So what’s the deal with the big, dumb white box atop 55 E. Erie? Why did they cap this new, rather elegant building with a 50-foot-high bunker that further scars Chicago’s signature skyline?

It’s not because 55 E. Erie is a cheap building. Developed by a consortium that includes Walsh Construction and Development Management Group, Inc., it’s a $197,000,000 condominium tower with prices starting at over $600,000 for a one-bedroom and ramping up to $4,000,000-plus for the swankiest penthouse.

It’s not because 55 E. Erie is invisible. At 647 feet, it’s the tallest all-residential building in the city and the second tallest in the country, behind only the Trump World Tower in New York. It’s the tallest building, period, between Superior and Kinzie, an unavoidable new presence.

It’s not because it was carelessly designed. The architects are Linda Searl, who’s vice-chair of the Chicago Plan Commission, and Fujikawa Johnson & Associates, whose works include the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Fairmont Hotel.

The architects have taken steps to distinguish 55 E. Erie from trailer park high-rises such as Grand Plaza and Superior Place. The skyscraper’s mass is broken up with setbacks and inset bays. The facade is light and open, with a generous use of glass. “This is the old Mies van der Rohe firm,” says architect Gerald Johnson. “We believe in order and structure and large, open glazed areas. We’ve tried to have the building express the owners’ request to have different floor areas and unit areas and various size terraces, and so we tried to make a symmetrical setback all the way up and just keep order to it.”

The concrete building is horizontally scored and painted white–a welcome relief from the shear slab and mud-hut brown that seem to be the current standard. “Some of the other buildings that are going up in the vicinity and in the city have been getting dark,” says Johnson, “and it’s very, very institutional, not necessarily residential in character.”

A gracious ground-level arcade stretches along Erie for the full block between Wabash and Rush, providing sheltered views of the late-19th-century Nickerson mansion and the oversize columns of the John B. Murphy Memorial Auditorium across the street. The auditorium is owned by the American College of Surgeons, and 55 E. Erie marks the site of its former headquarters, a ten-story poured-concrete building designed in the early 60s by Skidmore Owings & Merrill. “Oh, it was beautiful, one of the most beautiful Skidmore buildings,” says Johnson. “It had onyx walls on the ground floor that were just magnificent in bronze frames. This is what I call high Skidmore design for a client that obviously had more money than God.”

The lesson of its loss has yet to take hold. Just a block away, another graceful modernist building–the five-story Episcopal Church Center behind Saint James Cathedral, with its airy public plaza–is about to be demolished for a massive 65-story tower. The Manhattanization of what condo marketers are calling Mansion Row rolls relentlessly on.

As for 55 E. Erie, for up to 56 floors it could be said to be a model citizen. A suitable coda was all that was needed. Instead we’ve been given the raspberry. The squat, mechanical block starting at 57 only has two floors, but it nearly matches the height of the four residential floors immediately below. It juts up against the tapering profile of the John Hancock building like a punch to the throat.

“That is not the original design,” Johnson admits. “Originally, there were some open columns and beams …like flying buttresses. That was deemed to be, literally, very, very difficult, and expensive to build as well. We had the building tested in the wind tunnel, and there were all sorts of forces acting on these things. Pretty soon they became almost a force within themselves. We simplified it a great deal.”

Johnson contends that you can’t really see the oppressive blockiness of the mechanical penthouse from the street, but it’s readily visible as part of the skyline. That’s no small issue: the skyline is one of Chicago’s great public amenities. It’s also an iconic image that’s shorthand for the idea of “Chicago” all over the world–possibly the most potent branding device we have. Diminish the icon, diminish the brand.

Some builders seem completely indifferent to their obligation to that skyline. The hammerhead ugliness of a tower like the Park Millennium, at 222 N. Columbus, reflects a developer barnacling off of Chicago’s architectural vibrancy even as he degrades it. Fortunately, most architects are a lot more conscientious.

You may not respond to Lucien LaGrange’s more retro-classical designs, but you have to acknowledge his recognition of the role towers like the Park Hyatt, at 800 N. Michigan, and the Pinnacle, under construction at 21 E. Huron, will play in the city’s skyline–he takes care in topping them off.

And if you can’t be good, at least be amusing. Critics revile the sloping, split-diamond roof of the Stone Container Building at Randolph and Michigan and the cheesy beacon at the top of 311 S. Wacker, but the public loves them–and they’ve got the right idea. Chicago’s skyline is a snapshot of our ambitions. The aspiration and effort behind its elements, even when failed or in contested taste, reveal the city’s rich, varied character.

Johnson is confident improvements will eventually be made to the bunker on top of 55 E. Erie. “Ownership has said now they want us to study–and we are studying–some different treatment on the penthouse,” he says. But “probably now it won’t be until next spring. It’s very windy up there.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Murphy.