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Why Marina City is among ’10 Homes that Changed America’

Geoffrey Baer with Chicago's Marina City in the background. | COURTESY WTTW-CHANNEL 11

Many Chicagoans, for as long as I can remember, affectionately refer to the riverfront towers as “the corn cobs.”

And truth be told, the imagery befits Marina City, the twin towers designed by renowned architect Bertrand Goldberg in the early 1960s as a three-acre, mixed-use complex that changed the country’s idea of what city dwelling could be. The circular structures were part of a “city within a city,” says WTTW-Channel 11 personality Geoffrey Baer, who explores the impact of Marina City as well as nine other dwellings across the country in a new special “10 Homes that Changed America.”

The episode, the first of a new three-part series, will air at 8 p.m. April 5 on the Chicago PBS affiliate, followed by “10 Parks that Changed America” on April 12 and “10 Towns that Changed America” on April 19.

Chicago’s iconic Marina City. | COURTESY WTTW-CHANNEL 11
Chicago’s iconic Marina City. | COURTESY WTTW-CHANNEL 11

“These are not the 10 best homes that changed America,” Baer said in a recent phone conversation, “but 10 homes that over the decades had a profound impact on how America perceived the concept of ‘home.’ … Dan [Protess, Baer’s longtime producer at WTTW] and I reached out to architects and academic advisors and asked them for their list of 10 homes that changed America. We ended up with a list of 40 or 50 and then we trimmed it to a short list of 10. We wanted the homes to represent geographic diversity across not only space, but time. So we start with 700-year-old dwellings in Taos [New Mexico] and go to present day. We wanted diversity of type, so we have Marina City and we have tenements in New York. What we didn’t want was a bunch of superstar homes. We feel the homes on the list have enough legitimacy.”

It’s that legitimacy that serves as the storyline for the program. An array of renowned architects, as well as the housing they created, are profiled.

“Did Fallingwater [built in 1937 in Mill Run, Pennsylvania, another of the homes on the list of 10] spark an architectural movement? No, but it resuscitated Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearly failing career at the time,” Baer said. “He went on to create some of his greatest works.” The home was built for department store mogul Edgar Kauffman and, according to Baer, was “considered to be one of Lloyd Wright’s greatest triumphs.”

The remaining eight homes on the list include the 15th century adobe “green buildings” of Taos, New Mexico; Thomas Jefferson’s stately hilltop estate Monticello; the gothic Lyndhurst castle in Tarrytown, New York, designed by A.J. Davis; the tenement houses of New York’s Lower East Side, which housed thousands of immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries; the Charles and Henry Green-designed Gamble House in Pasadena, California, which paved the way for the bungalow boom of the mid-1900s; the Langston Terrace Dwellings public housing complexes of Washington, D.C., designed by Hilyard Robinson; the Charles and Ray Eames-designed Eames House in Pacific Palisades, California, which ushered in the affordable, easily replicable pre-fab home; and Michelle Kauffman’s Glidehouse in Novato, California, an ultra-sleek, modern, environmentally friendly and energy-efficient housing style.

“We have great construction photos of Marina City that we feature in the segment,” Baer continued. “They built one floor a day, and there’s hardly a right angle anywhere. I’ve been a docent on the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Tours since 1988. It was not too many years ago that the river was still seen as a smelly industrial sewage channel. The city had literally turned its back on it. The East Bank Club is the trendiest club in Chicago, but if you’re on the river, the club is this huge concrete wall. So along comes [architect Bertrand] Goldberg in the early 1960s and he’s like, we’re gonna put a boat dock on the river with housing above it and celebrate our river. That was crazy in the 1960s. Turns out the buildings were so far ahead of their time.”

The Glidehouse, Novato, California. Designed by Michelle Kauffman | PHOTO BY PAUL TURANG
The Glidehouse, Novato, California. Designed by Michelle Kauffman | PHOTO BY PAUL TURANG

What was also “crazy” to some was Goldberg’s belief that the towers would change the way people thought about living downtown. His concept arrived amid the great suburban migration plaguing many of postwar America’s biggest cities in the 1950s. The towers’ floors are designed like flower petals, if you look at them from above. The studios are one and a half petals; the two-bedroom units are two or two and a half petals.

“Marina City was definitely emblematic of what was happening in cities around America,” said Protess in a separate interview. “Along comes Marina, a flashy, mixed-use building, with offices, a bowling alley, restaurants, skating rink [roughly where the Smith and Wollensky restaurant now stands]. There was a movie theater where House of Blues now lives. And you could park your car. It had all the amenities of suburban life. Suddenly living downtown was very attractive.”

The episode on “10 Parks that Changed America” includes the Chicago park system, the first system in which public parks were scattered across a city and provided social services such as ballfields, basketball courts and field houses. “The field houses provided English classes for immigrants, and showers for workers at the nearby Stock Yards because most folks did not have them at home. So once a week they’d stop off for a free shower,” Baer said.

“If there’s a higher purpose to these programs, I’m trying to raise the public’s consciousness a little bit,” he said. “All these buildings and parks you pass by every day are designed by someone for good, or for ill. We need to understand how these things came into being.”

Lyndhurst Castle | PHOTO BY JONATHAN HILLYER
Lyndhurst Castle | PHOTO BY JONATHAN HILLYER