Chicago’s Brutalist “Cadillac:” C.F. Murphy Associates’ 1968 Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building
by guest author John D. Cramer.
It’s been called the “Pound (#) Building” for its unusual profile along the south bank of the Chicago River and its massing reminded many 1960s Chicagoans of a large parking garage. But to many architects and critics who celebrated its completion in 1968, Chicago’s Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building at 55 W. Wacker was an architectural milestone in a downtown business district reinventing itself after decades of creative and economic stagnation. Designed by architect Otto Stark of the Chicago-based firm C.F. Murphy Associates, the Brutalist-style Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building was called by Architectural Record a “muscular, positive architectural statement,” akin to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building (Buffalo, NY, 1903, demolished) and Paul Rudolph’s Yale University Art and Architecture Building (New Haven, CT, 1963).
Deemed “a Cadillac kind of building” by Inland Architect for its innovative use of bush-hammered poured-in-place concrete, the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building rose in the midst of urban renewal efforts orchestrated on a grand scale in Chicago’s downtown Loop. The construction of this 15-story concrete and glass office tower just opposite Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City (1964) was one of several 1960s downtown office towers, including the Chicago Civic Center (1965), and the Brunswick Building (1965) that heralded to many Chicagoans a renaissance of their downtown and the reinvention of the Loop as a development-friendly corporate home.
C.F. Murphy Associates, headed by architect Charles F. Murphy (1890-1985), was among a handful of well-connected development and design firms whose large-scale downtown projects in sleek modern styles were credited with revamping the Loop’s worn out image and giving a boost to sinking real estate prices. Charles F. Murphy’s name was already on two ground-breaking Chicago towers: the 41-floor aluminum-clad One Prudential Plaza (1955) and the 31-floor Miesian steel-and-glass Chicago Civic Center (later the Richard J. Daley Center), completed in 1965. The construction of a large health insurance corporation headquarters building in the Loop was considered a great achievement by city officials and when the project design was finally presented to the public, it was Mayor Richard J. Daley himself who presided over the unveiling at his City Hall office in March of 1965.
Unlike the firm’s two metal-and-glass downtown towers, the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building used glass and poured-in-place concrete as its primary palette. The massing of the building was simple: eight bush-hammered concrete pillars – two along each of the building’s four elevations – held up ribbons of plate glass stacked between fifteen cantilevered spandrel tiers of smooth sandblasted concrete. The building’s vertical steel supports were hidden within the exterior pillars, creating 209,000 square feet of column-free office space within. And like those of Wright’s influential Larkin Building, the exterior pillars doubled as service shafts, connecting all fifteen floors with necessary heating, ventilation, exhaust and return ducts, and hot and cold water pipes. Brown tones dominated the facade, from the buff-colored concrete aggregate and burnt-faced brick of the first level walk to the bronze-tinted solar office windows and their bronze-finished aluminum frames. The bronzing continued inside too; nearly all the interior details were bronzed, including all interior hardware, drinking fountains, signage plaques, and even the desk accessories.
In the ground level lobby, C.F. Murphy Associates’ earlier affection for sterile minimalism was replaced with the warmth of textured wood and concrete surfaces beneath a deeply-coffered concrete waffle slab ceiling. The burnt-face brick of the exterior walkway continued inside the glass-enclosed hall and turned up to form the pedestal of a long teak-covered service desk. Cushioned teak benches and built-in planters made for an inviting space for tenants and visiting clients. And the artistry found in the exterior concrete work was repeated inside on the bush-hammered concrete of the internal elevator and service core and on the sculptural sandblasted concrete stair that connected the lobby to the second-level employee cafeteria.
Public lobbies and corridors, executive suites, employee workspaces, and lounges were hung with works from Blue Cross’ extensive company art collection, including pieces by well-known twentieth-century abstract artists like Josef Albers, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Piet Mondrian, Victor Vasarely, and Helen Frankenthaler. The most-viewed work could be seen in the ground floor lobby: a black and white aluminum and formica work produced specially for the new Blue Cross-Blue Shield headquarters by Russian-born sculptor Louise Nevelson (1899-1988).
For all of the craft that went into construction of their headquarters, the time Blue Cross-Blue Shield employees spent in their new home was short-lived. Only a few years after moving in, the company relocated. 55 W. Wacker was rehabbed in the mid-1980s and lost many of its original interior finishes.
Today, it’s hard to remember when looking at the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Building, dwarfed as it is now by adjacent skyscrapers, that it was one of the most exciting downtown Chicago developments of the late 1960s. In a business district thought to have fallen on hard times, C.F. Murphy Associates’ work literally towered over its neighbors and displayed a boldness in form and material that helped signal a reversal in the fortunes of the Chicago Loop.