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Eliel Saarinen's Tribune Tower design

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Eliel Saarinen's Tribune Tower design
Eliel Saarinen Tribune Tower design 1922.jpg
Eliel Saarinen's unbuilt 1922 skyscraper design
Alternative namesSaarinen tower
General information
StatusNever built
TypeCommercial offices
Technical details
Floor count29
Design and construction
ArchitectEliel Saarinen

Eliel Saarinen's Tribune Tower design or the Saarinen tower are terms used to describe the unnamed and unbuilt design for a modernist skyscraper, created by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen and submitted in 1922 for the Chicago Tribune's architectural competition for a new headquarters. The winning entry, the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, was built in 1925. Saarinen's entry came in second place yet became influential in the design of a number of future buildings.


In 1921–22, the prominent Tribune Tower competition was held to design a new headquarters for the Chicago Tribune, a major US metropolitan newspaper. It attracted 260 entries. First place was awarded to a design by New York architects John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, a neo-Gothic building completed in 1925. Saarinen was awarded $20,000 for second place; his design was never constructed.[1] Many observers felt that Saarinen's simplified yet soaring setback tower was the most appropriate entry, and his novel modernist design influenced many subsequent architectural projects.[2][3]

Saarinen was a veteran architect but had never before designed a skyscraper. To arrive at his noteworthy design, he took as a starting place the upward sweep of Gothic architecture, but then advanced this sense of verticality as his primary design principle. He said that through "logical construction" each portion of the design was made to reflect the larger goal of verticality.[4] He was 49 years old when he submitted the design; the next year he moved from Finland to the Chicago area. In the U.S., he contributed to an overall design for the Chicago lakefront, and he lectured at the University of Michigan, but none of his skyscraper designs were ever built. Instead, others found success by incorporating his vision. Tribune Tower competition co-winner Raymond Hood adopted Saarinen's skyscraper style for several of his subsequent projects,[5] and Saarinen's design was emulated by other contemporary architects such as Timothy L. Pflueger, George W. Kelham, Hubbell and Benes, Holabird & Roche, Alfred C. Finn, and James Edwin Ruthven Carpenter, Jr., as well as later architect César Pelli.[6]


Respected Chicago architect Louis Sullivan offered high praise to Saarinen's design, and said that his building indicated the future direction for the old Chicago School. Sullivan named Saarinen his stylistic successor. Chicago architects Thomas Tallmadge and Irving Kane Pond were also very vocal in their praise for Saarinen. Pond said Saarinen's design was by far the best contest entry, that it was devoid of the superficial adornments featured on the winning entry, and free of the "stranglehold of conventional forms."[4] Tallmadge projected that Saarinen's design would be transformative for American skyscrapers.[7] He said that under Saarinen's hand, the spirit of the skyscraper, "rid of its inhibitions and suppressed desires... leaps in joyous freedom to the sky."[8]

Skyscraper Museum director Carol Willis, and art consultant Franck Mercurio, curator at the Field Museum in Chicago, offer moderating modern views about the influence of Saarinen's design. Willis notes that setback architecture was being implemented in New York City highrises because of 1916 zoning ordinances related to building height and sunlight, and that Saarinen's design was understood to be an embodiment of this trend.[9] Mercurio points to the Tribune Tower competition entry from American architect Bertram Goodhue as having the same modernist features as Saarinen's, with dramatic setbacks but a more pronounced simplification of the exterior. Mercurio argues that Goodhue's design is a better example of modernism because it has less ornamentation. Goodhue's entry gained him honorable mention but no cash award.[10]

Buildings influenced[edit]

The following buildings have been observed to be influenced by Saarinen's 1922 design.

Name Image Location Architect Floors Year Notes
American Radiator Building NYC - American Radiator Building.jpg New York City Raymond Hood 23 1924 The American Radiator Building was the next commission by Raymond Hood following his success in the Tribune Tower competition. Hood quickly adapted Saarinen's style and applied it to this design, which was finished with construction before the Tribune Tower was completed.[5][11]
140 New Montgomery PacBell Building, northeast corner.jpg San Francisco Timothy L. Pflueger 26 1925 Originally called the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Building, 140 New Montgomery was designed by San Francisco architect Timothy L. Pflueger in 1923–1924 to be the headquarters for Pacific Telephone & Telegraph. The 26-story building, completed in 1925, was the tallest in San Francisco for 40 years, in a close tie with the Russ Building. Pflueger's vision for the building lay in combining the vertical thrust of Saarinen with the reflective qualities of Sierra granite.[12]
Russ Building Russ Building front 1.JPG San Francisco George Kelham 32 1927 The Russ Building was designed by architect George Kelham. The 32-story building, completed in 1927, was the tallest in San Francisco for 38 years, in a close tie with 140 New Montgomery.[12]
AT&T Huron Road Building Ohio Bell Building.jpg Cleveland Hubbell and Benes 24 1927 Originally known as the Ohio Bell Building, the skyscraper served as offices and a regional switching center for telephone company Ohio Bell. The building was designed by Hubbell and Benes with a perpendicular modernist vision following Saarinen's lead.[13]
333 North Michigan 20070516 333 North Michigan.JPG Chicago Holabird & Root, John Wellborn Root, Jr. 34 1928 John Wellborn Root, Jr. designed the exterior of this commercial skyscraper, keeping to the clean verticality of Saarinen's design.[14]
Fisher Building Fisher Building Detroit crop.jpg Detroit Albert Kahn Associates, Joseph Nathaniel French 30 1928 The Fisher Building was built across the street from the headquarters of General Motors (GM) to house the offices of Fisher Body which had been acquired in 1926 by GM. Joseph Nathaniel French of Albert Kahn Associates served as the chief architect. French's hand is strongly evident, taking his inspiration from Saarinen's clean vertical lines; the building is unlike other Albert Kahn works.[15]
Beekman Tower Panhellenic Tower 1st Av 49 St hotel jeh.jpg New York City John Mead Howells 26 1928 The Beekman Tower was designed by John Mead Howells for the New York chapter of the Panhellenic Association.[16] Its setbacks and massing were based on Saarinen's design.[17]
JPMorgan Chase Building (Houston) Gulfchasehouston.jpg Houston Alfred C. Finn, Kenneth Franzheim, and J. E. R. Carpenter 36 1929 Originally known as the Gulf Building and built to house the offices of Gulf Oil, National Bank of Commerce, and the Sakowitz brothers, the building was commissioned by Texas politician and entrepreneur Jesse H. Jones.[18] Its stepped profile was based on Saarinen's 1922 design.[19] Later it was known as the Texas Commerce Bank Building. It was the tallest building in Houston until 1963.[20]
David Stott Building DavidStottBuilding.jpg Detroit Donaldson and Meier 38 1929 The David Stott Building is the tallest ever designed by Donaldson and Meier.[21] Verticality is emphasized by the near absence of ornamentation, and by a relatively small footprint which yields a slender profile. The building features a series of setbacks from the 23rd floor upward.[22] Michigan architecture professor Eric J. Hill of the American Institute of Architects wrote that the David Stott Building is a classic example of modernism, and that few Detroit skyscrapers "captured the ideal" of Saarinen's design so well.[23]
Seattle Tower Seattle Northern Life 03.jpg Seattle Albertson, Wilson & Richardson 27 1929 The Seattle Tower was built as the Northern Life Tower, to serve as the headquarters for Northern Life Insurance Company. Architects Albertson, Wilson & Richardson took inspiration from Saarinen's vertically oriented design.[24]
Shell Building Shell Building.jpg San Francisco George Kelham 28 1929 The Shell Building in San Francisco was designed by George Kelham. The 28-story building was completed in 1929. Kelham emphasized Gothic verticality; the top of the building is especially like Saarinen's design.[12][25]
Powhatan Apartments 20070528 Powhatan.JPG Chicago Leichenko & Esser, Charles L. Morgan 22 1929 The Powhatan is one of five apartment buildings financed in the late 1920s by the Garard Trust, designed by the architectural firm Leichenko & Esser, with Charles L. Morgan responsible for appearance. He was influenced largely by Saarinen's stripped-down exterior design incorporating unbroken vertical piers.[26]
Daily News Building New York Daily News building 1930.jpg New York City John Mead Howells, Raymond Hood 36 1930 The New York Daily News headquarters is a modernist stepback building designed by Howells and Hood, the winners of the Tribune Tower competition. Though the exterior is mostly free from ornament, Howells and Hood embraced a more expressive Art Deco-style in their design of the interior, especially the lobby.[27]
McAllister Tower Apartments 100McAllister.jpg San Francisco Timothy L. Pflueger 28 1930 The McAllister Tower Apartments, originally the William Taylor Hotel, was designed by Timothy L. Pflueger for a church congregation. The 28-story building, completed in 1930, was initially an unusual combination of church at street level and hotel above it.[12]
Tower Petroleum Building Tower Petroleum Building01.JPG Dallas Mark Lemmon 23 1931 Architect Mark Lemmon hewed closely to Saarinen's vision by implementing two setbacks.[28]
181 West Madison Street 181 West Madison Street 06.JPG Chicago César Pelli 50 1990 Early in his career, César Pelli was a project designer under Eero Saarinen, the architect son of Eliel Saarinen. The strong verticality of 181 West Madison Street is emphasized by setbacks in the manner of the elder Saarinen.[6]


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  5. ^ a b Solomonson 2003, p. 247.
  6. ^ a b AIA Guide to Chicago 2004, p. 85.
  7. ^ Solomonson 2003, p. 294.
  8. ^ Solomonson 2003, p. 295.
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  10. ^ Mercurio, Franck (November 6, 2011). "A tale of two skyscraper designs". Modern Before Mies. Retrieved April 22, 2013.
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  13. ^ Federal Writers Project (1940). The Ohio Guide. Best Books. p. 123. ISBN 1623760348.
  14. ^ AIA Guide to Chicago 2004, p. 29
  15. ^ Hitchcock, Henry-Russell (1977). Architecture: Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Pelican History of Art. 215 (4 ed.). Yale University Press. pp. 483–484. ISBN 0300053207.
  16. ^ "Panhellenic Tower" (PDF). New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. February 13, 1998. p. 3. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  17. ^ Stern, R.A.M.; Gilmartin, G.; Mellins, T. (1987). New York 1930: architecture and urbanism between the two world wars. Rizzoli. p. 215. ISBN 978-0-8478-0618-8. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  18. ^ Gonzalez, J.R. (November 26, 2008). "Former Gulf Building gets high honor". Houston Chronicle.
  19. ^ Victor, Sally S. "Gulf Building, Houston". Texas State Historical Association. Retrieved April 22, 2013.
  20. ^ Fenberg, Steven (2011). Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones, Capitalism, and the Common Good. Texas A&M University Press. p. 170. ISBN 1603445714.
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  26. ^ Alice Sinkevitch, Laurie McGovern Petersen, ed. (2004). AIA Guide to Chicago (2 ed.). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 427. ISBN 0156029081.
  27. ^ Reed, Henry H. (1971). The Golden City. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 142. ISBN 039300547X.
  28. ^ Henry 1993, p. 314.

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