Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Spertus Jewish Learning and Culture Center Building
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Spertus Jewish Learning and Culture Center Building (2007) Krueck & Sexton, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

There isn't another building quite like it along Chicago's stunner of a street wall where Michigan Avenue fronts Grant Park. In 2007 architects Ron Krueck and Mark Sexton's many-faceted glass-walled building for the Spertus Institute joined a collection of comfortably familiar late 19th and early 20th century structures, but didn't look anything like them. It pushed established boundaries, was controversial, and nudged the band of cliff-like buildings toward the 21st century.

[Spertus Jewish Learning and Culture Center Building, 610 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Today it is known simply as Spertus, but when the college/museum/library started life in 1924 it was simply named for its intended purpose - the Chicago College of Jewish Studies. The institution was created as a training ground for young men and women in the Midwest who could then go back into their communities and teach their primarily Yiddish and English-speaking youngsters Hebrew, as well as Jewish history and religion. There were no quotas or discrimination based on sex, but in 1935 Benjamin Berenbaum was the only male in a class of eight graduates, which was fairly typical of the time. Many of these recently degreed teachers took their diplomas back into the familiar surroundings of Chicago's west side North Lawndale neighborhood, where 40% of the entire metropolitan areas Jewish community lived.

    [Spertus Jewish Learning and Culture Center Building, Historic Michigan Boulevard District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The college was centrally located in downtown Chicago, and moved from one location to the next before settling into a building at 72 E. 11th Street in 1946. In the 1960s and 70s Maurice and Herman Spertus, brothers who had made a fortune manufacturing picture frames, became major donors of the institution which resulted in a name change for the college. Maurice also donated hundreds of items related to Judaic history which helped establish an in-house museum at the newly dubbed Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies. Herman continued to be a major benefactor right-up until his death in 2006 at the age of 105.

  [Spertus Jewish Learning and Culture Center Building /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1974 the college moved from 11th street and into a 60-year-old building at 610 S. Michigan Avenue, which had had its original decorative terra-cotta facade stripped-off in a 1950s-era remodel, but the utilitarian interior serviced its purpose. Before Herman's death, the Spertus Institute began talking about erecting a new building on the vacant piece of land next door and began raising funds. After looking at several architectural firms from around the world, Chicago-based Krueck & Sexton were selected. Their design, with its glass front and airy interior, perfectly encapsulated the sense of openess and accessibility that the Institute was trying to convey. There was a glitch in the works however when it came to the faceted facade. In 2002 the city had declared the Michigan Avenue street wall extending from Randolph Street south to Roosevelt Road an historic landmark district, which applied to buildings built between 1882 and 1930. The architects multi-angled glass face looked nothing like the protected building fronts along the row, and would break the visual cohesion. Only thing was, the row wasn't all that cohesive anyway. Although not landmarked under the criteria set by the city, the landmark 1958 modern classic Borg-Warner Building, along with buildings like the 1960s-era blue-skinned Esssex House and Congress Hotel addition, had already broken-up the masonry-fronted buildingscape. So although there was some harrumphing, once Mayor Richard M. Daley signed-off on the plan, the Krueck & Sexton building was constructed as designed, and the district entered the new millennium.

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