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  • Field Museum Window Replacement

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    By Mark Meshulam

    Mark Meshulam is an expert witness and consultant for window replacement and renovation.
    Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History was incorporated in 1893.

    The Field Museum of Natural History is world famous for its dinosaurs.

    The Field Museum of Natural History is world famous for its dinosaurs.

    Its purpose was the “accumulation and dissemination of knowledge, and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science and history.” In 1921 the Museum moved from its original location in Jackson Park to its present site on Chicago Park District property at Roosevelt Road and Lake Shore Drive where it is part of a lakefront Museum Campus that includes the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.

    Field Museum Ornament

    Most of us have a special project in our careers. Mine is the replacement of all the windows at the Field Museum of Natural History, here in our great city of Chicago. I sold and managed that project in 1987-89. Math enthusiasts will quickly calculate that this was 20 years ago!

    Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

    Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago as photographed from the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower

    Our work, and the work of Architect Uriel Schlair at Harry Weese & Associates was done so well that the windows look as good today as they did when they were installed. They truly fit the monumental nature of that famous structure, and they endure the ravages of our Windy City weather without a peep of complaint.

    Equally important, they faithfully replicate the original grandly articulated wooden windows, which were bordered with rich moldings and ornamented with a hub-and-spoke “square wagon wheel” design repeated 440 times across the edifice. Yet these new window frames were made from long lasting aluminum!

    West Elevation of the Field Museum, equipped with our custom windows. Picture was taken this week. The windows look as good as new, although they are 20 years old.

    Partial West elevation of the Field Museum, equipped with our custom windows. Picture was taken this week. The windows look as good as new, although they are 20 years old. You can see reflections in the glass of the Museum Park condominium complex

    How did this project come about?

    Details of replacement windows harmonize perfectly with the elaborate detailing of the Field Museum's facade

    Details of replacement windows harmonize perfectly with the elaborate detailing of the Field Museum's facade

    Builders Architectural (that’s us) had already completed the installation of a few hundred conventionally designed windows along the top exterior of the building and also at interior light courts. Although we had to exercise care to avoid accidentally disposing of an occasional dinosaur molar or wolverine pelt laying around the many labs and workspaces we rehabbed, the windows themselves required no special design features other than great insulating value and longevity.

    Then one day Uriel Schlair, the Architect from Harry Weese and Associates (now HWA), who designed that window replacement job, asked me to take a walk around the outside of the museum with him.
    He pointed to the big wood windows, which were peeling and cracking, and simply asked, “What would you do with these? ”

    Frame extrusions were custom designed to replicate original wood shapes. Is it original or replacement?

    Frame extrusions were custom designed to replicate original wood shapes. Is it original or replacement?

    At the time I had only six years of experience in the business, but I knew that one could create marvelous things from extruded aluminum, so I proposed new frame extrusions that would emulate the big frame moldings. But what about those square wagon wheels? That is not a shape conducive to the extrusion process. Something different was needed.

    Aluminum Castings
    Then I remembered my days at Lane Technical High School, and the foundry class taught by Dr. Woodruff. In that class we literally pounded sand around wooden patterns in special boxes with mating halves, then split the halves and removed the pattern. We then rejoined the halves, dug a hole in the sand for a passageway and poured molten aluminum in the void left by the pattern. The resulting piece of aluminum was the same shape as the wood pattern.

    Why couldn’t we use this method to make the square wagon wheels?

    And so, I suggested to Uriel that we make the wagon wheels from aluminum castings.

    Of course his next question was, how much would it cost to build a full sized mockup of one opening. In my inexperience, I said maybe $5,000, but when I went back to the office and really crunched the numbers, the real cost was $30.000. To my surprise, Uriel told me to go ahead and build it.

    The mockup looked great, and provided a wonderful learning experience. The mockup design served as a model for the production of a set of bid documents for the replacement of all the windows on the huge building. We were low bidder and were awarded the contract. I think the entire contract was only $1.2 million. These days it would have been $6-8 million, easy.

    Mark Meshulam, left, confers with workman in preparation for building mockup at Construction Research lab, Miami. Tarps protected the opening during a storm.

    Mark Meshulam, Chicago Window Expert confers with workman in preparation for building mockup at Construction Research lab, Miami. Tarps protected the test chamber from an impending storm.

    Then we designed and built a full sized mockup

    Building the mockup.

    Building the mockup.

    for testing at the Construction Research Laboratory in Miami. The test battery included tests for air infiltration, water penetration and structural.

    In addition, due to a concern about the use of a “shadow-box” panel behind the glass, a condensation test was run.

    At the end of the testing, for no other reason than the boyish enjoyment of seeing something explode, we “pushed” the structural overload test to destruction. It blew up at 120 psf, and it was the chamber that failed, not the window.


    Here’s the video:





    Preparing the Castings

    The square wagon wheel castings were sandblasted prior to baking and painting

    The square wagon wheel castings were sandblasted prior to baking and painting

    One of the biggest areas of concern in the preparation of the job for production, was the various processes required to prepare the castings for final presentation. The castings needed to have rough edges ground off, then they were sandblasted.

    Prior to painting, they were baked for 8 hours to allow all entrained gasses to “”outgas”. This prevented bubbling in the paint finish. The Kynar-based paint finish was applied and baked on at over 400 degrees F.

    Finally, the actual work began. There were boom-lifts, trucks and dumpsters all over the building as a productive pace of work was established and maintained.

    The square wagon wheels were mounted in front of the glass, and were hinged to allow for cleaning of the glass.

    Would you believe, in 20 years, we never received one service call?

    Want to talk window replacement?

    Mark Meshulam wants to work with you on your next window replacement project

    Mark Meshulam, Chicago Window Expert, wants to work with you on your next window replacement project

    No matter where you are,
    contact me, Mark Meshulam,
    the Chicago Window Expert
    For the expert attention you deserve
    Mark@ChicagoWindowExpert.com
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    3 Comments

3 Responses to “Field Museum Window Replacement”

  1. […] a continuation of our 20 year retrospective of our unique historic window replacement at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, we have dusted off never before seen video of the design and testing of the project, jazzed it up […]

  2. These windows are truly amazing! I run a glass scratch removal company in Chicago, and we have been called around to almost every major glass project to clean up the scratch mistakes of bad contractors or poor cleaners, but this is one place where I have never gotten a call to go. I have been to the museum several times while living in Chicago, and I was always amazed at the ornate details put in the building.

  3. We were fortunate enough to be the foundry that cast the window frames for Builders Architectural.
    The great thing is the work was done local ….right here in Chicago…. our shop is just a few miles from the museum.
    We still have one of the original prototype castings here in our archives.

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