Trustees System Service Building
by: chicago designslinger
[Trustees System Service Building (1930) Thielbar & Fugard, architects; Edgar Miller, lead silhouettes; Eugene van Breeman Lux, sculptor (2003) renovation and adaptive reuse, FitzGerald Associates, architects / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
It was an interesting job, and Chicago artist, designer, and visual innovator Edgar Miller liked a challenge. So when architects John Fugard and Fred Thielbar talked to Miller about a new high-rise office building they were designing, Edgar was intrigued. Miller had carved out quite a niche for himself as one of the city's more imaginative imagists and was always ready to tackle any new design challenge. He was a painter, a printmaker, stained glass artisan, interior designer, craftsman, and builder of almost anything he could get his hands on. The architects needed something to fill-in the large the 2-story opening over the entry doors of the front lobby and came to Edgar for a solution.
[Trustees System Service Building, 182 W. Lake Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
This job was an important one for the architects. Even though both of them had been on the Chicago architectural scene for decades, the building they were designing for the Trustees System Service company was their first big commission as a team. John Fugard had been in a very productive architectural partnership with architect George Knapp until 1925 when Knapp decided to put down his pencil and concentrate on his business investments. Fred Thielbar had worked for one of city's most prestigious firms Holabird & Roche for 14 years, and although the designer had achieved junior partner status at the firm, by casting his lot with Fugard, the name Thielbar would now be at the front of a firm's title.
[Trustees System Service Building, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Trustees System Service was an amalgamation of financial instruments that included commercial banking and management. The company's bread-and-butter was in making small business loans to thousands of Midwest farmers, and in 1929 the company made the decision to set-up a subsidiary in Chicago and move their headquarters from Alabama. The site for their new building wasn't ideal. The south and west facades of the first four floors of the new structure on the northeast corner of Lake and Wells Streets, would sit within 16 feet of the city's Loop elevated structure. If that wasn't enough of a challenge, the city's building code required that a building filling its lot from edge to edge could be no taller than 260 feet. To make the Trustees project profitable however the structure needed more rentable floor space, which meant that the building needed to be taller. Now if you wanted to go higher, the city had devised a formula which allowed you to build beyond 260 feet but the volume had to decrease the taller you climbed. So architects created set backs, adding a dynamic new architectural feature to Chicago's skyline. Thielbar & Fugard not only set their tower back, they added a little extra flourish by capping the set back with an eye-catching ziggurat. They also added a few fashionable Moderne touches to their site restricted building, and variegated the tonal quality of the entire surface by placing darker brick at the bottom which grew lighter as it climbed to the top.
[Trustees System Service Building, Chicago Loop Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Meanwhile back in Miller's studio, Edgar had thought it over and came up with a solution - he would design a series of silhouettes that would be cut out of tin and sandwiched between two pieces of rectangular glass. The patterns would be repetitive, but the figures encircled in the larger panels would each be unique, featuring a male figure performing the kind of work you might find being done on many of the farms that the Trustees System loans serviced, while Eugene van Breeman Lux's sculptural reliefs would pay homage to many of the financial services the System performed.
[Trustees System Service Building, Lake Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Unfortunately the service the System performed was about to collapse under its own mismanaged weight. As a result of the Wall Street crash in 1929 and the economic fallout it engendered, the Trustees company was put into receivership, and when the government discovered that the entire business was one massive Ponzi scheme, the corporate officers were indited by the U.S. Postmaster for using the mails to defraud the public. The Corn Products Company - makers of things like corn starch - moved into the building and because they became the tower's largest tenant, the building name was variably called the Corn Products or Corn Exchange Building. As the city's central business district went through decades of change, Thielbar & Fugard's ziggurat-topped tower, went into decline. The El continued to rattle by 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and in the summer of 1994 scaffolding had to be erected on the sidewalk surrounding the tonal structure because pieces of brick were falling from the aging facade. Time had not been kind to Edgar Miller's hand cut pieces of lead either, water had gotten in between the two pieces of glass, and the lead was deteriorating. By the turn of the 21st century, more and more people were moving into what had once been an exclusively business-centric district. Thielbar and Fugard's building followed the trend and was renovated under the direction of architects FitzGerald & Associates and converted into an office/apartment tower.