Thursday, February 05, 2004

Transom blog.

This week I toured a building that has transoms. Better than that, I got to see an office that could have been Philip Marlowe's or Sam Spade's, were those real places. Marlow's office of course had transoms, along with a certain kind of fan, a certain kind of telephone and a certain kind of desk. The office I saw was empty -- no desk, no fan, no mysterious lady client with great gams -- but its style and layout were still evocative.

Whatever impression I have of that kind of office is a conflation of things I've seen in the movies, plus written descriptions by Chandler and Hammett, and even the second-hand iterations in comedies or Star Trek's holodeck. But it's quite another thing to walk into an office like that, eye the heavy woodwork, listen to the squeak of the cracked floors, and wonder if shades still show up for work every weekday, and sometimes stay late.

I was in the Pittsfield Building, which dates of the golden age of downtown Chicago skyscrapers, as far as I’m concerned: the 1920s. It's a fine example from that age, hulking at street level, tapering up to the top because setbacks for office buildings were mandated in the 1923 zoning code. Periodic renovations notwithstanding, it still looks and feels like a building of that time, with a gorgeous ornate lobby, small elevators, and offices with transoms.

It's a jewel, but a generally overlooked one. Certainly I've overlooked it. Among all the scores of buildings in Chicago that I've been inside for one reason or another, the Pittsfield wasn't one until recently. The invaluable American Institute of Architects Guide to Chicago devotes only 15 lines to it (by random comparison, the Getty Tomb by Louis Sullivan in Graceland Cemetery gets 27).

"1927, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. This tower was briefly Chicago's tallest building. Its emphasis on verticality and the use of setbacks recall the era's art deco highrises, but it uses the Gothic vocabulary of earlier skyscrapers. The building accommodated the special electrical and plumbing needs of the medical and dental offices and the security requirements of the jewelers…" says the AIA Guide.

The main body of tenants in the building are still doctors, dentists, and jewelers, which is part of the reason I'm writing about this building for my magazine. The other part of the story is that the owners are actually spending some money now to upgrade the building -- especially in cleaning the facade and completely retooling the elevators, which are sluggish dinosaurs. On the whole, though, the building's going to continue to be a warren of doctors, dentists and jewelers.

The office I saw had been, for more than 50 years, a jeweler's office. It would take a good deal of work -- called buildout in real estate circles -- to make it into a tolerable modern office. But it had a fine view of icy Lake Michigan from the 22nd floor, and one relic of the jewelry business: an enormous wall safe. I didn't take notes, unfortunately, so I can't repeat here what kind of safe, but it was clearly state-of-the-art at one time, a pale green box of the strongest steel, five feet tall at least, sporting a dark lone nipple of a dial. There was also a darkening of the metal along the edges of its twin doors.

It was closed. The broker who was showing me around made some stab at humor by mentioning Geraldo Rivera, and speculated that the edges of the doors had been blackened by a blowtorch; a yegg trying to break in. I didn't think so. It looked like it had been discolored and worn by five decades of the jeweler opening and closing it.


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