Thursday, November 6, 2014

Masonic Temple Cornerstone Laid -- November 6, 1890

The Masonic Temple Building 1892-1939
A big kerfuffle on this day, November 6, of 1890 as the city turned out for the ceremony to lay the cornerstone for the building that would rise at the corner of State Street and Randolph.  The Masonic Temple, it was promised, would be the tallest building in the world when it was completed.

As dignitaries gathered the box to be placed inside the cornerstone was prepared.  The stone which was to seal the box within the base of the building stood ready, inscribed with these words, “Erected by the Masonic Fraternity, A. D. 1890, Temple Association.”  [Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1890]  The paper pointed out that such heavy stones were purely decorative, observing that “In this structure, a type of the American school of architecture, the masonry is only to protect the real supports of the building steel beams.”

Music blared as horses “prancing with military spirit” passed by.  The parade was a dazzling display as “Men bearing glittering swords came by, their snowy plumes shining against the black background of the Knights’ dress.  There were red crosses, black crosses, and double-barred crosses, and every uniform as neat as wax, each uniformed man wearing spotless gloves.  Magnificently-embroidered banners with knightly crests then floated on the breeze.”

The streets were packed.  Windows were filled with spectators.  The roofs along State Street were lined with hundreds of people.  

As Chicago began to prepare for the great World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, an event that citizens saw as placing Chicago among the great cities of the world, the Masonic Temple would strengthen that notion.  Towering 275 feet above State Street, this would be the tallest building in the world.  “All of the arts of the present century will be employed to embellish its interior and give it an attractive exterior, and no expense will be spared to make it one of the most, if not the most complete structure in existence,” wrote The Tribune.

One of the many interior meeting rooms
(Chicago Daily News Archives - Library of Congress)
In fact, it was anticipated that the new building would cost $2,000,000, close to 52 million dollars these days.  The entrance, 42 feet high and 28 feet wide, led into “a rotunda having an area of 3,700 square feet and open to the extreme height of the building, finished up to the 275-foot roof with plate-glass and white polished marble.”  [Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1890]

In addition to several hundred offices, there were over 100 Masonic lodge rooms, some of them having a capacity of over 1,000 people.  Each floor had a 12-foot central corridor with offices and stores lining each side, half looking through windows to the street, the other half overlooking the central atrium.

Fifty thousand safe deposit boxes were placed in the basement of the building, providing for annual income of $125,000. The Bankers’ National Bank with a capitalized valuation of $1,000,000 agreed to a ten-year lease on the corner space on the ground floor of the building for $160,000.

The light court and atrium lobby
(Chicago Daily News Archive - Library of Congress)
There were 17 elevators, capable of carrying 70,000 passengers a day.  The Tribune brayed, “Even that of the great Eiffel tower of Paris and the World Building of New York will have to yield the honor to Chicago in this respect.” [Chicago Tribune, March 14, 1892] 

Hydraulically operated, the pumping apparatus used to run them was capable of “supplying water every day to a town of 60,000 inhabitants.”  The elevator cables alone would span a distance of 16 miles.  Rough calculations suggested that the elevators would travel 123,136 miles a year or “nearly five times around the earth.”

Three of the lifts would be dedicated to ferrying people to the observatory at the top of the building where a “beautiful pavilion garden will relieve the eye after the grand panorama of the city and the surrounding lake and country scenery has been viewed.”

The great building soon became a tragic memorial as less than three months after the dedication the building’s genius architect, John Welborn Root, died suddenly after “being seized with a severe chill” after a visit of architects from the east coast, who had shared the preliminary plans for the 1893 fair at Root's house.

Although Mr. Root was not a member of the order, the Masons gathered together to “join with our citizens generally in the deep sorrow felt at the loss of this prominent citizen, whose personal worth and professional skill brought him in close contact with this ancient fraternity, as the designer of the great Masonic Temple, the erection of which had so auspiciously begun under the direction of his master mind.” [Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1891]

View of Randolph and State from the roof
(Chicago Daily New Archive - Library of Congress)
By March 1, 1891 the foundation for the great building was complete with “piers completed, cap-stones on, and the base of the steel columns set.” [Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1891]  Workers had toiled in three shifts around the clock to complete this section of the project, and that was the first part of a schedule that moved forward at breakneck speed. 

There were penalties for any contractor who could not meet the ambitious schedule.  The contractor responsible for erecting the steel frame of the building was required to take out a $100,000 bond, payable if the company did not meet the deadline for having that phase of the project finished.  There was a $500 a day penalty for each floor not completed on time.   The steel contractor was to forfeit $1,000 a day for each day a scheduled delivery was late.

As a result, exactly one year later, on November 6, 1891, the capstone was laid at the top of the 19-story, marking the practical completion of the great structure.  “In one year’s time the big building has progressed from the cornerstone to the capstone, and it stands today a towering monument to the master minds that conceived it and to that fraternity, old almost as history itself, which has caused it to be built,” The Tribune reported.  [Chicago Tribune, November 7, 1891]

“A grander or more brilliant procession of Masons never marched along the streets in Chicago,” wrote The Tribune.  More than 500 uniformed knights were in the line, their white plumes waving and their highly burnished swords clanking as they tramped along.”  The procession was led by two platoons of policemen who tried to clear a path through the spectators who had lined the route. 1,550 more men, representing the Masonic lodges of the city, followed the contingent of dignitaries.

A rope extending from a crane at the highest point of the front wall of the building was attached to the capstone, which lay on a table covered with the American flag.  “It was so small and plain-looking that it was dwarfed by the mighty Temple,” wrote The Tribune.

By June 1, 1892 the conservatory in the building opened 300 feet above State Street.  Although it was a foggy day when the opening reception was held inside the space, optimism ran high.  One of the directors of the Masonic Fraternity Temple Association, Amos Grannis, observed, “During the World’s Fair we expect the conservatory to become a popular resort . . . The dancing floor has a surface of 10,000 square feet and the conservatory will make a splendid place for parties.  In clear weather the Michigan shore can be seen, and a splendid view of Chicago, including the World’s Fair, is one of the advantages offered.” [Chicago Tribune, June 2, 1892]

Ah, if only things had worked out as well as they were planned.  Two weeks after the conservatory opened, the complaints of the building’s tenants were so many and so vigorous that The Tribune observed that the “nice linen-woven paper” used to record them was too thin to carry their weight.

There were complaints about the elevators.  There were no signs to show which elevators went where and “the men who operate the cages wear such an air of lofty superiority that the humble passenger hardly dares to ask a question, fearing a rebuke for being so presumptuous.”  [Chicago Tribune, June 19, 1892]

E. D. Neff in Room 1505 stated that “the supply of electricity has been so irregular as to make it of no value to me.  For the first twenty days in May it was impossible to do business for the reason that the current was shut off so frequently.”

Dr. F. A. Stetson stated that until May 20 the hallway in front of his office door was “ornamented by a large mortar box, and the passageways were so dirty and full of plaster that he could not put down carpets until June 1.”

An owner who had leased space in the building for a music conservatory was told to “stop the playing of musical instruments in his rooms.”  A gentleman who had leased a space to sell candy and soda water found that leases had been given to other parties to sell candy in the building’s hallways.

The rental agent (you’re not going to believe this), E. R. Bliss, was shown the list of complaints and responded that he “was tired of the job,” that he had only been drawn into it by the death of one of the other partners.

By the end of July even the building’s crown jewel had lost its sparkle.  The glass roof of the twentieth floor conservatory and its small windows tucked under the eaves of the roof, combined to send the temperature in the showplace to 112 degrees and the air "became so hot and stifling for a time that the banks of ferns and other plants set about the room grew brown and seared like a Kansas cornfield when a hot wind blows over it.”  [Chicago Tribune, July 27, 1892]

And there was the smoke.  The Tribune observed dryly, “The Masonic Temple has entered the field against the tugs, the switch engines, and other able-bodied and veteran smoke-producers only a few months ago. Yet so steady and so voluminous has been its output that the others have been compelled to acknowledge its superiority.”  [Chicago Tribune, July 25, 1892] 

A column at the building’s entrance beckoned visitors to take a trip to the conservatory, “the highest point of observation in the city.”   The Tribune declared, “The extent to which the Masonic Temple smokestack obscures the view of the city is not dwelt upon in the advertisements of the Temple.  Certainly no other building does more in that direction than the Temple.”

The smoking titan
(Chicago Daily News Archive - Library of Congress)
The great building stood until 1939 when it was demolished.  Proposed construction of the State Street subway would have required extensive and prohibitively expensive foundation modification.  The elevators never really lived up to their billing because the capacity of some of the spaces on the upper floors would have required service that could not be delivered in buildings that are being designed today.

But, my God, what a building this was.  Think about it – within three short years, the tallest building on earth, a World’s Fair that would attract 27.5 million people to the city, and an Art Institute worthy of any city in the world.  Chicago had become a city on the make.

At the ceremony for the laying of the building’s capstone on November 6, 1891, the Reverend Dr. H. W. Thomas observed, “Men die, institutions live.  When we are gone, when other feet shall walk these streets a hundred or a thousand years hence, while the waters wash these shores, till time is no more, may this temple stand for the glory of God, the honor of the Masonry, and the good of man.”

Not quite a thousand.  A little less than half a century.  A really, really good one to remember, though.

Randolph and State, c. 1902
Notice the clock at Marshall Field's
Chicago Daily News Archive - Library of Congress


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