The MCC: Chicago’s Jailhouse Skyscraper

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

[Chicago is next.]

Roman Mars:
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.

Roman Mars:
There’s the Hancock building, there’s the Sears Tower.

[Yeah, you’re supposed to call it the Willis Tower now.]

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

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

Dan Weissman:
A couple of 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’s not on it.

Roman Mars:
Even if a building is designed by a prominent architect-

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

Roman Mars:
And even if that building has only three sides. It’s like a triangle from above.

Dan Weissman:
Like a grilled cheese sandwich cut in half diagonally.

Roman Mars:
And has these irregularly-placed long, vertical windows slits-

Dan Weissman:
Like a punch card or a scantron card.

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

[99% Invisible.]

Dan Weissman:
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:
My name is Jack Hartray. I was the project manager on the Campbell Correctional Center.

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

Dan Weissman:
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.

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

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

Dan Weissman:
It’s right across the street from a club called the “Union League Club,” which is one of the kind of 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.

Jack Hartray:
So there was a lawsuit, actually.

Dan Weissman:
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.

Jack Hartray:
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.

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

Dan Weissman:
Jack Hartray, who worked on the building, said-

Jack Hartray:
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.

Dan Weissman:
And the MCC was just for the people who happened to have gotten caught.

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

Dan Weissman:
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 cozy?

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

Dan Weissman:
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.

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

Dan Weissman:
It was cozy.

Jack Hartray:
Yeah.

Roman Mars:
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 built just narrow enough, at five inches, so that they were within the federal guidelines of the time to not need bars.

Dan Weissman:
Sounds really nice.

Jack Hartray:
Oh, it is nice! It’s not a bad place to stay.

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

Jack Hartray:
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.]

Roman Mars:
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.

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

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

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

Dan Weissman:
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.

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

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

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

Dan Weissman:
And do you have sunlight coming in?

Phil Carrigan:
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.

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

Dan Weissman:
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 signature products. His conception is not what exists today.

Robert Bruegmann: 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.

Roman Mars:
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]

Roman Mars:
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 Institute of Architects in San Francisco, and the Center for Architecture and Design. To find out more and see the punch card building for yourself, go to 99percentinvisible.org.

  1. Mims

    I lived in Chicago 1979-1983. The MCC TOTALLY stood out. That is such an awesome building I cannot believe you say it was somehow visually remarkable and blended in with the surrounding built environment. I cannot speak to the interior, but exterior was uber cool when I lived there.

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