It’s easy to fall for hyperbole. Some old skyscrapers in Chicago may have been fore-runners of modernism, but that doesn’t mean they were unornamented in the modern fashion. The Marquette Building, above, is a good example. Yes, its overall facade design was, for 1895, forward looking, but when you get closer you get a good reminder of how heavily ornamented everything was in that era.
To steal a line from an old architectural review of a different building, that’s an amazing collection of writhing pretzels. The machine precision and reproducibility of terra cotta is on display, as are some minor spalls.
Another example is the 1927 Pittsfield Building, which was the tallest in the city when built, as it took advantage of the 1923 repeal of the previous hard limit on building heights.
The massing of the building is very simple, as is the general layout of the facade. But close up, there’s some beautiful detail in the terra cotta, along with what looks like a retrofit expansion joint at the wall support.
One last example, the 1895 Reliance Building. It’s famous for its big windows and mature skeleton frame, but the terra cotta is worth a look.
The ornaments in the spandrels are purely picturesque, but it’s the mullions that catch my eye. Those are amazingly delicate for any kind of masonry.
The economics of glass production are what stood between most buildings of that era and windows like this; the structural limits of masonry are what stood between buildings and mullions like these.