CHAPTER 7: THE BOOM ALONG LA SALLE STREET

La Salle Street Extension to the La Salle Street Station, 1874. La Salle has been extended to the Michigan Southern Station. Note the post-fire City Hall with its domed skylight providing light for the library located within the old cylindrical water tank, in the lower lefthand corner, above which is shown the Grand Pacific Hotel. The Board of Trade asked for the city to vacate this land for their new building. (The Land Owner, July 1873)

In the previous chapter, I referred to the problems the C&WI was running into with the city with regards to where the railroad could build its new station.  The railroad was hoping to erect it at the foot of an extended Dearborn Street that would stop at Harrison, where the company had purchased the property on the southside, directly across from the property on the northside that the Brookses had purchased for a planned office building in the near future.  Unfortunately for these plans, City Council was under the sway of the Vanderbilt Stations interests along La Salle Street, who had their own development plans that were in direct competition with the plans of the Dearborn Street developers.  The final location of the Dearborn Street station at the foot of Polk Street tells history who won this battle.  But there were other involved financial interests as well that also lost in this battle of urban development over the relocation of the city’s financial district from the river city’s Washington Street location to the railroad city’s La Salle Street location.

7.1 THE RELOCATION OF THE BOARD OF TRADE

The La Salle Street Corridor, from Washington Street, looking south, ca. 1871. Buildings from left to right: 1. Chamber of Comerce; 2. Major Block; 5. Nixon Building; 7. Michigan Southern Station; 12. Oriental Building; 13. Merchantile Building; 14. Union National Bank. (Online)

Washington Street had gained in significance in August 1865 with the completion of construction of the Chamber of Commerce, designed by Edward Burling, on the south side of Washington, directly across from City Hall, that had been the former site of the old First Baptist Church.  Since its founding in 1848, the Board of Trade had continued to grow in size and importance until it was decided in 1864 to erect a larger building to house its expanding functions. The charter of the Board of Trade did not stipulate that the organization could own real estate, so a group of Board members had petitioned the legislature to charter a new organization, the Chamber of Commerce, that could own real estate and construct a building in which space could be leased to the Board of Trade.  The Chamber had purchased the very strategically-located site and commissioned Burling to design the new building, designed around the greatly expanded Exchange Floor that was 87’ wide, 143’ long, and 45’ high.  The 1871 fire had destroyed the building and as the City and County began to debate the rebuilding of the City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, being a private entity, wasted little time in rebuilding its building, albeit to the design of Cochrane & Miller.  While the Chamber’s Directors had, indeed, tried their best to quickly replace their destroyed building so that they could resume business as usual, the relocation of the Municipal offices to the “temporary” City Hall at La Salle and Adams would over time erode the reconstructed Chamber of Commerce’s value as it was just too far away from the city’s “seat of power.”  

E. Townsend Mix, Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce Building (the Mackey Building), Milwaukee, southwest corner of E. Michigan and N. Broadway Streets, 1879. (Online)

Initially under the pressure of Milwaukee’s nearly-completed Chamber of Commerce with its large and up-to-date trading pit, Chicago’s board was forced to examine its overcrowded and antiquated space in the Chamber of Commerce Building.  In the summer of 1880, Real Estate and Building Journal reported that Cochrane & Miller, the architects of the existing building, were developing plans to extend the Chamber of Commerce to an adjacent lot immediately to the East.  In October 1880, with only a month to go before Milwaukee’s Board moved into its new home, Chicago’s Board of Trade attempted to steal the thunder from its northern neighbor by making public Cochrane’s design for a new Chicago Chamber of Commerce. But by this date, Chicago wasn’t just feeling pressure from Milwaukee for that same month New York unveiled George Post’s competition-winning design for the New York Produce Exchange, with its 300’ x 150’ overall dimensions, including a 225’ high tower.  (Its Trading Room was to measure 215’ x 134’ x 64’ high.)

George B. Post, Produce Exchange, New York, 1880. (Online)
Post, Produce Exchange, Interior of Trading Room. (Online)

Prudently deciding to stay at its present location in the Washington Street office corridor, the Board had Cochrane design a nine-story building to occupy the entire half block along the south side of Washington Street, between La Salle and Clark Streets.  Central to Cochrane’s Corinthian-columned design was Chicago’s recurring dream to erect a monumental tall dome.  This time, Cochrane planned a 60′ diameter dome that rose to a height of 256′, the tallest proposed structure in the city.  This was to be flanked by two smaller domes that surmounted secondary entrances on the side streets.

Instead of gathering civic interest and generating support for the proposal, however, the announcement revealed a split within the ranks of the Board of Trade’s own membership.  A faction of the Board led by John R. Bensley had other ideas pertaining to a new home for the Board of Trade, rather than simply moving into the proposed new Chamber of Commerce building.  They apparently realized, as did Aldis and the Brookses, that Chicago’s urban pattern was slowly rotating to respond to the trains coming in from the south of the city.  (Their plan was further strengthened by the southern location of the temporary City Hall at Adams and La Salle.) La Salle Street, unlike Dearborn, had an existing and fully-operational railroad station that was also conveniently located relatively much closer to the business district than was the temporary depot of the C. & W. I., located on the unconstructed right-of-way of Dearborn, some four blocks farther south at Polk Street.  If a major civic institution were to be located in the immediate area of the La Salle Street station, while employing various road blocks and legislative postponements to force the C. & W. I. station to remain at its current location, the success of La Salle Street in becoming Chicago’s financial and office corridor, replacing the Washington Street corridor, should be assured.

Map of the Loop, 1882. (Author’s collection)

Before announcing their scheme, this group of Board members and their associates quietly secured options on the lots in the immediate area of the La Salle Street station, anticipating the erection of office buildings that would be required to complement the activities of the Board of Trade.  Their plan to relocate the Board of Trade in order to be closer to the train depots and the temporary City Hall (but far removed from existing office space, as well as from construction site of the new, post-fire city hall) was made public in October 1880, at the same time as the presentation of Cochrane’s design, in an attempt to blunt it.  Incredibly, the group proposed to locate the new building in front of the La Salle Street station, in a portion of La Salle Street that the city had just recently bought from the same group of investors in order to extend the street to the station, so that it would have a direct connection to the city.  These speculators were now asking that the city voluntarily vacate this newly constructed block of La Salle for the betterment of their collective pockets, a second time.  (They had proposed that the city take the two blocks bounded by Jackson, Clark, Van Buren, and Wells, fill in the portion of La Salle and divide this parcel with two new streets, to be named Sherman on the west and Pacific on the east, that would run to either side of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern’s train shed. This would divide this parcel into three equal blocks, the center block, inline with La Salle Street to be given to the Board of Trade for the planned new building.)

Within two months, the plan to move to La Salle Street had gained sufficient support among the membership that the Board officially voted on December 30, 1880, to approve the action.  Not so surprisingly, the Michigan Southern agreed within a week to allow the city to reroute traffic and close its direct connection with La Salle Street, something for which it had fought long and hard just a few years earlier. It took six months to “secure” the votes of City Council, but on June 23, 1881, it voted unanimously to vacate the block of La Salle that the Board of Trade wanted.  (At the same time, Council was not only stalling on the C. & W. I.’s proposal to locate its station north of Harrison, but also had completely stopped the construction of the extension of Dearborn Street to the planned location of the new station.)

At this point, the move of the Board’s threat to the property owners around the Chamber of Commerce Building became real, with their only recourse being legal action.  Uniting under the name of the Union Building Association, they succeeded in getting an injunction against the move a week later, on July 2.  While this represented a minor postponement to the plan, the Board’s leaders apparently had confidence that the “fix was in,” and that their cronies on the Illinois Supreme Court would ultimately approve the plan for they virtually ignored the injunction and in August 1881, the board conveyed the transfer of the property.  That November they engaged six of Chicago’s leading architects in a competition to design the new building, descriptions of which were published the following month in Real Estate and Building Journal.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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