|Welcome to the Modern Era -- The first tall building in Chicago in 21 years (JWB, 2008)|
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)
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)|
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.)
|Prudential Rising (Google Image)|
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)|
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)|
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.)
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.