Sunday, October 2, 2011

Renovations for the University Club of Chicago

Often times, the most significant commissions are not those that are the largest of those that cost the most money.  The work that Joseph Silsbee did for the University Club of Chicago, though modest in comparison with other works, may have been the most important in sustaining his career.

Silsbee was a founding member of the club in 1887 and was hired to design renovations to the third and fourth floors of the Henning & Speed Building for use as the Club headquarters.  The officers and founding members of the club consisted of prominent citizens, many of whom were graduates of eastern Ivy League Universities.  Several were Silsbee's classmates at Harvard.  As the club grew, it's membership list reads like a directory to Silsbee's residential clients.

In 1889, the club had outgrown it's initial space and purchased a building on Dearborn street to renovate for it's new clubhouse.  Again, Silsbee was hired to oversee the renovations and a large addition.  The building was the Hansen Building, designed in 1885 by architect John Addison.  Addison was a talented architect and his five-story brick and terra cotta office building seemed to be a perfect canvas for Silsbee to add to.            
Silsbee oversaw complete modifications of the interiors for the club's use.  On the exterior, he was responsible for a two-story and attic addition that dramatically changed the profile of the existing structure.  The addition is marked by two large intersecting gable roofs.  It is remarkable how Silsbee's addition almost seemlessly blends with Addison's structure.  Facing Dearborn street, the pilasters of the original structure are extended an additional story and capped with ornimantal terra cotta.  The bottom of this large gable is composed as an abstract over-sized Paladian window with a giant terra-cotta encrusted pediment at the top of the gable.  A flag pole extended from the center of this element.  An excellent image of this feature, with foliate elements intertwining the initials "U C", can be found in the archives of the Art Institute
In 1892, on the eve of the World's Columbian Exposition, Silsbee was hired once more to renovate the rooms, staircase and elevator to prepare the club for the numerous visitors that were expected for the World's Fair.  At this time, Silsbee also renovated the second floor of the club so it could be sublet to the Chicago Literary Club.  Silsbee and many other University Club members were also members of this club.  It began meeting in the University Club library, pictured below, a year before it made it's permanent home on the second floor.

It is in the meetings of the Literary Club where we get a rare glimpse of Silsbee's interest in architecture theories.  His close friendships with prominent club members Frederick Gookin and Joseph Kirkland are worth noting but more important is the fact that Silsbee delivered scholarly papers at the club.  Though they were never published, he presented papers on Color in Architecture and Back Yards.  The most interesting presentation would have been his contribution to a four-part series given by himself along with architects Irving PondPeter Wight and Louis Sullivan in 1895.  In this series, each architect pondered the question: "Can Architecture Become Again a Living Art?".  The Literary Club stayed in the University Club building until 1906 when it moved to the Orchestra Building in rooms designed by club member, Irving Pond.   
The most remarkable room in the University Club was the Banquet Hall.  This was a two-story space on the sixth floor.  It had a dramattic curved beam ceiling and the walls were decorated with the shields of the colleges represented by the club members.  At the time of the 1893 renovations, there were thirty-seven.
As with all of the rooms in the clubhouse, the room had elaborate woodwork and was richly decorated.  At the end of this room was an ornate balcony, where musicians could perform during club events.
In 1909, The University Club moved to its current clubhouse, the masterpiece of architect Martin Roche, on Michigan Ave.  The Dearborn Street clubhouse was sold to the Press Club of Chicago.  Silsbee was also a member of this club and it is due to the pride that the Press Club had in this building that we have the above images.  All of the images are from various club publications now found online.  The Press Club stayed in the building until it moved in 1915.  It moved back to the building in 1929, where is stayed until the club disbanded in 1939.  The entire block, which also contained Henry Cobb's Boyce Building, was demolished in the 1960's.        

No comments: