PROMONTORY APARTMENTS: AN ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY
By Alfred Swenson
In 1946, Herbert Greenwald (1915-1959) returned to Chicago from military service during World War II, and decided to embark on a new career. Prior to the war he had been an educator, and a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at the University of Chicago, but now his interests turned to real estate development. No new high-rise residential buildings had been built in Chicago since the onset of the Great Depression, and he reasoned that there was a pent-up demand for them waiting to be met. With the aid of some financial backers, including Samuel Katzin, a large Chicago Chevrolet dealer, he secured options on three sites along the Chicago lake front in established high-rise residential areas. Two of the sites were in Greenwald’s own Hyde Park neighborhood, one at the corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and Cornell Avenue, and the other in the 5500 block of South Shore Drive; the third was in the Streeterville neighborhood in the 800 block of North Lake Shore Drive.
Greenwald soon realized that only the South Shore Drive site (1) was available for immediate development; the two other sites had legal complications that were still being worked out. He chose the name Promontory Apartments for this first project, taking the name from nearby Promontory Point in Burnham Park. Promontory Point had been constructed as a landfill, extending the Lake Michigan shoreline outward some 400 feet, during the 1920’s as a part of Burnham Park, which extends along the lakefront from 12th to 56th Streets. In 1934-35, Burnham Park was planted by the landscape architect Alfred Caldwell in the English Romantic Landscape tradition of Brown, Repton, Olmsted and Jensen. During the 1920’s and 30’s, the Hyde Park lakefront and its beaches had been developed as a summer tourist destination, and a number of large tourist hotels had been built there, among the apartment towers. But during the war, the tourist industry had declined, and Greenwald had opted for a cooperatively-owned residential building. Image 1, Image 2
In 1946 Greenwald had met the architect Charles Genther (1907-1987), who was his neighbor in Hyde Park, and had recently founded the firm, Pace Associates. Greenwald decided Genther would be the architect of record for the Promontory Apartments. But as Greenwald’s son Bennett recalled in 2009, some sixty-three years later, he also wanted a well-known “design architect” who would bring international attention to this first post-war Chicago skyscraper. Greenwald’s first choice was Frank Lloyd Wright, and he wrote to him. Wright replied, saying if an advance of $50,000 was deposited to his bank account in Madison, he could start work at once. This was more than Greenwald and his backers could afford: that ended further consideration of Wright. Greenwald also sent a cable to the French architect, Le Corbusier, who brusquely replied that he did not do buildings in the United States. Then, Greenwald wrote to the German-American architect Walter Gropius. He responded that his office in Boston was a long distance from Chicago, and went on to say, “Why should you come to me, when ‘the master of us all’, Mies van der Rohe, is in Chicago?” Genther had been a graduate student of the German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) at Illinois Institute of Technology during 1939-1940 and 1942-43, and he arranged for the three of them (2) to meet.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or simply Mies, as he was called by Americans, had emigrated to Chicago in 1938. He had been introduced to an American audience by two of his most famous European works, the Barcelona Pavilion and the Tugendhat House, which were prominently featured in the 1932 exhibition “The International Style: Architecture Since 1922” mounted by Philip Johnson and Henry-Russell Hitchcock at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Both in the exhibition catalog, and their subsequent book, The International Style, Johnson and Hitchcock had hailed Mies as one of the “four great leaders of modern architecture.” In 1937, when he visited the United States for the first time, Mies had been invited to become the Director of the Department of Architecture at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago. Mies replied that he would accept the position only if he could make a new curriculum for the school.
He also wanted to bring with him several colleagues from the German Bauhaus, where he had been director from 1930 until the Nazi government forced him to close it in 1933. Mies’s terms were accepted, and he became Director in 1938. In 1940, he was also commissioned to design a new 100-acre campus for his university, which had now become the Illinois Institute of Technology, and by 1946 had completed three buildings for it. Image 3
Although Mies had never built a high-rise building, he made a favorable impression on Greenwald at their first meeting. Subsequently Greenwald and Genther put together a team of design professionals including Mies as the design architect, Pace Associates as architect of record, the firm of Holsman and Holsman and Klekamp as consulting engineers, and Frank Kornacker as structural engineer.
Greenwald had decided that a 5:1 mix of two- and three-bedroom apartments would be favorable for the Chicago market at that time, and determined that the building would consist of 122 units; the zoning code limited the height of the building to 21 stories. Mies began his plan by locating the building along the full width of the east property line to allow most of the units to face the view of Lake Michigan.
For the typical floor plan, Mies drew on his design of an earlier apartment building at the Weissenhof Siedlung in Stuttgart, completed in 1927. Following the Weissenhof plan, he divided the building into two sections; each with two stairways and two elevators at its center. But unlike the earlier plan, here there were three apartments at each section level; two facing the lake and the third extending outward to the west overlooking the city, forming a T-shape. The Promontory’s apartments were much larger than the Weissenhof units, and the Chicago building code permitted interior bathrooms with mechanical ventilation, but Mies’s European concerns of the 1920’s for light, views and natural cross-ventilation were still prominent features. Image 4
The building structure was developed concurrently with the plan. Reinforced concrete frames had been the marketplace standard for Chicago high-rise apartments since about 1920, being the most economical structural system for the smaller 20-foot spans typical for residential uses.
Mies’s double-T plan was accommodated within a regular array of rectangular bays measuring 16’-6” by 18’-2”, and the floor construction consisted of a system of pan joists. But Mies choose to make this concrete structure a major element of the exterior architectural expression of the building, quite unlike any previously executed skyscraper. Every exterior beam and column was exposed, so the entire frame could comprehended by the observer. The spaces between the columns and beams on the east- and west-facing were in-filled with low spandrel walls of buff brick; above the walls were large windows running from column to column, again reminiscent of the Weissenhof elevations. The north- and south-facing façades were largely opaque: the openings were filled entirely with buff brick, with a few windows cut in to light bedrooms, dining areas and kitchens in the west-projecting wings of the T’s. But what might have been a structurally honest but somewhat dull composition was enlivened by an architectural expression Mies had first explored two years earlier. He decided to project the columns on the east- and west-facing facades outward from the face of the building, and to step the columns back three time in their height, expressing the decreasing structural loads they carry. The stepped columns bring vitality and lively rhythm to the whole architectural composition. Image 5
To help present his design to prospective buyers of the cooperative apartment units, Mies built a model of the building. The three major exterior materials, brick, concrete and glass, were represented by different colors of artist’s textured drawing papers, applied over cardboard forms. Photographs of the model show the entrance front facing the lake, and the garden side with the projecting wings (6).
The view of the lake front side of the model, together with the ground floor plan (7) shows how Mies resolved the building entrance and lobby elements. He introduced a recessed ground floor loggia along the east side; the two column bays at the north and south ends of the loggia form automobile driveways or portecochères, which lead through full-height openings in the ground floor to the parking area in the rear. From the loggia, two glass-walled vestibules lead to the elevator lobbies of each building section; between them is the lobby lounge, with glass walls facing the park and lake on the east and the garden on the west. Above the loggia rose the 20 typical apartment floors, forming the middle element of the
tripartite horizontal division of the east façade. The composition was completed by a terminal element: a pair of mechanical penthouses, linked together by a glass-walled solarium. All of these elements of Mies’s tripartite horizontal division of the building are carefully integrated within the overall discipline of the exposed concrete frame.
Greenwald and Mies now prepared a brochure describing the project to interest prospective buyers of the units, as well as mortgage lenders to finance its construction. In addition to the photographs of the model of the building exterior, it also contained plans and interior perspective collages of the different apartment units. The windows in the interior drawings were filled with photographs of the actual views of the lake and parks that would be seen from them, and Mies himself drew in traditional furniture and accessories to suggest an air of upper middle-class congeniality. Although Mies was a leading Modernist architect, he knew where to compromise in order to achieve his objectives; the Modernist exterior of the Promontory was certainly compatible with traditionally furnished apartments. Image 6
Obtaining a mortgage commitment for the building was necessary, because Greenwald’s private backers could not finance the entire project. This did not prove to be an easy task, as Genther later told it:
Applications for the first mortgage were made by the developer, Mr. Herbert Greenwald, to almost every source known at the time. The adverse criticisms made then are still the classical comments of the uninformed or inexperienced man who has not had the view from within: “It looks like a Boston sugar warehouse.” “We don’t understand how people can live with so much glass.” “There is a lack of privacy.” There was, indeed, a flood of adverse publicity, and it was extremely difficult to convince anyone that they should seriously prepare proposals for the work.
But Mies and his colleagues persisted, and the mortgage was finally placed through a man who might be called a representative American cosmopolite, C. A. McCelvain, a man of action and interest in urban affairs, a believer in cooperative housing, and significantly enough, a flying officer in both world wars. (B)
The final arrangements for the mortgage, placed with the Trust Company of Chicago, were completed in the Spring of 1947. Greenwald publicly announced on May 3, 1947 that the project would proceed. The estimated cost was given as $1.8 million, and at that time 30 applications for apartments had been received. The project was advertised for bids on May 15, 1947, and Peter Hamlin Construction Company was chosen as the General Contractor with a bid of $1.5 million, and work began in the Fall of that year.
The construction of the Promontory proceeded rapidly, and was completed in the Spring of 1949. Because of the excellent site overlooking Lake Michigan, and the attractive qualities of Mies’s design, all the apartment units were rapidly sold, and the building was fully occupied shortly after it was finished (11-12).
Soon after its completion, architectural critics began to publish a series of favorable opinions of the building. Encouraged by the financial and critical success of the Prmontory, Greenwald and Mies comtimued to collaborate on more high-rise apartment buildings until Greenwald’s untimely death in 1959. Indeed, the Promontory would prove to be a pivotal work in Mies’s American career, opening the way to his establishment as a leader in the design of tall buildings.
In 1966, the Promontory Apartments Trust asked Mies to help them solve a problem which had arisen not long after the building was completed. Greenwald and his collaborators had followed the contemporary market standard in environmental control systems for the Promontory: central space heating and operable windows for ventilation and cooling. But in 1948, the first window air-conditioning units had been marketed, and by the early 1950’s they had become popular with consumers. The Promontory soon had many of these units, which projected from the building’s face.
Mies’s solution was to install the units in standardized louvered sleeves, let into the brick spandrel walls under the windows. The louvered sleeves were of two sizes, and arranged in a regular pattern on the east- and west-facing facades (14).
In 1995, a committee of three tenant-owners, Anthony Amarose, Pao-Chi Chang and Alfred Swenson, with the support of the building’s trustees, began to prepare a nomination to place the Promontory Apartments on the National Register of Historic Places of the United States Department of the Interior for its historic significance as a work of architecture. The nomination was based on four factors: first, it was the work of an acknowledged master of world architecture, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; second, it possessed high artistic value as evidenced by the opinions of critics; third, it was the first realization of two important design themes in Mies’s subsequent work, his expression of skeleton structure as an architectural element and his use of tripartite horizontal division in high-rise buildings; and fourth, it was the first International Style high-rise apartment building in the nation. The nomination was approved, and the building was entered on the National Register in the Fall of 1996. In 2000, a stainless steel plaque commemorating this recognition of the Promontory, designed by the architect and tenant-owner Pao-Chi Chang, was installed in the east front garden. Image 7, Image 8
The first major exterior restoration of the exterior concrete frame and brick walls was undertaken during 1995-1998 by the Chicago architectural and engineering firm of Wiss, Janney & Elstner, who had done other project of similar scope and scale. All the brickwork was tuckpointed, and damaged bricks replaced; damaged areas of concrete were carefully excised and patched with concrete that matched the color and texture of the adjoining. In the fifty years since the building was finished, the concrete had weathered, exposing the gravel and limestone aggreggates, and iron in the original concrete mix has oxidized, giving it a warm ochre hue. The entire building was cleaned by power-washing, but no acid or sandblasting was used. The result was the restoration of the sharp lines of Mies’s original design, mellowed by the patina of its natural materials’ exposure of half a century to Chicago’s atmosphere and its now-vanished steel mills and coal-fired heating systems. This might not have been entirely what Mies had expected, but he did say, when Charles de Gaulle and Andre Malraux began to clean the soot-blackened French cathedrals about 1960, “It was a crime to touch them.”
As we celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Promontory in 2009, it remains a remarkably pleasant place to live. The sweeping views of the lake, the parks, the city and passing clouds provide an ever-changing spectacle in Mies’s carefully proportioned spaces. Our neighboring university brings vitality and a cultural ambience to the surrounding community. The exterior of the building bespeaks its solid, mellowed durability, and its artistic refinement within a great architectural tradition. Image 9