By Sally A. Kitt Chappell, PhD.
Hailed as the “largest and finest apartment building in Chicago” by the Chicago Tribune in 1926, 3750 North Lake Shore Drive exemplifies the skill of architect Robert Seeley De Golyer.
De Golyer was one of the most prolific designers of the 1920s, one of Chicago’s greatest building periods. He has more than thirty buildings to his credit, many of them large, well-known apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive and Sheridan Road.
De Golyer was educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the standard curriculum grew out of the great European classical tradition, as taught and practiced by scores of his professors who had earned their degrees at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
The Ecole gave a free education to all students, from any part of the world, as long as they could pass the stiff entrance exams. When Americans who graduated returned from France their work was termed Beaux-Arts Classicism. This style dominated the American architectural scene until it was joined by the Prairie School and later supplanted by the International Style.
De Golyer began as a Beaux-Arts architect who used a variety of stylistic motifs as decoration, but throughout his career he retained Beaux-Arts planning principles. This ordered attention to detail is what made him so successful.
The distinguishing characteristics of Beaux-arts buildings can all be found in 3750. To view the building’s lake-facing eastern exterior in its entirety, stroll to Waveland Park on the opposite side of Lake Shore Drive and view the structure from a position in the center of the playing fields.
Notice the exterior mass, like a classical column, is divided into three parts: base, shaft and capital. The lower three stories, the base, are clad in limestone. These are separated from the upper parts by a horizontal string course. The middle and upper three stories, the shaft and the capital, are made of red brick further articulated by long, white vertical quoins and a rounded corner on the northeast. The top, or “capital” is distinguished by a balustrade.
This handsome façade is the envelope for De Golyer’s greatest strength: his interior planning. Here his Beaux-Arts training shines. The relationship of the parts to the whole are what a French-trained architect of his time would describe as “Bien distribué, bien disposé et bien composé:” well distributed, well disposed and well composed.
Enter any apartment in the building to appreciate how the rooms are placed in the order most favorable for their use. They take every possible advantage of their site on Lake Shore Drive. Their forms and dimensions are elegant, comfortable and useful.
These Beaux-Art concepts also embody the principles of the great Roman architectural theorist, Vitruvius. Every work of art should exhibit firmitas, utilitas, venustas, that is they must be solid, useful, and beautiful.
Many of the other famous architects of the period were trained at the École or by professors who had trained there, including many who also worked in Chicago. Some examples: Charles Atwood, designer of the Museum of Science and Industry; Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge of the Art Institute and the Chicago Cultural Center; Pierce Anderson, chief designer for Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, of the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, Marshall Fields, the Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Company, Union Station, and the Civic Opera House to name the most important. Dozens of other architects trained in Beaux Arts principles filled other major American cities with classically inspired buildings.
To pay homage to the past, all Beaux-Arts buildings had “historic ornament.” At 3750 it was Classicism, but in De Golyer’s other buildings the style of the ornament varied. He was adept at Venetian, Second Empire, Florentlne Palazzo, Tudor, Native American and Art Deco. These period reference were superficial embellishments to the true architectural strength of De Golyer’s work – his planning. In both the public rooms and the individual apartments of 3750 North Lake Shore Drive, it was this skill that distinguished his work.
At 3750, for example, the public rooms surround a central court, and the mailroom is secluded “so the lobbies are not given the atmosphere of a hotel.” Individual apartments originally had wood burning fireplaces, linen rooms, cedar closets, silver vaults, servants call bells, laundry and drying rooms in the basement, and other amenities that “make being a millionaire such a pleasant sort of occupation,” according to a Chicago Tribune article of the mid-twenties.
Since it was built in 1926-27, 3750 has undergone some alterations. A modernist cover over the Garden Court was added after World War II. Air conditioning units interrupt the architectural vista towards the sculptured fountains at the west end on the upper level. Modernist entryways on both Grace Street and Lake Shore Drive were also added. However, recent remodeling has restored some of the original design coherence.
A drive from Evanston to South Lake Shore Drive offers a panorama of De Golyer buildings. Some of them housed famous people, like Mayor William Hale Thompson at 3100 or Mies van der Rohe at 200 East Pearson. Scholars tell us that Mies thought of moving to one of his own buildings, but he never did. He stayed in De Golyer’s exquisitely designed apartment building until the end of his life. Critics of modernism have enjoyed pointing out this irony ever since.
Sally Kitt Chappell, poet and distinguished architectural historian, is professor emerita of art and architectural history at DePaul. She and her husband Walter have lived at 3750 for 39 years.
All quoted passages are from “Chicago Apartments: A Century of Lakefront Luxury,” by Neil Harris (Acanthus Press, 2004)