Gene Summers, architect of McCormick Place, dies at 83

Gene Summers, architect of McCormick Place, dies at 83
Flickr/Eric Alix Rogers
Gene Summers, architect of McCormick Place, dies at 83
Flickr/Eric Alix Rogers

Gene Summers, architect of McCormick Place, dies at 83

(WBEZ/Lee Bey)

Architect Gene Summers, whose flat-roofed lakeside McCormick Place building has been one of the city’s most powerful expressions of modernism—and a target for open space advocates and a former mayor—since its completion in 1971, has died. He was 83.

The San Antonio-born Summers got his big break working with Mies van der Rohe from 1950 to 1966. One of the projects, Berlin’s National Gallery completed in 1968 owed a debt, design wise, to Mies’ Crown Hall at IIT. But as the next photo shows, the National Gallery—a dark, glassy building with a cantilevered roof—was also a near dress rehearsal for Summers’ much larger McCormick Place, a building he’d design after leaving Mies’ office and joining the Chicago firm C.F. Murphy Associates:

Berlin's National Gallery, designed by van der Rohe with Summers as project architect, was completed in 1968.

The McCormick Place project remains among the most controversial in history; a spectacular structure built in the wrong location. Summers’ design replaced an earlier McCormick Place built in 1960 on the same site and designed by Edward Durell Stone.

The original McCormick Place, designed by Edward Durell Stone. (City of Chicago)

Stone’s cinderblock of a building burned down in a five-alarm fire in 1967:

The building was destroyed in a five-alarm fire in 1967. (City of Chicago)

C.F. Murphy Associates was hired to design the replacement hall. But to save money, the new building to be constructed on the foundations of the old. Summers came up with several schemes, including an unbuilt scenario in which the Arie Crown Theater and the conventional hall were two separate buildings on the site. What was built—an overhanging, structurally-expressive roof atop a dark glass box---was a far cry from the previous McCormick Place. Summer’s building was graceful, forceful, modern, and Chicago.

But it was still on the lakefront, earning the unofficial title “The Mistake on the Lake.” In an Art Institute of Chicago oral history, Summers said he tried to get Mies involved in the building’s design, but architect told him, “Gene, I wouldn’t touch that thing is the site was the Acropolis and the building were the Parthenon. Controversy I don’t need at this time in my life.” A young Helmut Jahn worked on the design. He’d later run the firm Charles F. Murphy started.

While in office, Mayor Richard M. Daley publicly ruminated twice about tearing down the convention center, calling it a “Berlin Wall” that created a barrier along the lakefront. And it does, although a more public use for the structure—now that McCormick Place has expanded into a series of larger buildings to the west—would alleviate that.

Summers led the design of Malcolm X College, 1900 W. Van Buren, before leaving C.F. Murphy Associates in 1973. He would wind up doing a range of things including develop real estate, restore Los Angeles’ Biltmore Hotel, move to France, then return to Chicago to head IIT’s College of Architecture from 1989 to 1993—the position his mentor Mies held 40 years earlier—before moving to California.

In that Art Institute of Chicago oral history, Summers said McCormick Place was the building of which he was the most proud. “[I]t was done under such trying conditions,” he said. “To have pulled it off under those conditions, that was something.” Even Mies, not long before his own death at age 83, sent a good word to Summers about the building taking shape on the lake.

“The structure was up and he was sick,” Summers said. “He had [his companion] Lora Marx call. Lora called me one Monday and she said, ‘Mies asked me to drive him by McCormick Place. We did, and he just wanted me to call you to say he thinks its a good building.’ ”