The Harold Washington Library Center: Aluminum Roof Ornaments


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For over a year, Welding Works was involved in an immense project: fabricating seven aluminum ornamental structures for Chicago’s Harold Washington Library Center. We fabricated over 90 individual ornaments, designed by Kent Bloomer, which we then assembled into 7 major structures that have just been installed at the Library’s 4 corners and 3 entrances. These structures, which measure as wide as 75 feet and as tall as 40 feet, each consist of an aluminum support frame to which the individual assemblies are attached. We estimate that over 1 million welds were required to complete the project. In all, 100 tons of sheet, plate and structural aluminum were used. Aluminum was chosen for its strength and durability, as well as its comparatively light weight. 80,000 pounds of galvanized structural steel were also required to provide support for the ornamental structures.

Architect Thomas Beeby, of Hammond Beeby and Babka, the firm that designed the Library, developed the concept and architectural scheme of the ornaments for the building. His ideas were interpreted by sculptor/ornamenter Kent Bloomer and sculptor Raymond Kaskey. Bloomer, Professor of Architecture at Yale University, designed the ornamental foliage. He says, “The botanical ornaments for the Chicago Library are descended from the ancient classical tradition in which significant features found within or derived from nature … are placed in prominent locations upon an important building to symbolize the forces of life and eternity.”

The foliated ornaments are composed of winged leaves and curling foliage. Kent Bloomer and his assistant William Jelley made wood and foam models of the ornaments that were used for designing, quoting, engineering and fabrication. From these, we developed full-size patterns that were used to cut the intricate shapes from sheet and plate up to 1″ thick. Close to 1,000 different shapes were produced in this manner.

Forming proved to be one of the most demanding aspects of the project. A trial and error method was generally employed in arriving at the finished look of each shape. Once the shape was developed, a press brake and 2 rolling machines were used for forming. Considerable hand work was also needed to bring the elements into their final configurations.

While 2 of the major structures include large seed pods at their centers, the other five feature owls, which serve as symbols of wisdom. A 20 foot high horned owl is nestled in the foliage above the main entrance, and 12 foot high barn owls are part of the ornamentation installed at the four corners of the building. All of the owls were designed by Raymond Kaskey of Washington, DC. The owl sculptures were sandcast in segments in Germany, then returned to the United States, where Welding Works welded together the 40 to 50 separate pieces that comprise each figure.

Welding Works test-assembled each major structure at our facilities to ensure that all assemblies fit together properly and that all artistic criteria were satisfied. All unanticipated problems were solved by structural engineers, and an erection sequence to be used at the Chicago site was developed.

In all, 35 tractor-trailer trucks were used to move the partially-disassembled structures from Connecticut to Chicago, 900 miles away. Once they reached Chicago, the ornaments were painted green to simulate weathered copper. Since installation required the closing off of city streets, most of this work was done on weekends only, to avoid impeding traffic.

In the past, almost all of our work has been on industrial jobs. However, this project gave Welding Works the chance to prove our skills in crafting architectural ornamentation. As one of the gigantic ornaments was loaded onto a truck for transportation to Chicago, Price van der Swaagh, President of Welding Works said, “We’ve been building something that will last well into the 21st century. It’s so out of the ordinary. It’s been a real opportunity to do something that the public can appreciate.”

The work performed by Welding Works for this project has since won two major awards. The first was a 1995 award for outstanding metal craftsmanship in an international competition sponsored by the National Ornamental & Miscellaneous Metals Association (NOMMA). The second recognition came from the Structural Engineers Association of Illinois, which gave the ornamentation project an Award of Merit for its contribution to the state of the art of structural engineering.