In the middle of the twentieth century, increased public sector investment in new transportation modes and new technologies broke Chicago’s geographic grid, contributing to the growth of Chicagoland, now the fourth largest metropolitan area in the United States. Highways eponymous with presidents of the era like Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy brought the quiet villages and bedroom communities to downtown Chicago and back, causing explosive expansion. Developers purchased farmland and orchards, subdividing the land by acre and building modern ranches with appliances and attached garages. The private sector—established companies and new businesses—followed suit, also making the most of the space Chicagoland had to offer. Without the constraints of the city grid, companies, particularly those focused on developing new products and technologies, worked with architects that would assist them in creating architectural typologies that combined administration, manufacturing, research, and culture. Buildings were designed to reflect innovation and were set within curated, modern landscapes. Chicagoland’s corporate and industrial campus architecture was intended to be efficient and flexible while striving to look good.
This typology—one with much to offer the future—has been rendered vulnerable by the e-commerce, information technology, and logistics sector. In this sector’s search for new sites for logistics parks, warehouses, and data centers, companies like Amazon and CloudHQ along with the companies that manage and sell real estate portfolios for them, have eyed suburban locations as adjacent to their infill markets, scooping up corporate and industrial campuses and demolishing them, a build-to-core scenario that has ignored adaptive reuse.
In the Western Chicago suburb of Melrose Park, located approximately six miles south of what is now O’Hare International Airport, architect Albert Kahn designed a manufacturing and administrative campus for General Motors Corporation’s Buick Division in 1941 to assemble engines for the Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range, heavy bomber used prolifically during World War II. During that time, O’Hare was functioning not as an international airport, but as a manufacturing site for transport aircraft used by the United States Army.
The sleek administration building, facing North Avenue and set back from the street via a wide front lawn and circle drive, incorporated expansive horizontal bands of windows and a three-story limestone entrance at center. Contemporary materials like aluminum and glass block dressed the building in a similar fashion as Albert Khan’s other industrial works, integrating technology and functionality with modern details. Behind the administration building, a span of twelve manufacturing bays stretched north from the administration building, each bay topped with an expanse of clearstory windows. When the war concluded, the 84-acre complex was purchased by International Harvester, who began producing diesel engines and crawler tractors from its “Melrose Park Works” facility in 1946. In 1986, International Harvester became Navistar International, transitioning from farm equipment to commercial trucks.
In January 2021, Navistar announced that it would shut down and sell its Melrose Park campus, with the Chicago Tribune reporting that cost-cutting measures due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic aided in the decision. In late 2021, the campus was acquired by Bridge Industrial, a real estate company that focuses on the acquisition and redevelopment of corporate campuses and industrial properties. Bridge Industrial leveled the campus in 2022, a loss of both an intact 1940s-era Albert Kahn design and a candidate for a new use. Built in its place is Bridge Point Melrose Park, a new infill development for “labor and last mile distribution” set to open in the first quarter of 2024.
In 1960, United Airlines broke ground on an Executive Office Building and Education and Training Center in Elk Grove Village, two miles northwest of O’Hare International Airport, which had been running passenger airline service since 1955. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), the irregularly shaped campus was designed with the Education and Training Center at the south end of the site and the Executive Office Building on the north end. Both buildings were constructed of stark white post-stressed concrete, with façades separated into sets of bays, stacked two-stories high. Clear glass window walls were set back from the concrete façade, creating a thin, yet dimensional colonnade between the glass and the edge of the façade. The Executive Office Building is rectangular in plan, with three landscaped rectangular courts in the center. The building’s offices were located on the upper floors, while an auditorium and parking were located in the basement. The Education and Training Center was designed around a large landscaped interior court and contained sleeping and lounge facilities, as well as classrooms. A rectangular eight-story tower was added to the original two-story Education and Training Center during the campus’s north expansion phase. During the 1960s, the Education and Training Center was used to instruct flight attendants, then known as United Airlines’ “Air Stewardesses,” a position open only to unmarried women, who were required to meet qualifications based on height and weight. Air stewardesses were trained in classrooms with full-size cutaway cabins of United’s airplanes.
In 1963, the campus was given the Chicago Chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and The Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry’s Honor Award. The north expansion of the project won the Distinguished Building Award in 1970, also from the Chicago Chapter of the AIA and the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry. In 1987, the Executive Office Building was awarded the Chicago Chapter of the AIA’s 25-Year Distinguished Building Award. Despite its accolades, demolition began on the site in August 2022 for a$2.5 billion dollar hyperscale data center owned by CloudHQ, the demolition occurring a decade after United Airlines began moving its suburban operations to downtown Chicago. The first phase of the data center is set to open in 2024.
The architecture of the logistics and e-commerce, as well as the data storage industry, is expressionless, nondescript, and thanks to the rise of the global demand that birthed it, on every continent and every corner of our planet. They are constructed of an assemblage of gray precast concrete panels, broken up by loading docks, easily mistaken for low hanging clouds on the horizon on an already cloudy day. Windows and pops of color are strictly titular, and not unlike the redesign of the Amazon logo in the early aughts to look like a smiling face, an attempt to convey a level of trust that is about as deep as the cart icon with a number inside that indicates the items a consumer has yet to purchase. These buildings are the result of our endless quest to get the cheapest and the fastest everything, and they emulate that trend. A moat of asphalt surrounds each building. This architecture is the built environment’s version of fast fashion, and like fast fashion, once it is no longer on trend, or breaks a zipper, there will be no option for repair. Each purpose-built logistics park, warehouse, and data center of the 2020s is a future addition to our ever-growing landfills.
Tech companies and e-commerce grew exponentially over the pandemic, hiring millions of employees to keep up with demand and building new facilities to support it. These developments are heavily courted by municipalities and supercharged by government subsidies, but the industry is a false promise of upward mobility for communities and for workers. While the speculative component of e-commerce and logistics continues to surge, Amazon has closed, canceled, or delayed new facilities in an attempt to cut operating expenses as COVID-19 pandemic-era growth slows.
But no aesthetic or financial argument can upstage the lack of care for employees. After six workers were killed after a tornado ripped through an Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Illinois, in 2021, Amazon began reconstruction of the warehouse facility to “pre-loss conditions,” refusing to adjust its emergency policies against a call from members of Congress and an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) letter stating “concerns about the potential risk to employees during severe weather emergencies.” The US Department of Labor regularly cites Amazon for high rates of musculoskeletal disorders. A growing labor movement at Amazon has come from employees seeing their collective bargaining power and has reached warehouses across the globe. Yet, despite tremors through tech and e-commerce, the real estate industry that supports it continues to buy and develop properties.
In 1966, Lake County rezoned 140 acres of land from residential to industrial use in north suburban Deerfield for a new international headquarters for Baxter Travenol Laboratories, Inc. (now Baxter International), a multinational medical equipment company. The 179-acre site was planned and designed by SOM with Fazlur Khan as structural partner and Bruce Graham as design partner, both working on the Baxter project in the suburbs as the John Hancock Center (1969) and the Sears Tower (1974) rose in Chicago, changing the city’s skyline forever. Ground broke on Baxter Travenol Laboratories in 1972.
Located upon a site with gentle topography and a chain of artificial lakes, the overall project strategy of the Baxter Travenol Headquarters called for flexible, modular spaces to allow the company to expand as it grew. The first phase of the project included four low-rise office pavilions clad in off-white aluminum metal, designed alongside a large central facilities building, with a smaller executive office building located east. The office pavilions’ long north and south sides were set within an open plan, making the most of outside vistas. Inside the office pavilions, furniture, desks, and bookshelves were all modular, with electric and telephone floor ducts accessible beneath modular carpet tiles. Parking was resolved via two garages, the sides of which were sloped towards the pavilions, with planter boxes used to conceal each parked automobile. Each pavilion had its own unique color scheme, linked via an underground pedway as well as a network of glassy second-level pedestrian bridges. Within the executive pavilion, curved glass and a spiral staircase provide access to two conference rooms, a board room, and suites for senior officers.
The heart of the campus was undoubtedly the central facilities building, designed with a functional as well as character-defining feature: two twin masts rising thirty-five feet above the roof supported by stayed-cable suspension. The masts rested on eighty-foot-deep caissons. “The central facilities building was done at a time when cable-supported buildings were really being explored,” states William F. Baker, consulting partner at the Chicago office of SOM and one of the world’s leading structural engineers who worked as chief engineer for the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. “There were only two columns holding up the whole building, so it was cutting edge.” Baker goes on to share that the structural form of Fazlur Khan’s work emerged from the academic research and architectural practices he developed while teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and collaborating with fellow SOM architect and engineer Myron Goldsmith.
The roof system of the central facilities building is a dramatic and sophisticated feature that can be seen from the surrounding roadways, but also provided the building with large spans of uninterrupted space on the interior, making twenty-four-foot-high ceiling heights possible. The central facilities building was designed with ample room for an auditorium, training center, medical center, and a one-thousand seat cafeteria, along with an executive dining room and reception area at grade. The expansive full-height, thin-mullioned glazing of the central building allowed for vistas across the site’s native meadows and evergreens. Bruce Graham stated in his biography Bruce Graham of SOM that the design of the central building “was intended as a building, not for management, but for employees as a symbol of their endeavors, and as a place where work would be dignified.” Khan had complementary beliefs on understanding the users of his buildings. In a 1972 interview in Engineering News Record, he stated that “the social and visual impact of buildings was really my motivation for searching for new structural systems.”
The Baxter International Headquarters was given the American Institute of Steel Construction’s Architectural Award of Excellence in 1975 and AIA Chicago Chapter Distinguished Building Award in 1976. In 1985, the campus was expanded, taking advantage of its existing clustered design.
In May 2022, Baxter International announced their intention to put the headquarters up for sale, citing the rise in remote work. Hiring real estate brokerage Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) to sell the ten-building, 646,000-square-feet campus. Playing up the scale and location of the Baxter property to potential buyers, JLL announced in January that the campus would be sold, like Navistar International, to Bridge Industrial.
While the next iteration of the Baxter International Headquarters is uncertain, a better future for industrial and corporate campus architecture in Chicagoland may be within reach through the “Metroburb” concept of combining cultural amenities—including shopping, restaurants, and businesses of varying scales—within one campus. That metroburb, a term coined by Ralph Zucker, CEO of Inspired by Somerset Development and founder of Bell Works, is the former AT&T Headquarters in Hoffman Estates, designed by Lohan Associates in 1990. In an almost impossible feat for a postmodern twentieth-century corporate campus, Bell Works Chicagoland has proven successful enough to support a new residential component, inspired by urban neighborhoods like Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Following the example of a reimagining of the Bell Labs Building in Holmdel, New Jersey, a 1958 Eero Saarinen design, Bell Works Chicagoland has attracted companies seeking rich social and cultural environments in order to encourage the exchange of ideas and provide employees with satisfying work environments, a framework that did not exist within the mid and late twentieth-century structure of single-company corporate campuses.
The metroburb may not be a familiar portmanteau, but it has potential as a sustainable and long-term solution for corporate campus architecture against their speculative demolition for use for the logistics and e-commerce industries.
The demolition of Navistar International and the United Airlines Executive Office Building and Education and Training Center, as well as the tangible threat to Baxter International’s future are reasons to continue to observe the current status of other viable and architecturally significant corporate campuses. The Scott Foreseman Headquarters in Glenview (Perkins&Will, 1966) sits vacant, awaiting redevelopment, as does the former Avon Products Sales Center and Cosmetics Plant in Morton Grove (SOM, 1958).
While William Baker bristles at the suburban proliferation of the “architecture with a lowercase A” that the e-commerce and tech sector has produced, he expressed hope in sharing that the design of the Baxter International Headquarters inspired young admirers of the masts atop the central facilities building into becoming architects. “Baxter International is a landmark. It would be a shame for it to be gone.”
RICHARD TOMLINSON, SOM PARTNER 1987–2014, ON BAXTER INTERNATIONAL HEADQUARTERS
Video by SOM.
Thanks to Karen Widi, Manager of Library, Records and Information Services at SOM, for her invaluable help providing photographs of the SOM buildings included in this text. Thanks to Francisco López de Arenosa and Elizabeth Krasner of SOM for creating and coordinating the video on Baxter International Headquarters. Thanks to Céline Pereira, Collection Administrative Coordinator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture for providing the image of the Albert Kahn-designed building.