The gloomy grandeur of the Pittsfield Building

Interior hallway of Chicago's Pittsfield Building, © 2013 Celia Her City

After my visit to Toni Patisserie, I wandered into the Pittsfield Building, a sort of museum piece when it comes to architectural glory.  Built in the 1920s, before the Great Depression, the Pittsfield is an instance of retail magnate Marshall Field’s broad and enduring impact on Chicago.

Field became wealthy by building up the great department store that bore his name but used real estate to salt his fortune away.  Dying in 1906, Field left a significant portfolio, which his trustees developed for decades afterward.  Named for the Massachusetts town where Field first found work as a boy, the Pittsfield was one such development, built out of Field’s property after he died.

Despite the magnificence of its Spanish Gothic interior, the building has a comfortable, almost down-at-the-heels atmosphere.  Its marble floors are soft-worn, its atrium filled with a light that’s dim and uncertain.  Brass froth is everywhere, framing windows and doors, plating the elevators, dripping from ceilings, and encrusting the massive mail boxes in the main lobby.  Buffed with use and care, it gleams with the patina that generations of human hands have imposed.

The coffered ceiling of Chicago's Pittsfield Building, © 2013 Celia Her CityThe Pittsfield’s coffered ceilings and light fixtures are products of a splendid period when ornate and evocative (almost fantastical) commercial buildings were favored.  In addition to projecting wealth and unshakeable stability, early twentieth-century skyscrapers like the Pittsfield exude a mastery of history and confidence in life’s grand possibilities.

In just a few short years, the grandeur and exuberance of this style of architecture would become a casualty of society’s drive toward efficiency, while the straitened economy of the thirties brought with it a more austere style in all things.  Yet stepping into the lobby of the Pittsfield Building is as good as traveling back to that breathless time, when women bobbed their hair and Fitzgerald’s genius burned.


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