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.
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.