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Chicago's Rich Architectural History

Chicago boasts a skyline envied by many other major cities. The city will welcome its first Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, designed to explore major architectural issues and celebrate many of Chicago’s iconic buildings. From repurposed buildings to full demolitions, this skyline has undergone quite a bit of transformation over the years. Here is a small look at some of those buildings and a step back into the Loop of architecture’s past.

(Header Photo: Chicago River, c1940 | Chuckman's Collection)

Then:  Reliance Building

Now:  Hotel Burnham

Located on the southwest corner of Washington and State, the Reliance building was one of the world’s first steel-frame skyscrapers upon its completion in 1895. Later, it became the prototype for the modern day skyscraper. The Reliance Building’s terra cotta exterior set it apart from others as it was the only building in the world to use it in such a manner. At the time, terra cotta was a popular way to protect building structures from fire, a necessary precaution after the wake of the Chicago Fire of 1871.

Designed by Daniel Burnham and John Root, the building was built in two stages to accommodate existing tenants who did not want to be displaced due to construction. A temporary roof was placed over the first floor while the upper three floors were built. Unique to the time, the Reliance Building offered full electric and phone service in each office. Plus, it was a space where physicians and dentists rented for their practices. Fun fact? Al Capone’s dentist leased an office there.     

Things took a turn for the worse, starting with the Great Depression. Without proper upkeep the building slowly began to deteriorate. It stayed this way until 1993 when the City of Chicago purchased it and then later partnered with real estate developers to bring the Reliance Building back to life.

Today the Reliance Building is known as Kimpton’s Hotel Burnham. It serves as a “living landmark” for travelers and has received numerous awards over the years for everything from excellent service to best restoration.

Then:  Masonic Temple

Now:  Joffrey Ballet Tower

In 1892, the corner of Randolph and State saw the construction of what was soon to be the tallest building in Chicago standing at 302 feet. Designed by prominent architects Burnham and Root, a great deal of effort and resources went into the construction of the new Masonic headquarters. The building used 4,700 tons of steels, 22,000 tons of terra-cotta, 4 acres of glass and 7,000 electric lights. The temple needed its own machine plant to generate all the electricity and steam, which took the form of an underground vault next to the building. An additional eight steel boilers were housed in the back alley.

The final product gleamed with mosaic floors, a marble lobby, glass domed gardens, gabled roofs and even had its own Masonic Temple Roof Theater which was known for its good food and vaudeville and music acts. Unfortunately, the buzz around the Masonic Temple started to diminish almost as quickly as it had grown and plans were made to tear the building down in 1939.

Today the same site houses the Joffrey Tower. It was renamed from the Modern Momentum Building (MoMo) when the ballet company purchased their space. The first two floors are home to the Joffrey Ballet while the rest serve as high rise condominiums of Smithfield Properties. Additionally, the building is home to the Walgreen’s flagship store. In 2012, when Loehmann’s retail store moved out, Walgreen expanded to a two floor location. It boasts amenities you won’t find at your typical pharmacy, including: a cigar humidor, international newsstand, made to order smoothies, sushi, frozen yogurt and juice bars, a manicure station and even an on-site barista. 

Then: Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company Building

Now: The Sullivan Center

For three years Louis H. Sullivan labored over the design of this building on 1 South State. The building was built in sections starting in 1899 on Madison Street. By the time construction on section three was set to begin Sullivan had been replaced with another famous architect: D.H. Burnham. However, Burnham still followed Sullivan’s plans. In 1903 the original owners fell under financial trouble and it became the new home of another Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company department store. They stayed from 1904 to 2007 when they vacated State Street. The building is marked by detailed ornamentation and is considered one of the most influential pieces in modern architecture.

Today, much of Sullivan’s original ornamentation remains, but minor structural changes were made to accommodate CityTarget. They added elevators and escalators, restored the columns to white, and store branding in places that would not compromise the building’s original design.  

Then and Now: Monadnock Building

The last building designed by architect John Wellborn Root, the Monadnock, is deemed the inspiration for the word “skyscraper.” Situated at 53 W. Jackson Boulevard, it is named after a mountain in New Hampshire. The word itself is used to describe a hill that rises suddenly from its surrounding terrain. At its time of completion, the Monadnock was the tallest office building in the world.

Surprisingly, the north and south halves were designed separately with the north being designed by Root before his death while the building was under construction. Holabird & Roche took over the construction on the south half and while it is similar to its northern counterpart, details such as ornamentation are noticeably different. In 1938 the Monadnock became one of the first major skyscrapers to undergo renovation when it was restored to its original condition. In fact, the National Trust for Historic Preservation recognized the renovation as one of the top projects in the country. Today, the building serves as an office space to three hundred different Chicago firms and independent companies. 


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