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Article about Benjamin Marshall

The article below is from the January 16, 2011 edition of the Chicago Tribune, by Blair Kamin, Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic.
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His architecture is better known than he is: Enthusiasts rally to celebrate under-appreciated Benjamin Marshall, designer of landmark hotels and much of East Lake Shore Drive.

He was dashingly handsome and an A-list partier, hosting bold-face names like the Duke of Windsor at his lakefront mansion in the northern Chicago suburb of Wilmette.

He designed some of Chicago's best-known landmarks — the Drake and Blackstone hotels; five of the eight buildings on exclusive East Lake Shore Drive (left, in the 1920s); the elegant residential high-rise at 1550 North State Parkway, and the South Shore Cultural Center, where Barack and Michelle Obama held their wedding reception.

Yet the Chicago architect who shaped these highly visible structures, while much admired by a small circle of architecture buffs, is little known to the public.
Perhaps the time finally has come for the rediscovery of Benjamin Marshall.
A group of enthusiasts who call themselves The Benjamin Marshall Society is seizing upon an obscure centennial to put the late architect back in the spotlight.
Benjamin Marshall In 1911, Marshall, who doubled as a developer, began turning landfill east of Michigan Avenue into what is now East Lake Shore Drive. The street's imposing row of limestone, terra cotta and brick buildings, which rise like a cliff above Oak Street Beach, is one of the postcard images of Chicago. Among the street's former property owners: the late advice columnist Ann Landers and talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey, who bought a 5,000-square-foot East Lake Shore Drive co-op in 2006, then sold it after realizing that her neighbors could look into her windows.

Blackstone Hotel

East Lake Shore Drive in the 1920s

Blackstone Marshall "helped define Chicago," said the Society's president, Jane Lepauw of Northbrook, who is joining Jennifer McGregor of Lake Forest to co-chair the group's March 4 gala at the Drake. The Society's aim: Raise enough money to mount a Chicago exhibit of Marshall's works and catalogue his archives, which improbably reside at the University of Texas.

At first glance, Marshall seems an odd figure to celebrate. His high-living, Jay Gatsby ways are out of sync with the grim realities of today's economy. He was not an innovator, like Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. Nor did he express anything comparable to Daniel Burnham's grand metropolitan vision of teeming parks and iconic public works, though he may have been inspired by it.
Marshall matters for this simple reason: He was very, very good at what he did. And what he did was to shape stage sets for the wealthy and powerful, borrowing freely from the styles of the past

Renaissance, Gothic, Tudor, Second Empire, you name it—to give his clients the rush of visual pleasure. Ordinary people could also enjoy his buildings, though they could not afford to live there. Contrast that with Chicago's recent spate of eyesore condo towers and you have a distant figure that seems relevant.

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