chicago's "dynamic week" celebrated in part with stainless steel building plaques

in chicago, the modern preservation movement rose in tandem with the 1950s post-depression era and war renewal program. decentralization, suburbanization, and migration to cities in the us south and west posed a grave threat to chicago’s economy. leaders feared criticism of chicago’s postwar office construction, but by looking to history and the new chicago school, chicago builders and leaders found promise for an improved feature.

it began in 1957, when mayor richard j. daley established the chicago dynamic committee and chicago dynamic week: “whereas, the chicago dynamic committee compromising our community’s business and civic leaders has been organized to honor the sound building and far-sighted planning of chicago, the world’s most dynamic city i do hereby proclaim the week of october 27 through november 2, as chicago dynamic week." the committee then commissioned carl sandburg to return to chicago at the age of 79 to report on the chicago renaissance . sandburg decried, “chiago has elements of toil, combat, risk taking chances, departing from the known into the uknown. today chicago’s dynamic has cut loose from old traditions and begun to make new one’s. yesterday’s skyscrapers are over-towered by steel-clad structures rising far taller and with ease and grace.”

lightly incised stainless plaque acquired by bldg. 51 archive in december, 2018. exact fabricator not known. plaques made a few years later for the chicago heritage committee were designed by som. all images courtesy of bldg. 51 collection.

frank lloyd wright also returned to contemplate the link but failed to match sandburg’s enthusiasm. wright believed skyscrapers “belong to the country where they can cast shadows on their ground” and hypothesized that “15 years this city will be on its way out," much to the nervous chargin of chicago developers including the board chairman of sears, roebuck & company, and arthur rubloff.

but it was from this nervous energy that a preservation movement emerged. following one of the most destructive period in chicago since the 1871 fire, and hoping to invoke the economic and commercial vitality that was marked by the skyscraper's development, the chicago city council unanimously passed an ordinance in january of 1957 to call attention to chicago’s “internationally important monument of architectural engineering and style”. the six buildings they cited as examples include the h.h. richardson’s glessner house, louis sullivan’s "world’s fair" residence, his carson, pririe, scott store, and adler and sullivan's auditorium theater, wright’s robie house, and burnham & root’s monadnock building. citing the demolition of two historic landmarks, richardson’s marshall field warehouse and wright’s midway gardens, the council charged the commission with designating landmarks, marking them, educating the public about their importance, and developing policies for their preservation.

their initial list was crowd sourced from a committee of architectural historians, architects, and commission members and included a mixture of historic and contemporary structures – the rookery, monadock, leiter, auditorium, carson-pririe-scott, and the reliance. 14 of the 39 structures were singled out for special recognition as part of chicago’s dynamic week. to complete links to the present, the commission selected buildings such as george and william keck’s university avenue residence, mie’s institute of technology campus, lake shore drive apartments and som’s inland steel building – built in 1937, 1947, 1951, and 1957 respectively. and while the commission did not offer crucial protection of these landmarks, it did create parameters for architectural merit and planning standards.

chicago school’s narrow canon of architectural significance, minimized conflict between heritage and modernists in the urban renewal program. as a result, chicago leaders often saw preservation as an important route to inspiring the renewal of the city and the next generation of modern design, but depended on architects, who at times viewed preservation as inspiring and at other times a hindrance. it was architects work that conveyed to the broad public what really counted in preservation – style, aesthetic accomplishment, and excellence in design. their work, translated through preservationist guidelines, conveyed the art of appreciation in a digestible medium, akin to bird watching. and while helping people see and appreciate past architecture, these guides met much criticism from architects arguing against what they saw as a lack of critically: “sentiment overlaps architecture and history…there is no judgement” – philip johnson , architect.

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