Monday, February 21, 2011

Photo of the Week: Thompson Building at 350 North Clark

(JWB Photo, 2008)

Walk north of Helmut Jahn's Thompson Center on Clark Street, cross the river and you'll come face to face with another building that carries the Thompson name, this one a real beauty with a creamy terra cotta skin and an understated ornamentation at the base of its classic Chicago school organization.  

The building at 350 North Clark Street is named after a different Thompson -- not James R., but John R., a restauranteur who rocked the lunchroom business in a big way from the latter part of the 19th century to the 1950's.  If you've got some time on your hands, here's a cool website for you --  Some great information about John R. and a bunch of other stuff, too.

Turns out that Mr. Thompson (the dead one, not the one still with us) began his career running a general store in rural Illinois.  In 1891 he came to Chicago and opened a restaurant on State Street.  Thirty years later the Thompson empire included a chain of groceries and 109 restaurants, including 49 in Chicago and 11 in New York City.  The company's commissary was moved to the brand new building at 350 North Clark in 1912, and the company went public in 1914.  Mr. Thompson died in 1927.  

Thompson's restaurants stressed efficiency and hygiene, attributes that work well in restaurants and in buildings.  So it is that the Thompson building has a glazed exterior of white terra cotta, emphasizing the cleanliness of the operation.  The modest terra cotta ornament presents garlands of fruit, vegetables and grain, a visual clue as to what the original purpose of the building was.  The strong geometric grid of the eight-story facade may well suggest the efficiency of Thompson's "scientific" approach to his enterprise.

The building has a great pedigree -- the designer was Alfred Alschuler, a prolific architect during the first quarter of the 20th century, whose accomplishments include the 360 North Michigan Avenue Building, the oldest synagogue in the city (KAM Isaiah Israel in Hyde Park), and a number of factories and showrooms.  

The Thompson building's terra cotta was manufactured by the great Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, which produced the cladding for the Wrigley Building and which had its offices in the Santa Fe Building. Northwestern's main plant was at the corner of Wright and Clybourn and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim. Thanks for the post. John Thompson is my Great Grandfather. Could you tell me where you obtained your research on him? I've been looking for more details for years. Thank you, Dave Owen.

Anonymous said...

I learned about John from the Homer Historical Society, as Homer IL was the hometown of Mr. Thompson. Interesting fellow! Seems he bought his first cafe because he didn't like their coffee and wanted to do it better.