You know Bertrand Goldberg’s work.
You know it from the half-Jetson, half-corncob conical twin towers of Marina City on the Chicago River. You know it from the looping concrete of River City I and River City II a bit further south along the water. You know the former housing project turned apartment of the Hilliard Homes, or maybe the old Prentice Hospital. But you know the man’s odd, compelling and utterly human approach to housing.
This is the story about Chicago’s skyline was changed by Nazi Germany, a prank call and that time Bertrand Goldberg got super-drunk with his wife.
The Jewish Kid
Goldberg was Jewish, which is relevant to the story. That heritage was what gave him his in with developer and political operator Charlie Swibel in the Marina City contract in the late ’50s, one of the first major projects designed to lure posh, up-and-coming, white Daley voters to live in a city facing massive white flight after the interstate system made suburbs a thing.
“[Swibel] heard there was a young architect who was Jewish, and he was going to give an opportunity to a Jewish kid,” Swibel’s son Howard said in 2008.
The “Jewish kid” was actually 14 years older than Swibel.
Marina City, the castle created to entice whites to stay in the city, was a hit. Goldberg was a star.
While Swibel was a legendary figure of corruption in the city, Goldberg was a true believer in the cause of housing. A few years later, the star architect submitted a design for a federally funded housing project. He wanted to create a version — an improved version — of his white-flight enclave for the almost-entirely black community in Chicago projects. He believed public housing could be beautiful, livable homes for low-income people, not just falling-apart boxes in which to store and hide away poor people.
The Federal Housing Authority told him no. He asked why. The federal agency tasked with housing for low-income Americans said, according to Goldberg, the designs were “too good for these people.”
“I was having evening drinks, and out of desperation had more than a reasonable share of drinks,” Goldberg would later tell Art Institute of Chicago researchers. “By ten o’clock or eleven o’clock that evening I was feeling very little pain and getting more outraged as the evening went on. Nancy [Goldberg] and I were just talking about the system that was creating this, and I finally late at night called Charles Swibel at his home, and I said to him that I considered this to be the equivalence [sic.] of book burning.”
This was big.
Pranking the Landlady
Chicago-born Goldberg had been studying at the Staatliches Bauhaus art school, living the art school life of parties and Berlin’s cabaret scene. In 1933, his apartment’s “rather strange” cleaning woman told him the landlady had called the Nazis on him as a radical, an American and a Jew. It was, in part, out of concern for him.
A few days earlier, Goldberg had prank called his landlady pretending to be the Nazi gauleiter in charge of the district investigating the “suspicious characters” she was housing.
“She was so angry at the whole thing she decided to make it real,” he later said. “She was also scared for me. That was not precisely the thing to have done, but she wanted to make it real for me.”
If light pranks seem an odd move for a man named Goldberg in Nazi Germany, remember they didn’t know at the time the end result would be WWII and the Holocaust.
“It was easy to make fun of the idiocies, and the Jewish jokes about Hitler were still very much in fashion,” he said.
The police were on their way, the cleaning lady said, so Goldberg threw the rest of his possessions in his steamer trunk (already partially packed in anticipation of the Nazis shutting down the Bauhaus) and took the first train out of Berlin. It happened to be to Paris, where he stayed with friends for a week until he could get a boat back to the U.S.
In 1937, the Swibel family fled Poland two years ahead and in anticipation of the Nazi invasion. They landed in Chicago’s rough West Side, the 10-year-old Charlie learning English so quickly and well he won a citywide essay contest on “What America Means to Me” at age 14. He acclimated quickly, but for the rest of his life, his Polish accent would get more pronounced when he got excited.
After school and language lessons at the public library, he would go to his job filling mustard packets at a kosher sausage factory on Roosevelt Road. He got a basketball scholarship to the University of Illinois, despite standing a whopping 5 foot 8. He wanted to be a doctor, but that was sidetracked when he got a job sweeping floors for slumlord Isaac Marks. This led him to dual careers in housing and city politics, which he used to finance each other, political foes like strategist Don Rose accusing him of using inside knowledge from the Chicago Housing Authority to benefit his work as a private developer.
A major Daley insider, Swibel got a reputation as a “do-fer” — someone who would ask “What can I do for you?” He’d get things done, then you’d owe him.
He was a major West Side slumlord, and his hotels denied service to black people well after segregation was deemed illegal, but he was a frequent party guest and close friend of Chicago Urban League Executive Director Edwin Berry. He was a Chicago Machine operative taken into the administration of Mayor Jane Byrne, who got elected in 1979 by blaming everything on Machine “rascals.” He built castles like Marina City for the rich and he ran the Chicago Housing Authority for 19 years. Even Don Rose, who left Mayor Jane Byrne’s administration in disgust when she brought Swibel in as a fundraiser, called him “probably one of the most charming men I have ever met.”
“If I didn’t hate him so much, I would have liked to have gotten close to him to learn what makes him tick,” an anonymous politico said in 1982. “He’s the kind of guy that you should write a novel about, because he’s so complicated and has so many sides to him.”
The well-meaning artiste Goldberg and the amoral political operative Swibel had an odd relationship, Goldberg would later recall. Swibel seemed amused by the architect’s naivete. Goldberg also had the developer pegged.
“Swibel believed in other people’s greed and he operated in that fashion,” Goldberg said. “Swibel had no illusions and he, in a sense, did the things that other people wanted to have done for them but wouldn’t do themselves.”
But back to the drunken late-night phone call, both were Jews who had fled the Nazis, and one just dropped a book-burning analogy. Swibel knew that was not a comparison Goldberg would make lightly.
He told the tipsy architect he would look into it in the morning. The Raymond Hilliard Homes were built.
“He had the connection of power through the local political system which, in turn, controlled votes and had representatives in Washington and the usual channels of power and communication,” Goldberg said. “But he singlehandedly, with this response to my own concerns, made it possible to continue this.”
I hold no praise for Charlie Swibel. Under his 19-year reign, the CHA became a hotbed of incompetent patronage hires, substandard construction contracted by bribe and dangerous housing for low-income and minority residents. He was only ousted in the ’80s after HUD threatened to cut Chicago off without a dime unless Swibel and the entire CHA board stepped down. Even in the Hilliard Homes story, he only cared about slights that triggered personal memories, not the injustices he committed against others on a daily basis.
But when you look at the looping modernist works of Bertrand Goldberg, you’re now stuck knowing a few drinks, the right friend and a prank call about Nazis helped Chicago look the way it does.