Thursday, March 5, 2015

Inland Steel Building
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Inland Steel Building (1958) Bruce Graham / Walter Netsch, SOM, architects / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

As often happens when doing research on a building, you will find discrepencies that require more digging in the hunt for accuracy. Dates don't jibe, addresses don't match, and there are times when questions arise about which architect to attribute a building to. Take the case of Adler & Sullivan's 1892 Charnley House. Prior to Frank Lloyd Wright publicly taking credit for the project in the 1930s, the building had been credited to Louis Sullivan. When the Chicago office of Skidmore, Ownings & Merrill's Inland Steel Building arrived on the scene in the late 1950s, the building's design was attributed to team member Bruce Graham, until fellow SOM partner Walter Netsch began to take some of the credit for the inspirational design. When Wright decided to declare that he was really the one responsible for Charnley, Sullivan and his partner Dankmar Adler were both dead, as were most of the other people who would have been working in Adler & Sullivan's office at the time. When the Inland Steel kerfuffle began, not only were Netsch and Graham still alive, so were several other SOM members who were there when the steel company came knocking at SOM's door.

  [Inland Steel Building, 30 W. Monroe St., Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Inland Steel was one of a handful of large steel manufacturers clustered along the southern edge of Lake Michigan running between the far southeast side of Chicago and northwestern Indiana. The company had been founded in 1893 by Joseph Block and his son Philip, and by the mid-1950s, was one of the most profitable steel makers in the world. Their corporate offices were headquartered in downtown Chicago on two floors of the old First National Bank Building which used to stand at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Monroe Streets, and where Marc Chagall's Four Seasons mosaic mural sits today. At a time when many of the city's central business district offices were leaving the Loop and following their workforce out to the suburbs, the second generation of the Block family, and their board chairman at the time Clarence Randall, decided it was time to move as well. But unlike their other corporate counterparts, Inland decided to stay-put in downtown Chicago and to construct a new building from the ground-up - right across the street.

  [Inland Steel Building, National Historic Landmark / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The property they had set their sights on was located on the northeast corner of Dearborn and Monroe and was owned by the Chicago Board of Education. The entire square block bounded by Dearborn, Monroe, State and Madsion Streets had been designated as school property in the 1830s when the federal government divvied-up the land in and around what would eventually become the Illinois & Michigan Canal - and the city of Chicago. Most of the buildings on the block sat on long term, land lease agreements between the owners of the structures and the Board, except for the Crilly Building, built in 1878, which the School Board owned outright. Inland wanted the Crilly and the old Saratoga Hotel next door, and negotiations got underway. Leigh Block was put in charge of the building committee, and with Randall's okay, Inland got to work on the School Board. Randall apparently was the one who made the call to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

  [Inland Steel Building, City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

SOM had three offices at the time, one in New York, one in Chicago, and one in San Francisco. At one of the first presentation meetings SOM's lead designer architect Gordon Bunshaft, who was based in New York, came to Chicago and the attendees were shown a model of the building from a design by Chicago office-based partner Walter Netsch. The building resembled Bunshaft's Lever Building then underway in New York, but Netsch's proposal contained one major and ground-breaking difference - all the mechanical systems required for the shimmering glass, curtain-walled, 19-story structure were contained in an adjacent 25-story windowless service tower attached to the building's east side. This meant that the interior of the shimmering glass, curtain wall structure would have a floor plan free of space gobbling elevators, stairways and restrooms. But Inland didn't have the land to build on yet, and Randall wasn't crazy about the design.

  [Inland Steel Building, Dearborn & Monroe Streets, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

By the time Inland was able to acquire the property along the east side of Dearborn north of Monroe, Walter Netsch was working on a new project for SOM, the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. So architect Bruce Graham of the Chicago office was put in charge. Graham wanted to reveal more of the building's structure and took Netsch's vertical columns out from behind the glass curtain wall and moved them to the exterior of the building. Add-in Inland's pushing-it-to-the-limits nearly 60-foot- long steel girders that spanned the width of the lot from one column to the other, and the interior office floor plan was now entirely open and free of obstructions. Graham's exposed exterior columns were covered in stainless steel, which was not provided by Inland Steel Company per se. A full page ad the corporation placed in the Chicago Tribune on February 4, 1958 stated that Ryerson Steel, a wholly owned subsidiary of Inland, was responsible for delivering the 400 tons of shiny material. The questions remains however, did Ryerson make it or just supply it? The building in all its shimmering glory, was ready for occupancy in 1958, and was the first tall commercial structure to be built in Chicago's Loop since 1931, when the country fell deeper into the financial abyss that we know today as the Great Depression. The Inland Steel Building was a big hit and an instant landmark. It put the Chicago office on the world architectural map, and became a bone of contention for Netsch because Graham got all the credit. In 1991 Netsch, who claimed co-authorship for the design, gave the Art Institute of Chicago the model that was shown to the Inland group in 1954, and the public now had an opportunity to decide for themselves. And although the building was eventually credited to both designers, the question of attribution could still rankle. The museum began an oral history project in the 1980s and began interviewing architects like Walter Netsch, Bruce Graham, Gordon Bunshaft, and another SOM partner in the Chicago office at the time Bill Hartman. Each one was asked about the Inland controversy and some were more politic than others. Netsch said it was essentially his, while Graham acknowledged Walter's contribution but felt that the column change alone had so substantially altered the design that the end result was his. Bill Hartman was the most even handed of the four, he said Walter contributed to the overall concept while Bruce was responsible for the finished design. Only Bunshaft gave a definitive response, "He did it. Walter. Bruce had nothing to do with it."

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