Travelogue: Celebration and Sightseeing in Chicago

I recently returned from a quick jaunt to Chicago.  While it was at the start of the AIA’s National Convention at McCormick Place, the actual impetus for the trip was, in fact, a much more celebratory occasion.  David M. Schwarz’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center, designed for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, is a 2014 recipient of a Tucker Design Award from the Building Stone Institute.  The Institute chose to hold this year’s awards ceremony in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois.

After a very early morning flight to the ever bustling O’Hare International Airport, I made a quick pit stop to comb out the airplane hairdo one gets from sleeping against the side of the fuselage before heading out to the cab stand for the short ride to Oak Park.  Just in case one grew up in a sock or never opened an architectural history book, Oak Park is the epicenter of Wright’s body of work with projects ranging from his home and studio to the aforementioned temple.  Let me state it plainly – Oak Park is worth a visit, whenever one is in Chicagoland, even if not as an award recipient.  [As an aside: I had an opportunity to hang around Oak Park a couple years ago with our photographer, Steve Hall of Hedrich Blessing.  Steve’s grandmother grew up in an Oak Park farmhouse, before the advent of Wright and the Oak Park we know today.]

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple opened in 1908 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple opened in 1908 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970.

I arrived at Unity Temple just as the bus was arriving from the Institute’s downtown hotel headquarters with the other recipients and attendees.  While a bit shabby and in need of some refreshing, the Temple remains an active place of Unitarian worship and the brilliance of its design shines through.  Design, yes, ventilation, not so much.  Wright might have been a master of space, proportion, detail and use of materials, but his command of the more mundane, like MEP systems, was sorely lacking.  The sanctuary was stiflingly hot and humid.  Everyone shared a few catty jokes, unbuttoned their suit coats and soldiered on in good humor.

Main worship space in Unity Temple.

Main worship space in Unity Temple.

Founded in 1919, the Building Stone Institute is a prominent trade group representing the quarries, fabricators, retailers, exporter/importers, and installers of natural stone.  DMSAS has worked with many of its members over our 35-plus year history.  They commenced their biennial Tucker Design Awards program in 1977 to “honor those who achieve criteria of excellence in the use of natural stone through concept, design and construction.”  Furthermore, the Tucker Design Awards program “celebrates the innovation and vision that designers bring to their projects through the specification and use of natural stone materials.”  We are humbled to have been so honored by this year’s jurors: Blair Kamin, architectural critic of the Chicago Tribune; Peter Schaudt, a Chicago-based landscape architect; and Duncan Stroik, architect/author/educator at the University of Notre Dame.



After opening remarks by the Institute’s President and Executive VP, attendees were treated to a brief slide lecture by S. Lloyd Natof, a noted furniture craftsman and great-grandson of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Mr. Natof’s talk centered on the differences of form-based versus compositional design and how FLW employed the later in his stonework, from Oak Park to Taliesin to Taliesin West.  It was a most suitable introduction to the winning entries in this year’s program and the great variety of stone usages amongst the winning entries.

Taliesin West

Taliesin West

The Schermerhorn, completed in 2006 and repaired after the devastating Nashville flood of 2010, is a 197,000 square feet concert hall in a classic shoe box form.  The majority of the exterior is clad in an Indiana buff limestone sitting on a Dakota Mahogany granite base.  Accents of Emperador Light Spanish Marble are used as keystones and spring block.  The limestone was quarried by Independent Limestone, Inc. and fabricated by Bybee Stone Company.  The granite, including the wall base and exterior pavers, was quarried and fabricated by Coldspring of Minnesota.  On the interior, numerous marbles from Spain, Italy, France, China, Central America and parts unknown were used for floors, walls, wainscoting, accents, countertops and bars.  All were sourced and fabricated by Henraux of Querceta, Tuscany.

Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Schermerhorn Symphony Center

Jurors’ comments included: “Beautifully crafted, traditional design – impressive in large space,” “At first glance reminiscent of Schinkel’s Opera House in Berlin, but also with American qualities,” “Very strong. Pure to its history,” and “Could only have been done in the 21st century.”  DMSAS Director Sean Nohelty, in town for the national AIA convention in his role as AIA|DC Chapter President, joined me for the acceptance of our black granite pyramid trophy and award certificate.

The grand staircase at The Schermerhorn features imperador light and XXX stones.

The grand staircase at The Schermerhorn features emperador light and breccia paradiso stones.

A champagne reception followed in the foyer where I got to chat with other award recipients and attendees.  From there we moved to the adjoining Unity House for a seated luncheon celebration.  Dining at our table were three members of the Nelson family, owners of Independent Limestone, and George Bybee, proprietor of Bybee Stone and brother of our good friend and collaborator Will Bybee.  I was seated next to Vince Marazita of Stone Trends
International, one of the forces behind the Marmomacc Stone Academy at Veronafiero in lovely Verona, Italy, that I hope to attend one day and where DMSAS Principal Gregory Hoss spoke in 2013 about The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

The camaraderie continued on a slow moving bus trip back the downtown Chicago.  A little delay in room availability and check-in caused me to miss the much anticipated Architectural Pub Crawl organized by the Institute.  I had to settle for my own solo tour of Chicago’s architectural treasures, minus the “friendly frosties” in between.

Chicago's famous Wrigley Building was the first air conditioned office building in the city.

Chicago’s famous Wrigley Building was the first air conditioned office building in the city.

One can wander around looking at Chicago buildings forever, but I stumbled upon a free concert about to begin at Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.  The innovative outdoor sound system, which employs a distributed series of speakers over the seating bowl and lawn (hanging from Gehry’s lattice work of metal arches) to mimic the room acoustics of an enclosed venue, was designed by my colleague and Chicago’s own, Rick Talaske.  All I can say is WOW.  I have never heard a symphony orchestra with 11-piece mariachi band sound so good outside, not that I have ever heard a symphony orchestra with 11-piece mariachi band before, inside or out.

Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park

Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park

The rest of the trip was less eventful.  A couple Italian meals separated by a night’s sleep and more looking at buildings.  Unfortunately, a colder than normal Lake Michigan left an elevated fog layer obscuring the tops of many beautiful edifices.  Oh well. As Annie sang, “The sun will come out tomorrow.”  Then it was back to O’Hare and the flight home.  Let’s hope the next travelogue is from Verona in the autumn.

This travelogue was submitted by DMSAS Principal Craig Williams. More information on the 2014 Tucker Design Awards can be found on the Institute’s website. What are some of your favorite places to visit in Chicago?





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