Photographing the Architecture of the Field Building

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It seems that some of the most spectacular interiors in Chicago put restrictions on photographers. And the building we're going to explore today does just that. But I hope that Angie McMonigal's excellent photos here will show you what is possible at the Field Building – without a tripod and while staying within the building's guidelines.

The Field Building, as it was originally called, has also been called the LaSalle Bank Building, the Bank of America Building (not to be confused with the other BOA Building one block south!), and now quite blandly known as 135 South LaSalle. People in the architectural 'know' still tend to call it by its original name.

Taking up half a city block at Adams, between Clark and LaSalle, here is one massive building that you may not easily notice. Because of the large buildings that surround it quite tightly, it is challenging to get a good view of it. Here is a link to an early rendering to give you the big picture.

As you can see, the Field Building is very much in the same vein as Rockefeller Center in New York. It was likewise conceived during the optimistic 1920s, but executed during the darkness of the Depression. It is a glorious building to experience and photograph as its luxurious glossiness transports you back to the heady Jazz Age. No expense was spared in its construction and it looks almost exactly as it did when new in the 1930s.

The building's site is actually hallowed architectural ground. Arguably the world's first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building, rose here in the 1880s. There is a plaque in the west end of the lobby dedicated to it.

But some four decades later, a huge modern skyscraper was about to supplant it.

Chicago retail giant Marshall Field had died in 1906, and had willed that his heirs receive their inheritance at age 50 (!). In the meantime, the Field Estate was to invest this money on their behalf. The estate managers determined that building the most modern office building of the day would be the most profitable way to do that. What a rare opportunity to have half of a city block to work with! (And how brazen to tear down the Home Insurance Building!)

Daniel Burnham's firm had designed the Marshall Field store on State Street, and his successor firm, Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, would be brought on for this new structure. The design process began in 1928, construction started in 1931 and the Field Building was completed in 1934. Designer Alfred Shaw was the firm’s Art Deco guy: he was also responsible for two more major Art Deco projects in Chicago: the Civic Opera House and the Merchandise Mart, both huge and both on the Chicago River.

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The Field Building was spectacular from the start. It was the largest commercial building in Chicago and the fourth largest in the world,. It had been designed as the Loop’s largest office building and it would be the last sizable commercial building erected in Chicago prior to the two-decade Great Depression/World War II construction hiatus. The building is of steel frame construction and in a perfect H-shape. The 43-story center tower is surrounded by four smaller towers of 23 stories each.

The Field estate had made a major investment and took a great risk building during the Depression. But it created thousands of jobs and helped Chicago's economy while rising as a symbol of strength and permanence during a time of great insecurity.

The 1920s was an exciting time and the Field Building's Art Deco design stands as a great testament to it. This sleek building is all about celebrating movement. The verticality of the exterior takes your eye on a soaring journey, while the glossy and mirrored interior reflects the movement of people rushing through.

Art Deco was a decorative style of the 1920s and 30s – used for all sorts of things, but applied to architecture, mostly in the big cities, and mostly on tall commercial buildings. It was not called “Art Deco” until looking back from the vantage point of decades later. This movement originated in Europe and had many influences; it became known and popular in the United States after a 1925 Paris Exposition. It was known at the time as the “Modern Style.”

This modern style was featured at Chicago's second world’s fair, The Century of Progress in 1933-34. Art Deco is a streamlined, sophisticated celebration of rich materials.

8521594917_2aa16fefa4_bIt is also known for its soaring verticality. “Nothing interrupts the eye” as it travels upward. The Field Building's Indiana limestone exterior rises up out of the polished black granite base. The windows and spandrels are set back, emphasizing the uninterrupted piers, soaring off to the sky.

Photographing the exterior can be a fun challenge to emphasize the vertical lines and the height of the building. The closer you draw in toward it, the taller the building appears. Both of the entrances provide bold, columned designs to ground your photos. The building is almost monochromatic, but you may want to play around with both color and black and white.

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But the ultimate experience of the building is within. The block-long lobby – one of the longest in downtown Chicago – remains much the same as when built. The two-story arcade features modern materials in a sophisticated design, continuing the vertical feeling: Italian marble (beige, book-matched, all from one quarry purchased by Field family to ensure all would match) and white domestic marble; the sheen of metal called nickel silver; terrazzo flooring; all surfaces polished, shiny, and reflective.

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Notice the two mirrored bridges, the type found on luxury liners of the era – because, again, modern movement/transportation is being emphasized. The clocks on the bridges are said to have been copies of Cartier watches. Lighting is more than pragmatic in the 1930s: it can now be used for dramatic and gleaming effect. Notice the original Art Deco lettering on the signage, too.

The building had no problem attracting tenants as it had incorporated cutting-edge technology and conveniences: high-speed elevators, a stunning bronze mail box and elevator indicator in the shape of the building (kinetic sculpture) and air conditioning (on first four floors), a central vacuum system (still works), built-in radiators, filtered water fountains and many other amenities.

Photographing the interior of the Field Building can be a little challenging. The building does not allow tripods and does not allow photography of the Bank of America retail outlet. The security guards are vigilant. On Sundays, you can enter the building (off Adams Street), but the lights are often turned low. Otherwise, you are free to photograph throughout the lobby during normal business hours. This is exactly what Angie did recently on a Saturday.

You have so many things to focus on here. Getting the big picture by shooting down the lobby, or pulling back to capture the reception desk and elevator indicator gives the sleek feeling of the place. Both the entrances are dramatic. Or you may want to focus tightly on certain features like the clocks, the light fixtures, the elevator indicator, the perfectly matched marble designs, the Art Deco lettering. The glossy and mirrored surfaces may inspire you to play with reflections (shoot under one of the bridges toward its mirrored underside!). Utilizing both color or black and white can produce stunning effects.

I should confess that I was interested in featuring the Field Building on Out of Chicago because I (selfishly!) finally wanted to see some excellent photos of its interior. There are not many quality photos that I've ever seen online – for some reason. And I've never been happy with my own (mostly blurry) photos. But I think you'll agree with me that Angie has set the bar nice and high for photography of the Field Building. She has a real gift for spotting abstract designs and pattern and unusual angles – and for pulling out the essence of the space. I hope you are as inspired as I am to continue to photograph this Art Deco Jazz Age gleaming celebration of a building.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/crouch1 John Crouch

    This is a fantastic writeup and the photos are equally amazing. I had to smile when I saw that this building was going to be featured. It’s easily one of my favorites in Chicago.One of the reasons you don’t see many good pictures of it is because the public tends to overlook it. They know the Hancock, Sears Tower, BOT or even the Rookery but the Field Building remains a very underrated gem.

  • Chris Smith

    I think the combination of Wendy and Angie is unstoppable! The best part is that I am learning so much that I never knew. This article is a perfect example of that. Thanks, Wendy!

  • http://twitter.com/wendysue302 Wendy Bright

    You started this great synergy, Chris. Thank you for the opportunity! And thanks, Angie, for the beautiful photos.

  • http://twitter.com/wendysue302 Wendy Bright

    I think you’re so right about that, John. Thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/angie.schiesslmcmonigal Angie Schiessl McMonigal

    Wonderful article Wendy! It’s so fascinating reading all the history of the buildings featured here and you do an exceptional job. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to work with you and Chris on these posts, it’s fun to explore buildings I may not have otherwise considered. Thanks for the insight!

  • http://twitter.com/wendysue302 Wendy Bright

    And fantastic photos, Angie! Your work inspires mine.

  • David Lsi

    Thank you for this article, I am adding this place to my must see list now.

  • Chris Smith

    Me too!

  • http://www.facebook.com/bmehilos Bill Mehilos

    Is there any way to get that last picture of the light fixture in a larger resolution? That would make a great desktop background.

  • outofchicago

    I agree, Bill. You can get it from Angie’s Flickr site, http://www.flickr.com/photos/angiemcmonigalphotography/ I’m pretty sure she won’t mid, but you might want to ask her first.

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