PARTIAL LOSS: Architect Bertrand Goldberg’s River City Interior Exposed Concrete Whitewashed

River City, Bertrand Goldberg, 800 South Wells Street, 1986 Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky
River City, Bertrand Goldberg, 800 South Wells Street, 1986. Photo Credit: Serhii Chrucky

After an extensive two-year process, River City has been de-converted from a condominium complex to rental, reported as one of the largest conversions in Chicago history. The deal was closed in December 2018, when all 449 condos were purchased for $90.5 million by a joint venture of Marc Realty Capital, The Wolcott Group and Ruttenberg Gordon Investments. A series of upgrades are planned including full redesign and renovation of the lobby and front entrance as well as a new fitness center and co-working spaces. The existing 250,000 square feet of office and retail space will be upgraded.

Built in 1986, River City is a highly innovative and iconic building designed by great Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg. Located on the south branch of the Chicago River, its curving concrete structure, organic oval windows and extensive skylight create a sunlit 10-story atrium. Despite the historic importance of this building, it is not protected with a Chicago Landmark designation. After demolishing the Goldberg-designed Prentice Hospital in 2013, the City named the Goldberg-designed Marina City a Chicago Landmark.

Some residents have expressed enthusiasm for the upgrades, said Lisa Hernandez, a current River City Apartment resident. “We are excited to see what the new owners have in mind for River City. We love the location and uniqueness of this building, it has so much potential. We’re looking forward to seeing our amenities like the lobby and River Road restored and modernized.” (REJournals, 1/28/19)

Not all residents are so enthusiastic. In response to the painting crew that began to paint the 10-story “River Road” exposed concrete atrium, River City resident Robert Olsen told Crain’s Chicago Business, “I think it’s vandalism.” (Rodkin, Crain’s, 1/16/19)

Painting Goldberg’s “River Road” “is a shame,” said Lee Bey, a prolific writer and speaker on Chicago architecture and former architecture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. “It really is a significant change to a space that Goldberg thought out very carefully. He brings this curvilinear ‘street’ inside the building, with the sun coming in from above. He thought of it as a street in Paris.” The interior, Bey suggested, is crucial to Goldberg’s design. While the architect’s famous Marina City, the twin corncobs on the Chicago river downtown, “is largely expressed outward,” Bey said, “for River City he brought that expression inward.” (Rodkin, Crain’s, 1/16/19)

Preservation Chicago supports the reinvestment in this iconic building by an important Chicago architect. We recognize that buildings are not museum pieces and require reinvestment to maintain long-term viability. We encourage the developers to engage with preservation advocates to find renovation solutions which support their vision for River City’s future while respecting the vision and legacy of its architect Bertrand Goldberg.

Going forward, Preservation Chicago strongly supports the designation of River City as a Chicago Landmark. A Chicago Landmark designation would have resulted in a better outcome for the aesthetics and the developer’s bottom line. If the building were a Chicago Landmark, all upgrades would have been reviewed by the Chicago Department of Planning and Development Landmark Division staff and approved by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Perhaps the exposed concrete could have been deep cleaned to return it to its original appearance and avoided the decision to paint. This added level of oversight helps developers and architects to improve their designs. Additionally, Chicago Landmark designation would have qualified the building for substantial tax benefits that would have generated significant additional resources for the development team.

Additional Reading
A Brutalist Bertrand Goldberg building is getting painted. Preservationists aren’t happy; A crew began painting white over the exposed concrete walls of the building’s ten-story atrium, which the architect envisioned as a sunlit interior street. “It’s a shame,” a Chicago architecture critic said, Dennis Rodkin, Crain’s Chicago Business, 1/16/19

Bertrand Goldberg’s brutalist River City building gets controversial paint job, Sydney Franklin, The Architect’s Newspaper, 1/18/19

First look at revamped River City Apartments, iconic South Loop building, RE Journals, 1/28/19


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