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SKYLINES — Happy Halloween!!!

November 1, 2010

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral

A full moon at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, CNS 2010


Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral

October 28, 2010
Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Chicago

Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, CNS 2010

1121 N Leavitt St

Eager eyes carefully search the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral inside and out for any trace of architect Louis Sullivan’s distinctive touch of lavish nature-inspired ornament. Though other than in the canopy over the church’s entrance, his decorative work is hard to find and unusually restrained. It’s not what you’d expect from the architect. Holy Trinity is a delightful church: endearing in its size and playful in its shape. It’s no wonder why we love it. But why did Louis Sullivan love it?

Sullivan not only loved the building – he invested in it. He was so proud of his design that he returned half of his fee so that the church could afford completing his decorations. And he wrote of his hope that the church would become one of “the most unique and poetic buildings in the country.”

Plans for Holy Trinity began in the late 19th century as Chicago’s Russian Orthodox community was growing by leaps and bounds. They wanted a permanent church. This wish became a reality when Tsar Nicholas II provided the initial funds for building. The first designs commissioned by the church were by architect John Clifford. He designed a monumental church in keeping with the traditional Russian grand city cathedrals. However, the majority of this particular congregation did not come from the big cities. Most of Holy Trinity’s congregation came from small towns and farm country such as in Byelorussia, Ukraine and the Carpathian mountains. They found Clifford’s designs imposing. Understanding this (and being on a tight budget), Father Kochurov instead turned to Sullivan. Sullivan completed his design for the church in 1901, and the church itself was completed in 1903.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, Chicago

One of Louis Sullivan's Sketches of Holy Trinity

Though Holy Trinity is unlike any other church in Chicago, it would fit in well in Russia. Sullivan derived his design specifically from a small wooden church in Tatarskaya, Siberia (1897). Another major source of inspiration was likely the French critic Violet-le-duc’s popular book on the history of Russian architecture. Holy Trinity follows Le-Duc’s description of Russian church design as “elegance, not without boldness; the attentive study of the effect of the masses; a discreet ornamentation that is never powerful enough to destroy the principal lines and leaves repose for the eye.” A well balanced and bold but not overdone building, Holy Trinity is, in more ways than one, a traditional Russian Orthodox design.

Just as little Sullivan ornament is found on the building’s interior as its exterior. A couple of exceptions are the stylized effect of a scattering of old light bulbs, and a stunning colored glass chandelier central to the sanctuary (though unconfirmed, rumors say the chandelier was designed by Louis Millet). The inside of the church is intricately and thoroughly covered in ecclesiastical paintings by Russian artist V. N. Vasnetoff. The centerpiece of the sanctuary is the iconostas depicting scenes from the life of Christ. It was brought from Russia and donated to the church in 1912.

Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral, Chicago

Holy Trinity Orthodox Church Sanctuary, CNS 2010

Though many of us look hopefully for signs of Sullivan’s signature decorative touches in the church, it is oddly enough the lack of his ornament that makes Holy Trinity a perfect example of his design philosophy. He famously believed that “form follows function” in architecture. The function of this building was to serve as a religious center of Chicago’s Russian Orthodox community. His modern and peculiar ornament was irrelevant to the needs of this traditional group. Sullivan understood what was being asked of him and designed first – a church that fulfilled the needs of its congregation, and second – an elegant and harmonious structure appreciated by anyone lucky enough to cross its path.


Did you know that the church was originally painted in various bright colors ranging from red to ultramarine blue?

The Holy Trinity Orthodox Church was designated as a cathedral in 1923. For church Visitor Information click here.  There are numerous Sullivan exhibitions, lectures and even films going on in Chicago currently. Visit BLUEPRINT: Chicago’s Calendar of Architectural Events for more information.

word of the week: ANTHEMION

October 24, 2010

1443 W. 18th St.

ANTHEMION: an ornament of honeysuckle or palm leaves in a radiating cluster. It is also called honeysuckle ornament.

Anthemia (plural) are often found in groups. They might be seen in a group of three on the corners of a pediment or many more forming a line as pictured below on the Museum of Science and Industry.  However on a small building in Pilsen (1443 W. 18th St.), one large anthemion sits proudly alone  at the top of the building as the major focal point of the structure.

anthemia, museum of science and industry

Aon Center

October 20, 2010
Aon Center Building

Aon, CNS 2010

200 East Randolph Street

At a time when glass and steel buildings were the norm, architect Edward Durell Stone believed in masonry. He thought masonry buildings conveyed a feeling of strength and permanence that glass buildings did not. When he clad the Aon Building in marble, creating the tallest marble faced building in the world, he hailed the material as costing “no more than crumpled up aluminum.” If only that were really the case. Today the Aon Building is remembered as the biggest building blunder in Chicago history.

Completed in 1973, the tower was originally built for the Standard Oil Company (its name later changed to the Amoco Building and eventually Aon Center) to consolidate their twelve downtown offices into one central building to be shared with some of their major subsidiary companies.  Standard Oil didn’t want just anyone designing their headquarters, and Stone had the reputation they were looking for. He was regarded as one of the country’s greatest living modernist architects, and was famous for designing such buildings as the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Stone was charged with the building’s overall design, and the Chicago based architecture firm of Perkins + Will handled the structural design and details.

Aon Center Trees

CNS 2010

At 1136 ft. Stone was aiming for the Aon tower to be Chicago’s tallest building, but the Willis Tower took over that title before the Aon Building was completed. However, today it remains a defining skyscraper in our skyline as the third tallest building in Chicago (behind the Willis and Trump towers). Its structure is essentially a vertical square tube. The mechanicals (elevators, bathrooms etc.) are located in the central core of the building leaving the surrounding area on each of its 82 floors as clear unobstructed and workable space. Beneath each floor, trusses connect the core of the building to the many vertical piers that make up the tower’s four sides. This system allows for a column-free interior, but consequently a great number of piers are needed to support the weight of the building. That is why there is such a high stone to glass ratio in the Aon Building. That, and we can’t forget Stone’s love for, well, stone.

It’s simple in form, and its simplicity is what makes it so striking. Its massiveness and height give the building strength. Its vertical piers, one after another, give the building rhythm. From a distance there’s more to these vertical piers than what meets the eye – they’re triangular. And originally they were clad in Cararra marble (the same marble Michelangelo favored in his prized sculptures). But today it’s clad in white North Carolina granite.

Aon Plaza

Aon Plaza, CNS 2010

What happened? Chicago’s weather happened. The marble was cut to an unprecedented width of only 1.25 inches. It didn’t take long to discover that the marble was cut too thin for Chicago’s extreme temperature changes. Heat causes permanent expansion in marble. While the exterior side of the marble was expanding, the side of the marble facing the building was not, and it began to bow. As it would eventually become a safety hazard, the marble was removed and replaced with granite 2 inches thick. The original cost of the building was $120 million. Replacing the stone cost somewhere between $60 and $80 million – more than half the building’s original price.

It still looks good though. In fact, today the Aon Building is one of Chicago’s greatest treasures, albeit underappreciated. The tower occupies only one-quarter of its entire lot. The rest is reserved for a grand bi-level plaza that doubles as a water park. Waterfalls and fountains cool the plaza. Rows of honey locust tress provide welcome shade on hot summer days and warm bright colors during the fall. Nestled in one corner of the plaza is Harry Bertoia’s “sounding sculpture” which sings in the wind.  Made up of a series of thin metal rods, it mimics and puts music to the Aon Building’s soaring piers of stone.

CNS 2010


Edward Durell Stone designed a number of noteworthy buildings in his lifetime. To take a tour of his architecture click here. And though Larry Perkins and Phillip Will are no longer around, their firm still is. Click here to visit the site of Perkins + Will.

To the left notice how the rods of Bertoia’s “Sound Sculpture” relate to the lines in the Aon Building. Click on the image to ENLARGE it!

SKYLINES — Aon’s Shadows

October 18, 2010
Aon Building Shadows

Tranquil Scene at the Aon Building, CNS 2010

Reebie Storage Warehouse

October 13, 2010

CNS 2010

Because I am on vacation and unable to profile a new building this week, I hope you instead enjoy this recycled early article first published in January 2010.

2325 N. Clark St.

There are some Egyptian Revival buildings in the country, but not a lot.  There are far fewer Academic Egyptian Revival buildings.  The Reebie Storage Warehouse fits into the category of the latter – it’s one of the best.  And it is definitely the most impressive in Chicago.  To clarify . . .

Egyptology was all the rage in the early 20th century, particularly after the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922.  One effect this had was seen in the popularization of Egyptian Revival architecture across the United States.  However, not all of the buildings were equals in terms of being historically accurate.  Some buildings fit into the category of Egyptian Revival, and some Academic Egyptian Revival.  Egyptian Revival architecture was much more common, and though it had many Egyptian-like elements, it lacked a sensibility to Egypt’s history.  Instead they were “picturesque” – which is lovely, but not necessarily accurate.  Academic Egyptian Revival architecture was historically accurate.  And The Reebie Storage Warehouse is one the country’s finest examples of Academic Egyptian Revival architecture.

The warehouse was based on two ancient Egyptian temples: Dendera and Edfu, both of which date back to the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II (around 200 BCE).  The columns on the Reebie building are replicas of columns at the Temple Horus at Edfu.  The ornamentation on them is symbolic of the unity of Ancient Egypt through the depiction of the bundled lotus flower which represents Upper Egypt, and the water lily representing Lower Egypt.  On either side of the building’s entrance is a statue of Ramses II, representing the two Reebie brothers: William and John.  Beneath the two statues are William and John’s names written in the hieroglyphic equivalent of their phonetic spellings.  Two other hieroglyphic inscriptions read “I have protection upon your furniture and all sealed things” and “I have guarded all your property every day warding off devouring flames, likewise robbery.”  All of the ornamental drawings for the Reebie warehouse were reviewed for accuracy by both the Field Museum and Art Institute prior to their implementation.

What interested me initially about the building had nothing to do with its historical accuracy.  I just learned about that element of the building recently.  Instead, I was struck by the brilliant artistry of the terra-cotta and the Egyptian theme.  The terra-cotta ornamentation was designed by the sculptor Fritz Albert.  As the supervisor and chief sculptor for the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company (the largest manufacturer in the country), he also oversaw the terra-cotta modeling for the Wrigley, Civic Opera, Merchandise Mart and Carbide and Carbon buildings. George S. Kingsley was the architect of the Reebie building which was completed in 1922.  He designed many storage buildings in Chicago in various Revival styles, though the Reebie building was the most prominent.

The Reebie Storage and Moving Company was founded in 1880 by William Reebie who was later joined by his brother John.  It still operates out of the building to this day, and they continue to use the head of the Sphinx in their logo.  I think that their early advertising slogan sums up the story of the Reebie building pretty well: “If old King Tut were alive today he’d store his things the Reebie way!”


For  additional information on the Reebie Storage and Moving Company check out their website. And for a great article that goes into greater detail on the Reebie building and will direct you to some other Egyptian Revival buildings in Chicago click here. Its author, Heather Plaza-Manning, also writes a fun blog about Egyptomania called Dr. Sphinx’s Blog worth checking out.

One last thing: If you’re an EGYPTOMANIAC consider checking out the Chicago Art Deco Society’s upcoming lecture, the Sights and Sounds of Egyptomania at Roosevelt University on November 6th at 1:30pm. Want to know about what other architectural events are happening across Chicago? Check out BLUEPRINT: Chicago’s CALENDAR OF ARCHITECTURAL EVENTS.

word of the week: PAGODA

October 11, 2010

PAGODA: A Buddhist temple or watch tower with roofs projecting from its many stories. Pagodas are most frequently found in China, Japan and Nepal. The first pagodas were built of timber but eventually brick and stone became the more popular material (since the 6th century).

Pagodas can be found in Chicago too — to find a few just head to Chinatown. Pictured here are a couple of modern adaptations of the pagoda. Below is an open-air pagoda, found in Chinatown Square, built not of timber, brick or stone – but metal. Though pagodas are typically independent structures, also pictured here is a pagoda supported by a larger structure — the On Leong Merchants Association building.

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