Saturday, December 8, 2012

Prudential Building Chicago--December 8, 1955

Welcome to the Modern Era -- The first tall building in Chicago in 21 years (JWB, 2008)
On March 1, 1951 an announcement was made that would change the face of downtown Chicago as news was delivered of the Prudential Life Insurance Company of America’s intent to build a 40-million dollar, 42-story skyscraper on the northeast corner of Randolph and Michigan, a project that would move the city east across Michigan Avenue and begin the process of building in the great railroad yard and terminal that filled what is today Illinois Center.

Four years later on this date, December 8, 1955, the new Midwest headquarters for Prudential opened for business.

The new building would be the fourth and largest regional office, a decentralization effort intended to bring the firm closer to the people it served.  Following the first such regional office in Los Angeles, completed in 1949, along with offices in Toronto and Houston, the Prudential building in Chicago was projected to house 7,000 employees.

Prudential paid just under five million dollars for the site, signing an agreement with the Illinois Central and the Michigan Central Railroads, a subsidiary of the New York Central Railroad, for the 16 acres overlooking Grant Park.

Speaking at a luncheon in the Palmer House that day, Carol M. Shanks, president of Prudential, gave his reasons for choosing Chicago as the site for its largest regional headquarters.  “Mid-America is the arsenal and the breadbasket of the nation,” Shanks said.  “Without it the United States would be helplessly, hopelessly crippled.”

Helplessly, hopelessly crippled . . . kind of nice for a Chicagoan to hear.

The great railroad yards and terminals that filled the area east of Michigan Avenue from Monroe north to the river
(Chicago Aerial Photo Services--U.I.C archives)
At this same luncheon the secrecy involved in negotiations for the site was also disclosed.  From October of 1949 until January of 1951 L. J. Sheridan & Co. had been negotiating for the property with Illinois Central officials, keeping the identity of Prudential a secret.  Finally, with the deal nearly in place the president of the Illinois Central, Wayne A. Johnston, said that he would have to know the name of the prospective buyer in order “to sell the idea to the directors.”  It was only then that the buyer was disclosed.

C. F. Murphy, in his oral history, related the back-room dealing that led up to the final agreement. “They [Prudential] were thinking about the possibility of a location on the Near North Side exactly on the site of the Water Tower Place.  And then another place out in Skokie.  But when Leo (Leo Sheridan, a Chicago realtor who was the exclusive agent for Prudential) proposed air rights, they were most interested in that, but they said, ‘It’s a knotty problem.  We don’t want to be connected with something that falls through.’  And so the thing was done in secret for a year and a half.”

Prudential and its presence at the head of Millennium Park (JWB, 2008)
What finally developed over those 18 months was a deed that was 85 pages long and contained the legal description of over 500 small pieces of railroad property on which caissons and pilings, along with associated connections, would be sunk.  The architectural renderings for each of these legal pieces were part of a paper roll stretching 50 feet, half the length of the caissons that would support the new building.  C. F. Murphy stated, “I think they really overdid the thing . . . Take a column—caisson lot—and then there’d be a brace at the top of the column, that became a lot.  There were hundreds of the damn things . . . They had a great time.  And they kept that office door locked with no name on the door of the glass outside, and it was high secret all right.”

Carl Landefeld, who had worked for the great New York architectural firm McKim, Mead and White, was given responsibility for the design for the building, and the reaction to the first tall building tin Chicago since 1934 was not completely favorable, as hard as that might be to believe today.  In an October editorial The Chicago Tribune cautioned, “Instead of 35 stories, it is now planned that the building shall have 42, with a roughly corresponding increase in cubic content and occupancy.  The wisdom of this is questionable . . . The congestion resulting from so large an increase in office population at the edge of the already congested Loop might be an unhealthy thing for the city.”

(Look for contemporary criticism about the proposed three-tower project at Wolf Point, and you can see almost the same sentiments.)

JWB, 2009
Construction was not started until well into 1952 since application had to be made to the federal government for approval of the steel necessary for the building’s foundation, a step resulting from the controls, still in place at the time, on materials critical to the nation’s war effort and subsequent recovery.  That approval came on June 4, 1952.

Prudential Rising (Google Image)
With that hurdle overcome, construction was set to begin on a completely modern building.  This was to be the first skyscraper in Chicago that would not need to have its windows cleaned from the outside, “with its hazards to workmen and annoyances to office occupants.”  [Tribune, April 19, 1952]  All windows would swing open vertically, allowing them to be washed from the inside.  The windows would be double glazed with plate glass was to be so large "that offices will have what corresponds to picture windows in the modern home.”

The three million dollar cost of the 30 automatic elevators in the building would be the largest sum ever paid for elevator service, surpassing the cost of the elevators in the Empire State building by $200,000.

Another “first” for the building was the result of the decision to install escalators that would serve the building’s top two floors.  Installing the highest escalator system in the world at the time would allow the elimination of the “penthouse” normally used for housing elevator machinery at the top of the building.  Such a structure would have been out of place atop the sleek lines of the modern new building.

On August 12, 1952 Mayor Kennelly and Valentine Howell, executive vice-president of Prudential, hefted the first shovels of dirt atop what would become one of the 260 caissons that would be dug 105 to bedrock.

Prudential One and Prudential Two (JWB, 2008)
At the close of 1952 The Tribune told of the new technology that would make up the building’s air conditioning system.  The new tower would be the first time a building so far from the river would use river water for air conditioning.  Although Tribune Tower, the Wrigley Building, the Merchandise Mart and Union Station employed this method, these properties all sat within a block of the river.  Prudential was located three long blocks away.

A 30-inch pipe was constructed 18 feet below ground, running underneath what is now the Hyatt Hotel and through it 8,500 gallons of river water would be pumped to Prudential every minute.  Disposal of the 5,100,000 gallons of river water that would be used each day would be by way of a huge storm sewer running beneath Stetson Avenue.

On July 29, 1953 the Fuller Construction Company was awarded the contract for the general construction of the new tower.  It was an appropriate choice.  The company had begun in Chicago before moving its headquarters to the Flatiron Building in New York City, a building designed by Daniel Burnham’s firm.

On November 11, 1953 the first steel column, 60 feet long and weighing 31 tons, was erected.  The American Bridge Division of United States Steel was the fabricator and the erector of the steel in the new building.  By the end of April, 1954 the last caissons were completed.  On November 16, 1954 the topping-off ceremony was held.

Just into the new year of 1955 the first section of a 311-foot television tower belonging to WGN was hoisted to the top of the building.  The $300,000 antenna and transmitter gave the Chicago a chance to broadcast with a 50,000 watt transmitter over the highest antenna in the city, 914 feet above the ground.  In a way WGN began its rise to “super station” status with this move to Prudential from Tribune Tower in early 1955.

At 3:00 p.m. on June 4, 1955 six furniture vans and 30 movers began moving 2,600 pieces of office furniture and 400 Prudential employees from their old headquarters in the Butler building on Canal Street to the fourth and fifth floors of the new tower on Randolph.   Eighty crosstown trips competed the transfer over the weekend.

Alfonso Iannelli's great rock -- with the lettering of his choosing (JWB, 2008)
Just after this mysterious letters, in various combinations of black or white began appearing under the Rock of Gibraltar, the great bas-relief, the symbol of Prudential, sculpted by Alfonso Iannelli.  It seems that originally there was to be no lettering under the 42-foot rock.  But the suits felt that since the rock was the company’s copyrighted symbol, failure to identify it as such would open it up to appropriation by others.  Ianelli himself, preparing to climb scaffolding to chisel the outlines of the great rock so that it would stand out more, announced that he favored letters carved out of the  building’s limestone and decorated with gold leaf.  That’s what we see today on the west side of the building’s bustle.

The first tenant to move into the building, the western advertising offices of Readers’ Digest magazine, settled into its space in September of 1955, taking up temporary space on the third floor before moving up to the nineteenth floor in the spring of 1956.

In early October the last of the 2,617 windows was installed, beating the arrival of cold weather by a month.  Each window was double-glazed with each pane in the system a quarter-inch in thickness, hermetically sealed with a quarter-inch air space between.  

On December 8, 1955 the first new downtown skyscraper in 21 years was officially dedicated at a ceremony held in the auditorium and lobby of the new building.  Governor Stratton and Mayor Richard J. Daley, according to The Tribune, said that the Prudential project would be followed by “further large scale development of the remaining 77 acres of air rights over Illinois Central railroad adjoining the new skyscraper.”  Daley added that the building represented “41 stories of faith in the future of Chicago.”

A time capsule was set in one of the lobby columns.  Among its contents was a film showing the WGN facilities.  The capsule was sealed with a chip off the rock of Gibraltar, which the British consul general, Robert W. Mason, presented to Prudential at the ceremony.

Without the other Randolph Street buildings that Prudential heralded, this late 1950's postcard clearly
shows how sleekly modern the new building seemed (Booth Library Postcard Collection--Eastern Illinois U.)
This place has a special place in the heart of Chicagoans my age.  We remember taking the escalator up to the observation deck at the top of the building and, maybe, putting a coin into the telescopes that sat at the windows.  Maybe we at the Stouffer’s restaurant on the floor below.  My wife’s mother brought her and her little gaggle of Brownies to the building and they “flew up” the elevator and became Girl Scouts on the top floor.

Chicago has changed a lot over these past 57 years, but the Prudential remains as a reminder of the first building to start the process that would re-make the face of this great modern city.


hermes outlet said...

Amazing building!!!

MikeM. said...

I certainly remember those "fast stairs" heading up to the observation deck. I still have pictures taken from the deck.

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Michael Foster said...

I was stationed at Great Lakes NTC from March until December 1969. A girl I was dating that summer took me there for dinner one Saturday evening, the 'Top of the Rock'...a real treat for a Burlington, NC mill hill the shadows of the buildings lengthen as the sun set and the sky turn a brilliant reddish of my favorite spots in Chicago that year.

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Unknown said...

Was the time capsule opened in 2000? What was in it?

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heywally said...

My dad was an accountant for Price Waterhouse in the Prudential Building in the 50's and early 60's. I remember him taking me to his office one evening followed by dinner at my first fancy restaurant -- whatever it was -- on the top floor of the building.

heywally said...

I also remember the elevator ride being pretty breathtaking.

Anonymous said...

I remember a tv show broadcasting from the Prudential building that showed "little rascals" short films. There was a group of kids sitting on stage before the films were played that sang the theme song. My sister, brother and I were part of that group one time in the 50s. A big moment for three "colored" kids from the projects.

Unknown said...

My first job at the age of 16, was selling souvenirs on the observation deck. I thought I had made it to the big time! Sailors were frequent visitors to the deck. At Xmas and Thanksgiving, I would invite one or two home for dinner with my family. Fond memories. Joanne

Anonymous said...

Anyone know when the original logo for the Prudential building was replace to the logo where the letters were slanted with the line on the bottom?

I know that's one's been replaced by the blue logo.

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