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Old Posted Aug 29, 2006, 1:34 PM
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Architecture firm looks for `next steward'
Graham Anderson is put on the block

By Susan Diesenhouse
Tribune staff reporter
Published August 29, 2006

A Chicago architectural firm that traces its roots back to planning visionary Daniel Burnham is for sale and seems destined to disappear in its current form.

"I'm looking for the next steward to carry on the history of this amazing firm," Robert E. Surman, the 44-year-old president and owner of Graham Anderson Probst & White Corp., said Monday.

Generations ago various permutations of this partnership designed masterpieces such as the Wrigley Building, Shedd Aquarium, Merchandise Mart, the Civic Opera, the Post Office building and Union Station. But in the last few decades the firm's staff has been reduced significantly and its projects have become less grandiose.

Still, Surman hopes to find another firm or person, he said, "who will take an aggressive approach to high-quality architecture" and preserve the firm's extensive historic archive of blueprints, drawings and photographs, including a copy of the 1909 Chicago Plan designed and signed by Burnham.

Sometime this fall Surman, whose father, William, led the storied design and planning firm from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, plans to become a vice president for architecture and development at HomeMade Pizza Co. on the North Side.

With some of America's most notable beaux-arts and art deco creations in its portfolio, "they are one of the iconic firms in the American [architecture] cosmos," Robert Ivy, editor in chief of Architectural Record, said of Graham Anderson Probst & White.

"In the early 20th Century they were capable of making buildings of great clarity and power like Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and Union Station in Chicago and D.C.," Ivy added. "They combine neo-classical design with a heroic scale that few have matched in the intervening years."

But by the 1970s the firm that once could boast more than 200 designers, draftsmen and engineers had scaled down. Since then it has consisted of about a dozen people, and in a 2004 publication that profiled Illinois architectural firms it is listed as having seven architectural professionals on staff.

Surman and his father prided themselves on the high quality of their work. But the firm's recent standout projects, such as the 500,000-square-foot, mixed-use building at 2 East Erie St., first occupied in 2002, are few and their pipeline of future projects seems slim.

The firm has a roster of corporate clients for whom it regularly works, but Surman explained that "like many service businesses, these relationships may continue with the firm or with the other employees who may move on."

As a result, he said, if the firm is sold it will probably fetch considerably less than $1 million.

"No one buys a portfolio," explained Paul Nakazawa, an international consultant who teaches architecture at Harvard University.

"In any profession it's the people who make the firm, and if they aren't there the value isn't really there," he said.

To assess the value of a design firm a potential buyer will consider several factors, and if it likes what it sees it will pay some multiple of earnings for it, said Scott Simpson, president and chief executive of Stubbins Associates in Cambridge, Mass.

A buyer will calculate the average annual gross fee per professional and the firm's gross profit, and perhaps add some premium.

"A buyer looks at the portfolio, clients, reputation, work in progress and future work," Simpson said.

"They must be able to make back their investment and retain the firm's intellectual capital," he said.

That Surman is planning to leave soon could influence a sale outcome, said architect Daniel Coffey, head of Daniel P. Coffey & Associates Ltd. in Chicago.

"When a person just leaves, typically that diminishes a firm's value," he said. But the firm's footprint has been fading, he added, and "you don't hear much about their projects."

Graham Anderson Probst & White has been doing corporate interiors and other work for public agencies and companies such as Schaumburg-based Motorola Inc. and Chicago-based Unitrin Inc., but Surman said it has not engaged in international commissions, a major source of billings for U.S design firms.

In the first few decades of the 20th Century, earlier incarnations of the firm were at the heart of a Golden Age of American architecture, said Sally Chappell, author of a book on the firm, "Transforming Tradition: Architecture and Planning of Graham Anderson Probst & White."

"They were one of the largest firms in the great building period of American architecture, during the teens and 1920s," she said.

All of the partners who formed the firm in 1917 had worked for Daniel Burnham. They developed a reputation for reinterpreting classical and European design motifs to create monumental structures that inspired awe but also enhanced the efficient functioning of cities such as Chicago, New York and Washington.

For instance, Chappell said, Union Station in Chicago was designed to be a statement of civic grandeur but also to ease traffic that approached from the river, highways and city streets.

"They designed special ramps for taxis to drop off passengers without delaying traffic on the streets," she said. Meanwhile, under the colonnade, train "passengers could be out of the weather while they waited."

Surman is well aware of the firm's heritage that he hopes can be preserved.

"They took classical and European architectural styles and applied them to a variety of building types such as banks, offices and museums," he said "That made them unique."


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