ON THE REAR BAY...

Over the last few months, I have attempted to balance preservation and transformation at 1304 N. Ritchie Ct. One of the biggest changes has occurred at the rear bay that cantilevers off the second floor of the house. When our work began, it was a sad, lopsided affair covered in sheet metal with tiny wooden windows. Time had taken its toll on this extension of the home. It leaned heavily away from the main structure, and its floor slanted. On top of everything, it lacked the horse hair that helped to insulate the rest of the house, and so it provided passage for warm air to escape and brisk Chicago winds to enter.

Initially, without access to the original house plans, it was unclear whether the bay was original to the house or a later addition, an important fact that would determine what changes Chicago Landmarks would allow. At first, Chicago Landmarks contended that the bay was most likely original to the house, and therefore could not be altered in any way. However, once our work commenced and the studs were exposed, we could confirm that it was an addition.

The key piece of evidence to prove our case was the bay’s mill sawn studs that differed dramatically from the rough-hewn 2x4s that composed the rest of the house. When the home was originally constructed, and before mechanization took hold of the construction process, 2x4s were cut by hand, which caused the boards to be uneven across their length. These uneven boards provided structure to the entire home, save for the bay. Alas, the studs supporting the bay were cut by an electric saw. As it was clear that the bay was not an original feature to the house, it was free to be redesigned.

The first step in the alteration of the bay was to address its unfortunate lean by supporting the cantilever with a new LVL beam. Next, we removed those original, tiny wooden windows and lowered the window sills to the floor. Natural light now floods the adjacent room--converted into a master sitting room--making the space much more inviting.

To determine the final aesthetic of the exterior, we took a survey of other rear bays in the Gold Coast neighborhood. We discovered that most are clad in either metal or wood, boast a decorative cornice, and sport a series of narrow floor-to-ceiling windows. Relying on these examples as precedent, we designed a bay that we believe will comfortably fit into the neighborhood. It is clad in black metal, and enjoys a robust cornice, traditional base molding, and a series of narrow windows.

I am proud of our work on the back bay. For me, this particular stage in the reconstruction project represents our work on the house as a whole. An attempt to preserve the historic, while both meeting the needs of a modern family, and complimenting the neighborhood. Ultimately, we have tried to blend that which was contemporaneous with 1304 N. Ritchie’s construction with contemporary practical needs and aesthetic standards.

Below are before and after pictures of the bay, as well as some of the precedents found in the neighborhood.

 Rear bay existing conditions, exterior and interior.

Rear bay existing conditions, exterior and interior.

 Rear bay precedents

Rear bay precedents

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 More rear bay precedents

More rear bay precedents

 Drawing of rear elevation

Drawing of rear elevation

 New rear bay!

New rear bay!

 
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On Discoveries Made During Demolition...

Demolition has been in full swing for a few weeks now at 1304 N. Ritchie Court. Opening walls can lead to all sorts of discoveries about the history of a building. Rooms that were thought to be original are found to be the result of a prior renovation. Old doorways once covered up are reopened. Assumptions about original construction techniques are quickly disproven. I find this to be the exciting part of construction- the chance for the house to reveal the different layers of its history.

Fortunately, we have not had too many surprises at 1304 N. Ritchie Court, and those that are problems can be solved. Below are some of the discoveries we’ve made during demolition:

 Exposed window in master bath

Exposed window in master bath

 

Who doesn’t like additional natural light? We discovered a window when we peeled back the wall in the old master bath. We will now measure the opening and install a new window in its place.

 

 Master sitting room

Master sitting room

 Original ceiling in master sitting room

Original ceiling in master sitting room

 

Remember this room? The decoration in the master sitting room is not original to the house.  How do we know? The original ceiling became visible through a hole created in the adjacent bathroom.  The room formerly had the same plaster moulding as the rest of the house. Nevertheless, the room is now a part of the house’s character. From the looks of the construction, this renovation could be over a hundred years old!

 

 Rear bay from interior

Rear bay from interior

 Rear bay from exterior

Rear bay from exterior

 

Are you original? The rear bay to the house is an unusual feature for rowhouses in the neighborhood. We’ve established that the beamed ceiling is not original to the house, but we still can’t tell for sure about the rear bay. Behind the wall finish was a layer of modern insulation (we could tell because it was a synthetic material and not horsehair or other natural fiber), but that insulation could have been blown in from the exterior when the bay was re-clad. The bay is constructed of rough-hewn 2x4s, but that does not mean that the bay is original. On this issue, the jury is still out.

 

 Floor joists in master closet

Floor joists in master closet

 

Is that Swiss cheese? No, it’s the remnants of floor joists after an undiscerning plumber hacked into them to provide room for his pipes. These joists will now be sistered with a piece of plywood to provide additional support. It’s amazing that these beams have held so strong for so many years!

 

 Skylight opening in roof

Skylight opening in roof

 

Why were you hiding? Houses of this time were built with skylights for natural ventilation. At some point in the house’s history, this opening was filled in with a whole-house fan. The fan was removed this week, exposing the original opening where we will place a new skylight.

 

Now that most of the walls are open, the real work can begin. The next steps include removing old pluming pipes, measuring rough openings for new windows where applicable, and pulling the old electrical wiring. All this work still falls under the demolition phase. As we move towards summer, we will move into construction.

 

On the History of 1304 N. Ritchie Court...

 Small girl standing in an intersection on Ritchie Place (now Ritchie Court). Chicago Daily News, 1905.

Small girl standing in an intersection on Ritchie Place (now Ritchie Court). Chicago Daily News, 1905.

It is my hope that a restoration of 1304 N. Ritchie Court that is sensitive to the original design will lead the way towards a new era for Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, with owners and architects valuing the history and design of developer Potter Palmer’s buildings as an important contribution to Chicago’s architectural heritage. By preserving key features of the building beyond just the façade, architects can develop more layered, interesting interiors that respect the history and zeitgeist of the neighborhood.

1304 N. Ritchie Place, now known as Ritchie Court, was built as a five-lot real estate development by Potter Palmer, a well-known 19th Century Chicagoan and real estate financier. Palmer developed many similar properties in the Gold Coast neighborhood shortly after the Great Chicago Fire.

 Map of Potter Palmer's Gold Coast Neighborhood. Chicago History Museum Archives.

Map of Potter Palmer's Gold Coast Neighborhood. Chicago History Museum Archives.

The conception and design of Ritchie Court is tied into the city’s history and makes the development particularly worthy of preservation.  Palmer initially made a name for himself in the Chicago real estate sector before the Great Chicago Fire, by developing large sections of State Street in the Chicago Loop. As the city struggled to rebuild after the fire, Palmer recognized an opportunity and secured a loan to purchase a “frog pond” adjacent to Lake Michigan, just north of the city’s central business district. He envisioned the frog pond as a new residential district, now called the Gold Coast, of which Ritchie Place was to be a part. Palmer planned the area as an enclave for the wealthy, upstream from the Loop, the slaughter yards, and the snarl of railroad tracks running between the two districts. To set the example of fine home building, Palmer commissioned the architecture firm Cobb and Frost to design and build a castle along the new Lake Shore Drive for himself and his bride, Bertha Honore Palmer.

 Potter Palmer's account ledger. Chicago History Museum Archives.

Potter Palmer's account ledger. Chicago History Museum Archives.

To ensure the exclusivity of his new neighborhood, Palmer partitioned the land surrounding his home adjacent to the newly developed Lake Shore Drive, only selling the parcels to his friends and peers. Some parcels were sold as vacant land, while others were developed as fashionable freestanding and rowhouses. Ritchie Place, running for just one block between Goethe and Banks, was directly adjacent to the Palmer castle. According to Palmer’s ledger of accounts, construction on house numbers 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 (now numbers 1300, 1302, 1304, 1306 and 1308) Ritchie Place began in May of 1888. Potter Palmer paid the architect C.M. Palmer (no relation) $800 for his designs. The next entry in Potter Palmer’s account ledger is for whiskey insurance.

Over the next ten years, Palmer the real estate mogul and Palmer the architect collaborated on no less than 50 houses in the Gold Coast. Some even speculate the pair collaborated on upwards of 300[1] buildings on the North Side alone. Examples of these houses can be seen driving along the tree-lined neighborhood streets, such as Cedar, Elm, and Division. Writing in 1955, the great Chicago historian Arthur Meeker dubbed the area “Palmerville.” He describes the neighborhood of “substantial mansions and spacious gardens” as “forming the dignified façade of Palmerville (as I think it really ought to be called), a concentration of wealth and fashion such as no other American city could boast at that time, perhaps at anytime.”[2]

 1304 and 1306 Ritchie Court: the Double House

1304 and 1306 Ritchie Court: the Double House

While each house in Ritchie Court has its own individual character, they share an architectural vocabulary of Romanesque forms, rusticated stonework, and party-wall construction. In addition, the buildings share a material palette of Chicago Greystone, which lends a massive, heavy quality to the facades.  Arched windows and doorways puncture through those facades at regular intervals, often accompanied by bay windows, porches, and wrought-iron railings. Two of the homes, 1304 and 1306 Ritchie Court, were designed as a “double-house”; their exteriors are joined in a single, uniform façade, with a shared recessed porch and decorative cornices, and mirror-image doors and window placement. Joining the exteriors of the individual homes creates an illusion of a grander exterior façade for both.

The five rowhouses on Ritchie Court are contributing buildings to both national and city landmarked neighborhoods. The Gold Coast Historic District nomination form, the publication that outlines the landmarked neighborhood as defined by the National Registrar of Historic Places in 1975, refers to 1304 and 1306 as the: “Willis Hall Turner and Frederic Upham Double House,” [3] named for the homes’ original owners. Unfortunately, little is known of these owners beyond their names. The original five houses of Palmer’s Ritchie Court development are also contributing buildings to the City of Chicago’s Astor Street Historic District, established in 1973. The corresponding report notes the double houses’ “vaguely Romanesque detailing…typical [of] late 19th Century trapezoidal bay-fronted designs.”[4] Both reports note the architectural significance of the double house façade, the feature commonly understood to make it an important contributing building to the historic neighborhood.

In addition to the five rowhouses built in 1888, Palmer built rowhouses on either side of Ritchie Court, extending up to Banks Street. Unfortunately, these neighboring houses were taken down in the 1970s, prior to the landmarking of the neighborhood, to provide for two oversized apartment buildings.

Since their construction, the remaining five Richie Court rowhouses have received varying levels of renovation. The present renovation work at 1304 N. Ritchie Court is in good company on the block. Currently, 1300 N. Ritchie Court, the end unit, is receiving a gut-renovation, while the façade is being restored on 1302. 1306 and 1308 were both gut renovated roughly 20 years ago. Through these renovations, much of the historic character of Ritchie Court has been lost. It is only through allowing these buildings to evolve, an idea central to my restoration of 1304 N. Ritchie, that we can preserve the integrity and architectural heritage of Potter Palmer’s Gold Coast neighborhood.

 Ritchie Court, 1956. Chicago History Museum Archives.

Ritchie Court, 1956. Chicago History Museum Archives.

[1] Berger, Miles L. They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City's Architecture. Chicago: Bonus, 1995. Print. p14-16

[2]Meeker, Arthur. Chicago, with Love: A Polite and Personal History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955. p 120.

[3]Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks. Summary of Information on an Astor Street District. Report issued June 1973.

[4]United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form. Gold Coast Historic District. Report Issued December 1975.  

 

 

On the Eve of Demolition...

The role of a preservationist, as assigned by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, is to “identify, retain, and preserve” the historic features of a building to maintain “the building’s character.” While Jane Jacobs, well-known grassroots organizer, tells us that diversity and age of building stock loans character to neighborhoods, I’d like to push her thinking to apply it to specific features within individual buildings. Identifying, retaining, and preserving architectural elements of a building’s interior allows for more nuanced, layered designs. On the other hand, how often have you stood in a building and thought “wow, that’s so 80s”? It is when a room is designed solely to the taste of a specific period that it begins to date itself.

With all of this in mind, on the eve of demolition at 1304 N. Ritchie Court, I’d like to present my wunderkammern, or cabinet of curiosities, as pertaining to the house. My wunderkammern is comprised of the items that I am preserving and integrating into the renovation of the house. This collection is not exhaustive, but rather symbolic of my overall goal of “identifying, retaining, and preserving” the historic features of the house.

The pictures collected below are original to the 1880s detailing of the building. As was common for the time, I suspect that many of the pieces came from a mail-order catalogue. The houses along Ritchie Court were built as part of a larger development scheme enacted by Potter Palmer, and therefore, ready-made doors, fireplaces, paneling, etc, would most likely have been purchased. The APTI has many catalogs digitized for research purposes. These ready-made pieces were made available because of new factories and processes invented during the Industrial Revolution, and catalogues such as that from Sears, Roebuck and Co. were quite popular.

In the next few days, these historic features will be carefully wrapped and otherwise protected. The Chicago Department of Buildings has graciously issued us a permit, and work on the house is officially about to commence. Please stay tuned for construction updates!

On Documentation

The first step of my design process is always to look for historic documentation on any building or site that I am working on. I believe that it is essential to understand a building’s evolution from its initial design to its present state before deciding on the best way to move forward. This means spending time doing archival research, working as detective to uncover a building’s past.

 Chicago in Flames; Union Publishing Company, Lithograph, 1872

Chicago in Flames; Union Publishing Company, Lithograph, 1872

In looking for documentation for this particular project, I’ve come up frustratingly short. Archival information on historic Chicago buildings is sparse. Yet after speaking with local Chicago architects, preservationists, and researchers, I’ve come to a working hypothesis to explain this phenomenon. The lack of documentation for Chicago’s buildings is a remnant of thought leftover from the rebuilding frenzy after the Great Chicago Fire when Chicagoans were left with nothing of the past and were forced to collectively design the future.

When I began researching the townhouse, I first reached out to Terry Tatum, formerly of Chicago City Landmarks, and asked him for advice. He pointed me in the direction of a document he had prepared for the city on historic buildings research. His advice led me to the building permit card, but no other information. Matt Crawford, a City Planner working for Landmarks in Chicago, then related to me that a series of floods, fires, and other natural disasters within the halls of the city’s archives destroyed any documentation pre-1955. While this explains physically what happened to the city’s archive of building documents, it does not explain why they were so disregarded.  To understand Chicagoans attitude to history, we have to study a well-known event in Chicago’s past.

On Sunday, Oct. 8th, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed an area four miles long and ¾ of a mile wide in an event so horrific that it could only be understood at a biblical scale, as an “American Apocalypse.” The fire burned the length of the city, leaving thousands homeless – their every possession reduced to ash. As argued by Ross Miller in his essay Chicago’s Secular Apocalypse, the unimaginable loss experienced collectively by the people forever changed their future attitudes towards one another. The fire universally destroyed the belongings of both the rich and the poor, the immigrants and the more settled families, leaving all survivors on an equal footing from which to rebuild. Therefore, the fire did more to democratize the city than any bureaucratic endeavor could have.

The fire became the key to understanding the city…The fire implied to Chicagoans that their history would not evolve in millennia…but in explosive burst that liberated and inspired individuals to do their best, for they could see the outcome. Divisions that might paralyze other places provided the very condition for Chicago’s existence. Change, as demonstrated by the fire on the largest scale, was to be permanent in modern Chicago[1]

 Good as Gold; Illustration from the Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1896

Good as Gold; Illustration from the Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1896

After three days of burning, so little was left of the city that it would have to begin anew. Collectively, Chicagoans were forced to think only of the future, not of the past. Families who had been wealthy before the inferno were left with as little as those who began with nothing. Therefore, it was only by looking towards the future, rebuilding not just buildings, but lives, that Chicago would survive. This is the first trait that one must understand of Chicagoans, a willingness to work together to imagine a collective future.

As a result of the fire, the mindset of city’s inhabitants was concentrated on moving forward. However, those who did muse on the past were told that the fire was punishment for “fast lapsing into luxury ­­– not yet to any degree as the people of New York – but still more than was for their good.”[2] Both before and after the fire, Chicago’s neighborhoods were organized around the local church. Generally worshipping according to ethnicity, the church was the center of the community. After the fire, these churches banded together to promote one universal message, that the “American Apocalypse” was a result of lavish behavior that should never be repeated.  Moving forward, it was better for Chicagoans to adhere to strict Christian values of hard-work and “industrious, self-denying habits.”[3] In the past, Chicagoans had been prodigal, but now with the unique opportunity to rebuild a city of their own making, it would have to reflect the temporal nature of man’s construction. Buildings could quickly become victim to fire, meaning that future building stock should have a puritan approach to both design and construction that reflects the temporal nature of man’s creations.

 Undaunted--We Build; Image for Fire Semi-Centennial Poster, 1921

Undaunted--We Build; Image for Fire Semi-Centennial Poster, 1921

Here we are presented with a second trait of Chicagoans, which is that the buildings erected after the fire reflect the soberer attitude of the people. While Chicago quickly began to rebuild, the new buildings were much more restrained than those which came before: “The buildings which line these streets he will find to be chiefly of brick, and of soberer appearance than the gay, cream-colored stone (treacherous beauty!) which so delighted his eye in [previous times]”[4] These new buildings were built of brick and stone rather than wood, ultimately leading the way for innovative uses of non-combustible materials, such as the skyscraper. Rather than expensive marbles, cheaper terra-cotta was used to emulate the look of stone while being conscience of lavish costs. Chicago common brick was also invented during this time. It was cheap and easy to produce using local clay, but was deemed not dignified enough for building facades. Masons used it as filler, creating party walls, side walls, and rear facades from it. The use of these more restrained materials changed the fabric of Chicago from what it had been before the fire.

The building boom to rebuild after the fire resulted in land values rising significantly. Every parcel of land was valued for the development opportunity it afforded. Land was even being created, as debris and rubble from the fire was thrown into Lake Michigan to expand the boundaries of the city. Developers were so eager in their efforts to obtain more vacant land that “elaborate buildings constructed just a few years before the fire turned out to be more valuable as rubble when the growing city converted debris from the fire into landfill to extend its boundaries”[5] Chicagoans, so determined to rebuild for their future, determined that the highest and best use of “elaborate” buildings was to destroy them for their material values. Additionally, the speed at which new buildings were constructed left little time for documentation. Developers like Potter Palmer purchased acres at a time, then worked as quickly as possible to produce income generating buildings onto the property. In essence, the entire city was a construction zone, leaving little time for architects or planners to record the work.

 The Wedding Amid The Ruins--A Romantic Incident Following the Destruction Of Chicago; Engraving, 1871 

The Wedding Amid The Ruins--A Romantic Incident Following the Destruction Of Chicago; Engraving, 1871 

Through an understanding of the mentality of the people post the Great Chicago Fire - a need to focus on the future, cleanse themselves of a lavish past, and develop property as quickly as possible - it becomes clear why little documentation of buildings exists. Not only were people more concentrated on the future, but new work proceeded at a break-neck pace that did not allow for thorough documentation. Whatever documentation was left was destroyed during the flooding of the Loop in 1992. Therefore, because both buildings and documentation are merely man-made constructs, susceptible to fire and flood, Chicagoans believe that they can never be held as sacred. This results in an attitude held by the people of Chicago that concentrates more on the future than dwelling in the past.

This inquire of thought carries over to the attitude towards landmarking buildings in Chicago: there are 111 designed historic districts in NYC to Chicago’s 59. New York City has over 1200 individual landmarks, whereas Chicago has merely 317. While the process to landmark a building is cumbersome in both cities, it is currently the best way to ensure that our cities have a varied building stock. A diversely built and aged city is what preservationists, architects, and city planners all currently agree leads to the most successful cities.

Finally, as modern technology has made buildings less susceptible to natural disasters, in the future, all city planners will have to decide what buildings to demolish versus maintain for the next generation. We will have to invent strategies to evaluate our existing building stock, using both documentation and judgment. This is why it is important that we keep documentation of our past, and why moving forward I intend to provide ample documentation on this townhouse.

 

Adrienne

 

[1] Miller, Ross. "Chicago's Secular Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Emergence of the Democratic Hero." Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis. Ed. John Zukowsky. München, Federal Republic of Germany: Prestel-Verlag, 1987. pp. 29-30

[2] Colbert, Elias, and Everett Chamberlin. Chicago and the Great Conflagration. Cincinnati and New York: C.F. Vent, 1871. p.450

[3] ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 460

[5] Miller, p. 32

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On Bidding and Waiting....

I think it’s fair to say that there is a distinct difference between designing a building and the physical construction of one. And I love to design buildings.

In my own personal practice, I find that working on historic buildings is like designing missing pieces to a puzzle. Designing the renovation of 1304 N. Ritchie Court took me several months. It was an arduous process, which ultimately came down to making the best decisions for the future of the existing structure. In the end, I had thirty-two pages of a drawing set in which I had drawn every single line.

After the initial architectural drawings were completed, I sent them to consultants for review. With the renovation of 1304 N. Ritchie Court, I have been working with both a mechanical and a structural engineer. During this coordination process, they made suggestions. I made changes. We went back and forth. Once their work was coordinated with my drawings, I sent the drawings out to several contractors for bidding.

And now I wait.

The process of bidding and construction administration relies upon close relationships between architect, owner, and contractor. I have had many trying experiences with contractors, the majority of which stemmed from issues with the drawings. The contractor does not always read them through entirely, and the architect, while not legally responsible for means and methods, does not always take constructability into account. Additionally, as the owner traditionally holds the contract for both the contractor and the architect, there is no formal relationship between the contractor and the architect that legally ensures that they will both work in one another’s best interest.

My company, AKB Works, is in pursuit of a different approach. As both the owner and the architect, I am trying to unite the gap between architect and contractor by changing the relationship. My goal is to produce better work by working closer with the contractor to better execute my designs.

The compilation of a thorough construction bid takes time. A good contractor will take time to first familiarize him/herself with the drawing set, and then with the actual property. I have walked several contractors through Ritchie Court, and I have learned something new from each one. Surprisingly, I like this process. However, now I have to wait for their bids. The bids will then have to be reviewed, commented upon, and negotiated before a contract can be signed and permits applied for.

During these waiting periods, it is important to remember that the job of an architect encompasses more than just the design of buildings. While we as architects are not as well trained for these other aspects of the profession (don’t even get me started on insurance or accounting…), the more that architects involve themselves in the entire building process, à la the master builders of old, the closer that the building will turn out to be what was originally envisioned.

And so I wait.

 

On When to Know When to Stop Drawing...

I recently had the honor of working in Tom Beeby’s office on the renovation of one of my favorite buildings: Gordon Bundshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Often described as a “jewel box,” the building’s façade is a tableau of a white, grey-veined marble cut so paper-thin that it serves as a filter, allowing light into the interior. The result is a daunting and solid exterior that simultaneously guards and creates the soft, luminous interior spaces housing one of the world’s greatest collections of rare books, manuscripts, and documents.

Bundshaft and his team at Skidmore Owings and Merrill communicated the design intent for the library in less than 30 pages. Our construction set for the renovation of the building took more than three times that many pages, structured across several phases of construction.

From the time Beinecke opened in 1963 to the completion of its first major renovation in 2016, the profession of architecture underwent a revolution. Architects shifted from drafting by hand on mylar and vellum to drafting on the computer. While this change altered the profession in ways we as architects are still trying to understand, the computer allows drawings to proliferate at much greater speeds than when they were hand drafted. Iterations can quickly be modeled, and “copy” and “paste” allow for the quick generation and exploration of numerous variations.

The amount of time that architects spend on our jobsites has undergone a corresponding shift. Bundshaft worked out of SOM’s New York Office, meaning that he could quickly hop on Metro-North up to New Haven to inspect the jobsite. At Beeby’s office, we were over nearly a thousand miles away from the building we were working on, communicating our ideas to a local architect who spent time on site. One of my coworkers had never even seen the building we were working on. The removal of the architect from the physical site of her building means that ideas must be conveyed on the page rather than worked out in the field. Not wanting our designs to get lost in translation, our office spent a great deal of time drawing details that we wouldn’t have if we were able to spend more time on the jobsite.

Finally, drawing sets have grown as a result of increasing concerns within the profession about liability. Architects often get sued, and thus carry extremely high levels of professional liability insurance. Additional work and repetition of details therefore serve to protect one’s practice. Not only is it difficult to protect the copyright of one’s designs, but it is even more difficult to ensure that we are protecting the public’s health and safety. We therefore compensate by over-detailing our designs, to ensure the structures are properly built.

The switch from manual to computer drafting, a disassociation between the architect and the jobsite, and increased concerns about liability have each contributed to the inflation of the architectural drawing set. In addition to making the job of being an architect much more laborious and difficult, the seemingly endless proliferation of detail in architectural drawing often raises the question: When do we stop drawing?

Back in Beeby’s office, for instance, I spent over a year drawing one 16’x16’ room.  I drew every detail of the room, going so far as to provide instructions for the woodworker on how to cut his knives for the wainscoting. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when I worked in Joseph Pell Lombardi’s office in New York City, the architects felt that most major decisions would best be made when the existing condition of the structure was exposed and carefully reviewed on the site. These are two very different, but equally valid positions on the role of architectural drawings on the jobsite. Using the Beeby method, one spends an inordinate amount of time drawing details. This can result in burning through the architect’s fees. The architect can also become myopic – one works so long on the details that one loses sight of the project as a whole. The JPL method made for a faster drawing process, but things often slowed down in the field and the overall design intent for a project can be lost in the reactive, day-to-day work on site.

Therefore, how do I model my own practice? Do I draw every detail, as in Beeby’s office? Or do I allow for existing conditions on site to dictate how the project will evolve, as done in JPL’s office? In retrospect, I have discovered that both models are valid and useful for their own merits. In the drawing set I have now produced, I have conveyed my design intent with as many drawings as I felt necessary without burning through time. However, I am sure there will still be many conditions for which I cannot prepare once construction commences. I have spent time detailing the rooms which I am most concerned about, while noting in the drawings potential issues that may arise. For example, one of the first notes on the drawings calls for a core-sample of the existing roof to be done. Once the layers of the roof are exposed, I can then detail how I want to repair/replace the roof. In doing so, I am a bit Beeby, and a bit Lombardi. Have license, will draw.

My bid-set went out this week. Wish me luck.

Gordon Bunshaft in front of the Beinecke

 Inside Beinecke

Inside Beinecke

 Wainscot Detail of St. Chrysostom's

Wainscot Detail of St. Chrysostom's

 Basement, First, Second, & Third Floor Plans of 1304 N. Ritchie Court

Basement, First, Second, & Third Floor Plans of 1304 N. Ritchie Court

On My New Found Love For Mechanical Systems...

In doing the budgeting for the townhouse renovation, I knew that one of my biggest expenses was going to be the MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing) work. One of the main reasons that I purchased the house is that very little work has been done to it in the last 130+ years. While this means that there is an abundance of beautiful detailing and craftsmanship, it also means that the MEP systems need maintenance and updating.

The Gold Coast was developed after the City of Chicago implemented a plan to raise the entire city 4’-14’ to install sewer pipes above the water table but below the city streets. There are many fabulous old images showing men physically raising buildings to meet the new street level. However, as the Gold Coast neighborhood was a planned development by Potter Palmer, the houses were built to accommodate modern plumbing. As one might expect, modern plumbing was a major selling point at the time.

For heating purposes, a steam boiler and radiator system was the fashion. The townhouse has a collection of magnificent cast-iron radiators situated below the windows of each room. While serving the practical function of providing heat to each room, the radiators are also highly ornamental, adding to the décor of each room. The pipes are filled with steam, and keep the house quite toasty in the winter.

As previously discussed, the townhouse was built as one of a series of five townhouses along Ritchie Court constructed together by Potter Palmer. This means that each building shares a wall on either side with the adjoining townhouse. The shared wall is referred to as a “party wall.” One of the beauties of the party wall is that it helps insulate each building, meaning that no outside air passes between the buildings, but rather the wall is kept warm by the house on either side. Therefore, only the front, rear, and roof facades are exposed to the elements. Interestingly, the practice at the time dictated to insulate the roof, but not the front and rear facades. Warm, moist air generated by the radiators is kept in the house by a thick sandwiched wall: first a layer of plaster, then an air-gap which works as an insulator, and then the masonry exterior. The result is that my plaster walls are in almost pristine condition, and the house maintains almost perfect humidity levels.

Enter the era of drywall. After WWII, houses needed to be constructed quickly for returning soldiers and their families. With no time for lath-and-plaster wall construction, a new product called drywall was invented. While drywall does ease construction efficiency, drywall does not have the same self-insulating properties as the more substantial wall constructions which came before. Walls now had to be insulated and mechanically heated through forced air systems. Many buildings also then installed humidifiers to help regulate moisture. While these buildings leak less air, they created a new set of problems. “Sick building syndrome” occurs when a building is too air-tight, allowing for mold and other bacteria to accumulate in the house. Also, more mechanized systems translate to increased opportunities for things to break, causing more time and money for the homeowner.

The majority of houses in the Gold Coast that I have visited have ripped out their plaster walls, constructed drywall in their stead, and added forced air systems. As a preservationist, I am inclined to mourn the loss of the ornamental plaster and cast iron radiators. However, sometimes we can all agree that the simpler system is the better system. There is no need to move to forced air, it dries both the building and your skin out. This is Chicago, you will be spending most of your days in heated interiors. Why not maintain the old system of steam radiators, which keep a great balance of warm, moist air in the house while also giving you pretty radiators to admire?

Therefore, the only major HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) upgrade that needs to be done is the addition of air conditioning. When Ritchie Court was constructed, there were no high-rises along Lake Shore, so one could simply open their windows to get cooling lake breezes flowing through the house. As this is no longer the case, air conditioning is a necessary evil for summer comfort. So, where will an air conditioner go? Why it goes between the floor joists! A system called a “SpacePak” allows for small tubes to run parallel to the floor joists, puncturing through the ceiling where cold air needs to be delivered. Easy as pie.

One final note on amazing, antiquated mechanical systems. On the third floor of the townhouse is a small bathroom with a skylight. I was pretty sure that the bathroom was a later addition, but I could not resolve why there was a skylight in a bathroom. Well, in the house next-door, there is an original cedar closet in the location where my house has a bathroom. The cedar closet has a skylight. The reason, as explained to me by P.E. Mark Nussbaum, is that when a fine Gold-Coast lady was ready to bring her fur coats out for the season, she would air them out by simply opening the bedroom window and the skylight, and allow for air to brush by her furs to eliminate any stale odors. Imagine that!

 The Raising of Chicago: t he Briggs House—a brick hotel—raised, probably in 1866.

The Raising of Chicago: the Briggs House—a brick hotel—raised, probably in 1866.

 One of two basic systems heats your house: either a furnace, which heats up air, or a boiler, which heats up water.

One of two basic systems heats your house: either a furnace, which heats up air, or a boiler, which heats up water.

 
 Left: Typical masonry construction pre-1930s. Right: Typical masonry construction of today. Lesson learned: less is more.

Left: Typical masonry construction pre-1930s. Right: Typical masonry construction of today. Lesson learned: less is more.

 
 One of a pair of cast-iron radiators in the dining room.

One of a pair of cast-iron radiators in the dining room.

 Cast-iron radiator on the third floor.

Cast-iron radiator on the third floor.

On Catching Up...

Well, it has been awhile. But while I have been absent from the Internet, I have not been absent from my architectural endeavors. Let’s catch up:

Since we spoke last, I have finished my first year of teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Working with both the graduate and undergraduate architecture students was an incredible experience that I am looking forward to repeating again next year. I have attended a multitude of conferences, networking and learning about different preservation techniques, trades, and funding. I audited a class in “Building Diagnostics” with the highly respected and talented Anne Sullivan, director of the HPRES program at SAIC. I set up an office space. I hired my first employee. I picked up two consulting jobs- one for an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and one more environmentally focused project in North Carolina. I learned how to render in Maxwell and do lighting studies in Ladybug. I learned the basics of bookkeeping and the financial side of running a small business. I chopped a significant portion of my thumb off and was confined in a cast for two months (unrelated to the events above, but still pertinent to my life). Oh, and my licensing finally went through after a protracted period of waiting to hear from the underfunded State of Illinois.

So now it’s time to focus my attention back on my primary responsibility, the townhouse. Bekah (the intern) and I will commence the construction document phase of the project on Monday. In the meantime: