The skyscraper jailhouse: Harry Weese' de-luxe compartments in the sky

March 31, 2011

Two weeks ago in this spot, I discussed the late Chicago architect Harry Weese's wedge-shaped Swissotel, an under heralded bit of architecture that looks so fresh after 20 years, its worth walking over to east Wacker Drive to get reacquainted.

Of course, it got me to thinking about Weese's other downtown standout--and, man, does it stand out: the William J. Campbell U.S. Courthouse Annex, better known as the Metropolitan Correctional Center, 71 W. Van Buren.

Built in 1975, here is a building that on paper had everything going against it: a jail, made out of concrete--because, well, you'd want that kind of thing in a jail--and with windows small enough to prevent people from escaping. And it had to go in downtown Chicago near an expressway, no less, on a confined site where there was no where to build but up.

Thanks goodness the Federal Bureau of Prisons gave the job to Weese, who, with his firm Harry Weese & Associates, was a master problem-solver who possessed a genuine respect for Chicago and, its skyline and its streetscape. The solution was this triangular-shaped, 27-story federal jailhouse with five-inch-wide windows staggered across the facade like an old IBM computer punchcard.

The triangular shaped floorplan made the inside easier to patrol and monitor than would a jailhouse with traditional long corridors. There's a rooftop deck in which detainees can exercise.

The result is a good-looking and functional piece of architecture. And a nice place to visit, I suppose. But you wouldn't want to live there.