Re-Crowning Chicago

I’ve had some great meetings this week so far and have come across the use of GFRC for replacement in place of terracotta a fair bit, particularly to reinstate large cornices.

Mary Brush, Holabird and Root is working on repair of the exterior wall of 37 South Wabash. GFRC is being used for the first time at a lower level on the belt course at 3rd floor level (2nd floor for your Brits). The brick and masonry cornice is also being repaired.

This portion of the belt course is what remains of the terracotta and will be kept to compare the colour and quality of its replacement before it is also removed and replaced.

Many of the large decorative cornices in Chicago were lost in an unfortunate, but deemed necessary, removal around the 1950s, due to concern they were going to fall off. Incredibly, no record or sample of the removed pieces were made and they were crudely removed from some of the most prized buildings including Sullivan and Burnham buildings leaving them ‘without their hat’.

This is what can be found in the loop today:

And the wonderful Sullivan, Gage Bldg, 18 S Michigan Ave, with its cornice still missing:

c.1900 from Art Institute Digital Library

The Art Institute has the Sullivan bldgs in Chicago listed on their website here if you have a taste!

One of the best known and most popular buildings to have its cornice replaced in Chicago is the Marquette building.  Alongside the restoration of the façade the reinstatement of the cornice returned the Chicago School tripartite organisation of the building; base, column and cornice.

Here’s a close up of some of the blocks that were replaced as part of this restoration (by Gunny Harboe Architects, Central Building & Preservation, WJE supplied by Boston Valley Terra Cotta). You have to look closely to see the slightly more satin finish and texture of the new pieces, which I did, of course:

The plinth pieces were all replaced (above)

The restoration, and reinstatement of the cornice by Gunny Harboe Architects, brought his building back to prominence where it belongs and most Chicagoans are very proud of it as one of Chicago’s Landmark buildings and a Burnham classic.

There is a little exhibition about the bulding and its restoration inside the fantastic lobby. Apparently Burham heard that the City were to limit the height of new structures from Monday the next week. Burnham spoke to some Clients and managed to get advances to secure planned works, he hired teams to work overnight and got the plans on the Commissions desk before the new height restriction came through. 4 buildings went up as a result, the Marquette being one!

I was treated to an overview of the restoration and ‘re-crowning’ of the Carson, Pirie, Scott building,  in 2006 by Gunny Harboe, now known as the Sullivan Centre.

Owned by Joseph Freed and Associates. Project team Gunny Harboe Architects, Mark 1 Restoration and GFRC Inc.

Very little evidence of the ornamentation existed, with blury photos to work from. Sculptors, historians and conservators and all the various officials examined various versions of the recreated decoration at several stages before approval. A photo of a section of the capitols was found so we can be sure these are an accurate reproduction. As you can see the rest gives a fair representation of what the cornice may have looked like from the ground.

I managed to get a closer look from the inside of the top floors as they are used as studios by the Art Institute (those lucky students!)

I repeat: none of this cornice is terracotta, and its pretty convincing, right? You can see large joints of gubbins, which give it away and I’d say the surface is not as crisp as can be achieved with terracotta. Close up, you can tell the pieces are poured. Gunny explained that the aim of the project was to regain the required impression from the ground, which it certainly does along with correcting the balance in the building.

GRFC can be made in huge panels at is a fraction of the weight and price. As you’ll see a variety of finishes can give a similar appearance to terracotta, from a distance. As a craftsperson and devotee of terracotta I find it hard to see replacement with any alternate material as an attractive option. In a city like Chicago however, with the scale and amount of large terracotta that has been removed and needing replacement, GFRC has provided a feasible and safer alternative. In talking to Tim Samuelson yesterday, it is a whole other matter if you think of the city over its 100+ year future. In that context it is difficult to a) be confident that the material you are securing the terracotta to is sound as required and b) to trust that owners will be capable and able to maintain the buildings as diligently is required. We do not have the same scale of terracotta maintenance in the UK and therefore have not, to date, acted with such an extreme response, in the name of conservation.

One Response to “Re-Crowning Chicago”
  1. mantroi says:

    interesting read and great to see these buildings again, Amy, and the details I didn’t get to see…

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