Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Monadnock: Architecture Meets Atmosphere

Preoccupied with the future, we Chicagoans don’t spend much time fawning over our past. After all, what other city would raze architectural gems by American icons such as LouisSullivan and Daniel Burnham? Yes, we’ve torn down probably half of our architectural legacy, but we’ve made some notable exceptions.

One of my favorites is Burnham and Root’s Monadnock Building, a hulking, solid masterpiece that recalls an era when the height of structures was restricted by the weight its loadbearing walls could handle. The building is associated with many firsts, but what I like best are its look and feel—outside and inside—and the handful of independent, local shops that line its dimly lit lobby.

In addition to having brick walls as thick as those of a medieval castle, the Monadnock offers a rare glimpse of an office building circa 1893—the year of its construction. Mosaic tile floors, iron staircases and gleaming woodwork mark the interior, making it unique and rich with atmosphere. Stepping into the shadowy hallways of the building is like stepping back in time. Retro light fixtures flicker, offering yellowy, other-worldly light by which you can view generous amounts of marble décor, mosaic tile floors, and dramatic stairways that rise into warrens of offices inhabited by small businesses, attorneys, not-for-profits and accountants. The building’s dimly and naturally lit passages are movie set perfect.

The main floor stores offer a variety of Old School products and services, including bespoke, locally-made hats at Optimo, cigars, flowers, shoe shine and repair, custom men’s suits, women’s clothier Floradora, a restaurant and a suitably dark bar with a popcorn machine. There are no chains here, unless you count Intelligentsia, a refined local coffee outfit that churns out award winning coffees and world champion baristas. 

When German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited the city a few decades ago, he was shown all of our famous architectural towers—the Wrigley, Tribune, Hancock, Sears and Marina City. But it was the Monadnock that impressed him the most. To him—and to me—the Monadnock is everything an earlier Chicago skyscraper should be: brawny, understated, modern, and well-designed.

And the fact that within its thick brick walls you can purchase a hand-crafted hat, sip a tasty cup of coffee and have your shoes shined while reading the newspaper, makes it truly unique and quintessentially Chicago. 


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