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Slumming Up Marina City





New management steeps the House of Blues Hotel in ugly as a part of another renovation of the former office building in architect Bertrand Goldberg's world famous Marina City complex in Chicago.

 -by Lynn Becker








One of Chicago's greatest architectural complexes is undergoing a bit of renovative vandalism, and there's not much anyone can do about it. The base of the House of Blues Hotel in Marina City, architect Bertrand Goldberg's pioneering 1965 mixed-use project hugging the Chicago river just north of the Loop, is being smothered in the kind of battleship gray paint usually reserved for back-alley loading docks. (Department of full disclosure: I've been a resident of Marina City for almost twenty years.)

The plaza at the House of Blues Hotel at Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City in Chicago

The hotel is in what was originally the complex's office building, 16 stories high, Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City in Chicagodivided between a 4-story base, and 10 floors of offices, separated by a sequence of of concrete groin vaults. Goldberg designed the building so that the interiors were column-free, and he also devised a highly innovative lighting system that created what at the time was the highest lighting levels of any commercial building. The waste heat generated by the lights was recycled to help warm the building in winter. Sperry-Univac, the radio station WCFL, and Goldberg's own architectural practice were among the original tenants.

After the nearly 1,000 apartments were taken condo by a politically-connected group of investors and speculatators in the 1970's, everything in the complex below the top 40 residential floors of the twin corn-cob towers was spun off to other buyers, leaving residents with no control over the other parts of the complex, or even the bottom 20 floors of their own buildings. In subsequent years, Marina City went into a serious decline, and by the 1980's all the commercial portions of the complex were, in essence, abandoned. In 1994 a new developer stepped in to purchase the commercial properties, and began what was reported to be a $100,000,000, renovation, which saw the construction of a Smith and Wollensky steak house in the spot previously occupied by a long-abandoned skating rink.

The House of Blues Hotel in Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City in Chicago

Loews Corporation converted the office building into the House of Blues Hotel, which opened in 1998, an adjunct to the House of Blues club and restaurant that took over the space originally occupied by the complex's theater, which never fulfilled original expectations and for years functioned as a television studio. While the inside of the hotel was renovated in full House of Blues funkiness, Goldberg's exteriors were treated with great respect, the concrete surfaces gleaming and beautiful after being cleaned and repainted. Blue was brought to the design with a subtle lighting of the groin vaults above the podium.

Earlier this year, howerver, the property changed managers, to Gemstone Resorts International, whose other properties include Ritz-Carltons in Philadephia and Key Biscayne, and it's undergoing another renovation that includes the aformentioned paint job. The current management's readiness to trash everything that Loew's did to bring out the best in Goldberg's exteriors is inexplicable.

The whole point of the thin, twin arched columns that mark the two end elevations of the hotel is to accentuate the lightness of Goldberg's design. Painting them dark gray makes the base look less like an integral part of the building than a sort of snap-on stand. Painting the soffits, columns and shear walls of the podium gray sucks up light from the plaza. The building's 10-story block previously seemed to float above the light concrete vaulted arcade above the podium, especially at night when the arcade was bathed in that subtle blue light. Repainted dark gray, the arcade has devolved into a gloomy, visually inpenetrable blur of Piranesian gloom.

The House of Blues Hotel at Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City in Chicago

Gianna Tetrick, the hotel's gracious Director of Marketing, puts the best face on the overall renovation. "It is going to be beautiful," she says, "It will be nothing but positive." She talks of all the painting almost as an experiment, to see how the hotel's design team likes the new tones. But you usually test colors with swatches - not with block-long scaffolding and a full-up paint job.

It's amazing how cheap the property is beginning to look with all that dull gray paint, and even though Tetrick says management will meet with designers over the new few weeks, we'll probably have to live with the current results for some time. Marina City, key among the buildings most closely associated with Chicago throughout the world, does not have the protection of being an official landmark. The owners can do pretty much whatever they want.

Chicago's survey of landmark buildings essentially excludes any structure built after 1940. That survey is now over a decade old, and it has left the city's incredibly rich modernist legacy at peril. While the damage at Marina City can probably be reversed- with however much cost- at some later date, without an extension of landmark protection, other modernist icons may not survive at all. Another great Bertrand Goldberg building, Prentice Hospital, with its cloverleaf of rounded towers, will be placed at maximum risk when the facility moves to new, larger quarters next year. The older, classic property will revert to the Northwestern Memorial Hospital, which has almost invariably chosen demolition over preservation.

Painters at the House of Blues Hotel at Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City in Chicago

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© Copyright 2006 Lynn Becker All rights reserved.

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