7.2. THE BOARD OF TRADE COMPETITION

Burnham & Root, Calumet Club House, Chicago, NE corner of Michigan Ave. and 20th St.,1881. The retreat for the wealthy men who lived along Prairie Avenue. (Lowe, Chicago Interiors)

The territorial battle that was erupting between the real estate interests of Dearborn Street and those of La Salle Street was of little concern to Burnham and Root, for their respective marriages had established blood relations with both camps.  As they sat back in their office at the top of the Grannis Block in November 1881 and watched their three large commissions begin to rise out of the ground (the Montauk Block, the Burlington Building, and the Calumet Club), Root was adding the finishing touches to the firm’s largest project to-date, his submission for the  Board of Trade competition.  Although Brooks’ Montauk Block was the third most expensive building erected in Chicago that year, it paled in comparison to the $1 million budget for the new Board of Trade.  Even in terms of the sprawling Burlington Building, the proposed structure was to be gargantuan, because its site was 50% larger than the Burlington’s.

Privately Burnham and Root must have somewhat smugly believed that they had the commission all but wrapped up.  Not only being confident about their designs (they submitted three while each of the other architects produced only one), they were also well connected with the leaders of the project.  John R. Bensley, a former president of the Board and chairman of the Board of Real-Estate Managers (that was established by the Board of Trade to oversee the construction of the new building), was at that moment also collaborating with Philip D. Armour and Sidney A. Kent, two of John Sherman’s very close associates with the Union Stockyards, in a plan to develop the southern part of the lot (the site of the future Rialto Building) just vacated by the city, immediately in back of the proposed Board of Trade building and directly across Van Buren from the La Salle Street Station.  In fact, once Bensley was privately assured that Council was going to approve the vacating of this entire block of La Salle, he bought the remaining parcels of land, during the week before the vote was taken, needed to build not only the Board of Trade, but also his planned speculative office building, the Rialto that would be designed by Burnham & Root. Charles C. Counselman, a grain broker on the Board, was also in on the real estate boodle scheme.  He had bought the northwest corner of La Salle and Jackson, directly across the street from the main entrance of the new building and would be among the first to erect one of the new office buildings in the area.  Again, this building, the Counselman Building, would be designed by Burnham & Root.

Burnham & Root submitted three designs, two of which were intended to placate the traditional tastes of some of the Board.  (Unfortunately, the drawings for these, as well as most of Root’s drawings up to this moment, were lost in the fire of the Grannis block in February 1885.) The first incorporated Chicago’s ever-present quest for a dome, while the second seemed to be a “Gothic” interpretation of Post’s New York Produce Exchange, having a tower and a central court with offices arranged above it.  The third design, the one favored by the architects, was quite innovative in concept in that it resulted not from precedent, but from the architects’ careful study of the problem from a functional standpoint, as the Real Estate and Building Journal reported in late 1881:

“This is a Board of Trade building proper with a hall exhibiting a great deal of beauty and room very imposing in its design.  Back of this hall is another very large room of less grandeur for the Call board.  The offices of the board are also located back of this hall.  An office building ten stories in height [note that the Montauk Block, the first ten story office building in Chicago, was only two stories out of the ground at this time] is located back of this building, harmonizing inside and out with the other giving a very fine effect of an immense structure [the office building was connected to the Hall building with a public corridor].  The architects believe grouping all of the offices in a separate building instead of arranging them around and over the hall will be more convenient and appropriate.”

Burnham & Root had proposed a radical departure from the precedents set by Adler’s Central Musical Hall and Post’s Produce Exchange.  Rather than either Adler’s wrapping the Trading Hall with offices or Post’s placing the offices over the Trading Hall, Root had employed a bi-nuclear scheme in which he placed the Trading Hall in the front half of the building and the offices in the back half, linking the two with a corridor: a binuclear scheme similar to his Grannis Block.  We are told by Monroe that the committee was simply awed by the boldness of the scheme and was in general agreement on awarding Burnham & Root the commission. Meanwhile, it took the Illinois Supreme Court another four months to rule on the issue, voting in late March 1882, to allow the project to proceed.  Finally, after a year and a half of politicking and infighting, everything was ready to proceed, or so it must have seemed to Burnham & Root.

J.J. Egan and L.D. Cleveland, Cook County and City Hall Complex, Chicago, 1878. (Online)

As was the case in the design and construction of the post-fire Cook County-City Hall complex, however, the design of a public building in Chicago is not this straightforward.  Following the public presentation of the competition drawings, while the legal process ground to its conclusion in the spring of 1882, the building committee received an increasing number of complaints from the other competing architects about the choice of Burnham & Root’s design.  Apparently, it was felt that because Burnham & Root had so radically departed from the traditional plan of such a project, it was not fair for their project to be selected.  The committee eventually leaned on the winners hard enough to make them accept another competition, this time requiring all the submissions to use Burnham & Root’s new massing scheme of locating the offices in a separate building, located in back of the trading hall.  Confident in their own ability, as well as in their inside connections, Burnham & Root eventually agreed and took to the task, refining their design that now included a tower over the connecting corridor.

During all of this maneuvering, something had taken place to change the minds of the building committee, for it voted 4-1 in favor of a design by another architect.  Only Counselman had stood resolutely for Burnham & Root’s design.  It may have been the committee’s uneasiness over the non-traditional quality of Root’s plans, but more likely than not, as had been with the County-City Building, some sort of inside deal had been made with the four members of the building committee who voted against the Burnham & Root scheme.  Quite simply, it was the Spring of 1882, and it was very presumptuous on the part of Burnham and Root because they had not yet risen to the forefront of the city’s architectural community.  Although they had begun to show their talents, their three new, big projects were only just coming out-of-the ground.  Chicago’s premiere architect in 1882 was still W.W. Boyington, who, as events will reveal, had his own friends on the inside of this deal.  This seems more than just plausible, since in an apparent effort to hide their true choice for the architect of the project, the four originally voted for a design described by Monroe as “a hocus-pocus sort of whispering-gallery affair, suggestive of the Mormon Temple at Salt Lake City, which was designed by a local creator of abominations.”  Some later historians would assign this description erroneously to Boyington’s design.

Agitation among the Board’s members against this design was such that a petition was signed and duly forwarded to the building committee.  In what seemed on the surface to be a fair compromise, the committee finally decided to accept neither of the two extreme designs and settled in late April on a mainline design by Boyington.  The loss of such a prestigious commission, especially when during the entire previous eighteen months it had seemed that the job was “in the bag,” left a very bitter taste in the mouths of Burnham and Root.  Even though they would eventually benefit greatly from the move of the Board of Trade by designing the majority of the new office buildings in the La Salle Street corridor, they had let the “big one” get away.  Never again would Burnham submit to such rules in a competition; he became committed (and would succeed) to affect a reform in the competition method of selection of architects in the U.S.

W.W. Boyington, Post-fire Grand Pacific Hotel, NW corner of Jackson and Clark, 1872. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)

The choice of Boyington to design the Board of Trade has somewhat surprisingly mystified historians, but that is because Boyington’s true position within Chicago has been marginalized and misrepresented by the early Chicago School historians, as his aesthetic didn’t support their narrative of the Chicago skyscraper as one of the precedents for the European International Style. He had surpassed Van Osdel after the 1871 fire to be first among Chicago’s long-established architects and was not without his own connections within Chicago’s power structure.  After all, the two major buildings adjacent to the proposed site for the Board of Trade, the Grand Pacific Hotel to the north and the La Salle Street Station to the south, had been designed by him.  In addition, he had designed the Water Works as well as the Interstate Exposition Center, and had just finished designing two of Chicago’s post-fire railroad stations: in addition to the La Salle Street Station rebuilt immediately after the fire, he also had designed the Union Station and the Chicago & NorthWestern Station (as mentioned earlier, the IC did not rebuild in an effort to leverage Council to allow it to purchase more of the lakefront). 

W.W. Boyington, Central Union Terminal, Cincinnati, 1881. (Online)

At this time Boyington also had the $400,000 Central Union Terminal under construction in Cincinnati.  Therefore, the total value of buildings designed by Boyington in 1881 was easily greater than that by Burnham & Root.  Lastly, he would also win the competition in the coming year for the prestigious Royal Insurance Building, built across the street from the Board of Trade.  So within the five blocks that faced his Board of Trade, Boyington was also responsible for the three most expensive buildings that fronted it.  He was no ‘dark horse’ in the Board of Trade competition, his victory was no fluke, and his design merits at least a modicum of understanding and respect.

W.W. Boyington, Royal Insurance Building, Chicago, 1883. Jackson Street elevation. (Gilbert and Bryson, Chicago and Its Makers)

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

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