Battered by the recession and the downturn in the housing market, Chicago architect Lucien Lagrange liquidated his namesake firm in 2010. Yet Lagrange and his tradition-tinged buildings are still with us. The latest, the 40-story Ritz-Carlton Residences at the northwest corner of North Michigan Avenue and Erie Street, is too competent to be bad but not inspired enough to be good.
The first new high-rise on the Magnificent Mile in more than a decade, the $240 million project delivers the usual Lagrange package of marketable but middling post-modernism. It's a variation on the theme of his earlier skyscrapers, including the Park Tower at 800 N. Michigan Ave. and the Waldorf Astoria Chicago (originally the Elysian) at 11 E. Walton St. These buildings evoke the great residential towers of the 1920s yet rarely match their self-assured mastery of proportions, scale and details.
This shortcoming is apparent in a side-by-side comparison of the fussy Ritz-Carlton exterior and the sure-handed simplicity of its freshly-renovated neighbor, the 11-story Farwell Building at 664 N. Michigan Ave., a graceful mix of art deco and Beaux-Arts classicism. The two buildings are now one, sharing an underlying superstructure. They came together through a radical type of architectural surgery. It stripped the Farwell of its once-crumbling limestone facade, demolished the building's original steel frame, then rebuilt its old stone skin on the Ritz-Carlton's new concrete bones.
Hugely controversial when the project was announced, this architectural taxidermy has turned out better than expected. Yet it has the unintended consequence of setting an aesthetic standard that the new tower fails to match. The outcome offers a sobering reminder that architecture is an art of compromise, where aesthetic ideals regularly collide with the real estate realities — and the public must live with the less-than-satisfactory results.
Even the developer, Chicago-based Prism Development Co., has yet to come out a winner. Fewer than half of the Ritz-Carlton's 89 units, which range in price from nearly $1.4 million to $13 million, have been sold, according to Bruce Schultz, Prism's managing principal. Reflecting a sagging condo market, the drag also may be a consequence of building on a tightly-constricted downtown site. Much of the tower's northern facade is walled off by the City Place skyscraper to the north at 676 N. Michigan Ave.
These troubles grow from the developer's decision to wedge the tower onto a tiny site previously occupied by the Farwell Building and two structures to its north, the former Terra Museum of American Art at 666 N. Michigan Ave., and a low-rise that housed a Garrett Popcorn Shop. City officials declared the Farwell, an office-retail combo designed by Philip Maher, a protected landmark in 2004. That was before anyone discovered its spalling limestone panels and their weak structural underpinnings.
Prism successfully made the case to city officials that the only way to save the Farwell was to strip some 1,500 limestone panels off its facade and rebuild them on an extension of the Ritz-Carlton's new superstructure. Historic preservationists howled that this "facade-ectomy" would make the renovated building a hollow stage set, especially because Prism planned to fill four of the tower's 11 floors with a parking garage. The developers got the message and wisely shifted all of the Ritz-Carlton's parking to the new tower's base, a move that made the "surgery" less destructive.
Pedestrians are sure to enjoy the Farwell's carefully renovated facade, whose most striking feature is the black cast-iron panels beneath its windows. The panels create graphic, charcoal-like vertical stripes that reflect art deco's celebration of streamlined modernity. They previously were painted a weathered green, but the Rosemont firm KGH-Kellermeyer Godfryt Hart, which specializes in the repair of building facades, determined that they were originally black. Re-created bas-relief sculptures and a new slate-covered mansard roof add to the renovation's appeal.
But the need to make a buck literally hovers over the renovated Farwell. The Ritz-Carlton tower overhangs about a third of the old building's roof, undercutting the illusion that they are separate structures. Like most "facade-ectomies," then, this one preserves human-scaled ornament and a lively streetscape yet it undermines the Farwell's identity as a stand-alone structure and thus, its aesthetic integrity.
As if to retaliate, the Farwell looks ritzier than the Ritz-Carlton. Its limestone exterior conveys a warmth and visual richness that's lacking in the new tower's precast concrete cladding, a less expensive substitute for limestone. The real problem, though, is Lagrange's inability to transform his diverse historical sources into a compelling synthesis comparable to the eclectic Wrigley Building or architect Benjamin Marshall's tradition-inspired residential high-rises on East Lake Shore Drive.
The Ritz-Carlton's base is cluttered with small opaque windows that mask the parking garage behind it. Vertical metal stripes add to the confusion, making a failed stab at art deco elan. The building's midsection has appealingly symmetrical facades accented by vertical piers, but their soaring quality is undercut by horizontal, serrated corners. A topside crown, with metal panels and caps atop the piers, is a welcome departure from Lagrange's ubiquitous mansard roofs, yet it offers only a weak echo of such strong art deco statements as the Lagrange-rehabbbed Hard Rock Hotel (originally the Carbide & Carbon Building) at 230 N. Michigan Ave.
Overall, the exterior represents an improvement on the squat, bland Peninsula Hotel of 2001, located in the 700 block of North Michigan Avenue — and the last high-rise to be built on the Mag Mile — but that is to damn the Ritz-Carlton with faint praise.
Inside, Lagrange is in better form, exhibiting the spatial drama, refined details and the compelling mix of tradition and modernity that have made his buildings a hit with buyers. Among the highlights is a private club for the building's homeowners that contains a two-story Grand Salon festooned with contemporary light fixtures. While the building is not a hotel, it is managed by the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.
Planned by Lagrange and designed by Chicago's Darcy Bonner Associates, the apartments successfully combine traditional rooms with the flowing spaces of modern interiors. Details, such as arched passageways, exude a feeling luxury. Lagrange has carefully arranged rooms to take advantage of views to the south, west and east. He even brings north-facing views up Michigan Avenue into the mix.
After shuttering his once-thriving firm, the architect joined the Chicago firm VOA Associates last year. In May, he moved again, this time to the Chicago office of the Dallas-based design firm HKS. He declined to be interviewed for this story, but in a recent interview with Crain's Chicago Business, he portrayed himself a traditionalist who operates outside the norms of Chicago's modernist establishment. "The fact that people want to live in my buildings doesn't seem to matter" to those who criticize them, he said.
His assessment confuses popularity with quality. There is clearly a market — and a significant place — for traditional architecture in today's world. The issue is how intelligently and artfully it's done. Other architects, such as New York's Robert A.M. Stern and the Chicago firm of HBRA Architects (formerly Hammond Beeby Rupert Ainge), are far better qualified to carry the banner of traditionalism. Their best works rise to standards that the Ritz-Carlton Residences does not.