The MCC: Chicago’s Jailhouse Skyscraper

Roman Mars (RM): This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

“Chicago is next”

RM: If you want to stand out as a skyscraper in Chicago, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

I’ve stood at this corner a zillion, billion times and never looked up at this building.

RM: There’s a Hancock building, there’s the Sears Tower.

“Yeah you’re supposed to call it the Willis Tower now”

RM: Yeah, I’m not going to call it that.

RM: And then there’s my friend Dan Weissman’s favorite building, in the South Loop.

Dan Weissman (DW): A couple days ago I was at the cultural center and there was like a map of Chicago architectural landmarks- I mean, it’s got zillions of buildings on it. Houses, everything! And this building is not on it.

RM: Even if a building is not designed by a prominent architect.

DW: It’s by this guy, Harry Weese, who made the DC Metro. He’s a big deal.

RM: And even if that building has only three sides- it’s like a triangle from above.

DW: Like a grilled cheese sandwich cut in half diagonally.

RM: And has these irregularly-placed long, vertical windows slits.

DW: Like a punch card or a scantron card.

RM: It’s still hard to stand out as a skyscraper in Chicago.

RM: 99% Invisible.

DW: I remember the first time I noticed it, I was like “what IS that building?” And someone there was like “oh, it’s the jail.”

Jack Hartray (JH): My name is Jack Hartray. I was the project manager on the campel correctional center.

RM: Which most people know at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC.

DW: It’s a federal detention facility, it’s where you stay when you’re waiting to go up on trial at the federal courthouse, which is like two blocks away.

RM: When it was built, nobody much liked the idea of a federal jail downtown.

JH: The mayor didn’t want this building built in the loop.

DW: It’s right across the street from a club called the Union League Club, which is one of the kind fo fancy, elite clubs in the city. And people were like we don’t want, you know, prisoners mooning us from the windows of the jail, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be good for property values.

JH: So there was a lawsuit, actually.

DW: But, to their legal misfortune, they had to bring the suit in Federal Court, where the only people who were going to hear the suit were the only people who wanted the thing built. They were federal judges.

JH: And I think it took them about, you know, twelve minutes to get the thing kicked out of the court. It was impossible to get a judge that wasn’t in favor of building the building.

RM: The architects in Harry Weese’s group were tickled by the prospect as well.

DW: Jack Hartray, who worked on the building, said

JH: I think everybody in the office figured that you had a certain number of unindicted criminals in the city and then you had some that had gotten caught.

DW: The MCC was just for the people who happened to have gotten caught.

RM: And because the architects took it seriously that the inmates were innocent until proven guilty, they thought

DW: Let’s make this as nice as we can! You know, somebody already looked at this problem, how do you make a really small space cosy.

JH: Harry sort of viewed this from the standpoint of the accomodations on sailor boats. The furniture was all built-in, so you could really do pretty nice furniture.

DW: Built-in, hardwood furniture. Has these really clean lines. The bed, there’s a desk. I’ve seen this picture, it’s really, you know, it’s nice.

JH: We built rooms to scale in our office and my children used to come down and take naps. They loved the interior space. You know, kind of intimate and pleasant.

RM: It was cosy.

JH: Yeah.

RM: And those narrow, slit windows I mentioned earlier? Those are floor-to-ceiling windows, to let in as much light as possible. But they’re also build just narrow enough, at five inches, so that they were within the federal guidelines of the time to not need bars.

RM: Sounds really nice.

JH: It’s not a bad place to stay.

DW: I saw an interview with Harry Weese where he said that what he had in mind was like a hotel.

JH: Well, we were doing a hotel at the same time and this was better than the hotel, as far as the built-in furniture and all that.

“Show me the hotel.”

RM: Dan has a reporter’s tenacity like you wouldn’t believe. But he just couldn’t get the warden to let him into the MCC to see if all these beautiful Harry Weese interiors and designs were still intact.

DW: So I called around. Thinking, well, who gets inside these places? And I ended up talking to a guy named Phil Carrigan.

Phil Carrigan (PC): If you went into the facility and talked to a random bunch of detainees, they would be aghast at the description or maybe would want to go over and cut your throat. That not the case.

RM: Phil Carrigan has been going to the MCC for over ten years.

DW: He is kind of the designated volunteer for the MCC, and he goes and visits guys who don’t have anyone else to visit them.

PC: MCC is not a star. It’s very drap. Gunmetal gray. You know, the physical facility is nothing to show off.

DW: The cells! The architect described them as being very nice, with all this kind of hardwood, built-in furniture, for instance.

PC: They’re gone. The bunks are steel, two-tier structures. No wood.

DW: And do you have sunlight coming in?

PC: No. The windows are frosted. Doesn’t allow for sunlight to come in. And you know, the place is old. It’s definitely undergone some changes, but none of them have been for beautification.

RM: By the time Dan talked with Robert Bruegmann, who wrote a book about Harry Weese, he was pretty bummed out.

DW: There’s something about this that seems kind of sad to me. You know, Harry Weese is a really brilliant architect and this seems like it’s one of his signiture products. His conception is not what exists today.

Robert Bruegmann (RB): True, but you know there are Harry Weese buildings going down all over the country and that’s true of almost all architects of that period. So this is a minor matter- the inside of a place that was never meant to be public had been changed. You know, it is, after all, not a hotel.

RM: Even if the warden had let Dan into the MCC, it wasn’t the MCC that he wanted to see. For that matter, it wasn’t the MCC that Harry Weese wanted either.

“This is Chicago”

RM: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Dan Weissman and me, Roman Mars. This program is made possible with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, 91.7, local public radio in San Francisco, the American Insitute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. To find out more and see the punchcard building for yourself, go to 99percentinvisible.org

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