Less Is More

Returning a lakefront residence in Chicago to its Miesian roots

Chicago is an architectural treasure trove, a sprawling metropolis packed with significant houses, monuments, and apartment buildings. But few residents or visitors know that the sleek towers designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe at 860-880 North Lake Shore Dr. rank among the city's most momentous skyscrapers.

These eloquent creations—celebrations of simplicity and geometry—were the venerated architect's first high-rise compositions in steel and glass, and the fulfillment of a skyscraper concept that he had proposed three decades earlier in Berlin. Rising from a site on the shore of Lake Michigan, they became the prototypes for glass skyscrapers worldwide.

Chicago architect Michael J. Pado was a student at the Illinois Institute of Technology (Mies was director of the IIT architecture school) when construction on 860-880 was nearing completion in 1951. "They were all that everyone talked about at the time. Just as many people hated them as liked them," he recalls. "It was only after I was a few years into my studies that I realized how significant they were."

With straightforward steel frames, broad glass windows, and minimalist profiles, the buildings inspired absolute devotion from residents who subscribed to the architect's ethos of "less is more." Many furnished their pristine apartments in a decidedly functional Modernist manner, filling them with furniture designed by Mies, Le Corbusier, Marcel Breuer, Eileen Gray, and Florence Knoll.

Still, tastes change—even inside landmark towers so dazzling today that it's easy to forget they're over 60. And like all sexagenarians, they have been subject to modifications, revisions, and Band-Aid fixes that have taken them off what many perceive to be the "Miesian" course.

"Many people don't even realize that Mies didn't do most of the apartment interiors," says Pado, who has lived in 860 for 37 years and refurbished more than 20 units in the building, including his own. The Chicago design teams responsible for the interiors (PACE Associates and Holsman, Holsman, Klekamp & Taylor) worked with Mies and crafted floor plans that cleaved to his precepts. Living areas in the nearly 300 units were spacious and sited to maximize the views outside the floor-to-ceiling windows. Bathrooms and kitchens were undersized yet efficient. And the lath-and-plaster walls, a mere two inches thick, had no fussy baseboards or moldings. 

When residents initially moved into the co-op, there was only one hard-and-fast rule, which ostensibly emanated from Mies: "You had to make sure your window treatments were neutral," says Marc Boxerman, a managing trustee of the buildings' co-op board. "The windows were clear glass, and Mies wanted the towers to have a uniform appearance from the outside." Over the years, the co-op board added another mandate for residents as various decorative styles compromised the buildings' expressive curtain wall. "Residents are no longer allowed to paint the aluminum window frames," says Boxerman.

In 2006, a couple interested in Modernism bought a 3,400-square-foot unit in 880, the northern tower. They immediately committed to restoring the unit to its Miesian roots.

The couple was initially attracted to the landmark building for a specific reason, says designer Eric Ceputis, who was hired to restore the apartment: "They collect rare examples of mass-produced modern furnishings from the early 1930s to the early 1970s that employ once-innovative manufacturing and production methods, and specially engineered materials, such as tubular steel, plastics, and molded plywood."  Pointing to a c. 1930 tubular steel desk topped with an extra thick sheet of glass developed for architectural applications, he says, "Their collection embodies the same principles Mies brought to his work."

When he first walked through the apartment, he discovered a haphazard rearrangement of the original rooms. "It was a mess," acknowledges Ceputis, who brought in Evanston architect Anthony Hurtig to collaborate on the project.

Because the unit was on the top floor, a previous resident had received permission to build two fireplaces—one of them smack in the middle of the living room. "It was jutting out of the wall on a diagonal, and completely disjunctive to the original intent of the building's floor plans. The rooms were supposed to have clear sightlines out of Mies' windows and be devoid of ornamentation," says Hurtig. "This was sheathed in ugly muddy beige tile and obliterated a lot of the views."

There were "curvy, very '80s decorative walls in the kitchen; window frames had been painted black; space from the bedrooms had been ceded to create a huge master bathroom that had a garish Jacuzzi; the once-pristine walls and ceilings were wavy from bad workmanship when the units were combined; the baseboard convector radiator covers had been cut up to accommodate new outlets; and the mechanicals were dysfunctional because they cobbled together four different systems," says Hurtig.

Both fireplaces came out immediately, as did the whirlpool. In the living room, the flue was eliminated and the walls rationalized and refinished to reintroduce perfect orthogonal symmetry and rigor throughout the space. Red oak floors in the living and dining areas were patched and refinished. The master bathroom was remediated to reflect a more restrained style with terrazzo tile floors and reverse-painted-glass walls. And the kitchen was redone to emphasize clean lines and functionality.

Throughout the apartment, damaged walls that were still original were repaired with plaster and lath. (Where new walls were required, crews used drywall to limit expense.) And all the painted aluminum window frames, which Ceputis likens to "jewelry" and notes "are much more substantial than the versions made today," were stripped and refinished to comply with the building's preservation rules.

Christine Madrid French, director of the National Trust's Modernism + Recent Past program, says, "It is not so much the absence of ornament, but the embrace of straightforward simplicity" that makes Mies' residences so distinctive. Anthony Hurtig agrees: "It's much more challenging to restore something that looks simple and seamless than to do something that has a lot of ornate details." And his collaborator, Eric Ceputis, explains that "the architecture of the space is so meticulously minimal, you have to pay great attention to the craftsmanship and how materials are installed and meet. You can't hide flaws or shortcomings under decorative moldings. Every single line and surface must be perfect."

Of course, Mies understood that all too well. As he famously noted, "God is in the details."             

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