“Stylish and forward thinking, our contemporary ambience blends seamlessly within the walls of the iconic Carbide & Carbon Building, a historic Burnham masterpiece fashioned from green terra cotta and black polished granite.” This is what the Hard Rock Café’s website has to offer about the Carbide and Carbon Building. What exactly makes this building so iconic? With a current resurgence in art deco style, how much of it stays true to the roots of the original art deco style? The Carbide and Carbon Building is one that provides a lasting example of art deco in the city.
We should take a brief look at the roots of the art deco movement and some of the examples of this style that still exist today. Art deco first appeared in France after World War I, expanding into an international style in the 1930s and 1940s. Combining bold geometric shapes, rich colors and lavish ornamentation, art deco is something we’re all very much aware of, but have few examples remaining to point to. When industrialization was reaching its peak, art deco followed suit. It spanned a short time frame, but many people can give examples of this movement when compared to other art movements, like De Stijl or Constructivism.
A building that immediately comes to mind is the Chrysler Building. How often is this building used as the immediate example of the built environment meeting the art deco movement? Nestled in the east side of Manhattan, it naturally receives more attention than buildings in other cities, but there’s something about the curved corners and the bold crown ornamentation ascending the spire that resonates with many people, whether knowledgeable about architecture or not.
The Carbide and Carbon Building in Chicago is another building that also reminds us of this style. Designed by the sons of Daniel Burnham in 1928, it is sometimes called “Chicago’s Chrysler Building.” Forty stories high, it fits into the city’s fabric and is unmistakably part of the Chicago skyline of skyscrapers. On the other hand, its style refuses to blend in. The building is surrounded by other tall buildings, most of them newer construction, utilizing steel and glass technology for skyscrapers. Originally, the building stood next to sandstone buildings. With the green once standing out among those buildings, it now stands out next to the steel and glass all over again.
Unlike its surroundings, the building employs a unique gold and green color scheme. The base of the building is made of black granite with black marble and bronze trim. Moving upwards, the building is clad in dark green and gold terra cotta. This gold leaf flaunts the decorum of the building, with 1/5000 of an inch thickness of 24-karat gold leaf. The top is covered in this gold leaf that not only provides ornamentation to the spire, but also the shoulders and setbacks of the upper floors.
Designed with the intention of resembling a dark green champagne bottle with gold foil, it abstracts this and turns it into a skyscraper designed to be both glitzy and glamorous. The lobby features black Belgian marble, another sign of elegance determined to be critical to the design. Its design is bold but careful and as a result, it still stands out today. Originally built for the Carbide and Carbon Company regional headquarters, it still bears the name elaborately across the front of the building. In 1996, the building was officially named a Chicago, IL landmark and soon after, became the home of the Hard Rock Café in 2004. After restorations, it was determined by the City of Chicago that the building would be permanently lit in order to give it the recognition it deserves in the city. The building itself retains its beauty as a distinctly art deco design.
The next time you find yourself in Chicago, I encourage you to take a walk down Michigan Avenue, but this time, keep an eye out for the Carbide and Carbon Building. Take a few minutes to visit and experience the art deco style in the built form and to see the structures that were carefully designed to represent luxury, glamour and technology. In the evening, you can look for the illumination that identifies a building that is both resilient and beautiful; becoming an emblem of the larger art deco movement.