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.


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