Monday, November 14, 2022

Ready for their close-up

     "Most self-published books are crap," I told author Mark Houser, dubiously, when we first spoke. "If I write about this, it'll be the first self-published book I've written about since 'Leaves of Grass.'" Then I saw those photos...

    They are domed or stepped back or crenelated, like castle towers. With illuminated clocks or fierce gryphons or flying buttresses. Urns and eagles, ladies liberty and neon signs.
     In Chicago, there is the azure blue of the American Furniture Mart, whose windows seem to float against perfect summer skies. Or the white summit of Mather Tower, a reminder that the top four stories started crumbling and were lopped off, only to have the city eventually force the owner to helicopter in a replacement. The glittering gold crown of the Carbide and Carbon Building.
     Chris Hytha, a 25-year-old Philadelphia photographer, calls them simply “Highrises” on his sleek online project presenting stunning high-resolution photographs stitched together from close-up drone shots of grande dame buildings across the country.
     But I prefer “antique skyscrapers,” the term coined by his collaborator, historian Mark Houser. I learned of the project when Houser’s self-published 2020 book, “MultiStories: 55 Antique Skyscrapers & the Business Tycoons Who Built Them,” fell into my hands.
     Not just a valentine to lovely old structures, the book is a scholarly attempt to puff off the dust and view them afresh.
     “Imagine if you never saw a building taller than five stories, when the tallest thing you ever saw is a church steeple,” said Houser. “This technology was mind-bending.”
    And as photographed by Hytha, it still is. The book put Houser on Hytha’s radar.

To continue reading, click here.


  1. Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House provides a very interesting perspective as to how the architecture of skyscrapers evolved.

  2. To get to the cupola of the Jeweler's Building, you take the regular elevators to the last floor they go to [I think it's 19] & then take a small round elevator to the cupola. I was up there in the first year of Open House Chicago, several years ago.

    1. We did that too Clark St., the second year! Among many fine OHC experiences, that was one of the highlights.

      I'm not much of a fan of regular folks flying drones all over the place, but I do appreciate the phenomenal vantage points they provide to top-notch photographers. These photos are wonderful, indeed.

      Every once in a while, there's something atop the blog that I think could stay for a week or a month or forever -- today features another instance. : )

  3. All the buildings are magnificent, but seem to me variations on a theme -- they are all slim mostly pointy structures with their height being emphasized by vertical features. Surely, in a hundred years or so, technology willing, architecture will be able to imagine something entirely different, while serving the same commercial and residential goals. A couple of unlikely to be implemented ideas come to mind: a rotating building so that for certain suites it's always midnight, for others always noon; or a central hub with offices or apartments jutting out horizontally, allowing the building to have a much smaller footprint and a much larger interior space to rent. Just trying to be helpful -- 2525 is not exactly right around the corner, but might be just as spectacular in its own way as have been the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.


  4. Wow! That's the first time anyone's put me in the same company as Walt Whitman. I'll take it! Seriously, I'm delighted that you enjoy MultiStories and Highrises. Chicago is king when it comes to antique skyscrapers, and Chris and I are honored to show them off and tell their history.

  5. My father's office was in the Carbon and Carbide Building on N. Michigan Avenue, but it was on a lower floor, so I never got to see the highest stories of the structure. My favorite has always been the ultra-skinny Mather Tower, on Wacker Drive. The Tribune ran a story about it in the late 60s, when it was known as the Lincoln Tower.

    Briefly the tallest building in Chicago at the time of its completion in 1928, it remains the city's most slender high-rise structure, at only 100 by 65 feet at its base. The interior space within the spire contains the least square footage per floor of any Chicago skyscraper. The top floor of the 17-story octagonal spire is just 280 square feet. Tenants in the tower (on floors 26-39) each occupy an entire floor, with 16 windows that face in every direction. With a telescope, Michigan City is clearly visible.

    Initial plans called for construction of a second, identical building on N. Michigan Avenue, behind the Mather and connected to it by a ground-floor arcade, but the Depression intervened.

    By the 1990s, the building was in bad shape. In 2000, the 4-story "cupola" at the top of the building was demolished because of structural deterioration and safety concerns. Chunks of terra cotta began falling from the facade, and the dismantling of all 17 stories of the octagonal spire became a distinct possibility.

    In 2002, a replacement "cupola' was hoisted to the top of the building by helicopter, from a barge in the Chicago River. The building also underwent its first complete restoration since the 1960s.


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