Monday, February 27, 2012

The Reid-Murdoch Building (Part Two)

The Reid-Murdoch Building of 1914, a George C. Nimmons design
that follows the tenets of the Chicago Plan of 1909 (JWB, 2011)

Let’s return to the Reid-Murdoch story, a tale of two merchants who became millionaires in the rapidly growing city of Chicago and the great building that ultimately came to grace the north side of the river between LaSalle and Clark Street. 

Constructing a new warehouse at this location made sense.  The river in the early 1900’s still teemed with ships delivering hundreds of tons of produce each day and the railroads ran almost directly to the site.  On February 9, 1912 the Chicago Tribune glowed about the selection of the site, “From a purely real estate point of view the transaction is of notable importance, because of the fact that it marks the removal of another large wholesale concern form the central district to the north side.”

The paper also mentioned that the new warehouse would me “made to carry out the idea of the “Chicago plan” in connection with the buildings on the river.  The architect, George C. Nimmons, would set the building back a short distance from the water’s edge, leaving room for a concrete dock.  But that dock would be different from the unsightly affairs that lined the river.  It would be built on a level with Clark and LaSalle streets and would extend the length of the building so that people could enter the structure at any point along the riverfront. 

The plan was exactly what the Chicago Plan of 1909 specified for buildings along the river, and it was the plan that would dictate the plans for most of the great river buildings that were to follow.  Just look at the open spaces that separate such great buildings as the Wrigley Building, the Merchandise Mart, The Chicago Daily News Building, and Tribune Tower from the river.  The new warehouse for the company was planned as a trend-setter.   And it was.

George Nimmons, the architect who designed the million-dollar warehouse building, was prominent in Chicago architecture for a half-century.  He served as a transitional figure, connecting the classical Beaux Arts style of the 1880’s and 1890’s to the more streamlined style that would eventually lead to the great Art Deco buildings of the 1920’s.  He was born in Wooster, Ohio in 1867 and began his study of architecture in Europe before he had reached the age of 20.

Sleek, streamlined, functional -- the new style of design that the
second generation of Chicago architects was looking for (JWB, 2011)
He returned to the United States in 1885 and entered the firm of Burnham & Root, where he worked as a draftsman for ten years.  In 1897 he left to form a partnership with William K. Fellows, an association that lasted for 13 years.  Nimmons & Fellows concentrated largely on commercial and industrial designs.  Sleek, An example of one such design can be found on the east side of the North Branch of the Chicago River, today a residential building known as River Bank Lofts. In 1903 the firm also designed the 20-room Prairie style home for the President of Sears, Roebuck and Company, Julius Rosenwald, at 4901 South Ellis Avenue.

From 1910 until 1917 Nimmons worked alone, forming a larger practice after that period known as Nimmons & Company.  The Franklin Building of 1912 (720 S. Dearborn), the C. P. Kimball & Company Building of 1913 (39th and Michigan), the American Furniture Mart between 1923 and 1926 (680 N. Lake Shore Dr.), as well as Reid-Murdoch were all designed during this phase of his career.

From 1933 until 1945 Nimmons was the senior partner in the firm of Nimmons, Carr & Wright.  During this time he spent much of his time in Florida and developed a new interest in designing and building scale-model sailing ships, one of which was displayed at the Century of Progress Exposition.  The architect died on June 17, 1947.

The soaring tower that holds the most notable feature of Reid-Murdoch,
the four-sided illuminated clock (JWB, 2011)
Of the style he used in the Reid-Murdoch building, Nimmons wrote, “The characteristics of the style of treatment of industrial buildings that is mostly in favor now are Gothic in character and consist usually of piers marked on the exterior of the buildings, carried up only to the point where the concentrated loads disappear, similar to buttresses and also walls continued up without projecting cornices and terminated with ornamental copings; the corners of the building are strengthened by the use of piers heavier than the intermediate ones, the entrances emphasized by the use of ornamental tracery and ornament, and the sprinkler tank enclosed in a tower often placed at the main entrance and including one of the principal stairways.  While such designs are Gothic in character they are more and more exhibiting a freedom and originality that promise in time to develop into a well-defined architectural style for American industrial buildings.” [United State Department of the Interior, 1997]

And THERE is the point:  a newfound freedom and originality that would develop into a well-defined architectural style for American industrial buildings.  That’s what Louis Sullivan was talking about.  That is what Perkins, Griffin, Mahoney and Wright were striving to achieve.  And that’s what is going on in Reid-Murdoch.

So the beautiful new addition to the old, working river got built, and less than a year after its completion the river sent death to its doors. The S. S. Eastland, docked across the river from the warehouse was packed with 2,572 passengers on July 25, 1915 when at 7:28 a.m. it rolled sharply to port, ending up on its side with hundreds of passengers trapped underwater.  844 passengers, many of them women and children, along with four crew members, died in the disaster.  The basement and first floor of the Reid-Murdoch building were used as a temporary hospital and morgue.

Reid-Murdoch was the first project on the river to adhere to the Chicago Plan of 1909 with
the building set back from the river, a trend that would be repeated over and over (JWB, 2011)
Business resumed after the ordeal and Reid-Murdoch operated successfully until 1945 when it was acquired by the Sprague Warner-Kenny Corporation and became part of Consolidated Grocers, one of the nation’s largest food companies.  The plans were to operate Reid-Murdoch as a separate company but it would become part of vast empire that included 52 branches in every part of the country, a goliath that included 19 canneries, 15 pickle stations, and seven grocery processing plants.

In effect, the story that began way back in Dubuque in 1853 had come to an end.

A great building can have many lives, though, and on March 7, 1953 the Tribune announced that Chicago municipal court and county officials had agreed to ask the City Council to rent three floors of the building to consolidate three traffic courts.  Under the proposal three floors of the building would be rented for $300,000 a year with a ten-year lease in effect.  One million bucks was provided for the necessary remodeling.  When the bids were opened in 1954, they came to twice that amount: $1,962,737.

Subtle Arts and Crafts brickwork decorates the upper reaches of
a building designed as a warehouse (JWB, 2011)
That was a pretty good chunk of change for a building that Consolidated Foods would still be colleting rent on, so in 1955 the city agreed to buy the building for $2,130,000.  There was some controversy about the plan with a group of aldermen lobbying to build a new building along the just completed  Congress Expressway, but Mayor Kennelly eventually got what he wanted.  It served as the principal Traffic Court for the city until 1998.

Today the Friedman Properties (Preserving the Past.  Building the Future) owns the property, and the firm’s corporate offices are located there.  According to its website, Friedman put extensive work into re-purposing the structure, “replacing missing historic elements such as the large storefront windows with transoms, the original pier-and-bay spacing, pedimented terra-cotta panels in the end bays, and the transom above the banks of double-hung windows.”  Principal tenants include the Britannica Corporation and the World of Whirlpool, with a 30,000 square foot product experience center.

Chicago's Leading Lady glides past the nearly century-old Reid-Murdoch
building on a beautiful early September afternoon (JWB, 2011)
One thing that the restoration could not accomplish was the replacement of the building’s westernmost corner bay, which was gobbled up when the city embarked upon another project influenced by the Chicago Plan of 1909, the widening of LaSalle Street.  When that project began in September of 1927, the corner pier was shaved off and a new corner pier was created to resemble the eastern corner of the building.  It was a fairly sensitive attempt, and many people miss the fact that to the east side of the tower there are five bays between the tower and the corner pier while the west side only has four.

One thing that you can’t miss, though, is the beauty of this river queen, still reigning over the river nearly one hundred years after she was built. 

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