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. 


  1. Classic Chicago architecture. This is one of my favorite buildings in town!

  2. Well this is one of my fav. covered areas. Absolutely loved your blog,. I will come back for more :)

  3. Hi
    Thomas Murdock was my Grandmothers uncle. His death I believe was 1909 not 1899. He left a small part of his estate to his sister in Australia. My grandmother was a daughter of his sister. The inheritance although only a small part of his estate had a profound effect on all his Australian relations. The money was spent on such things as farm land and real estate which are still in place today
    Bruce Brown
    Western Australia

    1. Hello Bruce, Thomas was my great grandfather's brother, I'm doing a family tree and wondered if you have anymore information about their parents or where they immigrated from?
      Thanks Lindsey.

  4. Hi Lindsay,

    Thomas Murdoch was my great- great uncle. He was born in Forres, Scotland. His niece, Blanche Murdoch Cone, was my grandmother, although she died many years before I was born. She married Julius Benedict Cone. Her son, Murdoch Coe, was my father. He was born in 1914 in Chicago, and died in 1978 in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I remember that when I was quite young - maybe 10 or 11 years old - a cousin from Australia named Rosemary visited us in Victoria for a few days, but we all lost touch at some point.

    I hope this information was useful.


  5. Oh, wow! You know, in the last couple years we have a "Reid Murdoch" sign painted on an old factory wall that was exposed after decades. It's now the Nuevo Leon tortilla factory on Hoffman St. in Hammond, IN! On the north banks of the Grand Calumet River.

    Glad to know this 1914 building is the Chicago connection. The Hammond building may be older, even! I had some century+ old newspaper clippings downloaded on the company & Thomas Murdoch I wish I could find right now!

  6. Love this history! I see there are a few descendants commenting - Thomas was my great grandmother Eva's Uncle. He died in 1909. Two of the girls who inherited money from Thomas built beautiful farmhouses in Beverley, Western Australia. As far as I know Eva never met him.