What Comes Down Must Go Up

The cyclical nature of local development creates a fresh irony.

By Jordan marsh

Smash down the cities. / Knock the walls to pieces….Build up the cities. / Set up the walls again. –Carl Sandburg, from “And They Obey”

Chicago has long been defined by its willingness to tear down the old to make way for the new, earning the city a reputation for both creating and destroying masterpieces of architecture. The idea that aesthetic considerations alone could prevent a building’s demolition didn’t even enter the public consciousness until 1960. That’s when photographer Richard Nickel began his crusade to save Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theater Building, on Randolph just west of Dearborn. Though Nickel failed to save the building, his campaign resulted in a new awareness of the value of commercial architecture, giving birth to the modern preservation movement both here and throughout the nation.

The 17-story Garrick, a theater and office tower, was demolished because it was deemed “uneconomic” by its owners. It was replaced by a parking garage that has stood uneventfully, until now, across the street from Daley Center. The Garrick Garage, as it is known, is being demolished to make way for, of all things, a theater.

As part of its plan to take over the landmark Harris and Selwyn theaters, the Goodman Theatre will build a complex that will also contain a restaurant and retail space. To assist the project, the city acquired the Garrick Garage, and it plans to lease that land–as well as another parcel at the northwest corner of Randolph and Dearborn (formerly the site of the Woods Theater)–at the bargain rate of $1 per year for 99 years, plus a percentage of the revenue generated from the restaurant and retail tenants. The city is also providing nearly $19 million of the total $44 million budget for the new complex.

For its part, the Goodman, which has been eyeing the site since 1990, is well aware of the historic implications of operating a theater there. It has even included a postcard of the Garrick Theater Building in its press kit, which also includes a brief history of the Garrick that states, “as a part of the New Goodman Theatre, the spirit of the Garrick Theater will live on.”

In the late 1880s A.C. Hesing, owner of the German-language newspaper Illinois Staatszeitung, proposed that a downtown theater be built for German plays and opera. The Garrick, then known as the Schiller Building, was completed in 1892. The office tower was added to offset the expenses of staging shows and to return a profit on the investment, a strategy that had worked before, most notably with Adler and Sullivan’s mammoth Auditorium Building, built just a few years earlier (the Auditorium included a hotel as well as offices). Adler was recognized as one of the best theater designers in the nation, yet it was Sullivan who extolled the virtues of the new skyscraper, bluntly describing its chief characteristic–and challenge–when he wrote, “It must be tall, every inch of it tall. The force and power of altitude must be in it, the glory and pride of exaltation must be in it. It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line.”

Sullivan is credited with fulfilling the aesthetic promise of the tall building. Though not considered as definitive a statement as his Wainwright Building in Saint Louis, the Garrick nonetheless embodied Sullivan’s idea of what a tall building should be–by emphasizing the vertical rise of the structure, its various elements coalesced in an organic composition. Its base included richly detailed ornament to draw the eye, engaging the attention of passersby. The top of the building consisted of an arcade with an overhanging cornice, above which sat a cupola; these features were also festooned with intricate ornament, a Sullivan hallmark. But the central tower was his soaring statement: a series of recessed vertical lines framed the windows and joined in arches at the sixteenth floor. The panels between the windows were suppressed in favor of the vertical piers, so not a single line dissented from the tower’s upward sweep. The building was one of the first skyscrapers to have a setback design, allowing light to enter the offices (in anticipation of future tall buildings nearby) and to fall on the street below. This idea would be written into building codes several decades later in New York and then Chicago. Sullivan biographer Willard Connely declared that “with the Schiller Building the era of the American skyscraper firmly caught the public fancy, and the East began to talk of the ‘multiple-storied architecture of Chicago.'” In typical Chicago fashion, the theater joined in its own praise. An advertisement in the Tribune on October 16, 1892, not only promoted its first English-language production, the farce Gloriana, but billed the Schiller as the “Highest and Finest Theater Building in the World.”

As the Schiller hosted more English-language plays, German shows were relegated to Sundays. In 1898 the theater’s name was changed to the Dearborn, and five years later the Shubert brothers purchased the building and renamed it the Garrick. The Shuberts staged dramatic productions there until 1928, and then movies took over through 1950. Whether as a playhouse or a movie palace, the theater was considered one of the finest in the area. In his classic The Chicago School of Architecture, Carl W. Condit practically gushed: “Vision was unobstructed; acoustics were near perfect; scale and spatial relationships were exactly calculated to give a sense of intimacy while preserving the necessary spaciousness of a large theater. The Garrick was easily the best theater in Chicago after the Auditorium; indeed, as a movie house its only competitor was the Esquire Theatre on Oak Street.” In 1952, the building’s new owner, Balaban and Katz, turned it into a television studio, which was used by WBBM and others. Movies returned in the late 50s.

By 1960 the Garrick had been allowed to deteriorate significantly. Its ornate cornice had been replaced by a severe blank parapet; the base was covered with commercial signage. Neon signs for the Ham ‘n’ Egger restaurant flashed “Always Open” and “Never Closed.” It was difficult to notice the “proud and soaring thing” beneath the grime. In 1959 the city announced plans to erect the Civic (now Daley) Center across the street, and Balaban and Katz decided to replace the Garrick with a parking garage. The building was costing the company $500 a day, they said; it would be impossible to restore–the garage made sense.

Richard Nickel hoped to save the Garrick by showing people the beauty of Sullivan’s desecrated masterpiece. His painstaking work photographing the building, especially the interior of the theater, quickly paid off, and he started to win converts to his cause. According to Richard Cahan’s book, They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel’s Struggle to Save America’s Architecture, his black-and-white photos minimized, and in some cases eliminated, the years of bad paint jobs. Through Nickel’s lens, wrote Cahan, “structure and form once again took center stage.”

Nickel wrote letters to newspapers, staged rallies and demonstrations, and solicited support from notable figures. Mayor Richard J. Daley received letters from former colleagues of Sullivan, including architect A.O. Budina and sculptor Alfonso Iannelli, and from other prominent people, such as historian Lewis Mumford, architect Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, who stressed the civic importance of preserving great architecture. The strategy worked so well that Daley refused to issue a wrecking permit until he could hold a hearing. Sun-Times reporter Ruth Moore was persuaded by Nickel’s arguments and began writing articles almost daily about the fight to save the Garrick. Eventually the Sun-Times’s editorial page called on the city to save the building. The fight became national news, with stories in Time magazine and the New York Times.

Balaban and Katz’s reaction was predictable: it sued to force the city to issue the wrecking permit. During the trial, Judge Donald S. McKinlay visited the Garrick and later ruled that the city could properly deny a wrecking permit based on aesthetic considerations. But he was soon overruled by the Illinois Appellate Court, which held that the city could not withhold the permit without a concrete plan for purchasing and restoring the building. The battle was over; Daley issued the permit. By the summer of 1961 the Garrick was no more. (Nickel later became a martyr to the preservation movement; he was killed in 1972 by falling I-beams as he attempted to salvage portions of the partially demolished Stock Exchange Building, also designed by Sullivan.) In an article published in 1964, Condit called the Garrick’s demolition “an irreparable loss to American architecture.”

Tim Samuelson, curator of architecture at the Chicago Historical Society and a good friend of Nickel’s, describes the fight to save the Garrick as a defining moment for historic preservation. “That really was one of the first times that somebody took on the preservation of a tall commercial office building,” he says. “Whereas preservation up to that time was largely a matter of saving a small historic house or isolated smaller property, here it was the case of taking a 17-story building and proposing it for preservation. Just as Chicago pioneered in creating the early skyscraper, Chicago had to pioneer in figuring out how to save them. The Garrick was really the trial case in that movement.”

The parking garage that replaced the Garrick had “no structural interest and questionable architectural character,” wrote Condit. The garage’s architect, William Horowitz, reluctantly testified for Balaban and Katz at the trial. Horowitz was an admirer of Sullivan’s work, and, according to Cahan, had even tried to persuade Balaban and Katz to find a new use for the Garrick. But he couldn’t afford to turn down the commission. He told the judge that in his opinion Louis Sullivan would have supported the demolition, saying the Garrick “no longer does the job Sullivan wanted it to do.” Horowitz attempted to preserve the memory of the Garrick Building by installing an original panel in the front of the garage and repeating the pattern throughout its facade. The move, which was intended as an homage to the departed theater and its creator, came to be perceived as an unintentionally ironic comment on the state of architectural preservation in Chicago. Obviously there was little Horowitz could have done to avoid the negative feelings about his garage. When asked for his own feelings on the demolition of his garage to make way for a new theater, he declined to comment.

Samuelson sees the demolition of the garage as merely another chapter in the story of Chicago’s development. “It’s all part of this unusual cycle that goes on in Chicago, where development happens so fast,” he says. “You see that has happened several times. After all, there was an old loft building on the site that was torn down to build the Garrick when it was probably only about 20 years old. And then you had the Garrick that only then lasted for 70 years, and then you have this garage that lasts for 35. Things do change like that in this city.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Richard Nickel, June 8, 1960; Garrick Theater Building; Garrick Garage photo courtesy Commission on Chicago Landmarks; New Goodman Theater; extra photo by Jon Randolph.