The Pittsfield Building’s Architecture, Past to Present

By Alex Bean on January 20, 2016

TOURSDAILY

The Pittsfield Building, with address at 55 E. Washington, Chicago, Illinois, balances its past with the demands of the present. It’s a great example of how Chicago architecture can elegantly age. Located in the landmark district of the Loop’s Jewelers Row, the Pittsfield Building opened in 1927 as a mixed-use office and retail skyscraper. I popped in to the Pittsfield while leading an architecture tour this week. As I looked at the architectural details in its striking lobby, I thought about how the architecture of the Pittsfield Building is an example of the way structures can change and adapt across time.

To give you some background, the Estate of Marshall Field constructed the Pittsfield Building. The prolific architecture firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White designed it. Interestingly, Marshall Field III gave the Pittsfield Building to the Field Museum, which owned it until the 1960’s.

Pittsfield Building Exterior Street Level
The exterior of the Pittsfield Building from Washington Street. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Architectural Design of the Pittsfield Building

The architecture of the Pittsfield Building was designed with two different commercial spaces. The upper floors, from 5 to 37, were professional offices for lawyers, dentists, and doctors. The lower levels, from the basement to the 5th, were for small retailers such as jewelers, restaurants, tobacco stores, and newsstands.

The lower levels were decorated in a “Spanish Gothic Revival” style with some Art Deco touches. The architectural style unmistakably recalls the 1920’s, which gives you a taste of history. When you step inside, the coffered gilt elevator lobby ceilings thrum with a maze-like hexagonal pattern. The central atrium soars five floors above, crowned with a gigantic chandelier. Marble covers seemingly every spare surface in the lobby and atrium. The beauty of this space makes the Pittsfield a rental for the occasional wedding.

The effect of all the architectural ornamentation is stunning in its opulence and aesthetic appeal. Of course, that fits right into the flashy architectural approach that Marshall Field pioneered at his store, as any of our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour guests can attest. It’s easy to see why the building was declared a Chicago Historic Landmark in 2002.

Coffered Ceilings Pittsfield Building Lobby
The coffered ceilings in the Pittsfield Building’s lobby exemplify its Spanish Gothic revival style. Photo Credit: Alex Bean

Contemporary Hurdles for the Pittsfield

The architectural plan for the Pittsfield Building suited its time, but it faces some contemporary hurdles. Medical professionals and their patients prefer sparkly new facilities, meaning a loss of tenants and office rentals. The Pittsfield has made up for that loss by renting several of the floors to nearby universities as dorms. Another plan wants to turn some of the floors into a new hotel, but a legal battle between developers has that currently on hold.

A building this old also prevents a challenge for contemporary retailers. The architects’ original plan put most of the shops and cafes in the atrium or basement. Those spaces still look beautiful, but most are vacant and seemingly forgotten, giving the Pittsfield a haunted feeling. Most companies today prefer sidewalk-accessible storefronts or a presence in a mall with dozens of stores.

Magnificent architecture litters Chicago’s past. Many of those works, like the Pittsfield, outlived their original architectural design. Some, like Louis Sullivan’s old Stock Exchange, met the wrecking ball. Others, like the Chicago Athletic Association, have been revitalized and repurposed. I’d prefer the latter for the Pittsfield Building, of course, but it will take a developer with big ambitions and deep pockets to see it all the way through.

– Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Tour Guide