Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Reliance Building (Part One)

The Reliance Building, finished between 1891 and 1895 (JWB, 2008)

So much has been written about the exquisite Reliance Building at the southwest corner of Washington and State Streets that I hope to add little to the conversation.

But I love this building, and I started this blog as a way of talking about subjects for which I care, so I’m going to suck it up, knowing that far more knowledgeable writers have discussed the innovative and aesthetic qualities of this collaboration between two of the early Chicago greats – John Root and Charles Atwood, both working for the great Daniel Burnham.

Today it’s almost impossible to see the impact this building must have had when it was finished in 1895.  In a smoky city that was swarming with people, horse-drawn drays, trolleys cars, elevated trains and the noise and smells that came with it all, the shimmering white terra-cotta of The Reliance must have seemed like a dream.

We get some idea of what the reaction was by examining the press reviews at the time, the most notable of which came in a March 16, 1895 article in The Chicago Tribune

The Reliance was built on the site of one of the only two buildings in the central part of the city to survive the Chicago Fire of 1871 – the First National Bank Building.  It was in 1890 that William E. Hale proposed a building of 14 floors on the site at Washington and State. Hale had made a fortune as, first, the President of the Toledo (Ohio) Traction Company and then as the creator of the “Hale Water-Balance Elevator,” of 1870, a faster elevator than any that had preceded it.

Charles Atwood's building rise from a base designed
by John Root (JWB, 2008)
There was only one problem with Hale's plan for the new building.  There was a four-story building on the site already, and only the bottom floor had been left free by the expiration of the leases.  This was a time when almost every lease in the city expired at the beginning of May, and the leases for the upper three floors continued all the way to May 1 of 1894.

Wait another four years . . . not in Mr. Hale’s plans.  According to The Tribune, “Plans were prepared by the well-known architects, Messrs. Burnham & Root, and, without disturbing in the least the tenants of the upper floors, the old foundations, basement, and first floor were replaced by the substructure of the new building.  This was accomplished by supporting the three upper floors on jack screws.”

So, while you were sitting in a dentist’s chair on the third floor back in 1890, having that aching molar pulled without anaesthetic, workmen were busy replacing the ground floor and basement of the building while it was supported by jack-screws.

Such technology was relatively common because in Chicago the moving of buidlings had been tested over decades. It was in this business that George Pullman, for one, began his career.  And it was in 1890, the same year that William Hale proposed the new building on State Street, that the seven-story Ashland Block of 1872 was moved over a mile from Clark and Randolph to the corner of Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue, where it stood until 1973.  In that same year of 1890 1,710 permits were issued for such moves, and 6.4 miles of building frontage changed location.  [Duis.  Challenging Chicago
, p. 91]

In May of 1894 the leases of the three upper floors of the building on Washington and State expired, and Mr. Hale was set to begin construction on the office tower.  But nothing is ever that easy.  Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. had taken possession of the new first floor and basement, and the construction had to take place without disturbing that business.  So heavy timbers were erected over the sidewalks, and a temporary roof was placed over the first floor while the upper three floors were taken down.

Once demolition finished, the building rose with unprecedented speed.  Each floor’s steel was erected in two days.  It must have been an amazing sight.  The leases for the upper three floors expired on May 1 of 1894.  By July 16 the steel had risen to the seventh floor.  By July 28 workers had begun the roof.

Edward C. Shankland, who in 1894 was made a partner in the Burnham firm along with Charles Atwood and Ernest Graham, supervised the work. Shankland’s genius at engineering was seen clearly in the great trusses that he designed for the George B. Post’s 44-acre Manufacturers’ Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. 

The beauty of the Northwestern Terra Cotta
Company's unprecedented effort (JWB, 2008)
At the time the Reliance Building was completed, there was no other building in the world that used terra cotta as abundantly as Atwood’s building.  Terra cotta had been used for years in the city to protect a structure’s steel from fire.  But the elegance of the enameled terra cotta on the Reliance was something new.

As The Tribune reported, “It was long thought impossible to obtain the enameled material of such perfection and in such quantities, although for years it has been the desire of architects and owners to procure a surface easily cleaned as well as pleasing in color and perfectly fireproof, and a material imperishable and unaffected by the weather.”

Atwood, working with the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company, located at Clybourn and Wrightwood, turned the impossible into a stunning success in what The Tribune called “an experiment on a large scale.” In this section of the smoky city where the majority of buildings were either of brick or dark stone, the Reliance’s gleaming terra cotta, its surface washed clean with every rainstorm, must have been a revelation.

The Orr & Lockett Hardware Company produced all of the hardware for the Reliance.  The company had been in business since the Chicago Fire of 1871, and their work is seen throughout the Rookery Building.  The firm’s next major project would be Holabird & Roche’s Marquette Building, finished the same year as the Reliance.

The Tribune article takes note of the telephone system within the Reliance Building, pointing out that “On the first floor there is located a telephone exchange connected with all the offices.  At this exchange one may ascertain in a moment if the party they desire to see is in, can leave a message, or converse with him – all without going above the street level.”

Note the wide-eyed tone of the summary . . . it shows to some extent how new the technology was.  Imagine . . . to be able to see whether your doctor was available all the way up on the fourteenth floor without ever leaving the lobby of the building!

Exquisite detail throughout The Reliance, painstakingly restored in
the renovation of the 1990's (JWB, 2008)
When the building opened in 1895, Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company kept its store on the first floor.  The retail operation would remain in that location for almost a decade until it moved just down State Street to the 1899 building that Louis Sullivan designed for Schlesinger & Mayer.

The second floor was also set aside for retail business.  The second through the sixth floors were occupied by a variety of sales and show rooms for tailors, dressmakers, jewelers and the like while all the floors above the sixth floor were given over to physicians and dentists.

Particularly novel were the ninth and fourteenth floors, which were designed especially for physicians who only needed space for a few hours each day.  On these two floors a large reception room was connected by telephone to consultation rooms, each of them with its own exit, these consultation rooms spaced around the reception area.  Patients could visit their physician without having to pass back through the reception area.

Physicians could rent their space for as little as an hour each day.  So for ten bucks a month a doctor could get the services of the attendants in the reception area, the use of the room and its equipment, light, heat and power – all in the heart of the city.

Ahead of its time?  85 percent of the exterior of
The Reliance is glass.  (JWB, 2008)
There was no need to worry about the riff-raff finding a way into the building, either.  “The building will be operated on strictly ethical principles, and no tenants will be admitted who are not entitled to position with the most particular classes,” The Tribune reported.  The paper speculated that “since all appointments are of the best” that there “will be enough tenants of the best class to always keep it full.”

Not exactly.  By 1992 the building had fallen into disuse and was coming apart. In the next blog . . . The Renaissance of The Reliance.  With help from the city, this grand old building is a shining example of intelligent restoration.


Tony said...

Great history... What a great article! Thanks for sharing, it is always fun to hear detail about something that has been around much longer than any of us!

Kimberly said...

Great post. It is interesting how buildings were moved and/or constructed while occupied. It is such a busy intersection with so many people rushing past, but next time I will stop and look up and admire the work!

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