Federal Center at 40: Modernist icon hits middle age

Ensemble is one of Chicago's best-preserved examples of modernism

October 16, 2013

Making the rounds this week: Heartbreaking photos of Northwestern University knocking down the old Prentice Women's Hospital.
 
Seeing a modernist building designed by the late architectural luminary Bertrand Goldberg get cut down before it could turn 40—Prentice was built in 1975—is sobering; a dark chapter in the preservation of modernist architecture. And compounding the matter: The SOM-designed former Talman Federal Savings and Loan at 55th and Kedzie is being demolished right now. I wrote six months ago about the need to preserve the Southwest Side postwar building.
 
But there is one bright spot on the modernist front. Chicago's Federal Center—the powerful ensemble of steel-and-glass government buildings at Jackson and Dearborn—looks spectacular these days.
 
The General Services Administration has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent years painting and reglazing exteriors, repairing the granite plaza, restoring Alexander Calder's Flamingo sculpture and more. The 30-story Dirksen Courthouse, the 45-story Kluczynski federal office building and the glass jewel box of a post office building look as good as they did when the center was completed in 1974.
 
(...which, incidentally, is more than can be said about 202 and 220 S. State, two skyscrapers from 1915 and 1913. The GSA bought and vacated the buildings post-9/11 to form a security buffer for the Federal Center. But the agency has shamefully let these handsome towers rot.)
 
But back to Federal Center. Let's look around.
 
The restored exteriors showcase how geometrically precise the building are to one another. The lines of one building seem to line-up with those of its neighbor. And at the right time of day, the glassy walls of the U.S. Post Office building reflect the classical architecture of the surrounding city:
Here's another view showing the post office building's transparency:
The complex was built between 1964 and 1974. Mies van der Rohe was the chief designer of an all-star architectural and engineering team that included firms Schmidt, Garden & Erikson, C.F. Murphy Associates, and A. Epstein & Sons. The Dirksen was completed in 1964, but the post office and the Kluczynski building—which share a block on the west side of Dearborn between Adams and Jackson—weren't finished until 1973 and 1974.
 
It's too bad the old federal building—architect Henry Ives Cobb's romantic pile of stone—was wrecked to make way for the new federal buildings. If only this town had been big enough for both of them...
A $15 million Federal Center project is being planned for 2014 and few people will see it once it's complete. The federal General Services Administration wants to build an underground boiler plant and hot water distribution system to serve the complex and adjacent federally-owned buildings.