Scan the critics’ lists of the Ten Most Important Chicago Buildings and chances are you will run across the same names on a lot of them–the Hancock, Marina City, the Carson Pirie Scott store, Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive apartments, maybe the IIT campus.

Contrast those buildings with this list–Union Station, the Merchandise Mart, the Wrigley Building, the Continental Bank Building, the Field Museum, the Civic Opera, Marshall Field’s.

Which group of buildings is more Chicago? Which could you more easily live without? Based on these two lists, who is the preeminent Chicago architect–Sullivan? Frank Lloyd Wright? Mies? Daniel Burnham? Graham, Anderson, Probst and White?

Yes, every building on that second list was the work of a single firm of architects, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, purveyor of “Commercial Classicism” made to order. GAPW is the subject of a big new book from the University of Chicago Press, Transforming Tradition: Architecture and Planning of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, 1912-1936, by DePaul University art professor Sally A. Kitt Chappell. In it, Chappell chronicles the firm’s heyday from its founding to the death of two of its founding partners in 1936. (The firm continues under the same name today, considerably diminished in importance.)

Chappell describes GAPW as “architects in the mainstream,” which at first seems merely an artful way to say “hacks.” Graham, Anderson, Probst and White were adapters rather than experimenters like the so-called hero architects such as Wright, although in their unconscious accommodation to the demands of the cultural moment they may have come closer to expressing what the critics saw as the spirit of the age than a loony egomaniac like Sullivan.

The four partners were the antitheses of the lonely genius. A huge firm that in its heyday kept 200 men busy, GAPW practiced a corporate style of operation as well as of design. It was the successor firm to the flourishing design shop left behind by Daniel H. Burnham when he died in 1912. After a brief period of muddle, four of Burnham’s senior staff formed their own firm.

They made a useful blend of talents and temperaments. Burnham had influenced the way architects practiced as much as how they built, and the new firm reflected his belief–confirmed by handsome profits–that modern architectural firms needed to merge the talents of the financier, the promoter, and the engineer as well as the designer. Ernest R. Graham was the one who hustled new business, Howard Judson White was in charge of the paperwork, Edward Probst headed the drafting crews, and Pierce Anderson was the top designer.

Graham joined Burnham in 1891 and was made a partner in 1894. Like Burnham, Graham was a midwesterner, whom Chappell describes as “undereducated by eastern standards.” He learned his craft by apprenticeship. (At 26 he was put in charge of the 14,000 men hired to build the World’s Columbian Exposition.) He does not sound like a lovable fellow, being rather tight with his money and generous with his criticism. As architect and landlord he made enough to endow what is now known as the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, a Chicago-based grant-making organization devoted to supporting the projects of architects whose work would have turned Graham’s famous red hair white.

Between 1912 and 1936 GAPW received more than 2,000 commissions, of which nearly a hundred were for major buildings. Most of its work was dedicated to ennobling the lives and livelihoods of some of Chicago’s and the country’s more egregious bounders, such as Samuel Insull, who commissioned it to build the Civic Opera building and assorted power plants, including the Crawford Avenue generating station in Chicago (laid out like a Palladian villa) and the State Line Generating Station in Hammond, in whose immaculate terra-cotta turbine rooms luncheons once were served with linen and crystal.

The firm’s popularity among the men with money may be deduced by its pliability. Chappell writes that they willingly modified the classical canons of design to suit their clients’ tastes. They applied “the polite and marketable veneer of columns, triumphal arches, and tripartite divisions [in which buildings imitated ancient columns with a base, shaft, and capital] to warehouses and power stations.” No Wrightian tantrums here.

When the firm did create architecture with a capital A it did so inadvertently, according to Chappell’s account. She suggests that they must have been surprised by the praise they received for the fine Butler Brothers warehouses on the west bank of the river at Randolph–even Lewis Mumford extolled their structural expressiveness–since they were only trying to build tarted-up storage buildings.

The chief designer in the early years was Pierce Anderson, a Paris-trained conservative rooted in the Beaux Arts ideals. When Anderson died in 1924, Alfred Shaw took over as principal designer, and the firm shifted toward the art deco style that typified their big building work for the subsequent decade.

As is often the case in large firms, the uncharacteristically distinctive projects were the work of eccentric designers within the firm. Thus did Charles Atwood come up with the wholly un-Burnham-like Reliance Building in 1895, and thus did Charles Beerman come up with the Wrigley Building.

Many of their buildings were the squat flat-roofed forms preferred in pre-Depression Chicago. (The city that prides itself on having “invented” the skyscraper in fact shrank from it as its main building form; the style became more popular in New York City, for reasons that had more to do with land economics than aesthetics.) Chappell explains that every office building the firm designed between 1912 and 1936 had a beginning, a middle, and an end–the base, shaft, and capital of the classical column. Ornament of some kind, usually classical in motif, was always used. Giant features were used to unite the bottom two floors, and equally outsize pilasters or half-columns on the facade were used to balance the structure at the top; in between, the arrangements of window openings were regular and restrained. The bases of the buildings were always of the most durable stone, and they often gave way to lighter materials, such as terra-cotta, above. The lower floors were given over to public spaces–shops, lobbies, banking rooms–often as part of a light court, while the topmost floors were reserved for clubs and executive meeting rooms, with rental offices in between. Chappell concludes that in any GAPW building “one knows what one will find and where.”

The Continental Illinois Bank building at LaSalle and Jackson (built as the Illinois Merchants Bank Building, 1920-24) and the companion Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago across the street are typical GAPW works. The two buildings are probably the closest we can come to seeing the Chicago that Burnham imagined in his 1909 plan–flat tops, even cornices, stone facades, classical detailing. The many other GAPW banks, Chappell notes, were other denominations in the same currency. (In office-building versions the banking room become a lobby.)

At their worst, such as the Federal Reserve, these projects were ponderous in their attempts at dignity, even ridiculous; the portico on the LaSalle Street side of the Continental Bank reminds me of the Rolls Royce grilles that people used to stick onto the hoods of VW Bugs. (The old State Bank of Chicago Building at 120 S. LaSalle strives for less and achieves more.)

GAPW did broaden its palette over the years. By 1929, Chappell notes, the firm offered office buildings in any of five styles–the old Burnham baroque, a setback with Egyptian motifs, stripped classicism, conservative art deco, and a chateau-roofed vertical Gothic (a good example of which is the Pittsfield Building at Wabash and Washington).

Typical is the way the firm adapted the style of the fashionable pyramidal office towers that were built in Manhattan following adoption of that city’s landmark zoning ordinance in 1916 that required the upper stories of tall buildings to be set back from the plane of the facade so as to open the street below to sun and air. Wanting to appear “up-to-date but not radical” in their design for an office tower for 310 S. Michigan, Chappell writes, the firm made a characteristic compromise. They stuck a stepped-back top capped with a stone beehive onto an otherwise traditional office building.

A city with only GAPWs in it would quickly exhaust itself in imitation, as indeed happened under the Miesians. But if we must have knockoffs, how much better to have knockoff Beaux Arts and art deco than knockoff modernism. The new library is the kind of building that GAPW would have delivered, only one can’t help thinking they would have done a better job of it, and Ricardo Bofill might have done well to study some of their adaptations of classical forms before embarrassing himself with his design for the new skyscraper at 77 W. Wacker.

By 1935, with the Depression having killed virtually all new building projects, the firm had shriveled to 15 men. The Field Building turned out to be the last big office building to open downtown until the Prudential Building went up in 1955.

The more you consider GAPW’s best buildings the more they impress. Their facades may have been old-fashioned in aesthetic terms, but the firm turned out buildings that incorporated innovations that counted to the people paying the bills–elevatoring, heating and (later) air-conditioning, and so on. And note the number of Chicago’s grand interior spaces that GAPW designed–the Great Hall of Union Station, the banking room at the Continental Bank, the atria of Marshall Field’s, Stanley Hall at the Field Museum, and the rotunda of the Shedd Aquarium, whose “dim aqueous luminosity” has been praised by critics.

Their most sublime achievements were hybrid buildings that challenged architectural ingenuity in terms of structure, circulation, mechanical systems, and planning. Union Station–in which 35 acres of the city were rebuilt at a then-staggering cost of $150 million–is perhaps the finest Chicago example; the Cleveland Terminal Group, an urbane and urban ensemble that dates from 1919, anticipated Rockefeller Center by 20 years. And the department-store city-within-a-city that the firm built for Field’s, Gimbels, and the original Filene’s has yet to be challenged (as a spatial experience anyway) by the enclosed malls that they inspired.

Where client’s taste allowed it, the firm was capable of very fine work. No finer proof exists than the Field Building at 135 S. LaSalle (LaSalle Bank). Art deco is anathema to the propagandists of the International Style, in no small part because of the embellishment of such structures with decoration. But as critic Ada Louise Huxtable noted about 20 years ago, the interiors of the best of these buildings were “incredible 20th century art forms.” The Field’s elevator indicator, in the shape of the building itself, is every bit the “kinetic light sculpture” that Chappell describes. On the outside, the suppressed spandrels–the panels that fill the space between each windowsill and the top of the window below it, set so the wall jutted out past them–accentuate the building’s sense of vertical thrust. As Chappell puts it, the Field was one of the last as well as one of the richest of the repositories of the dreams of precrash Chicago.

So, GAPW put up buildings that were well-built, handsome, and efficiently arranged. (A remarkable number of them not only survive but remain profitable.) Few of them show up on critics’ “best in Chicago” lists. Chappell notes that critics are fascinated by change–bright people, they are easily bored–and so tend to overlook and undervalue the work of firms like GAPW, whose virtue is that it changes neither first nor fast. Critics look for different things in a building than do the rest of us. The Wrigley Building, explains Chappell, is given over “to consumerist theatricality” and makes no statement on behalf of a new social order or social vision. This is why the more abstruse critics sneer at it, and why just about everybody else likes it. Consumerist theatricality R us, you might say.

Transforming Tradition is handsomely done up and lavishly illustrated with 262 photographs, drawings, and plans. The first of its four main parts gives a historic overview of the firm in architectural terms as its members adapted then-traditional building styles to a changing hierarchy of civic values. The second and by far the largest part is a catalogue raisonne of 86 principal works described in detail. Part three profiles the men involved, and part four is a “commission register” or official list of projects.

Chappell attempts no grand statements as to why these stylistically retrograde buildings still exert so wide an appeal. Part of the answer lies in the fact that most people grew up in Beaux Arts buildings, since libraries, train stations, and museums are typically in that style. Chappell also notes that despite their size and grandeur the experience of these places is intimate and emotional. This has to do partly with the materials and proportions of public spaces–purely architectural phenomena–but they transmit subliminal social messages too. Huxtable once noted that such buildings remind visitors that skill and order are not only possible but desirable. What she found in that generation of buildings in 1971 is, alas, even rarer now–“substance, style, and quality in a city and world that are hard put to provide such commodities today.” It is possible to admire a Mies, but it is hard to imagine anyone but a mortgage banker loving one.

Chappell refers often to the hierarchy of values that for centuries underlay architectural form making. The religious building occupied the summit, after which stood government and cultural institutions. Commerce ranked lower, and within that realm there were further divisions, with banks at the top and warehouses and other utilitarian structures near the bottom.

In Chicago, a typically American city with no religion, no culture, and not even a civic life in the European sense, all fell before commerce.

The money-makers gradually appropriated the forms of the once-higher realms as they appropriated their influence. Office buildings were decked out like churches, train stations made to look like banks, and factory buildings like City Hall.

Today we accept that there is no essential difference between a museum, a department store, an office headquarters, or a church; they are all in the game of selling. If we value older buildings it may be because they suggest (even in debased form, as in many of GAPW’s buildings) something of that vanished hierarchy of values; it is not just the banality of modern architecture that palls but the banality of the ideals that inform it, that reduce citizens to consumers and argue that the only version of the good, the true, and the meaningful that matters is the one that sells.

Chappell makes no extravagant claims on behalf of her subject, although she does hyperventilate occasionally. I bow to no one in my admiration for Holabird and Root’s old Daily News building, but does it really combine with the Civic Opera building to “give the Chicago River at this location the kind of grandeur that Queen Hatshepsut’s temple and the desert cliffs give the Nile at Dayr-al-Bahari”?

Indeed, her summary judgment of her subject seems a little cold. “Some of their works were beautiful,” she writes, “a few were masterpieces.” How many of us in any field accomplish as much, or have it last as long?

Transforming Tradition: Architecture and Planning of Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, 1912-1936 by Sally A. Kitt Chappell, University of Chicago Press, $65.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.