Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Reliance Building--Revisiting a Masterpiece

The Reliance Building (JWB, 2008)

I’ve already written about Chicago’s Reliance building, an engineering marvel and a State Street beauty that almost ended up in a heap of terra cotta debris  in the 1980’s.  You can find the blog entries on the Reliance here and here.

I ran across a couple of illustrations in a Chicago Tribune piece on March 16, 1895 that dramatically show how quickly the building rose once the leases expired in the old four-story structure, the first home of the First National back of Chicago, on May 1 of 1895.

Check this out . . . here is the building just 77 days after work began on leveling the building, minus John Root’s first floor, that previously stood on the site.

And here is the building just 15 days later.

Now, T-H-A-T is getting after things in a hurry.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Illinois Center -- What Might Have Been

Proposal for the Apparel Mart on Wacker Drive (Chicago Tribune)

A lot was going on in Chicago as the 1920’s came to an end.  Roads, bridges, and great art-deco towers were being built by the dozens.  It must have been an unbelievable time, a time filled with an unlimited future and a dynamic present, all of it built on what had been largely marshland just 80 years earlier.

It’s easy to look at all that took place and marvel at how much was accomplished.  Still, there was much that did not get done.  It’s interesting to consider what this city might have looked like if the Great Depression had not come along at the end of the decade.

To get some idea of what might have been, it’s interesting to consider three great projects that never made it off the drafting table.  All three were monumental in scope, designed by the best architects in town, and capable of
providing a presence that would still be felt today.

Beginning east of Columbus Drive on Wacker, the proposed
Ahlschlager design would have soared 75 stories (Chicago Tribune)
The first of those great projects, announced on June 17, 1928, would have built on Wacker Drive and would have occupied two full blocks on the east side of Columbus Drive, beginning where the East tower of today’s Hyatt Hotel is located.  The banner headline in The Chicago Tribune that day read, “Chicago to Have World’s Tallest and largest Building.”

Even by today’s standards, the structure would have been immense.

At 75 stories it would have been 15 floors higher than the tallest building in the world at the time, the Woolworth headquarters in New York City.  On that day in June the paper announced that “contracts have been let and work is to start within six months on this $45,000,000 building, designed by Walter W. Ahlschlager.”  That is nearly twice what the Civic Opera Building, finished in 1929, cost and seven million more than the Merchandise Mart cost when it was finished in 1930.

Walter Ahlschlager (Uptown Chicago
The 100-year lease had been negotiated for the building with the Illinois Central Railroad for air rights over its yards, and this was expected to be the first of several impressive buildings that would be constructed between Randolph and the river, the site of today's Illinois Center.

The mart was to be a multi-purpose building, housing an apparel-manufacturers’ center, a 1,000 room hotel, facilities on the lower levels for incoming and outgoing Illinois Central Pullman cars, a 1,200 car garage, an open-air swimming pool, and, on the top four floors, three exclusive clubs with the best views, literally, in the world.

The building was to have its own police force, a first-aid hospital, and railroad terminals and tracks underground to handle passengers, freight and mail.  The normal daytime population of the building was expected to approach 18,000.

Reading about this plan, it’s impossible to believe that it didn’t happen.  The President of the Apparel Manufacturers’ Mart Building Corporation was Napoleon Picard, who 15 years earlier had organized the group that got the Insurance Exchange started just west of the Board of Trade.  The contract for construction had been let to the Starrett Building company, with plans to complete the massive project in 15 months. 

At least 50 firms had signed leases for space in the building.

It's hard to imagine a 75-story art deco fortress on
Wacker Drive where the Hyatt now stands (Google Images)
The head of the Chicago Association of Commerce, W. R. Dawes, wrote, “The completion of this project will be an achievement worthy of one of the greatest industries and of one of the greatest cities in the country.”

Mr. Dawes was right.  But something must have happened.  Because ten months later when The Trib next mentions the project, the news is part of an article on another proposed tower, the Crane Tower.  About a half-dozen paragraphs into the article, the paper states, “And right here while the reader probably is wondering what has happened to the much talked of and extensively pictured Apparel Mart, or Chicago Tower, as it was later christened, to be erected on Wacker Drive, a block east of Michigan Avenue, we’ll explain the situation.  That project has been abandoned for that particular location because it was found office space was more in demand at that point than for apparel display, etc.”

Pretty cryptic . . . it would be fascinating to know what happened over the space of a few months that led to the cancellation of the largest building in the world.

Almost immediately, though, another Walter Ahlschlager project, the aforementioned Crane Tower, leapt into prominence.  On May 5, 1929 The Tribune ran the headline “World’s Tallest Structure for Randolph Boulevard.”

Crane Tower would have been built approximately where the Aon Building stands today -- note
the peristyle in the lower left corner, torn down in 1953, replaced in 2004 (Chicago Tribune)
Randolph Boulevard, itself, was in the process of completion, a combined project between the Illinois Central Railroad and the city intended to connect the I.C.’s proposed downtown suburban station to Lake Shore Drive and the proposed bridge that would carry the drive across the Chicago River.  A big building, constructed on air rights over the railroad tracks north of Randolph, would have given the new thoroughfare instant cachet.

A big selling point in the plan was that tenants could drive their cars into the building from both Randolph Street and Lake Street, “from both the north and south sides, when the outer drive and bridge and Randolph boulevard are completed, directly into their offices without crossing or using Michigan avenue,” according to The Tribune.

Crane Tower, like the Apparel Mart plan, also would have been 75 stories tall, soaring skywards 1,022 feet.  But the scale was much larger in the second tower.  The tower would have contained 3,500,000 square feet of office space.  That would have given it over two million M-O-R-E square feet of space than the next largest building in the world, the Equitable building in New York City.  (By comparison, the Merchandise Mart, currently the third largest building in the country in terms of square footage, has 4,000,000 square feet of interior space.)

Back in the day -- today's Illinois Center is built on three levels over
Illinois Central Railroad property (That's 333 North Michigan at the
extreme left of the photo)
Plans were for the new building to be as lavish as the previous proposal for  Wacker Drive.  There would be parking for 1,000 cars, a bank on the first floor, a large convention hall, and exhibition space on the second and third floors of 104,000 square feet.  The twenty-third and twenty-fourth floors would hold a private club with 80,000 square feet that would include a grill and restaurant, a swimming pool, Turkish baths, a gym and space for 48 hotel rooms.

The building was to have been clad in Bedford limestone (they could have saved any of the stone that had been quarried and slapped it up on the Prudential building on the same site, built 25 years later).  The crowning glory would have been gold terra cotta, rising from the sixty-second to the seventh-fifth floor.  That would have given the Carbide and Carbon building, already under construction, a run for its money.

The proposal was to make the tower the first big office building in Chicago to have direct underground connection to a railroad terminal, the proposed Illinois Central terminal just across the street on Michigan Avenue.  The Starret Building company, the same firm that was under contract to build the Apparel Mart, was chosen to construct the new tower with delivery of the colossal work due on October 15 of 1930.

Not good timing, right?  Randolph Street would have to wait 25 years before it finally got a building to sit on its north side, east of Michigan Avenue.  Finally, in 1955 the Naess and Murphy Prudential Building was finished.  And it would be all the way until 1970 before the first building in the new Illinois Center would be constructed on Wacker Drive.

The Holabird and Root - Raymond Hood rendering of
a proposed Illinois Center and Lakeshore East from
Michigan Avenue to Lake Shore Drive
One more thing . . . Also in 1929, according to information in the Skyscraper Page Forum, a master plan was drawn for what is today Illinois Center and much of Lakeshore East.  Raymond Hood, who along with John Mead Howells designed Tribune Tower, teamed up with Holabird and Root to put together a vision of the future.  Of course, this became a victim of the downturn in the economy as well, but it is interesting to think about how this section of the city would have looked today if things had progressed according to plan.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Dedication of the Chicago Picasso

JWB Photo, 2008
It was on this day in 1967 that Chicago dedicated its new 50-foot Picasso statue in what was then the Civic Center Plaza.  To say the least, the unveiling of the Kor-Ten steel colossus was greeted with mixed reviews.

Just before the unveiling, August 15, 1967
Festivities featured The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, playing a short program, culminating in George Gershwin’s American in Paris.

Two men spoke, the first being William Hartmann, senior partner at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the man most responsible for bringing the Picasso to Chicago as a gift of the great artist to a city which he had never visited.  Hartmann observed that the unveiling of the statue “may prove to be a singular event in the cultural history of the world.”

Mayor Richard J. Daley followed Mr. Hartmann, proclaiming, “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.”  His remarks were certainly optimistic, but I’m not sure he realized how prescient they were. 

A star is born as Mayor Richard J. Daley unveils the new Picasso
With a tug on a cord attached to 1,200 square feet of blue-green fabric, the Mayor unveiled the sculpture, which had been fabricated in the Gary plant of the United States Steel Corporation’s American Bridge division. 

It took $300,000 to assemble the sculpture with the cost underwritten by the Chauncey and Marion Deering McCormick Fund, the Field Foundation, and the Woods Charitable Trust.

Reaction to the great work was predictably strong, and letters to the editors of The Chicago Tribune prior to the dedication underscore that fact.  Here are a few of those . . .

It is said that Picasso made the design for the large monument in the Civic center plaza to show his commie friends how decadent and gullible Americans are or can be in matters of art.  This monstrosity should never be permitted to afflict the eyes of the good people of Chicago in our most public place . . . Tho Republican by nature, I would rather look daily at a statue of his honor, the mayor, then at this jeering Communist jest.
Frederick J. Bertram, Chicago

I can’t for the life of me understand how the people of Chicago can sit idle while this so-called statue donated by the card-carrying Communist, Picasso, is unveiled right in our heartland.  To think that our children and grandchildren will have to look at this monstrosity for years to come!
M. A. Troiona, Altoona, Pa.

The Picasso piece depicts a baboon, without a doubt . . . Picasso has perpetrated a hoax, over which he and the world would have a great laugh at our being taken in on such a joke  . . . And not just a little joke, but a big one, five stories high.
Helen McKee, La Grange Park

Is Chicago blind! . . . Picasso is looked on as one of the greatest artists to live.  Yet, because his work is modern, the people of Chicago refuse to accept it.  I do not especially like all of Picasso’s works, but just the thought of his giving a work, one no other city has the likeness of, makes me swell with pride.
O. J. Stacey, Chicago

When it comes to raising a memorial on the plaza of our new Civic center for all the world to see what is of most importance to the “hog butcher of the world,” what is selected?  Picasso’s dog . . . The most shocking aspect of the whole thing is that, with all the really fine and nationally known art talent native to and resident in Chicago, it was found necessary to go to an artist halfway around the world, who has never seen Chicago—and is a notorious Communist to boot.
Frank H. Marks, Chicago

Google Image
Today, of course, the Picasso statue comes as close to a symbol for the city as anything else that you could name.

Pablo Picasso once said that art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.  I don’t know for sure whether the 50-foot sculpture at the corner of Dearborn and Washington is a soul-washer, but it has, I think, been a good thing for this great city’s soul.

For more information on the process that led to Pablo Picasso’s gift to Chicago, you may go to

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Straightening the Chicago River

Proposal for the straightening of the river (Encyclopedia of Chicago)

On this date in 1926 Chicago city officials were given word that the Director of the State Department of Construction, Mr. Leslie Small,  following Daniel Burnham’s dictum to make no little plans, signed the permit that would allow the start of a $9,000,000 project to straighten the Chicago River between Polk and Eighteenth Streets.

Chicago Mayor William E. Dever, upon hearing the news, said, “The spirit of cooperation that is carrying the project forward deserves high commendation.  It cannot be emphasized too often that a new outlet southward form the loop is one of Chicago’s most urgent needs.”  [Chicago Tribune, August 10, 1926]

The original orientation of the river at this point lazily rolled east at Polk Street, reaching almost to Clark Street and then, around today’s Fifteenth street, rolled back southwest until it ran reasonably straight again at Eighteenth Street.

South Branch of Chicago River before straightening (Chicago Historical Society)
Straightening this mile-long bottleneck promised to work miracles.  As Libby Hill wrote in The Chicago River:  A Natural and Unnatural History, “At the time, only Wabash Avenue and State Street connected the south side to the city’s business district.  Michigan Avenue was restricted to passenger cars, and Clark Street was too narrow for trucks.  As many as nine railroads squeezed their tracks into the narrow space between Clark and the river, and some railroad properties were even bisected by the river.”

The plan was to straighten the river, allowing the railroad yards to align themselves with the street grid, thereby eliminating the obstacle to street extensions in the west loop that those yards created.

It was a big project, to say the least.  It involved the movement of property valued at millions of dollars.  Seven railroads were affected.  As a May, 1929 article in Popular Mechanics Magazine pointed out, “Railroad yards on one side of the river had to be sold to rival railroads on the other side, as they changed locations when the stream was moved.  The readjustment also took a kink out of all the railroads entering two big terminals, the LaSalle and Grand Central depots.”

Straightening of the South Branch in Progress (
Shovel Day on September 20, 1928 saw a parade of “steamers, and a half dozen dredges, scows, and tugs with flags flying and whistles shrieking” move down the river to the ceremonies at Taylor Street.  [Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1928]  Commissioner of Public Works Richard W. Wolfe pulled the lever of a huge dredge, and the project began.  The Great Lakes Dredge and Dock Company was the successful bidder on the huge project.

Because the river was still the principal means by which the city of Chicago flushed its toilet, sending sewage south to settle at the bottom of the inland waterway system, a new channel had to be created before the old kink in the river could be filled in.  It was a complicated procedure, stopped twice because of particularly cold weather in January of 1929 and abnormally high water levels that followed during spring and summer of that year.

On December 15, 1929—just 15 months after the beginning of the enormous project—the freighter McFarland, captained by Captain Forrest Maloney, became the first ship to sail through the newly straightened stretch of the river. 

Straightening in Progress (Chicago Daily News Photo)
The project was part of a grand plan to straighten out the southwest side of the city, and it also was to be one of the first steps in a great lake-to-sea waterway system that would connect Chicago with the Gulf of Mexico.  It was another of the scores of ambitious projects carried out in the mid-to-late 1920’s, all of them costing millions of dollars and all of them changing the city forever.

The river today, looking south with 311 South Wacker in the
foreground and River City to the rear (Chicago Urbanist)
In the end, things didn’t work quite as they were projected.  The railroads did get a much cleaner pathway into Chicago, and the city got its centralized railroad station, the great Union Station, bordered by Adams, Canal, and Clinton Streets and Jackson Boulevard. 

But the southern extension of Franklin, Wells, La Salle, and Dearborn Streets never really got off the drawing board, and for 60 years or more a significant portion of land, property that had been in the path of the eastern kink in the old river lay unused.  The great inland waterway was eventually realized, but the Chicago River got left out of the game since by the late 1920’s shipping had already begun to move to Calumet Harbor where navigation was much less forbidding.

Still, it was a heck of a plan, a big, big plan, carried out by a city with broad shoulders and a can-do spirit.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chicago Post Office . . . and Airport

Eliel Saarinen (Google Image)

In 1923 the great Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen came to Chicago after his design in the competition for Tribune Tower placed second.  Settling in Evanston and working on a scheme to develop the Chicago lakefront,  he was clearly taken with the potential that Chicago possessed.

He said as much that year, observing, “Someday day you shall be the most beautiful city in the world.  You shall outdo Paris.  She has her Seine; you have the lake.  No other city possesses such possibilities, such space for beauty, next the heart of her business section.”

From that moment on Chicago got to work.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately about Chicago in the late 1920’s, and it must have been an amazing time.  Hundreds of miles of roads were being widened, hundreds more paved for the first time.  The Chicago River was straightened south of Polk Street.  Lake Shore Drive was extended all the way to Hollywood.  South Water Street was reborn as the double-decked Wacker Drive.  Michigan Avenue was widened, and the Michigan Avenue bridge turned the little country lane that was Pine Street into the Magnificent Mile.

Straightening the Chicago River (Forgotten Chicago)
Between 1926 and 1930, in less than four years, 168 buildings taller than ten stories were built, including the Daily News Building and the Civic Opera Building, facing off against one another across the river, finished within three months of one another.

It must have been an incredible time with new schemes announced every couple of weeks, plans that would transform the city, providing the foundation for the great modern city that we know today.

But not every plan was practical, and many ideas were tabled.  The city debated the possibility of a subway system for nearly three decades.  The link bridge across the river at Lake Shore Drive took nearly 15 years of negotiating before it was finally built.

I came across one scheme, though, that really made me chuckle.

The Main Post Office in Better Days (Google Image)
An article that ran in The Chicago Tribune on July 21, 1927 began with this headline:  PLAN AIRPORT ON TOP OF CHICAGO’S NEW POST OFFICE.

The proposed main post office was to be 320 feet wide and 600 feet long, but the article reported, “Government officials believe that within a few years it will be possible for planes to land and take off in a limited area and in anticipation they are making provision for a six acre landing field on the building . . .”

In some ways the scheme made perfect sense.   The new post office was to back up to the brand new Union Station, a plan that allowed the direct handling of mail to and from trains entering the station.  Combine air mail and mail car connections at the same facility, and you have got yourself a doozy of a new post office.

The article conceded “Aviators generally do not believe the roof to be of sufficient area for landing in flying’s present state . . .” 

It went on to state, though, “Inasmuch as congress has not yet appropriated for the new post office building, the thought back of the roof plan is that by the time the building is erected the airmen will be able to make it serve their purposes . . . numerous plane manufacturers are experimenting with devices intended to stop a plane soon after it comes down.”

Clearly, an awesome site for an airport (Google Image)
Of course, the post office was completed in 1932.  It had 2,485,000 square feet of space and room for 5,500 postal employees.

The rooftop aerodrome was scrapped early on in the process.  Instead, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White provided space for an eight-lane highway to run right through the middle of the building.  The highway wasn't finished for another 23 years, but if everything had been done according to the original plan it would have been great fun to watch the planes landing and taking off on the roof while driving toward the tunnel beneath the largest post office in the world.