The Groundbreaking Inland Steel Building Becomes Fully Appreciated 50 Years Later

30 West Monroe / Inland Steel Building

It is sleek, sophisticated, and understated. It is also accessible, inviting, and delightful as it shimmers in the sun. The Inland Steel Building (officially 30 West Monroe Street) remains an epochal example of modern architecture. And while this iconic Chicago structure isn’t a skyline diva, it was bold and innovative when it arrived in the late 1950s.

After the twenty-year cessation of new construction caused by the Depression and World War II, large commercial buildings in the city center were in great demand. The Prudential Building (now One Prudential Plaza) was the first to be built in 1955. It was tall and stark, towering over Michigan Avenue, but something about its design seemed backward-looking. Completed in early 1958, the Inland Steel was the first to rise in the central Loop, its completely modern appearance heralding a new day in Chicago architecture.

30 West Monroe / Inland Steel BuildingThe Inland Steel Company was founded in Chicago in 1893 and by the 1950’s was the eighth-largest steel producer in the country. It wanted a modern headquarters to proclaim its success and to show off its products. The company commissioned architects who were working in the new modern style, and required the building be constructed with steel in ways never before done – all of it Inland Steel, of course.

Inland called upon the architectural firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill. It would be the first downtown project for the firm, founded in 1936. Two of SOM’s architects would design the Inland Steel Building – and much has been written of their animosity toward one another. Walter Netsch (1920-2008) started the project. He was responsible for the layout and the notion of a separate mechanical tower, until he was pulled off to work on the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Principal Bruce Graham (1925-2010) went on to complete Inland Steel as his first major project for the firm, reducing Netsch’s nine pairs of columns to seven and pushing the columns out from the facade.

Skidmore Owings & Merrill was inspired by the Bauhaus ideas that Mies van der Rohe brought to Chicago in the 1930’s. Mies had high regard for Louis Sullivan’s dictum “form follows function.” But in the mind of Mies, it evolved to “form is function” — the steel frame formed the building, so there was no need for brick, stone, ornament, anything else. Less is more. SOM went on to popularize this glass and steel International Style (as it was known in the the United States), giving its many corporate clients the efficient, up-to-date buildings they desired.

30 West Monroe / Inland Steel BuildingThe Inland Steel building has been one of SOM’s best loved and most respected designs. And compared to Mies’s creations which were often dark and somber, Inland Steel is shimmering and almost playful. A few years before, SOM completed the ground-breaking Lever House in New York, which brought the firm worldwide attention. In Gordon Bunshaft’s well-proportioned steel and blue-green glass design – the first glass and steel curtain wall structure in New York – may be seen a direct forebear of Chicago’s Inland Steel. And across Park Avenue, Mies’s seminal Seagram Building would rise, twice as tall as Inland Steel and completed the same year, yet clad in brooding dark bronze and glass.

Inland Steel’s modestly-scaled nineteen stories epitomize the precepts of modernism: transparency, openness, minimalism, and sleekness, all with the highest quality materials. It was the first time that brushed stainless steel was used as cladding. And with the addition of expanses of blue-green window glass, the crisp, modern building is animated in the light.

Its foundation was created in a new way, too. Instead of the usual concrete caissons reaching down to bedrock, 85-foot-deep steel pilings were used. And it was the first major high-rise featuring indoor parking… three stories underground.

Gretsch’s novel concept to remove all of the mechanical elements from the main floorplate took the form of the 25-story, windowless, all steel-clad tower that adjoins the main building. The elevators, restrooms, staircases, and unsightly functions (janitorial, trash removal, etc…) were tucked away here. This design would no longer be allowed, because local building codes dictate that in case of an emergency, tenants must not walk too far to staircases.

30 West Monroe / Inland Steel BuildingThe mechanical tower liberated the glass and steel structure to be as transparent as possible. Seven pairs of structural columns were placed on the outside – as ribs – connected by 60-foot-long supporting girders. Thus there are no interior columns interrupting the usable space on the 58′ x 178′ floorplates. Before competing skyscrapers blotted out the sun, each floor would be flooded with natural light, deep into its core.

Graham came up with an innovative modular system in which telephone, electrical, heating and cooling distribution systems all ran through the floors, but were easily accessible via each module.

With its glassy entrance recessed under the stilt-like columns, the building looks like it is floating. The transparent lobby features terrazzo flooring and black marble walls and at its center, one of the first contemporary works by an American artist displayed in public in Chicago: the stainless steel (of course) wire sculpture by Richard Lippold, Radiant One, which does indeed radiate out of a shallow reflecting pool.

The Inland Steel Building has many attributes, but one that the AIA guide to Chicago architecture emphasizes is its “presence on the streetscape.” For all its minimalist sleekness, it is not a cold building. Its human scale is inviting to the pedestrian.

Today it is difficult to imagine the building’s original 1950s context. Surrounded by hulking, masonry buildings from the turn of the last century, Inland Steel looked like nothing else in the Loop. Mies van der Rohe’s avant-garde apartment towers, 860-880 Lake Shore Drive, had recently been completed and inspired Skidmore Owings & Merrill. Yet the business heart of Chicago was still filled with brick and stone.

30 West Monroe / Inland Steel BuildingBut over the next few decades, the big, brick structures around the Inland Steel Building came down, as if the old buildings were getting out of the way in deference. The plaza in front of what is now the Chase Tower (10 South Dearborn Street) opened up a spectacular airy, public space that now perfectly showcases Inland Steel. When One South Dearborn, its neighbor directly to the north, was built in 2005, the architect intentionally positioned it to allow the best views of Inland Steel. Buildings all around it are now covered in glass, as if turning their reflective surfaces toward Inland Steel admiringly.

Inland Steel has always been celebrated. Architects have always appreciated this building and it has received many architectural honors. Former Chicago Mayor  Richard J. Daley loved this building and gave it architectural landmark status in 1960. It became a city landmark in 1998. Chicago tour guides are crazy about this building and proudly show it off. It was recently named #11 on Chicago Magazine’s list of the Top 40 Buildings in the city.

With the new millennium, the 50+ year-old building is receiving some high-profile attention. Famed architect Frank Gehry first encountered the Inland Steel building in the early 1960s. Almost half a century later he heard that the building was in bad shape and its current owners wanted to sell it. He assembled a group of investors who purchased it in 2005 for $44.5 million, giving him a 2.5% share.

The investment group decided to do a piecemeal renovation instead of bringing in SOM to do the whole building as Gehry recommended. Gehry was unhappy with the renovation, thinking it reflected poorly on him. But he also wanted to guard the legacy of the building. He was happy when they later put it up for sale.

Manhattan developer Richard Cohen of Capital Properties bought the building in 2007 for $57 million and now Gehry had a 5% stake. And even better, according to Gehry, Cohen would bring in SOM to renovate. Cohen ensured that the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places (2009) and applied for a federal historic-preservation tax credit in order to embark on the multifaceted restoration.

30 West Monroe / Inland Steel BuildingFor the past several years now, Inland Steel has been the focus of the tug-of-war between sustainability and preservationist goals as its owners go for LEED Platinum and Class A office status while abiding by the strict preservation codes for landmarks – a complex dance. For instance, designs for a double-glazed curtain wall for energy efficiency – something that Netsch had actually called for in the original design, but was dropped for the green-tinted glass by Graham – were rejected because they threatened to change the appearance of the structure. As architecture critic Alexandra Lange described the process, “What SOM learned was that you can create a LEED-certified landmark with all the contemporary amenities and midcentury style – but to make it happen, you need new agreements on sustainability from landmark commissions.”

The timing for Inland Steel’s rejuvenation is auspicious. The interiors are being restored to their original appearance and tenants will buy into a predetermined look for office furnishings. Midcentury aesthetics are in vogue and filling the building with tenants who like “Mad Men”-style office interiors will not be difficult. Leasing sustainable office space in a landmark building is also good for business and good for a businesess’ image. Frank Gehry, though having no direct hand in the restoration itself, is adding his touch to the building’s lobby: a check-in desk, said to be made of fractured cast glass, which Gehry says is so heavy that additional structural support may be required.

In a city now brimming with steel and glass skyscrapers, the innovative and sparkling jewel that is the Inland Steel Building retains its grace, elegance, and singularity.

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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