Populuxe on the Park: St. Joseph Hospital

This is the second in a series of posts on Chicago’s Modern hospitals by guest author Nate Lielasus

The end walls of St. Joseph's wings have a blue skin of dimensional diamond shaped panels.
Photo by author.

If you have ever driven South down North Lake Shore Drive, you have probably noticed the turquoise walls of St. Joseph Hospital, located at the corner of Lake Shore Drive and Diversey Parkway. The end walls of the hospital’s wings are skinned with blue, dimensional, diamond-shaped panels forming a rippling curtain wall that mirrors Lake Michigan stretching in front of the hospital across Lincoln Park. The bright blue color of these panels pops against the long stretch of beige, white, and brick tones that make up Chicago’s lakeshore high rises.

The Jetsons-esque highrise was constructed in 1963 and is one of the most celebrated projects of Belli & Belli, a Winnetka-based architecture firm prolific in the 50s, 60s and 70s and known for a number of modern churches and catholic schools across the region. The firm was founded in 1941 by brothers Edo J. (1918-2003) & Anthony J. Belli (1924-2007). The Belli brothers combined their architectural and contracting talents on many of their joint projects with Edo leading design and Anthony focusing on construction. The pair had many successes, including winning an AIA award in 1957 for the St. Nicholas School in Aurora, IL. The firm practiced their particular brand of modernism well past the time other firms moved onto new styles, such as at their 1989 project for St. Benedict the African Church (Englewood, West 66th Street) which looks like it could have been designed right around the same time as St. Joseph Hospital.

The main facade of the hospital is defined by the two wings opening towards Lake Shore Drive and Lake Michigan.
Photo by Matt Seymour.

Belli & Belli’s Y-shaped St. Joseph Hospital has three wings which extend from a central elevator and stair core. This central core also contains waiting rooms on each floor which offer expansive views of Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. The two wings opening towards Lake Michigan and facing Lake Shore Drive define the bent main façade of the hospital where the main entrance and car drop-off are located.

A wavy scalloped roof caps the glassy bar stretching across the main facade of the hospital. Photo by author.

While St. Joseph Hospital as an institution was founded in Lake View by the Sister’s of Charity in 1869, the modern hospital building is a bold expression of the populuxe architecture of its time. Restrained walls of limestone with a regular grid of square windows, a hallmark of Belli & Belli, serve as back-drops for exuberant Atomic Age flourishes. Besides the diamond paneled blue end walls, a three story glassy band stretching across the front of the hospital is capped by an energetic scalloped thin-shell concrete roof. The wavy roof zips across the front of the building and would be just as at home on a Rat Park era Las Vegas casino. Multi-story starburst-shaped concrete columns stop just short of the roof, which appears to float on a glass curtain wall.

But to me, the checkerboard blue panels are the signature design element on the exterior of the hospital. Though unmistakably modern, the panels recall the traditional decorative diamond diaper pattern often seen on Spanish Colonial and Islamic architecture. However, more than just a surface decoration, a row of the blue diamond-shaped panels pokes above the limestone walls giving the hospital a saw-tooth roof line. In an interesting design gesture, the first floor of the chapel wing is set back and the skin of diamond panels is pulled under the building to become the ceiling of an outdoor covered space.

The dalle de verre stained glass, by the Tolleri Studio of Florence, Italy, depict the story of the Daughters of Charity. Photo by author.

On the 11th floor the hospital contains the Dan Ryan Memorial Chapel, truly a hidden gem. The entrance, through a nondescript door off the 11th floor waiting room, is easily missed lending the chapel an air of discovery. Slipping through the doorway, you find yourself in a warmly luxurious space of wood, stone, metal, tile and stained glass. The most striking feature of the chapel is the gold-tiled baldachin which takes the form of a ribbon rising behind the alter and extending across the ceiling to envelope the space. At certain times of the day, the chapel is bathed in sublime light pouring through the large dalle de verre panels on both sides of the space. The light casts colored patterns on the floor and pews and makes the gold tiled baldachin sparkle. The Tolleri Studio of Florence, Italy designed the dalle de verre panels which depicts figures from the history of the Daughters of Charity.

The starburst appears on many exterior and interior features. Photo by author.

Many of the chapel’s original furnishings by Winterich & Associates of Cleveland remain. The starburst form of the exterior concrete columns is mirrored on the interior in the brass pedestal of the holy water font and in the pickets of a railing around the statue of the Virgin Mary.

While St. Joseph Hospital occupies a highly visible site across from Lincoln Park, it is not the only Belli & Belli building positioned in such a conspicuous spot. Where Interstates 90/94 bulge around St. Stanislaus Kostka Church on Chicago’s West Side they hug the church’s Belli & Belli school building constructed in 1959 to replace the one lost to the highway. The school’s smooth limestone exterior walls have the iconic Belli & Belli grid of square windows also found at St. Joseph.

In 1988 St. Joseph Hospital was one of the firm’s projects included in the Art Institute’s exhibit “Chicago Architecture and Design 1923-1993” highlighting the cities top architects.

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