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The Perils of Restoring "Less Is More"

KRUECK & SEXTON ARCHITECTS FACED TREMENDOUS CHALLENGES IN THE RESTORATION OF MIES VAN DER ROHE'S 1956 MASTERPIECE, S.R. CROWN HALL, AT THE ILLINOIS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

By Sara Hart

Formal ceremonies celebrating architecture are usually reserved for ground breakings, openings, or reopenings, rarely for closings. But on May 17, 2005, S.R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and completed in 1956, was closed for restoration and renovation amid much fanfare. A hundred or so admirers of the school and the architect convened to witness a symbolic demolition—the inverse of a ribbon cutting—to launch the restoration. Mies's grandson, Chicago architect Dirk Lohan, won the opportunity to smash one of the 10-foot-tall windows at an online auction on eBay, sponsored by the Mies van der Rohe Society (mies.iit.edu).

In the audience at the ceremony was Mark Sexton, AIA, principal of Krueck & Sexton Architects, the local firm charged with this phase of an ongoing restoration of Crown Hall and other Mies structures. Sexton admits that after the sledge hammer shattered the glass and the university president announced that the reopening would take place in 15 weeks, reality set in, and his heart began to race. Although an opportunity of a lifetime for any firm, performing reconstructive surgery on what Time magazine called "one of the world's most inspiring and astonishing structures" is an undertaking fraught with danger, suggesting that a tight schedule might have been the least of Sexton's worries. Crown Hall is the home of IIT's College of Architecture, where Mies was director from 1938 until 1958. Thirty-six years after his death, the faculty still consists of Mies disciples, who, with a student body of 600, consider themselves conservators of the masterpiece, which received Chicago landmark status in 1997 and became a National Landmark in 2001.

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