The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition

The Chicago Tribune’s sale of Tribune Tower, the media company’s home for 93 years, has prompted reflections on the meaning of the building and its place in Chicago’s cityscape. Editorials have praised the building for its monumental appearance and Gothic inspired facade, as well as its interior lobby.

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Tribune Tower

But Tribune Tower was not always recognized as a paragon of architectural design. Upon its completion in 1925, the Gothic inspired tower, characterized by long, vertical piers and topped with flying buttresses modeled on Rouen Cathedral’s Tour de Buerre, was not universally praised. In fact Louis Sullivan, the Godfather of Chicago architecture, condemned the building’s design, writing that it was “evolved from dying ideas.”[Louis Sullivan, “The Chicago Tribune Competition,” Architectural Record 53 (February 1923): 153]

A deeper look at the story of Tribune Tower reveals the building as we know it today was the result of a hotly disputed design competition; one which would burst open a debate about the the value of “historical” architectural styles and the very nature of modern design.

On June 10, 1922 the Chicago Tribune announced it would be holding an international competition to choose the design of its new headquarters, the outcome of which would produce “the most beautiful office building in the world.”[Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1922.] The awards jury, firmly under the Tribune’s corporate control, ultimately received over 200 entries from architects on three continents. By November 29th, they had reached a consensus. Unanimously, jurors awarded the winning prize to the Gothic inspired skyscraper of New York-based architects John Howells and Raymond Hood.

However, later that day, a late entry arrived that sent the committee into a frenzy of astonishment and indecision.

Telephones and automobiles got into action and the advisory committee of city officials and citizens – who thought on Wednesday of last week that their work was done – hurriedly responded to consider the new entry…The latest arrival…smote them with its message of silent majesty from a distance of fifty feet. [Chicago Tribune, November 30, 1922.]

This late arrival, No. 187, was the entry of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen.  Saarinen’s modern, minimalist design, characterized by a tapering tower and vertical lines of fenestration, so impacted the jury members that the awards committee was reformed and deliberations began all over again. After three days of round-the-clock deliberations, the jury reached a final decision at midnight on December 2nd. Their verdict was this: Howells and Hood would retain first place, Saarinen received second, and Chicago firm Holabird and Roche received third.

The decision was not without controversy.

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Eliel Saarinen’s 1922 entry to the Tribune Tower competition. Public Domain, By Eliel Saarinen – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25715974

By 1922, the “historical” skyscraper had become an established design tactic, an early example being the neo-Gothic Woolworth Building in New York City, designed by Cass Gilbert and completed in 1913. A Chicago example, Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White’s Wrigley Building, built between 1921 and 1924, was famously modeled on the Giralda Tower of Seville’s Cathedral and combined Spanish Colonial Revival and French Renaissance architectural details. This deeply “historicizing” building was located directly across the street from the Tribune’s newly purchased lot at 425 N Michigan Ave.

Critics who favored Saarinen’s modernist skyscraper, including Louis Sullivan, were not fond of what they called “historicism” in modern architecture. They believed the Gothic revival especially was backwards; a willful, uninspired call-back to feudalism and the dark ages. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote in 1910 of the expensive, English Gothic-style houses en vogue with America’s elites:

They are ‘manors’ cut open and embellished inside to suit the ignorant ‘taste.’…the result…is a more or less pitiful mongrel. Painfully conscious of their lack of traditions, our powerful get-rich-quick citizens attempt to buy Tradition ready-made and are dragged forward facing backwards. [Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Sovereignty of the Individual,” in Frank Lloyd Wright: Writings and Buildings, ed. Edgar Kaufmann and Ben Braeburn (New York: Meridian Books, 1960): 94-95.]

For Wright and Sullivan, the Gothic revival and other historical styles were the McMansions of their time. They viewed historical details in architecture as ham handed attempts to impart status by referencing the European past.

At the time of the competition, architects and critics had begun to push back against the popularity of these styles. Sullivan especially called for architectural design that was emblematic of a new world order, wherein humanity would come together in a new spirit of freedom, replacing the “dead ideas” of the past. For Sullivan, the second and first place designs came to symbolize this architectural impasse. In his critique of the tower, he wrote:

All this has sharply to do with the Tribune Competition, for in that showing was brought into clearest light the deadline that lies between a Master of Ideas and one governed by ideas. There they  came, squarely face to face: the second prize and the first. All the others may be grouped aside, for what is involved here is not a series of distinctions in composition or in detail, but the leading forth into the light of day of the profoundest aspiration that animates the heart of man. [Louis Sullivan, The Chicago Tribune Competition, 153.]

Sullivan especially condemned the winning design for its incorporation of “structural” design elements which had no structural purpose at all. The crown of flying buttresses of course was not meant to actually hold up any walls, and their corresponding “piers” were so heavy they themselves had to be reinforced with steel.

He admitted, however, that “if the monster on top with its great long legs reaching far below to the ground could be gently pried loose, the real building would reveal itself as a rather amiable and delicate affair with a certain grace of fancy.” [Louis Sullivan, The Chicago Tribune Competition, 156.]

On the flip side, Saarinen’s minimalist tower was imagined as the herald of a new era of design in American architecture. Canadian architecture critic H. Harold Kent, in his first published article in the American press, praised Saarinen’s design for its lack of historical “dressing,” and admitted that while he never really understood Sullivan’s “spiritual” arguments,

he “would give a hearty amen to his claim for the superiority of the second place design….through its influence will be born a really distinctive, a truly American architecture.” [H. Harold Kent, “The Chicago Tribune Competition,” Architectural Record 53 (April 1923): 379.]

Howells and Hood responded that it was the form of the skyscraper itself that gave their design its originality.

In creating the design for the Tribune Tower, inspiration has been used without copying. Indeed, direct copying wold have been impossible, for no similar skyscraper exists today. There are two other buildings which suggest in general mass and design the Tribune Tower, but which have no relation to it either in their use or size. These buildings are the famous Butter Tower in Rouen and the Tower of Malines in Belgium. Both of these buildings are Gothic towers, attached to cathedrals, and of course have no modern practical use as the Tribune Tower, which is first of all a practical modern office building. They are both freestanding Gothic towers, church towers. [Holmes Onderdonk, The Story of Tribune Tower, (Chicago: Self Published, 1924): 7-8.]

Though they might be protesting too much here, Howells and Hood believed their design fused the modern icon of the skyscraper and medieval details in an exciting and original building.

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Rouen Cathedral, Tour de Buerre on the right. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Gothic details made it appropriately monumental, and also lent the building some spiritual associations because of its use in medieval church architecture. An editorial in the Rockford Republic stated:

The age of cathedral builders is not ended. New York City has its Saint John the Divine, Chicago its Tribune Tower. Both cathedrals of the spirit. [Barney Thompson, reprinted in the Chicago Tribune, December 18, 1922.]

Those who praised Howells and Hood’s design saw in the Gothic motifs a response to a sense of spiritual sterilization in the modern era. The editor of Architecture, J.B. Carrington, wrote that the building rather transcended ideas of cold materialism and commercialism that were coming to define the modern city:

We have too often been prone to think of Chicago as preeminently the embodiment of our so-called national spirit of commercialism, of restless and unmitigated materialism, of the essence of modernism and civic selfishness, indifferent to all but the great god of  business and bunk. We doff our hat to…the fine, uncontaminated idealism that is expressed in the Tribune’s attitude. [J.B. Carrington, “The Chicago Tribune Building Competition, Architecture 47 (1923): 11.]

Tribune Tower was completed in 1925, and has served as the home of the Chicago Tribune until now. It was designated a Chicago Landmark in 1989, and along with the Wrigley Building, the Art Deco 333 North Michigan Avenue, and the neoclassical London Guarantee and Accident Building, form a plaza that the Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, described in 1997 as “sacred turf.” Even without the Tribune inside, the tower remains an integral part of Chicago’s civic identity.

Eliel Saarinen moved to the United States and was a professor at the University of Michigan. His design for Tribune Tower influenced skyscraper design from the 1920s and 1930s to the present day. The 1929 Gulf Building in Houston, Texas, and Cesar Pelli’s 181 West Madison Building, built in 1990, are both thought to incorporate elements of Saarinen’s design. And of course his son, Eero, became one of the most important American architects of the 20th Century.

The debate about the value of Tribune Tower in 1925 reveals starkly different imaginations of the modern. For some, its Gothic details were an expression of pure faith and spirituality. Coupled with the modern icon of the skyscraper, Howells and Hood’s design cloaked The Tribune in the glamour and legitimacy of the European past. For others, the flying buttresses and pointed arches represented outdated and feudal ideas, a heavy, cumbersome attempt at dressing up what should have been a monument to the new. As the building goes through its next, but likely not final transformation, it remains a symbol of our complex and ever-changing understandings of what it means to be “modern.”

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