1.16. BRYAN LATHROP BRINGS OWEN ALDIS TO CHICAGO

William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

The plan to bring the C&WI tracks into Chicago inline with Dearborn coincided with the approaching completion of the U.S. Post Office and Custom House. Although originally designed in 1872 following the fire (see Vol. 1) by Alfred Mullet, then the Superintending Architect for the Treasury Department, Mullet died in 1874 and was replaced by William A. Potter who deserves the credit for its final appearance. Potter had stepped down in 1877 and was replaced with James G. Hill who supervised building’s completion. The Post Office took possession of its space on April 12, 1879, while construction continued into early 1880. Fortunately the Federal Government had purchased the entire site that in 1872 was was much larger than what the building’s program required, leaving the perimeter of the lot open as a much needed park. The Post Office was located on the ground floor, with the letter distribution room being located under the building’s huge 83′ x 198′ skylight.

William A.Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. Looking south from Adams Street. Note the skylight (83′ x 198′) at the second floor at the bottom of the lightcourt. (Rand McNally View #3)

With the new Post Office finally generating pedestrian traffic along Dearborn, that is, at least as far as Jackson, where the city’s construction of Dearborn had stopped, combined with the upturn in the national economy and the secret plan to build a new set of tracks into Chicago for the C&WI, the Brookses needed a local agent on the ground who could secretly buy up properties not only for the station, but also for speculative development, before news of the new railroad would go public.  Within weeks of Vanderbilt’s actions, the Brookses had retained local attorney Owen F. Aldis (1853-1925) in February 1879 to manage their Chicago properties.

Burnham & Root, Grannis Block, Chicago, 1880. East side of Dearborn, between Madison and Washington. (Online)

The twenty-five year old Aldis had the requisite New England genes, as he had been born in Vermont into a family whose grandfather and father had both been the State’s Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, had graduated from Yale in 1874 and then studied law at the Columbian School in Washington, DC.  After having completed law school, he was enticed by his new brother-in-law, Bryan Lathrop, a Chicago real estate financier who had just married Aldis’ older sister, Helen Lynde Aldis (1849-1935) in 1875.  (Note that it was pure serendipity, the fact that one of Chicago’s more powerful financiers fell in love with Owen’s older sister, that was responsible for this twenty-two year old Washington, DC lawyer becoming over time in control of over 25% of all Chicago commercial real estate.)  As I documented in Volume One, Lathrop was the nephew of local real estate magnate Thomas Bryan (who had taken over William Ogden’s unofficial role as Chicago’s “First Citizen” as Ogden grew older), who had become one of the city’s more successful and wealthier men. Bryan had groomed his nephew to be his protégé and under the tutelage of his uncle, Lathrop had quickly grown to be one of Chicago’s leading real estate managers, sharing in his uncle’s profitable investments, including life insurance, and in 1878 had succeeded his uncle as the President of Graceland cemetery.

As his uncle had introduced him to Chicago’s business community some ten years earlier, Lathrop was now returning the favor for his new brother-in-law Owen, by inviting him to come to Chicago to work with him.   Aldis’ father, Vermont’s Judge Asa O. Aldis, had helped launch his son’s career in property management by handing over the control of the few local properties he had purchased after the 1871 fire. Aldis had completed his new familial arrangements in December 1878 by marrying Leila Russell Houghteling, the eldest daughter of William De Zeng Houghteling, a prominent lumber merchant, just prior to being chosen to represent the interests of who would become Chicago’s most important commercial real estate developers in the coming decade.

1.17. THE BROOKES HIRE ALDIS AS THEIR AGENT

Within weeks of Aldis’ wedding, Vanderbilt had closed the MC tracks to the GT triggering the investor group’s secret campaign to build the new C&WI route into Chicago. Those involved knew they had to move fast before news of their plans became public.  Within a month of Vanderbilt’s actions, the Brookses hired Aldis in February 1879 to be their manager for their Chicago interests, including the Portland Block at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Washington. (As I have not been able to uncover who was their agent prior to their contract with Aldis, I can only assign this important decision to the influence of Lathrop, who was taking over the reins of Graceland at this exact moment and could have wanted to hand the Brookses’ interests over to Aldis.)  We will learn later that the railroad’s investors were planning to locate the station inline with Dearborn, north of Harrison where the Brookses had already obtained the land through Aldis who secretly had used the name of Shepherd’s wife, Clara G. Brooks under the name of “D” before the railroad’s incorporation was publicly announced on June 5, 1879.  Obviously, it was to the railroad’s advantage locate its station as close to the business district as possible in order to compete with Vanderbilt’s La Salle Street station, that would have been only two blocks closer at Van Buren had these plans succeeded.

William Le Baron Jenney, Post-fire Portland Block, Chicago, 1872. Only the first four floors were erected in 1872. (The Land Owner, June 1873)

Meanwhile, Shepherd Brooks had also managed to acquire the lot on Dearborn immediately south of the Portland Block, for which he requested in 1880 that Aldis find someone interested in leasing the site for the purpose of erecting an office building.  Shepherd was more conservative than his older brother Peter and was not the least bit interested in speculating, as was revealed in the final lease agreement.  Aldis located a client in local builder Amos Grannis, who agreed to lease the site for forty years, paying 32 lbs. 3 oz. of gold for the first twenty years. 

Portland Block with two-story addition, 1880. Next to it is Burnham & Root’s Grannis Block, 1880. View is looking south down Dearborn. (Online)
Portland Block with two-story addition, 1880. Next to it is Burnham & Root’s rebuilt Grannis Block following its 1886 fire. The top two floors were rebuilt, which you can compare against the original. (Andreas, History of Chicago)

At the same time, September 1880, the Brookses decided to add two floors to the adjacent Portland Block, whose design followed neither Jenney’s original design nor the new rectilinear language of his Leiter Building, which leads one to speculate which architect Aldis had hired to design of the addition.  Meanwhile, across Dearborn at the southeast corner with Washington, the Kendall Building was also finally acquiring two additional floors that it was to originally have had ten years earlier because:

“there are many young attorneys, architects, artists, physicians, agents and others, who are commencing independent careers, and though it is necessary in order to get business to be centrally located, they cannot afford to pay such rents as are commanded by lower floors.  With the perfected elevator convenience, it makes but little difference if they are located on the 5th or 6th floor, business point, tho, there is a savings in rents.  If the fireproof ordinances are observed, and foundation walls are strong enough, there is no objection to putting on as many floors to any business block in this city.”

John Van Osdel, Kendall Block, with the 1878 addition of three more floors. Note how the horizontal layering of each floor allows the original design to gracefully accept the addition and still look complete. (Andreas, History of Chicago)

At a reception one night in mid-1880, Aldis had made the acquaintance of a relatively unknown architect, John Root (Root -30, Aldis- 27). The pair had hit it off immediately and had made their way to a small room where they could converse undisturbed.  The two bid their farewells around 1 in the morning, Root having had no idea who his new friend was.  From such a chance encounter would grow some of the world’s most famous buildings, for Aldis came away from the conversation that evening “knowing he [Root] was a genius, and the next day I brought [to Root’s surprise I’m sure] him a building.” (And it was just not another “building,” but a seven-story commercial office building!)  Aldis’ commission to design Amos Grannis’ new building (and I think the addition to the Portland Block as they were done at the same time) gave the young firm its first opportunity to design a multistory office building, and would launch Burnham & Root on a trajectory that would see them not only become the largest architectural firm in the U.S., but also play a seminal role in the development of a building type that would soon be called “the skyscraper.”  

FURTHER READING:

Berger, Miles L. They Built Chicago: Entreprenuers Who Shaped a Great City’s Architecture. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1992.

Funigiello, Philip J.  Florence Lathrop Page.  Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1994.

Monroe, Harriet. John Wellborn Root; A Study of His Life and Work. Park Forest: Prairie School Press, 1966.

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