On Oct. 18 and 19, the Chicago Architecture Foundation’s Open House Chicago brought the global program—which throws wide the doors of notable buildings and sites for public viewing—to the Second City. This year’s edition, the city's fourth, came with a seasonal mix of chill and rain as crowds of design devotees traipsed across Chicago, undeterred, to visit the 150 architecturally significant locales on display. We dropped in at a handful of sites that span the building typologies that helped define the city’s architectural history.
Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church
Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan made a great team when Adler hired the younger man in 1879. After the pair split in 1895, it was Sullivan who remained the artistic genius. Adler, on the other hand, is remembered as the acoustical mind whose engineering prowess had once aided his younger partner. It’s easy to think of the duo as the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of their day. As individual artists, Sullivan stayed McCartney while Adler seemingly morphed into an early-20th-century Ringo. Visiting the South Side’s Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which Adler designed in 1899, is a worthwhile experience that helps to confirm the prevailing notions.
Originally designed as the Isaiah Temple for the neighborhood’s then–German Jewish residents, the square cross massing belies its primary interior—a barrel-vaulted space that runs transverse to the principle axis. A three-sided balcony with a lone strip of Sullivan-esque ornament directs attention to the original tabernacle, now the pulpit for the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, which has been the space’s proprietor since 1921. The configuration seems acoustically confused but experience confounds expectations as this room is the birthplace of gospel music. Our enthusiastic guide, a longtime congregation member, couldn’t have been prouder of the building and everything its occupants have accomplished during its history. It was a great reminder that good architecture can serve people in many meaningful ways.
School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sullivan Center
The 12th floor of Louis Sullivan’s 1904 Carson, Pirie, Scott, and Company building, now called the Sullivan Center, is home to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)’s Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects department. SAIC’s workaday facilities aren’t much different from that of any other design school, save the amazing display of Louis Sullivan’s lavish ornamental artistry just outside its broad windows.
A 2006 renovation reconstructed the cornice and colonnade to their original splendor, giving SAIC students a daily close-up view of the intricate detail. The building’s northwest corner is the highlight, greeting the shoppers who now visit Target rather than Carson Pirie Scott on the corner of Madison and State streets. In SAIC’s space, the corner forms the so-called “zero–zero” lounge, whose name derives from intersection below, which is ground zero for the city’s street numbering system.
At one point on the tour, our student guide referenced the line demarcating the original ornament and where it had been reconstructed, mentioning that different architects had been responsible for each. The student, however, seemed to recall neither the name of the legendary Sullivan nor of the well-known restoration architect Gunny Harboe, FAIA—an uninspiring lack of knowledge on the part of an aspiring Chicago designer.
Illinois Institute of Technology’s S.R. Crown Hall
Mies van der Rohe’s 1956 S.R. Crown Hall remains the Modern master’s enduring work on the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT)’s Bronzeville neighborhood campus. While technically open to the public only for the Open House event, it houses IIT’s architecture school and can be usually be (discreetly) accessed during business hours. Longtime dean Donna Robertson, FAIA, called it “the largest—and best—one-room schoolhouse” in a 2005 interview with Architecture magazine, but its iconic interior has recently morphed under new dean Wiel Arets.
Formerly, Mies’ universal space was completely open and accessible to students, with a central core formed by wood-panel partitions for juries and exhibits and the spaces to the east and west for use as studios. Its new configuration places banks of open desks for faculty along the north wall and two, inelegantly positioned private office and seminar spaces to the east and west. Not only do these interventions destroy the previously unfettered Miesian conception of space, but they now also give almost half of the iconic main floor’s studio area to the faculty rather than to the students, a lamentable imposition of privilege by the school’s new regime.
Lake Point Tower
George Schipporeit and John Heinrich studied under Mies van der Rohe at IIT and the 1968 Lake Point Tower is a paean to their mentor’s free-form, 1921 glass-tower proposal. The tower remains fresh and is a memorable part of Chicago’s skyline. The Open House weekend allowed access to several spaces usually reserved for its upscale residents. On the 70th floor, the Cité restaurant was closed when I arrived, but I was more interested in something closer to the ground: the Alfred Caldwell–designed park that sits atop the building’s three-story parking and retail podium.
The park on the building's east side is primarily lawn but a stroll to the west end of the podium reveals a nuanced and layered space that’s typical of the master behind many of Chicago’s most interesting public landscapes. A rather small, almond-shaped swimming pool seems oddly misplaced from midcentury Southern California, but it’s quite wittily paired with a larger pond that nestles into overgrown vegetation that shields the park from the adjacent Lake Shore Drive. There’s even a rough-hewn limestone council circle, a landscape device that Caldwell often included in his designs. Here, however, it is modified to enclose a half dozen barbecue grills for the tower’s residents.
Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership
When the Spertus Institute, by Ronald Krueck, FAIA, and Mark Sexton, FAIA, opened in 2007, its folded glass façade was a breath of fresh air for the predominantly masonry Michigan Avenue street wall that defines the western edge of downtown’s Grant Park. And alas, Open House isn’t always as open as you’d like. Spertus was closed on Saturday and only its lobby and eighth-floor library were open on Sunday. While it’s the double-height galleries, now used mostly for events, on the ninth and 10th floors that offer the most compelling experience of the building, the library does give glimpses of those more dramatic spaces while revealing Krueck and Sexton’s most subtle architectural moves: the integration of natural light through a series of interconnected light wells that link spaces from the seventh floor to the roof. Let’s hope that a steady stream of architectural visitors from Open House Chicago can help convince this local institution to reopen its architecturally important spaces on a more regular basis.