Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Reid-Murdoch Building (Part One)

The clock on the 1914 Reid-Murdoch Building between LaSalle and Clark Streets (JWB, 2009)
Note the exquisite Arts and Crafts detail in the brickwork

In the year 1853 just about everything in the United States pointed westward.  In March the Territory of Washington was organized after separating from the Oregon Territory.  That same month Congress authorized the transcontinental railroad survey.  In June the Gadsden Purchase added 29,670 miles to the United States.  In exchange for ten million dollars tMexico ceded parts of what are now southern New Mexico and Arizona to the United States.  San Francisco, on November 17th, moved toward a more orderly and civilized town, authorizing street signs to be placed at intersections.

The promise of a new beginning and wide-open spaces drew thousands westward.  By the time the adventurers reached the Mississippi River, though, they were out of supplies.  Before continuing the long slog over the western plains and mountains, they had to restock.  Recognizing this, two young Scottish immigrants, Simon Reid and Thomas Murdoch, opened a store in Dubuque, Iowa in 1853 to re-provision wagon trains headed for the Oregon Trail.

Those simple beginnings eventually came to have a huge impact on Chicago, and one small part of the legacy of Reid and Murdoch can still be seen today on the river between LaSalle and Clark Streets.  The old Reid-Murdoch building, now the headquarters for Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., is a stunning Arts and Crafts design by George C. Nimmons.  The building was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.  As impressive as the 97-year-old building is, though, the history of the company that built it is equally impressive, the company that began with the two Scots in Dubuque.

Two related events conspired to draw Reid and Murdoch to Chicago.  In 1848 the I & M Canal was completed, connecting the eastern seaboard to the Gulf of Mexico by way of Chicago.  That same year the first railroad ran out of the city, and by 1855 Chicago was the largest railroad center in the world.  It became clear that the one logical place for a food distribution center was Chicago, and by 1865 Simon Reid and Thomas Murdoch had moved the business to the Windy City.

Chicago's Leading Lady makes it way westward past
the Reid-Murdoch Building (JWB, 2011)
Reid’s and Murdoch’s first business in Chicago was conducted from a four-story building on River Street, a structure that was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  Someone saved the company’s books on that terrible day and within three weeks the company was back in business.  

The location was convenient to the river, but it also was in the heart of a city that was exploding in size.  There were conflicts that often resulted.

Perhaps one of the most interesting of these conflicts occurred in early November of 1892.  At 6:00 in the evening a one-eyed horse hauling a wagon that belonged to Reid-Murdoch left the alley where it was standing north of the Fair Store, crossed Dearborn Street, stopped in front of the steps leading down into Charles Peutz’s basement saloon, and then plowed down them, dragging the grocers’ wagon behind.

Trying to get through the door, the horse cut its neck open on the glass window, bled profusely, and, in frantic efforts to get free, broke the door down and fell into the saloon, dead.  A comedic scene followed in which men, assisted by the driver who finally arrived on the scene, tried to unhitch the wagon and get the dead horse back up the stairs.  Finally, a ramp was jury-rigged, a working crew of teamsters called, and the horse was dragged into the gutter to await the city collector.

“The saloon looked like a slaughter house,” according to The Tribune of November 4, 1892.  “and the business for the evening was seriously impaired.”

Note the lions on the clock tower -- the symbol for Monarch Foods,
a part of the Reid-Murdoch empire (JWB, 2011)
Four years later an event that was potentially far more serious occurred.  A fire broke out in the coffee roasting room of the Reid-Murdoch warehouse at 100 North Michigan Avenue.  Next door stood a cigar factory which employed between 800 and 1,000 men and young girls.  When a fireman coming up a fire escape was spotted, “there was a succession of shrieks in Polish, and the next minute several girls were clinging to the fireman’s neck and begging to be saved from the flames.”  [Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1896]

Within minutes 200 girls headed down the stairs, despite the fact that the building was not on fire, and piled into the street.  Fortunately, no one stumbled or fell.   The fire was confined to the coffee in the Reid-Murdoch warehouse; it had been extinguished even before the firemen arrived. 

The Loop must have smelled great that morning.

Earlier that year the company’s main operations had moved from Michigan Avenue to Lake and Market Street (Market Street eventually became South Wacker Drive; 191 North Wacker now stands at this location).  This had been the site of the Wigwam Assembly Hall until 1867, an unbelievable joint that could seat between 10,000 and 12,000 people, the same hall in which Abraham Lincoln was nominated to run for the Presidency in 1860.

The top floor of the building at Lake and Market was given over to packing preserves and jellies, making pickles, and the like.  Things moved along quickly.  Facilities were built in Hammond  and Pierceton, Indiana, followed by processing plants in Rochester, Minnesota; Ellsworth, Michigan; Salem, Oregon; West Chicago and South Whitely, Indiana.  The activities of the company expanded from mere distribution to the canning and processing of food under the Monarch label.

The founder of the company, Thomas Murdoch, died in 1899 at the Metropole Hotel at the age of 81.  He had controlled the company since Simon Reid’s death in 1892.  He also served as director of the State Bank of Chicago and had been a member of the Art Institute since its founding.  Murdoch left an estate in excess of four million dollars, including 500 shares of Chicago Title and Trust stock, 1,800 shares in the Illinois Central, and 2,200 shares of Commonwealth Edison, along with at least another dozen companies.

Note the River Walk that runs the full length of the building -- the
design coming just five years after the Chicago Plan of 1909 (JWB, 2011)
Things hummed along as one century turned into another,  The city that Reid-Murdoch had chosen as its home had grown from about 170,000 to over two million people.  In 1909, under the auspices of the Commercial Club of Chicago, Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett produced the Chicago Plan of 1909.  And that ground breaking document set the scene for the next stage of the Reid-Murdoch story.  With the City Beautiful movement that the Chicago Plan of 1909 embodied as background, the company announced plans in 1912 to purchase the Western Warehousing Company’s property on the north side of the river at LaSalle Street with the intent to build a building that would cover the entire river frontage from LaSalle to Clark Streets.

In the next blog we’ll continue our story with the creation of the George Nimmons building that stands on the river today. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Doctor, The Dame and The Commodore

I woke up this morning (always a B-I-G relief) to find that it was the first day of November.  Wow, a whole month has gone by since the last time I dropped a blog feature onto this site.  I’ve been remiss.

But October is the month I set aside to raise my barbaric yawp as a protest against aging.  So a few weeks ago I drove out to Starved Rock with a few of my buddies and went camping in the rain.  The next weekend we drove to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio and spent the weekend screaming our lungs out on the coasters, the Top Thrill Dragster, the Millennium Force, and the Magnum XL200.

Then it was off to Washington, D.C. with Jill and a couple of old college friends, Mark and Andreatte, where we spent three days seeing the glorious sights of that great city in the rain as I battled the cold of the century.

I also managed to lead a couple dozen tours for the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the most memorable of which netted me a nasty yellow jacket sting between the index and middle fingers of my right hand while I was pointing at 360 North Michigan Avenue.  I have to tell you . . . when that little sucker stung me I thought I had been electrocuted.

Here we are, though . . . in November.  And the holidays are on the way.

The former Lessing Apartments, Ruby Dean's home in 1917 (JWB, 2011)
I promised over a month ago to finish the story of the Commodore Apartments, formerly The Lessing, on Broadway and Surf.  Still magnificent today, The Commodore is a great Edmund Krause design created for the heirs of Johann Ernst Lehmann, the merchant who started Chicago’s Fair Store.

It was on Friday, September 17, 1917 that The Chicago Tribune broke the story.  The banner headline that day screamed about a huge battle off Ireland in which two dozen Allied merchantmen battled seven U-boats with four of the steamers going to the bottom of the sea.

Lower down Page One came the story with the headline “Shoots When She Learns He Is Married: Dr. Louis Quitman Wounded by Cabaret Singer; May Die.”

It’s an old story . . . the facts of the matter could be part of any one of hundreds of stories and films over the years.  Miss Ruby Dean, a cabaret singer, learned from a lady friend that her special fella, the veterinarian Dr. Louis H. Quitman, was married.  When he called on her at the Lessing Apartments on the night of September 16, 1917, he learned that a woman scorned was capable of putting a bullet in his belly.

Wailing her confession later that night at the Sheffield Avenue station, Miss Dean said that Quitman had presented himself to her as a single man despite the fact that he had a wife and child.

The Commodore's Surf Street Entrance
(JWB, 2011)
“I was wild about him,” she said.  “I love him still.  He told me he wasn’t married and that he was going to marry me.  He was always welcome to my apartment and he came often there.  He came there tonight.  But a friend of mine told me he was married.  I asked him about it and we quarreled.”

It took nearly six months for the full story to come out.  But all of the lurid details were reported in The Tribune’s May 1, 1918 edition as it covered the trial of Ruby Dean in Judge John J. Sullivan’s courtroom.

The paper reported, “It was the story of the infatuation of a man of more mature years and a girl of the cabaret; of the man’s double dealing both with the girl and his wife; of the girl’s willingness to love him still, and of her willingness to “run away with him to Texas.”

Miss Dean testified that Dr. Quitman had for months posed as Dr. Joseph Springer, a coroner’s physician, a discovery that had come to light through a private detective agency.

The singer spoke during the trial as though she were a part of a Frank Capra movie, telling how she sat by the lake with the doctor early one morning after her cabaret act and told her what she had discovered.

“’Doc,’ I said to him when we were seated, ‘Doc, don’t you think it’s time you quit this little farce and be on the square with me?’  (On the square – THAT’S a phrase we ought to try hard to bring back.)

“’I don’t know what you mean,’ he said.

“’O, yes,’ I said, ‘you know what I mean,’ and then I told him I had found out who he was and he admitted it all.”

“He told me that night he wouldn’t tell me any more lies and he would use his own name after that.  He told me he would go to a hotel when he left me and register under his own name and I called up to see if he had kept his word and he had.”

The relationship – the cabaret singer and the veterinarian she thought was a physician in the coroner’s office – went so far that the two traveled to a courthouse in Crown Point to be married.  But the doc apparently had gone as far as he could, and at the courthouse he confessed that he was married to another woman and if he married Miss Dean, he would have to go to jail.  He asked her to wait a short while, assuring her that he had a case already in court to divorce his wife.

He was always welcome to my apartment and he came often there.
(JWB, 2011)
On the return ride to Chicago Miss Dean discovered the initials “L.H.Q.” on Dr. Springer’s belt. He told her the initials stood for his wife’s name, Lillian Hammer Springer.  Back on the job she covinced a man seated at a cabaret table to give her a gun.  She even had the doctor oil it for her so “it would work.”

What’s a potboiler without irony?

Well, the gun eventually got used.  Immediately after the shooting Dr. Quitman accused his hysterical paramour of the deed.  In the end, it seems, the two-timer was able to summon his last strength in a final chivalrous act.  As he lay dying, he retracted his original statement and insisted that the shooting accidentally occurred as the two lovers struggled over the gun.

It was on May 13 of 1918 that the jury in Miss Dean’s trial went into deliberation.  The jurors were gone for just an hour, returning with a “Not Guilty” verdict.

Miss Dean gave a “quick, low laugh, that was half a sob.”

All those backlit windows . . . all those
stories (JWB, 2011)
“O, I’m so glad,” she smiled through her tears.  “I will hardly be able to believe when I wake up tomorrow that I am free.  After eight months.”

Hard to believe that when you walk past the Commodore today just down from the Great Frame-Up (I’m not kidding.) and Johnny Sprocket’s bike shop, that this all unfolded nearly a century ago.

Ruby Dean was a single gal in a big, big city.  In 1880 there were 3,800 women like her trying to make their way in Chicago.  By the time Ruby and the doctor had their tryst there were 31,500 single women working in the Chicago – three times the national average. [Abbott, Karen.  Sin in the Second City.] 

Miss Ruby’s story is an old story.  When the sun goes down and you look out at this vast and glimmering city, you have to wonder how many stories like hers are unfolding.  The hundreds of thousands of backlit windows hide the details.  But you know they are there.