Two S.O.M. Buildings in the Balance: the Hostess House and the Gunner’s Mates School at Great Lakes Naval Station

The Great Lakes Naval Station project in Great Lakes, Illinois, was the first military project of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (SOM). The Hostess House (Building 42) was designed by Gordon Bunshaft and completed around 1942. It remains the only remaining building designed by Bunshaft from the pre-war years. This building is an exceptional testament to the development of both the firm and modern American architecture. The rectangular building sits on a long narrow site, encompassing diverse programs including a reading and writing room, reception room, lounge, terrace, and offices. The roof consists of a series of laminated wood frames, which are supported at both ends by steel columns. The exposed wood trusses project through both façades, uniting inside and outside, creating a dynamic atmosphere.

The Gunner’s Mates School (Building 521), designed by William Priestly and Bruce Graham of SOM, was completed in 1954. The school building is a large blue-green glass box with slim steel mullions. Whereas the firm’s previous curtain walls were designed by the New York office, Gunner’s Mates was the first by the Chicago office. The approach seen here, where the building appears more technological and practical than aesthetic, became a tradition in the Chicago office thereafter.

The function of Building 521 was to train the Navy’s gunners, so the building incorporated classrooms and large open space in which various types of large and heavy weaponry could be operated for educational drills. The designers came up with an ingenious solution: a building within a building, in this case, a concrete building (for classrooms and service facilities) located within the glass “shell.” It divides the whole volume into two large interior open spaces used for the simulations. Balconies projected from the core serve as circulation paths and observation platforms for demonstrations. While the interior space produces an airy atmosphere of dual spaces, from outside, the glass shell presents itself as one large volume, concealing its supporting framework behind the wall.

-Hyun-Tae Jung

Editor’s Note: The viability of Buildings 42 and 521 is currently in question. Great Lakes’ base presently operates with more than 180,000 square feet of excess administrative space and more than 300,000 square feet of extra training space, and two or three buildings are demolished each year. On May 18, 2006, the Department of the Navy issued its first notice of Environmental Assessment (EA) for the two structures, a move which is usually a precursor to demolition. At present, DOCOMOMO US/ChicagoMidwest, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), the National Trust, and other advocacy groups are working to save the buildings. DOCOMOMO US was selected to be an active “Consulting Party” in the Consultation Talks for the Disposition. Neither building is listed on the National Register, but IHPA believes that both sites are potentially eligible, despite the Navy’s characterization of Building 42 as “nondescript and unlikely to possess . . . cultural significance.” Under federal law, the Navy is required to first prove there is no feasible or prudent alternative use for the sites before government funds can be allocated for razing the structures. The Navy will review public comment until Tuesday, June 20, 2006.

To add a comment, or for more information, please contact DOCOMOMO US/ChicagoMidwest at docomomo_midwest@yahoo.com. Comments in writing can be mailed to:

Commanding Officer
Naval Station
Attn: Maria Sus
Cultural Resources Program Manager
Code ENV
201 Decatur Avenue, Bldg. 1A
Great Lakes, IL 60088.

HISTORIC IMAGES:
Building 521 (Gunner's Mates School).
Building 42 (Hostess House)

AttachmentSize
Bldg_42__Hostess_House_2__GLNTC[2].pdf1.59 MB
Bldg 521 SOM book 1 GLNTC.pdf1.03 MB
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