to renovate the plaza, which sits on a city-owned viaduct above North Water Street. They’ve also agreed to maintain it for 50 years. Yet this is a public space, one that decades ago greeted pedestrians with benches and greenery. It looks grand now, but could start feeling empty unless it’s lined with activity.
Why not try “temporary urbanism,” outfitting the space with movable furniture that would demonstrate the Wrigley plaza’s potential to be a destination, not just a pass-through?
The exacting restoration of the building’s terra cotta and the careful renovation of other features is an enlightened example of historic preservation, one that should be celebrated after recent missteps. But for the Wrigley rehab to truly thrive, it must also be an urban design success, one that enhances the vitality of the cityscape even as it dazzles us with visual delights.