Friday, March 19, 2010

235 W Eugenie

235 W Eugenie street is the address of this unique condominium building, designed by the prolific Chicago based architect Harry Weese (June 30, 1915 - October 29, 1998).   Before I discuss the specific building in question, I'd like to take a moment to discuss Harry Weese, a seemingly mercurial man who among many other things was once challenged to a duel by Eero Saarinen. [1]

Some of Weese's projects located in Chicago are the Seventeenth Church of Christ, Scientist, The Metropolitan Correctional Center (now known as the William J. Campbell United States Courthouse Annex), the Time Life Building and the Fulton House, as well the renovation of the Louis Sullivan Audtitorium Building.  Extensive lists of Weese's many projects are readily available at his wikipedia page (linked above) so I won't list more of them, however,  I will point out from the short list above, it is clear that Weese worked on an immense variety of projects including jailhouses, churches, renovations, low rise residential projects, and high rise office buildings.

As an architect, Weese was principally a modernist. Gone from Weese's projects are the extensive ornamentations, turnings and moldings that typified the construction practices of the past.  It is a mistake to take Weese's modernist aesthetic as boring or rudimentary.  Weese playfully used unconventional forms and layouts to create intriguing and inviting buildings.  Weese's Metropolitan Correctional Center is perhaps the world's only jailhouse that is built in the shape of a slender extruded triangle.  One can only hope that the residents appreciate this piece of architecturally playful Zeit Geist they occupy.

At 235 W Eugenie, built in 1962, Weese created a very functional indoor and outdoor living space.  The first feature that is worth noticing is that the builing is orientated East to West on its site, with 7 bays ,divided into a total of 20 units.  The effect is that all the units have north and south side exposures.  Weese, conscious of the advantages of these exposures, provides all of his units with ample windows and multiple large outdoor balconies and patios.  235 W Eugenie presents attractive usable spaces when approached from the north or south. This is uncommon for Old Town, where many of the buildings have an obvious, decorated front  facade and a much less glamorous rear entryway.

By lowering the north courtyard of the building several steps below the existing sidewalk.  Weese created a simple elevation difference allows the residents to live freely in the illusion of privacy and easily avoid any uncomfortable eye contact with passersby.

An interesting and extremely rare detail that these buildings possess are special window air conditioning unit frames at the first and second levels of the rear facade.  In the 1950s, air conditioners became more commonplace than they had been in the past and Weese sought to integrate these technologies into the residences at 235 W Eugenie.  Rather than allow air conditioning units to hang unattractively out the windows, Weese created these simple boxed out frames to conceal them.  These frames could have been removed as central air conditioning systems came into existence, but this was never done, and they exist today as an interesting holdover from this brief window in time. [2]

Here we see a friendly visitor that was always enjoying Weese's building on my recent visit.  Can you find him?

[1] The Art Institute of Chicago: The Chicago Architects Oral History Project The duel was over the charms of a young sculptor, Lillian Swann (who curiously was later known as Lillian Swann Saarinen).  Apparently Weese possessed a silver tongue as he was both able to talk Saarinen out of the duel and eventually the two became very close friends.

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