A Subterranean Parking Garage Reveals a Museum's Beauty and Excitement

Blair Kamin
Tribune Architecture Critic
July 16, 1998

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A review of an underground parking garage? My editor thought my glasses had fogged up.

But if a garage turns out to be as visually enticing and as significant to the cityscape as the one that will be dedicated at the Museum of Science and Industry on Thursday, then there is every reason to take it seriously.

Look closely and you realize that this is much more than a 1,500-space, three-level hole in the ground where you plunk your car or minivan while enjoying such perennial crowd pleasers as the Coal Mine and the U-505 Submarine.

It is a work of urban design and historic preservation, replacing an eyesore, the sprawling, 1,300-space surface parking lot that used to be in front of the grand Beaux Arts museum, with a big green carpet--six acres of parkland at the northern edge of Jackson Park.

It houses exhibition space, with a silvery, 197-foot-long train, the restored Burlington Pioneer Zephyr, set like a jewel in its center.

And it has prompted what is, in effect, an expansion of the museum, a towering underground entry hall just south of the garage that leads, via staggeringly long escalators, towards the museum's domed center. From the hall's wavy white ceiling hangs a dazzling piece of sculpture, a full-scale replica of the Cassini space probe now zooming toward Saturn. Once you arrive upstairs, it is much easier to orient yourself, a welcome change from the maze that used to confront you (and still does elsewhere in the building).

In other words, much more than a garage story has been unfolding at 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive.

The $57.6 million project is in many ways a cousin of the new Museum Campus at Roosevelt Road and the Drive, which unites Chicago's three natural science museums (the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium and the Shedd Aquarium) on a greensward uninterrupted by high-speed expressway traffic. Both represent a boost for the lakefront, and a rejection of the thinking that let the automobile run roughshod over it.

The Museum Campus was made possible in 1996 when Chicago moved the Drive's northbound lanes west of Soldier Field and, thus, off the shoreline. The parkland that now graces the Museum of Science and Industry is there because the institution took that old surface parking lot and, in effect, stuffed it underground.

The big idea that unites both efforts is putting the car in its place--not banishing it from the lakefront, but diminishing its presence and thereby freeing precious land along Lake Michigan for strolling, picnicking, Frisbee-playing or whatever else people choose to do.

Credit for the Museum of Science and Industry addition goes to Boston architects E. Verner Johnson and Associates, who conceived the museum's master plan; Chicago landscape architects, Jacobs/Ryan Associates, who shaped the parkland; and Chicago architects A. Epstein and Sons International, who designed the garage, the space enclosing the Zephyr and the entry hall.

Epstein also did the structural engineering for the project, no small thing because the equivalent of a bathtub had to be built in concrete around the garage to keep ground water from seeping in.

Although the garage is underground, one of main design issues was the impact it would have above ground--specifically, how it would affect views of the 105-year-old museum, an official Chicago landmark built as the Palace of Fine Arts for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and rehabilitated in the 1930s after a $5 million gift from Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck & Co.

Ionic colonnades, domed roofs and porches supported by column-like figures of women called caryatids make the museum a prime example of the classicism that predominated at the fair. Yet the museum's beauty has been concealed behind parking lots as well as additions such as the Henry Crown Space Center and outdoor exhibits such as the U-boat. The last thing it needed was to be liberated from the main parking lot, which had grown gradually over the years, only to have views of it marred by air vents and other above-ground protrusions of an underground parking garage.

The solution reached by the designers is appropriately respectful, deferring to the building rather than straining to make a statement of its own. Only underground, where they were less constrained by history, did they let loose with a dynamic contemporary design that still manages to be in keeping with the museum's Depression Moderne interior.

At street level, the grand symmetry of the Beaux Arts exterior is echoed in a pair of rectangular pavilions. Designed by Epstein, they allow those who park in the garage to ascend to ground level and to enter the museum via its grand stair.

Although the pavilions are somewhat boxy and their roofs are crudely designed, their low-slung proportions, Indiana limestone cladding and classical details don't get in the way as you eyeball the museum from 57th Street.

In the same modest spirit, Jacobs/Ryan has restored the landscape to the post-1893 world's fair look created by the Olmsted brothers, the successors to the great landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. A slightly sloping lawn without trees or shrubs ensures uninterrupted views from 57th Street. When they get a little fuller, a double row of sugar maple trees should provide a well-defined sense of enclosure for those taking a stroll.

As part of the project, 57th has been dressed up with replicas of the eclectic street lights used at the fair. Far from looking as though they belong in a theme park, they are, like the historic street lights on State Street and Michigan Avenue, handsome and human-scaled, with a ring of authenticity because they are based on what was there before.

The big question is whether people are going to use the parkland. Right now, it almost looks as if it is meant to be seen, not touched. But give it time.

Not only does the museum's president, David Mosena, realize the need for programs that will make this an active space, but also South Siders need a while to make it their own. More benches would help, particularly in the room-like outdoor spaces that flank the grand stair and offer splendid views of the caryatid porches.

Mainly, there is reason for optimism because that hideous parking lot, which acted like a moat that cut off passersby from the museum, is gone. Now, at least, the place seems more approachable. So pedestrians should start to wander in.

As for the garage, it's top-of-the-line--clean, brightly lit, with playful transportation-themed signs ("planes," "submarines" and "trains") to help you remember which level you stowed your vehicle on. And you don't have to go outside or travel far, as you do in the inconveniently located lots of the Museum Campus.

Mostly, the garage benefits from the presence of the Zephyr, which is set atop specially-built railroad tracks in a setting that resembles a train station. Its still-elegant streamlined shape is visible from all three levels of the garage. The train, which in 1934 set a land speed record by traveling non-stop from Denver to Chicago in 13 hours, has been put to excellent use by Epstein.

Because it bisects the garage, it breaks up what otherwise would have been huge floors into manageably sized chunks. That surely helps to orient visitors, a key part of the museumgoing experience. The train also elevates the garage into something more than utilitarian. The fun of scientific discovery, it says to kids and their parents (in a way that the imposing classical exterior does not), starts at the front door. When still-to-be-installed overhead lighting turns the train into a gleaming object, that message will be even more powerfully reinforced.

The Zephyr exhibition and the entry hall that begins at the train's gleaming nose are things to be thankful for. If the museum and the Chicago Park District had not come up with $14.9 million beyond the $42.7 million in garage funds allocated by the federal, state and city governments, there would have been no Zephyr space, and the entry hall would have been a visual disaster: a mean-spirited tunnel leading to the museum proper. Certainly no one would have called it the Great Hall, the name it now bears, without feeling foolish.

As built, however, the Great Hall conveys precisely the opposite impression. It is grandly scaled but not overwhelming. Even though there's not a hint of natural light in the three-story, subterranean space, the atmosphere couldn't be sunnier. You see the curvy, Space Age ceiling and you're tempted to say: "Roger, Houston, ready for liftoff!"

The architects have worked a neat fusion in this exuberant space. They have taken some visual cues from the rounded forms of the train (stainless steel-clad columns, admissions desks and the room itself are all oval shaped). Yet they have melded them with a dynamic series of forms, like that ceiling, that are strongly contemporary, if somewhat derivative of interiorssuch as the International Terminal at O'Hare.

But who's complaining? To ride up that long escalator is the late 20th Century equivalent of ascending the steps of a classical temple, and when you get to the dome on the ground floor, the building's cross-shaped floor plan is easily grasped. All that's missing are views through some now-closed south doors of the museum to the Jackson Park lagoon, which would bring natural light into the cavernous interior and further help to orient visitors.

Still, there's only so much you can reasonably expect from an underground parking garage, even one this good. Here, digging down has raised our sights, scientific and aesthetic.

Criticism 1999