Printer’s ink still coursed through the veins of the structure where I landed my first real job in journalism — The Des Moines Register & Tribune Building, a beaux-arts high-rise that was later sheathed in modernist glass and metal. The place was an architectural mishmash when I worked there in the mid-1980s, but it burst with character.
The fourth-floor newsroom shook when printing presses in the basement churned out copies of The Register, which billed itself as “The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon.” Sidewalk passers-by could peer through big glass walls and see those thundering machines and pressmen who folded newsprint into cute paper hats. Each night, small trucks would queue up at the building’s loading dock, ready to ferry the first edition to the far-flung corners of the state so farmers and townspeople could read it with their morning coffee.
Last year, that same 14-story office building became R&T Lofts, a stack of 164 rental apartments whose assorted floor plans have cutesy, journalism-themed names like “Scoop” and “Byline.” The way for that transformation was paved in 2013 when The Register departed its home of 95 years to another downtown building where it’s simply one of many tenants.
And so it goes: Battered by the migration of readers and advertising to the web, and keen to milk valuable downtown real estate for much-needed cash, more news organizations are severing their ties with buildings that endowed them with a civic identity on a par with banks, city halls and courthouses. Their diminished architectural stature comes at an especially bad time as President Donald Trump batters the media for supposedly reporting “fake news” and calls them an “enemy of the American people.”
Architectural visibility matters, even if its absence won’t stop journalists from getting to the bottom of things.
This shift came into fresh focus last month when Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart and I disclosed that the owners of Tribune Tower, Los Angeles-based CIM Group and Golub & Co. of Chicago, plan to convert the flamboyant neo-Gothic skyscraper, one of the nation’s great newspaper buildings, into condominiums as part of a plan that also calls for a 1,388-foot hotel-condo high-rise to rise behind the Tower. The Tribune is scheduled to move its newsroom to the old Prudential Building, a stolid mid-20th-century skyscraper just north of Millennium Park, before June 30.
Some observers lament this fading of news outfits into the urban woodwork, saying it makes them seem less visible and more remote.
“You couldn’t move through downtown Des Moines or downtown Chicago without connecting these newspaper buildings with the community institutions they represented,” Randy Evans, a former Des Moines Register editor and now executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, wrote in an email. “It’s difficult to make that same connection when the newspaper is merely a tenant tucked into an office building somewhere.”
Like other businesses, newspapers have never shied from using architecture to advertise themselves. Not for nothing did Col. Robert McCormick, the Tribune’s editor and publisher, shell out for the flying buttresses and pinnacles that adorned his storied 1925 skyscraper. Inspired by French Gothic cathedrals, the design by architects Raymond Hood and John Mead Howells suggested that journalism was a higher calling.
Such ornate flourishes masked the underlying identity of early newspaper buildings: They were “vertical factories” where journalists wrote and edited stories, compositors set metal type, pressmen ran presses and a variety of delivery methods (newsboys, horse-drawn vans and, later, trucks) brought the finished product to a mass audience.
The prime example: New York’s “Newspaper Row,” where a lineup of imposing towers, including Joseph Pulitzer’s domed World Building of 1890, stood watch over the comparatively diminutive, City Hall.
Each tower was a “palace of production as well as the headquarters that created a message on the skyline of the importance of the paper,” said Carol Willis, director of New York’s Skyscraper Museum, which in 2012 mounted an exhibition on New York newspaper buildings.
For decades, newspapers remained prominent architectural presences in their cities — even as new buildings replaced old ones, styles shifted from traditional to modern, and off-site printing presses made it easier to get papers to readers in the suburbs. Newspaper buildings even entered the realm of American popular culture. The 1930 Daily News Building in New York, an art deco landmark by Tribune Tower co-architect Raymond Hood, served as the set of the fictional Daily Planet newspaper in the 1978 Superman movie.
But the rise of the World Wide Web and social media have stripped newspapers of the readers and advertising dollars that once made them rich and powerful. In some cases, their buildings became expendable or they moved out, as the Daily News did in the mid-1990s (its former home remains an office building). Typically, the departures have led to one of two outcomes.
The first, demolition, has leveled modernist buildings such as the bargelike Chicago Sun-Times Building at 401 N. Wabash Ave., which came down for Trump’s glistening Chicago hotel and condo tower, and the boxy Washington Post building, by Albert Kahn Associates. Both were no great loss. The wrecking of another modernist box, the bayfront Miami Herald building (by Chicago architects Naess & Murphy, who also did the Sun-Times building) was tougher to stomach. Preservationists prized the Herald building as an example of the colorful, tropically influenced style they call Miami Modern (“MiMo”). Another demolition victim: The longtime home of the Indianapolis Star, which came down in 2015.
The second outcome, conversion to a new use, is exemplified by the transformation of the old Des Moines Register building into apartments and the 2015 reopening of the eclectic Cincinnati Enquirer Building as two hotels. The old Enquirer building retains its 1920s allure, especially in the handsomely restored public areas of its first floor, where visitors encounter colorful vaulted ceilings and a rich array of stone carvings. Such recycling efforts breathe new life into distinctive, often beloved, structures that have woven themselves into the fabric of urban life.
Whether newspapers’ former buildings are demolished or remade, however, their new homes tend to be mere containers rather than impressive architectural statements. Some dispense altogether with the traditional model of being close to downtown sources of power.
The Herald now occupies an unremarkable two-story office building in a suburban business park. That’s quite a change from the architectural muscle of the old Herald building. As the newspaper’s Andres Viglucci wrote in 2015, it “was built to be nearly indestructible, to keep the presses running even after a hit from the strongest of hurricanes, and, not incidentally, to remind everyone in its vicinity … of the power of those presses in the affairs of the city.”
The Sun-Times has taken a similar path, moving last year from a hulking riverfront high-rise at 350 N. Orleans St., where large letters spelled out its name on the facade, to a renovated low-profile building in the West Loop. The sign with its name have been removed from its previous home.
At least The Washington Post’s new home, an office building near the White House where it is a tenant, is prominently located and a sign near the building’s top displays the newspaper’s nameplate. But such touches can’t disguise the fact that the digital age has disrupted the design identity of newspapers, not just their business model.
As The Post’s Marc Fisher wrote in 2015, before the news organization left its old home: “The Post, like most American newspapers, is moving to a sleeker, cleaner place, part of a cultural and industrial pivot, from paper to screen, from daily to constant, from hand delivery to social sharing.”
In recent years, The New York Times is the lone major American newspaper to have erected an ambitious work of architecture. But its sleek, Renzo Piano-designed high-rise, which opened in 2007 with a large-scale likeness of the newspaper’s Gothic nameplate emblazoned above its entrance, reflects the newspaper industry’s travails as much as it represents an exception to them. The Times in 2009 had to make a “sale-leaseback” deal that involved selling part of its stake in the building, which it had co-developed, and leasing back office space. It has since moved to consolidate its offices within the 52-story structure.
Symbols count. It’s why the U.S. Capitol has a dome and churches have spires. To be sure, news organizations can produce great work even if they’re tenants in ordinary buildings rather than the owners of extraordinary ones; the recent run of revelatory investigative reporting about Trump and other figures attests to that. But the exit from structures that long symbolized their watchdog role hurts nonetheless. Lacking a memorable physical presence, embattled news organizations will have to work that much harder to keep the importance of their enterprise fixed in the public mind.
By Blair Kamin
Published February 3, 2018
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