A Legacy Destroyed

One of the few remaining buildings by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, and probably their last surviving wood-frame structure, may soon disappear. The 1888 house, designed for insurance tycoon George Harvey, is at 600 W. Stratford Place in Lakeview, less than a block from Lake Michigan, and according to advocacy group Preservation Chicago, owner Natalie Frank recently told Alderman Helen Shiller she was about to apply for a demolition permit.

It’s a hot area for development. Just down the street–Stratford is only one block long–another vintage home on a similar lot was recently torn down to make way for a 23-story residential high-rise–one unit per floor, starting at $1.3 million. The Harvey House parcel is in a more restrictive zone, RM5, but that would still allow it to be replaced with a building up to five stories high with up to ten units.

Adler and Sullivan created some of the most important buildings of the 1880s and ’90s, including the Auditorium Building and the Carson Pirie Scott store on State Street. Daniel Burnham may have built more and built bigger, but Sullivan gave the Chicago School of Architecture its soul. He’s credited with coining the phrase “form follows function,” a seemingly dry injunction that he made sing by taking the new idea of a skyscraper–“this sterile pile, this harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife”–and making it “every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation.”

Like most architects of their time, Adler and Sullivan also designed numerous homes–especially after Frank Lloyd Wright joined the firm in 1888–including Charnley House on North Astor. Few survive. Last August Hurricane Katrina flattened two cottages Sullivan designed in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, one of them his own vacation retreat. So few of any of Adler and Sullivan’s structures survive that every loss is painful. In January a fire reportedly started by a worker’s blowtorch gutted their Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville, built in 1891 as the Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv synagogue.

In 1962 the great Chicago architectural photographer Richard Nickel got a tip that the Harvey House was designed by Adler and Sullivan and went to photograph its exterior. “Eventually he was able to connect with the owner–the Bayer family, which had a famous linen shop in the Women’s Athletic Club on North Michigan for years,” says Ward Miller, executive director of the Richard Nickel Committee, an organization dedicated to preserving the photographer’s work. “Nickel was able to gain access and look at floor plans the Bayer family had that were by Adler and Sullivan. He was able to document the floor plans and convince the Bayers to donate them to the Art Institute.” He also photographed the interior of the house.

Miller hasn’t been inside the house, but he’s peered through the large window of the front door. “It still retains its beautiful staircase,” he says. “You can see the underside. It’s got the recessed coffers, small coffers. It’s completely intact from what I can tell, with balusters and the handrail and a newel post that’s covered in a sort of foliated Sullivan ornament.”

In late June, Miller talked to the son of the second owner of the house. He was born in the house in 1917 and grew up there, so he could describe every room in detail. The original porte cochere and a wraparound porch he spoke of are both long gone, but he also described details that differed from those in the Adler and Sullivan drawings. Miller realized that some of those details, which he’d assumed were the result of remodeling, might actually have been changes the architects made when the house was built. For example, the son didn’t remember the series of arches on the east porch, though they’re clear in the drawings. The house he described was more streamlined than the one in the drawings, which Miller thinks might reflect Frank Lloyd Wright’s input.

The Harvey House is in danger because it isn’t an official Chicago landmark. On the Chicago Historic Resources Survey, a listing of more than 17,000 distinctive properties completed in 1995, it has an orange rating, the second-highest category. In the highest are 300 “red” rated buildings, defined by the survey as “potentially significant in the broader context of the City of Chicago.” The broader orange rating covers 9,600 structures that are “potentially significant in the context of the surrounding community.” By law, if someone applies for a demolition permit for an orange rated building, a 90-day hold is automatically placed on it while the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, a body appointed by the mayor, reviews the application and decides whether the building deserves to be saved.

But the city has a record of letting orange rated buildings slip through the cracks, issuing permits before 90 days are up and allowing buildings to be damaged or even razed before the commission can review the application. A permit was issued to demolish the south side’s Saint Gelasius when the application was supposedly on hold (the church was later designated an official landmark). The application for a permit to demolish the orange rated Chicago Printed String Building, a 1920s art deco structure at Elston and Logan designed by Alfred S. Alschuler, was also supposed to be on hold. “I actually had to pull the wrecker off that one,” says Miller. “The permit had been accidentally issued, despite my repeated calls. Rather than using the [official] Logan Boulevard address, they used Elston. It was election day. I had taken the day off, and fortunately I came down Elston Avenue–and there was the crane behind it. They were nice enough down at City Hall to revoke the permit, but I couldn’t get an inspector to stop the demolition. I knew the owner of National Wrecking Company, and I called to ask him to call these guys off.” But by the time the workers left they’d already knocked down large chunks of the back of the building. The developer sued the Landmarks Commission, and at the July 12 commission meeting the staff is scheduled to present a recommendation to withdraw the proposal to landmark the building. It’s apparently part of a deal in which the developer gets to gut half the building and remove the lowest band of distinctive green Teco tiles in exchange for preserving the rest of the two street facades–and dropping the lawsuit.

Saving the Harvey House could be a long shot. The city stood on the sidelines while a developer leveled Adler and Sullivan buildings that were among their greatest works and among the most important buildings in the history of architecture. In the 60s the outrage over the demolition of their Schiller Building was the event that started the architectural preservation movement in Chicago. It couldn’t prevent another Adler and Sullivan masterwork, the 1894 Chicago Stock Exchange, from being torn down in 1972. Richard Nickel died taking pictures in the rubble.

The Harvey House isn’t in the same league as these two lost masterworks, but it still might meet as many as four of the landmark ordinance’s seven possible criteria for designation as a landmark. Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, says, “Without question it qualifies for two–important architect and important architecture.” He thinks it might also meet a third criterion, that a building reflect a key aspect of the city’s heritage, because it was built when Lakeview was still a suburb. But Brian Goeken, deputy commissioner of the Landmarks Commission, says that even if a building meets all seven criteria, that won’t matter if it doesn’t meet another, overriding criterion–that it have architectural integrity. This issue will probably be at the center of the argument over the house, which Goeken says has been significantly altered. The discrepancies between the original drawings and the memories of the second owner’s son may prove critical to the debate.

The case for the house isn’t helped by its surroundings. It’s one of only a handful of surviving vintage homes on Stratford, and the rest of the block is a museum of dreck–four-plus-ones, ugly apartment buildings, and the service entrance of a generic condo tower on Cornelia that treats Stratford as if it were a back alley. The east side of the house is also smack up against a 60s apartment building.

By contrast, the next street south, Hawthorne Place, has a handsome terra-cotta-clad apartment building at the Lake Shore Drive end, and the rest of the block is filled with picturesque large old houses, most in the kind of pristine condition that speaks of loving care and lots of money. Why the big difference in streets just a block apart? Hawthorne Place is an official landmark district. The existing buildings are protected, and any new construction is held to a high standard, one example being Weese Langley Weese’s gracefully proportioned additions to the Chicago City Day School. At some point the proposal to landmark the block encompassed three homes on Stratford, including the Harvey House. That further complicates the case for preserving it, because a structure that’s been denied protection once has to meet a higher standard the second time around.

Given its proximity to the lake and the short supply of single-family homes of its size and quality, not to mention its pedigree, a restored Harvey House would undoubtedly provide Frank a handsome profit if she decided to sell, though not as much as another stack of ugly condos. If she files an application for a demolition permit, the ball will be in the city’s court. It would be ironic if during this, the 150th anniversary of Sullivan’s birth, the city let yet another of his irreplaceable buildings slip through its fingers.

The Lake House From The Lake House

The Lake House, the new film by Chicago-born playwright and architecture buff David Auburn, makes rich use of city locations, including the Daley Center and interiors of the Auditorium Building and Prairie Avenue Bookshop. But unlike those durable landmarks, the movie’s title edifice and principal set was 20 miles from the Loop–a custom-built, quarter-million-dollar glass house that has since vanished into thin air.

The film’s driving conceit is that stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock are sharing the house but never meet because, somehow, they’re living two years apart. When Reeves looks up Bullock by visiting the return address on her letters, it’s still a construction site. When Bullock is working as a doctor at a local hospital, Reeves’s character is somewhere out in the burbs, overseeing the construction of a housing development that’s depicted as a severe compromise of his potential as a promising young architect.

They communicate by exchanging letters through a magical mailbox at the glass house. (I know, I know–either you buy it or you don’t.) Built by Reeves’s architect father on an idyllic lake far from the city center, it’s an idealized vision of serenity and retreat.

The 2,000-square-foot structure was built for the film on the banks of 55-acre, man-made Maple Lake in the Palos Forest Preserve, at 95th near Archer. To avoid interfering with the ice fishing that’s one of the lake’s major winter attractions, construction didn’t start until February 2005. The local engineering firm of McDonough Associates and the film’s production designer, Nathan Crowley, had to design the project so it could be completed in just ten weeks. Nearly 100 carpenters, welders, and painters were required to meet the deadline.

To accommodate the film crew and its equipment, the house had to support up to 100 pounds per square foot, about double the standard for a typical residence. Thirty-five tons of steel were used in its frame, which had to be engineered to resist movement under strong spring winds that could crack the large panes of glass. And it had to be done without diagonal bracing, rejected by Crowley because it would have obstructed camera angles.

To speed things up the house–ostensibly built in the lake, on stilts–was actually built beside the lake, on land. A temporary dam was constructed, and behind it nearly 1,200 cubic feet of soil excavated, to a depth of 20 feet. A steel foundation was put in place, then concrete footing was poured for ten-foot-high steel supports, and the building was fabricated on top. When it was finished, the dam was removed, water flooded in, and the lake was brought to the house.

A year later, about the time of the film’s release, the Lake House’s exceptional engineering got it named a finalist in the small-project category of awards handed out last month by the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois. (I served on the jury.) But if you’re tempted to run out to Maple Lake to check it out for yourself, think again.

To gain approval for construction, the production team had to deal with EPA guidelines, building and zoning regulations, and interested third parties such as the Audubon Society and Friends of the Forest Preserve. Though the house quickly became something of a tourist attraction, when filming wrapped after three months it was quickly, unsentimentally dismantled. A new fishing pier now marks the site.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy, courtesy of the Richard Nickel Committee.