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Sullivan Recrowned

Project: Exterior restoration, Carson Pirie Scott store, Chicago, IL

Restoration Architect: McClier's Preservation Group (now Austin AECOM), Chicago, IL; T. Gunny Harboe (now with Harboe Architects, Chicago), principal in charge

Historian/Ornament Consultant: Tim Samuelson, Chicago, IL

By Eve M. Kahn

In Chicago's cradle of broad-shouldered skyscrapers, a longtime hotbed of preservation, one architectural masterpiece has looked underdeveloped for 58 years: Louis Sullivan's 1899 Carson Pirie Scott store on State Street. Chicagoans and tourists have long admired Carson Pirie's jungle of iron storefront ornament without realizing that Sullivan meant those bands to complement an equally riotous terra-cotta cornice. At the 12th floor, he set an eight-ft.-deep soffit on 17 columns, shading an uninterrupted ribbon of set-back windows.

The design was proto-Modern, but not enough to protect it from changing architectural fashions. In 1946, the store discovered that the cornice's iron anchors were failing. The company at first contemplated repairs, then opted for removal. No one knows where the fragments were dumped – none have turned up, despite today's booming market for Sullivan architectural salvage.

This spring, a GFRC replica of Sullivan's high-relief handiwork emerged from behind a year-long stint in scaffolding. Restoration architect T. Gunny Harboe led the project as vice president of McClier's Preservation Group (now called Austin AECOM, while Harboe now heads his own practice). Harboe's team put back the building's crown while restoring the pilastered terra-cotta skin and wood-and-cast-iron windows. "The building was hurting for so long without its cornice, people could sense there was something wrong but didn't know exactly why," says Tim Samuelson, the cultural historian with Chicago's Department of Cultural Affairs. "One of the most fundamental aspects of a Sullivan building is how it meets the sky, how it builds to a crescendo."

The structure's owners, Joseph Freed and Associates, hired the architects in 1999 while planning to create 400,000 sq.ft. of rentable space out of former store offices on the top five floors. Freed has spent $68 million on the project (funded by the National City Bank), which is located at the epicenter of Chicago's street-address numbering system. The city approved the plans partly because of the promise of a new cornice.

Harboe and project architect Bob Score faced a daunting lack of documentation – despite the quantity of surviving Sullivan drawings and circa-1900 photographers' fascination with his work. "All we had were grainy shots taken from the street, at acute angles, with quite dark shadows," Harboe says. "We also had one close-up of part of a capital from Architectural Record, which we weren't even sure showed what was really executed."

Sullivan's original client, the Schlesinger & Mayer store, had commissioned a marble building. During construction, the stonecutters' union went on strike, so the architect switched the specs to terra cotta. "We had original drawings for a building carved out of marble, which we knew had no relation to what was built," explains Score. Even if working drawings for terra cotta had turned up, there's no guarantee they would show full-blown ornament schemes. Sullivan usually worked out these details in 3D with his chief draftsman, George Elmslie, or at the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, with their modeler Kristian Schneider.

Surprisingly good drawings from the 1946 repair proposal and 1948 demolition plan did survive. "That gave us the proportions and profile of the cornice, and showed there was a 26-in. repeat," says Score. "Otherwise, from the photos we could only tell that the cornice was bumpy, with crisscross gridwork and repeating orbs."

Harboe's team managed to keep the whole building open throughout the project. They first recreated Sullivan's penthouse ribbon of wood windows, which had been pushed flush with the façade in 1948. Upon tearing out the 1948 interventions, says Score, "we found shadows of the original sills, archaeological evidence for where the window wall had been."

"On the piers," Harboe adds, "we found sections of original terra-cotta glaze – areas that had been protected while the rest of the building was acid-washed several times. It turns out the original glaze was satiny, to emulate marble, not shiny."

Once the windows were reinstalled, the architects left the structural steel exposed and began a year-long adventure in devising Sullivan-esque interlacing geometries. They examined fragments of Sullivan's 1890-1910 buildings and magnified every available photo of the lost cornice.

"We wanted to get the feel for his vocabulary of ornament and the relationship of the pieces to the underlying pattern," Harboe says. "We didn't want to use anything unless we were sure it belonged. We pushed ourselves again and again to make sure we were on the right track, we never said anything was 'good enough.'"

"We put out as broad a call as we could for information from libraries and Sullivan experts," says Score. "We studied fragments of the Chicago Stock Exchange, which have been scattered all over. We looked at plaster capitals inside Carson Pirie Scott, and everything in cast iron on the ground floor." Rumor had it that the 1948 demolition debris had been tossed off Chicago's Navy Pier. "We would have sent down a diver," says Score, "but the story turned out to be urban legend."

Harboe and Freed staffers chose to replicate the cornice in GFRC for its durability, sculpt-ability, integral color and relatively reasonable price. Workers attached a plywood cornice mockup to the rotunda to determine its outline and the number of repeating GFRC elements that would be needed. Only after six tries did the templates fit satisfactorily.

"The rounded corner is not a true radius," Score explains. "It was built by hand, and the radial point is inside a structural column anyway." The cornice, the architects decided, could be fashioned from 13 repeating elements. "We wanted to limit the number of unique pieces in the interest of economy, without compromising the design," Harboe says. "It was a real balancing act."

With basic diagrams in hand, the architects began collaborating with the Conservation of Sculpture & Objects Studio in nearby Forest Park. Artisans there made clay proposal after proposal. Harboe, Score, and historian Tim Samuelson stopped by weekly to critique and reshape the clay, much as Sullivan would have done with Kristian Schneider.

"There has to be one flowing surface in Sullivan's ornament, which is very hard to achieve," Samuelson explains. "Even Schneider couldn't achieve that kind of flow when he wasn't collaborating with Sullivan." Score says that with each visit to CSOS's studio, "We'd make baby steps. We'd say, 'These are nice leaves, but nothing like Sullivan's leaves.' Tim has a huge collection of Sullivan fragments, and he'd show us a stove plate or a plaster wall piece that related to whichever part we were working on. He'd explain the organic nature of the motifs, and the energy embodied in the design. He'd stick his finger in the clay and say, 'Put more energy into those leaves.'"

A few cornice sections were relatively un-problematic to recreate – "almost slam-dunks," Score says. Column shafts and window surrounds on lower floors provided good role models, as did the Architectural Record photo of a column capital. For pier capitals, the architects drew on Sullivan's Schiller Theatre in Chicago and his Central National Bank in St. Louis. For the fascia, plump protruding balls were fairly clearly silhouetted in old photos, and were a favorite Sullivan device.

When the clay prototypes were finally ready for molding in white GFRC, Harboe's team determined the exact color by roaming the scaffolding. They compared three dozen flat or ornamented samples to exposed vintage terra cotta, and scrutinized full-scale mockups from the sidewalk.

The sidewalk and part of the street had to be closed when the completed GFRC elements were delivered. Each weighs a ton. At night, over the course of months, hundreds of snowy chunks were hoisted aloft. Their reinstallation, says Paul Fitzpatrick, Freed's vice president of development, "has definitely been a leasing tool." State government offices have taken over much of floors 8 through 11, and the Art Institute of Chicago's new department of architecture, interior architecture and designed objects is turning the 12th floor into an open studio. A student lounge will occupy the rounded corner.

The prow overlooks other Belle Epoque landmarks, such as Daniel Burnham's 1895 Reliance Building. When it became the posh Hotel Burnham in 1999, Harboe and McClier put back the cornice. Also with McClier, Harboe replicated a cornice for Holabird & Roche's 1895 Marquette Building, where his new firm has offices. Anywhere in the Loop, Harboe says, only half-kidding, "we'd be happy to put back all the lost cornices." Samuelson, for his part, is thrilled by the local cornice progress so far. "Things I never thought I'd see put back are being put back," he says. "I'm seeing things that I used to walk around and have to try to imagine, with a kind of mental Photoshop." TB

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