A new book explores the prolific work of little-known Chicago architect Benjamin H. Marshall

Highrise Bling

A new book explores the prolific work of little-known Chicago architect Benjamin H. Marshall

Benjamin Marshall designed some of Chicago’s most iconic buildings, yet he has nearly been forgotten by history. (Tom Harris/Hedrich Blessing/Courtesy Acanthus Press)

Chicago is home to a great deal of iconic architecture, and has been the home to many architects who were icons in their own right. In many cases these two categories are intrinsically linked: Mies and his black monoliths, Frank and his prairie homes, and Louis and his ornate towers. But at least in one case, there has been a split in which few remember the man, while none forget the buildings. Benjamin H. Marshall, Chicago Architect, by John Zukowsky and Jean Guarino (Acanthus Press, $45.00), attempts to amend that situation by reeducating a city on some of its most beloved structures.

Benjamin Marshall was the kind of architect one might expect to find in the literature of his contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald. As the book describes, he was a socialite playboy who loved throwing pool parties at his Willamette villa, at which bathing suits provided by Marshall would dissolve upon contact with water. More often than not, Marshall could be found cruising the North Shore in his custom Packard convertible. Considering the book’s romantic description of the architect, it is hard to imagine how he has been nearly forgotten. And yet few know his name, despite the rich set of buildings he left behind.

Marshall’s work ranged from palatial mansions on the North Shore to extravagant hotels throughout the city. (Courtesy Acanthus Press)

The 168-page, black clothbound book, if anything, strives to capture some of that romantic fervor with historic images and rich, full-bleed images made just for the publication. A forward by Chicago historian Tim Samuelson describes his discovery of Marshall over his career, and conversations he had with an older generation of architects who loved him. A well-researched overview of Marshall’s life by John Zukowsky introduces the book in such a way to be interesting to architectural historians as well as those that are simply passionate about Chicago architecture. And though the book is not an academic history text, it does take presenting the work seriously.

Divided into chapters based on building typologies, short yet informative texts are followed by upwards of 18 pages of images and drawings of the projects. Historical images take readers back to streets of Chicago filled with bowler-hat-wearing gentleman, while contemporary photographs present the rich colors with which so many of the projects were filled. Chicago-based architectural photographer Tom Harris is responsible for most of the masterfully crafted images throughout the book. The shots that stand out seem to coincide with projects that can now be considered Marshall’s vanguards. These include the stately Drake Hotel, the pleasantly pink Edgewater Beach Apartments, and the neo-classical Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance building in Milwaukee.

Unlike so many of his peers, predecessors, and successors, Marshall was not tied to any one particular style. As the book illustrates, he sampled and remixed styles at will. It does not take much of a stretch to imagine that this is probably why he might not be remembered. With no distinct signature and many styles that, even at the time of construction, could have been considered regressive, Marshall was doomed to be overshadowed by more concise practitioners. The book itself describes him as rarely being the one with the pen doing the design work, an image so ingrained in the mythos of architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. Instead Marshall was a captain, guiding a crew of the best designers he could find to achieve his vision.

Not bound by an academic objectivity, it is clear that those who unapologetically admire Marshall produced the book. This comes through clearest in the preface by Jane Lepauw, president of the Benjamin Marshall Society, and the epilogue penned by perennial architectural patron Richard H. Driehaus. Both praise Marshall as a champion of sophisticated architecture and the unrecognized beautifier of Chicago.

For those who like to know all of these little abstract facts about Chicago’s buildings, this book will be greatly appreciated. For historians looking for the most definitive book on Benjamin Marshall, it may also be a useful resource, despite not being an academic text. If anything though, anyone interested in Chicago architecture should enjoy browsing the rich images of spaces that just don’t have contemporary equivalents. There is something about a turn-of-the-century, ornate gilded solarium that you just don’t see today.