There aren’t many industries that have been stripped of their architecture as consistently as legacy media. A brief roundup covering just the last few years would include 30 Hudson Yards by KPF, which AT&T/Warner Media sold to developer Related Companies just a month after the 1,300-foot-tall tower opened in 2019, as well as CNN Center in Atlanta, the longtime home of the TV news network. Warner Media sold that 1976 brutalist structure to CP Group, a Florida real estate company, to pay down debt in 2021. And it’s not just a phenomenon in big-city media capitals. My hometown newspaper, The Des Moines Register, which has racked up seventeen Pulitzer Prizes since it began in 1860, decamped from its understated streamline moderne headquarters in 2013. The building was subsequently converted into lofts.
Architecture critics have been fretting over legacy media’s inability to hold on to its monuments for a long time. In 1990, Herbert Muschamp, in The New Republic, decried the lack of maintenance and loss of prestige of Eero Saarinen’s 1965 Black Rock, the New York headquarters of CBS. “A feeling of loss pervades the building, as though a center of power had become its own tombstone,” he wrote. “Office space is rented out to tenants, there are rumors that the building will be put up for sale.” It plopped on and off the market several times over the decades to insufficient fanfare, and a sale to Harbor Group International, a real estate investment firm that focuses on residential multifamily projects, finally went through in 2021.
Though media companies attempt, with varying degrees of clumsiness, to balance the need to be profitable with service to the public interest, they are ultimately bound, despite virginal claims to objectivity, by the ideologies that serve their owners’ bottom lines. (Despite this, I still tend to think that any news organization that has been around for even a handful of decades has likely done some good for the public.) Media architecture’s trajectory from serving as the scaffolding for civic purpose to the speculation object of private equity illustrates this tension. The phenomenon is best illustrated by the Chicago Tribune Tower’s recent conversion to luxury condos.
Designed by Howells and Hood, the building is the product of the most famous design competition in history. Its neo-Gothic tower’s division into tradable assets reflects our present march toward a more primitive and cruel form of class relations. The 1925 tower’s expertly executed ornamental filigree is a historicist architectural treatment that directly references the Middle Ages: a world where the surplus labor of the lord of the manor’s wretched subjects—the sweat of their brow, the toil that broke them—traveled up from the land and into the hands of the few as easily as our eyes trace the proud profile of the 463-foot-tall tower. Today, when the rich stroll onto the roof deck on the twenty-fifth floor, past the catering kitchen and around flying buttresses reaching skyward, they gaze out at the city through an Indiana limestone crown. If they care to, they’ll see a world riven and suffering under yawning inequality. They’ll see a place where mysticism and paranoia inspire gruesome fantasy; a place where the public sector is nevertheless subservient to the powerful few; where the self-determination of home ownership, or of land, or of anything that can act as a hedge against uncertainty or predation seems like a distant dream; and where, more and more, one’s place in the world at birth wholly defines the horizons of that person’s life.
This neo-Gothic spire is the perfect place to comprehend our tendencies toward neo-feudalism, the result of a decades-long campaign of public sector austerity and neoliberalism. Granted, that’s a lot of neos. But ultimately, this story of recycling the past is one of stasis and decay. The Tribune Tower was a precedent-setting building in myriad ways, from its savvy promotion of a design competition as a media event, its status as victorious symbol of the anti-modernist counterreformation and its architects’ mastery of the neo-Gothic tower that became a popular high-rise typology. And certainly, speculator finance capital is remaking our built environment, prizing higher returns for investors above functional shelter and services, prompting surreal mutations of form and program. All these evolutions are acts of maintenance to keep the conveyor belt of ever-more commodification churning.
THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE left its building in 2018, accidentally anticipating the vaunted Covid-19 era of office-to-apartments conversions. At thirty-four stories, the Tribune Tower now offers 162 units, listed for between a bit less than $2 million and nearly $5 million for a four-bedroom unit. It was developed by CIM and Golub and Company, the latter of which found early success as one of the first developers to make a buck in the Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union. A spokesperson for CIM declined to disclose the project budget.
The main, public entrance on Michigan Avenue still leads to a grand lobby, renovated by Vinci Hamp Architects, adorned with chiseled proclamations of the importance of the free press and the First Amendment. A more private entrance on Illinois Street with drop-off parking lets residents slip away from and into the city among themselves. Because the Tribune complex is actually four buildings (the tower, a former printing press, and radio and TV expansions), the units each adhere to one of fifty-five different floor plans. The interior finishes, designed by of Gettys Group, are the same throughout.
In the apartments and amenity areas, the interiors, if they were to be applied to an Arts and Crafts house in the suburbs, would be easily clocked as gentrifier gray. There is understated wainscoting, dark wood, and beige furniture. It’s an airport lounge or upscale hotel anywhere in the world. Steven Hubbard, associate principal at SCB, the firm that designed the adaptive reuse, calls the style “transitional.” It’s competent and risk-averse, letting the tracery, the pointed arches, the pinnacles, the gargoyles on the exterior, and the burly wood beams in the lobby assert themselves. There’s no aesthetic moral superiority to be gleaned from this early twentieth-century stone masonry, nor from the dust-filled lungs and arthritic joints that result from a lifetime of this labor, but the tower’s conversion does deliver a rare historical artifact to rarefied people, people who need (and receive!) two golf simulators (a driving and a putting green) and massage treatment rooms as part of their residential amenities. Loft-style double-story units occupy the tower’s top-level octagonal crown. This section looks “like a lighthouse” when lit up at night, says SCB’s president and CEO, Chris Pemberton, who lives in the building. The top-floor unit was the first to sell.
The views from this twenty-fifth-floor roof deck are predictably spectacular—most notably, they include Chicago’s other great confectionary cake-topper, the Wrigley Building—but they’re never quite expansive. The flying buttresses and piers block the horizon and create the feeling of medieval ramparts, cloistered and defensive, obscuring the city. But it’s an exquisite barricade. Turn one of many corners, and you can ignore the city entirely. From below, the tower looks as fantastic as ever. Now as in the Middle Ages, Gothic architecture instills awe and obedience to a higher power.
Detached now by time and adaptive reuse from the political economy that generated them, the aesthetics of the Tribune Tower don’t really matter. What matters is how the tower, ahem, buttresses the speculative capitalism that’s driving inequality. Matthew Soules’s Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century can help us understand this process. Retracing the scholarship of MIT architecture professor Arindam Dutta, Soules argues that certain types of contemporary housing operate as “financial icons”: investment vehicles increasingly divorced from their use as functional shelter. Housing is a place for elites to park their money in order to get a good return. With name-brand architecture, it’s passive income with cultural cachet. The ultrathin, ultratall towers lining Manhattan’s Billionaires’ Row, which proffer real estate investments several rungs on the food chain higher than what’s on offer at the Tribune Tower, are largely empty—but not because they’re failed investments. Human habitation is, in fact, ancillary to their purpose. They accrue value because of their location, form, and constituency, and that’s enough. The transition of the tallest and grandest buildings in the world from offices to residences is not an accident. According to Soules, “That change symbolically announces the shift from an emphasis on wealth accumulation through production to wealth accumulation through financial speculation.” (While CIM reported that 70 percent of the Tribune Tower’s units are sold, it declined to say how many of them are occupied.)
Soules’s analysis of how iconic form boosts speculator value mostly rests on contemporary architecture’s tendency toward parametric complexity (zloopy windows and squiggly walls), but he could well be referring to the Tribune Tower when he writes: “What is critical is its pronounced difference from the architecture of its context. Given the homogenization and standardized form of most commodity housing, it is expected that financial icons would be disproportionately formally complex.” The materials and medium are different, but the Tribune Tower’s lack of parametric complexity and factory-produced external detailing, as well as its antique historical vintage, all increase the tower’s iconicity.
But financial icons, meant to be leveraged and traded, can’t be completely idiosyncratic. In real estate terms, they need comps. Buildings, writes Soules, “emphasize standardization in order to better function as tradable assets.” The dour and conservative interiors at the Tribune Tower make it a commodity that’s more easily compared with others and therefore more easily converted into liquid assets. If an apartment’s primary goal is to appreciate as an asset for an anonymous and interchangeable set of owners, why offer anything more than an standardized, anonymous vision of upscale domesticity?
COMING OUT OF World War I (a defining experience for the newspaper’s publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick), a recession, and the Red Scare, McCormick’s tower was a chance to bind people around what was hoped would be a world-class temple to capitalism. The classism and racism on display in the newspaper’s pages flows from there. The day the design competition was announced in 1922, a front-page story about the conviction of members of a janitors’ union on conspiracy charges proclaimed: “The Greatest Victory Against the Labor Terrorists.” Here’s how the Tribune described W. E. B. Du Bois: “Karl Marx of Negroes; Noted Colored Philosopher Whose Works Are Used by Agitators to Stir Race Hatred.”
As the center of a media empire, the Tribune Tower played a key part in creating the new world Soules describes. Despite its premodern aesthetic choices, the Tribune prided itself on being a beacon of technological advancement, efficiency, and business acumen. The streel frame that held it up was relatively new technology, and Howells liked to talk his tower up in terms of structural expression, but it was an awkward fit, considering that his flying buttresses had no structural purpose. Photos of the tower under construction reveal a ghostly cobalt black skeleton emerging from the upper stories. Devoid of flesh in these images, the steel cathedral looks suddenly sinister. Most importantly, the Tribune company had a very contemporary understanding of the architectural icon. It wanted a visual monument that would be both functional office space and advertisement for its brand.
Katherine Solomonson’s book The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition: Skyscraper Design and Cultural Change in the 1920s, emphasizes the company’s role in guiding the transition from producer culture, focused on thrift and hard work, to consumer culture, focused on individual self-gratification, often via ideas and values disseminated through its articles and ads. “During the [design] competition, the Tribune emphasized craftsmanship, integrity, community, unity, democratic ideals, spirituality, beauty, history, [and] tradition,” she writes, “even as it perpetuated a culture that was becoming ever more secularized and focused on novelty, mass production, surface image, commercialized amusements, individual gratification, and the right to participate in what William Leach terms a ‘democracy of desire.’” Certainly, Soules’s financial icons find themselves at the nexus of novelty, mass production, and individual gratification. Solomonson continues: “It could be argued that the Tribune was simply masking some of the more disruptive dimensions of consumer culture—all the better to perpetuate them with their counterimages.” If the Chicago Tribune was one cog in the profit-making machine, it has perhaps done this too well for its own good, and its conversion to apartments marks a transition from the “fucking around” phase of commodification to the “finding out” stage. The newspaper got $240 million for its building, and Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund notorious for strip mining newspapers, paid $633 million for Tribune Publishing. The hedge fund has moved the paper into its printing press building, which is slated to be torn down to build a casino.
In the run-up to the tower’s construction, the Tribune’s hype often worked, and people took allusions to humanism and handicraft at face value: “We have too often been prone to think of Chicago as pre-eminently the embodiment of our so-called national spirit of commercialism, of relentless and unmitigated materialism of the essence of modernism and civic selfishness, indifferent to all but the great god of business and bunk. We doff our hat to the fine uncontaminated idealism that is expressed in the Tribune’s attitude,” wrote J.B. Carrington, the editor of Architecture, in 1923.
Carrington’s words are an appeal to the authority of an idealized past, a tack Muschamp considered with Black Rock as well. For him, chaining the Good Old European Left cultural origins of modernism (as embodied by Saarinen’s tower) to one of corporate America’s foremost desire manufacturers revealed something startling about the agency of design. “For what did it mean if an image-maker created a Modern building?,” he wrote. “It meant that perhaps the [modernist] canon was just another package. It meant that maybe architects had been fooling themselves in thinking that by adhering to the canon they, not the CEOs, were setting the terms for corporate culture. Perhaps corporate America had been calling the shots all along.” Yes. “Perhaps.”
It certainly was in the 1920s, when the architectural embodiment of global capital was up for grabs and the selection of Howells and Hood’s design over modernist proposals by Walter Gropius and others was justified with similarly unsettled reasoning. “In the early 1920s,” writes Solomonson, “the Gothic Skyscraper was variously perceived and represented as an up-to-date expression of the advanced steel structure and as a mitigation of the ills of the machine age; an attestation of commercial might and the embodiment of spiritual ideals; a monument to a unified democratic society and re-enforcement of the hegemony of the ruling elite.” Perhaps the most consistent frame deployed by boosters were spiritual allusions, easily at hand for a building based on a French cathedral. “New York City has its Saint John the Divine, Chicago has its Tribune Tower, both cathedrals of the spirit,” bellowed the Tribune in 1922.
IN AN ARGUMENT recognizable to any trad conservative culture warrior today, supporters saw the neo-Gothic tower as a way to transcend cold, unfeeling mechanistic functionalism as embodied by modernism, and move into a realm of humanistic craft. This assertion rings hollow to anyone who’s ever considered that historically, “humanistic craft” didn’t come with fair wages (if there were wages at all) or even a modicum of control over working conditions, but the modernist towers that sprung up later often did, while also often offering working-class residents their first shot at hot water and electricity.
The Gothic-era church reinforced the feudal, calcified class relations of its day, and now so does the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower. It’s an unwitting object lesson for the burgeoning enthusiasm some on the right have for leaving liberal democracy behind, as anti-democratic national conservatism moves toward political coherence, expression, and representation in the halls of Congress. The forms and crafts that traditionalists venerate only matter to the people with their hands on the purse strings and inasmuch as they can be used as props in a culture war that distracts from perpetually worsening quality of life for everybody else. The authentically astounding Gothic details of the Tribune Tower have a new life because they make it a good investment vehicle. But better ones will come along.
Nearly four hundred newspapers have shut their doors since the start of the pandemic. The last sentence of Solomonson’s book illustrates one way the public is losing access to the civic forum offered by local media. Writing in 2001, she observes that the twenty-fifth-floor “observatory is closed, and it is no longer possible to pay 25 cents to gaze through the tower’s flying buttress across a much transformed city.” It now costs millions to buy your way onto the former observatory. That’s one hell of a return.
Zach Mortice is amused by the fact that the Tribune Tower’s legendary monument stones collection includes artifacts from both John Brown’s Kansas cabin and his fort at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.