A Tour of Space(s) between Chicago and San Francisco

The first stop on DAY 6, was 110 miles north in Sioux City, Iowa,  where the Woodbury County Courthouse by Elmslie, Purcell and Steele of 1922 is located.

The courthouse is the largest building ever built in what Frank Lloyd Wright termed the “Prarie Style.” As we see it today, the building is the result of an open design competition, won by George Steele, an alumnus of the office of Louis Sullivan, where, along with Frank Lloyd Wright, he worked with fellow architects Elmslie and Purcell. After winning the competition with a neo-Gothic scheme, Steele realized that he could not execute the building by himself and called upon his former colleagues to help him design and document it. At this point the building became an essay in Prarie Style architecture.

One must begin by remarking on the bulding’s remarkable condition today. The county must be credited for having maintained it in, for the most part, pristine condition. At ground level the building is a brick and terracotta block, from which rises a six story tower (formerly eight stories in the competition) containing the less publicly accessed offices of the municipal government. The piano nobile contains the majority of the public offices, organized about a central atrium space lit from above by a stained glass dome, which curiously is not expressed on the building’s exterior. Perhaps it was a feature of the previous neo-Gothic scheme which could not be foregone in the Prarie Style redux. I was unable to locate a section drawing of the building which indicated how this feature worked, but deduce that it is located below the last floor (or two) of the tower, and is lit by a combination of the tower windows, and artificial lights. The effect is curiously idiosyncratic. One cannot think of another example of a domed, prarie style building.

The second floor is the location of the four major courtrooms. All of them are double height, skylit, and extensively daylit by large leaded glass and alabaster windows fronting on the east and west elevations of the building. These spaces are where the most attention and effort was wisely invested; they include custom light fixtures, millwork, and extensive use of wood to create an environment of appropriately civic dignity for the proceedings within.

After visiting the assesors’ office for postcards, I learned that access to the special meeting room on the eighth floor was off limits. So I of course went straight to the elevator to the seventh floor and then ascended to the eighth floor meeting room via the fire exit stairs, which were open on the top floor.

Pleasantly, and much to my surprise, I found a double height conference room, with leaded stained glass windows, and balconies overlooking downtown Sioux City . The effect was magical despite the inappropriate furnishings. One is hard pressed to find civic rooms with this level of care or dignity in the current climate of design and construction.

I then went to Lincoln, Nebraska, where Bertram Goodhue, architect of New York’s Woolworth building, was the winner of a competition in 1916 to design the new state capitol. The result, shown below, is magnificent.

Much like Sioux City , Lincoln has done a remarkable job of maintaining their building. This is the only state capitol designed in a skyscraper configuration, and for much of the 20th century it must have been the only tall building in Lincoln. An engaging tour of the building is given hourly at the north entrance. I was unable to obtain an answer to the question of why the building is oriented facing north, but the public spaces, including the governors office, and reception room, are adorned with the most elaborate array of frescoes and inlaid paving; all of which was conceived with the input of a cultural anthropologist who worked with Goodhue’s office to incorporate an impressive and throughtful array of Native American motifs and themes in the decorative scheme of the building. While the building was under construction, Nebraska’s then governor succeeded in having his constituents vote out the conventional bi-cameral legislative organization in favor of a mono-cameral one (the only one in the country) which meets formally once every two years. The result is an “extra” large meeting room formerly occupied by the State Senate.

Atop the tower is a dramatic memorial chamber (shown above) dedicated to those who have sacrificed their lives to the nation. It is a remarkable space of dignity and warmth, which is only slightly diminished by the relocation of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, to whom both the building and the city, are dedicated, to the building’s exterior. It is curious that both the capitol and the city were so closely linked to a man from Illinois .

After leaving the capitol, I stopped briefly at I.M. Pei and Partners NBC Bank building, now Wells Fargo’s main city branch. which was built in 1976 and still looks quite new.

The building’s-cast-in-place concrete skin and interior public atrium are kin to the architect’s East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. The building has a rental offices whose top floor contains a skylit corridor above the banking hall.

From here it was a short trip to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and to Philip Johnson’s 1968 Sheldon Gallery of Art. The Sheldon Gallery of Art is a pristine and jewel-like white travertine temple of art surrounded by an array of lesser academic buildings in yellow and red brick, which make it stand out all the more.

The building is clearly a transitional work in Johnson’s oeuvre, belonging to the period when the architect was moving from his 1960’s phase of High Miesian Modernism towards a more historicizing postmodern vocabulary, concurrent with works such as the Kreeger home and museum in Washington D.C.

Galleries for the permanent collection and travelling exhibitions are located in largely windowless rooms, which flank an ocean-of-travertine central atrium and sculpture gallery, whose two sides are linked by a decidedly Miesian stair and balcony combination.

It is worth noting that, as has been proven the case at IIT in Chicago, horizontally applied Roman Travertine, while inarguably a material of great beauty, does not have a long life in cold climates. The exterior surface has been completely re-done, making it look bright and new.

Having left Lincoln around 7, I was only able to drive by the exterior of the Strategic Air and Space museum, formerly the Strategic Air Command Museum, by New York architect and Eero Saarinen alumni, Kevin Roche, and John Dinkeloo, whose Ford Foundation headquarters I had long admired.

1 Response

  1. Bob Collins says:

    Loved this post. This is a trip I must take.

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