7.4. CONSTRUCTING AND DECONSTRUCTING THE BOARD OF TRADE

The Board of Trade sporting the Sperry Corona. Taken from the Home Insurance Building on left; on the right: Insurance Exchange, Maller’s Building, Gaff Building, and Counselman Building. (Wade and Meyer, Chicago)

Construction of the Board of Trade began in June 1882 with the laying of the foundation. Disregarding Baumann’s theory of uniformly-stressed footings, and apparently ignoring the current problems with the new Post Office’s foundation, Boyington surprisingly repeated the design of the Post Office’s “raft foundation.”  The excavation reached a risky 18′ below grade, where 3″ oak planks were first laid over the entire site and then firmly embedded in a layer of concrete.  Upon this layer were placed 12″ x 12″ oak timbers with 12-18″ intervening spaces that were also filled with concrete.  Another layer of oak planks was then spiked crosswise to the 12″ x 12″s and again covered with concrete, completing the three-foot thick slab.  A layer of three-foot thick stone was then placed on the concrete slab, which then received the building’s stone foundation walls.  All told, the foundation was a six-foot thick slab or “raft” that covered the entire site and was proudly, but naively claimed to be “as heavy as the superstructure to be placed on it.”

The foundation was sufficiently completed to allow the cornerstone to be laid in a brief ceremony on December 13, 1882.  One person who most likely did not attend was Root, who had married Dora Louise Monroe the day before (December 12 – think the choice of this date was simply coincidental?).  Dora had been the best friend of Root’s late wife, Minnie, and had a younger sister, Harriet, who would become a leading American poet, the founder of Poetry magazine, and Root’s first biographer.  

It would take another two and a half years to construct the entire building before another ceremony on April 28, 1885, would dedicate America’s tallest building. We will return to the grand opening gala later in the blog, but many things will have changed over those important two and half years that we need to understand and appreciate before we can join in the celebration of its completion.

Elmer A. Sperry, Board of Trade, 1885. Sperry’s Corona at Night. (Chicago Graphic News)

There are a few issues, however, that I think are best discussed now, rather than later.  The crowning glory planned for the tower was, unfortunately not in place on April 28, 1885.  Elmer A. Sperry, Chicago’s electric light entrepreneur (who would go on to found the Sperry Corporation that was responsible for developing “gadgets” from gyroscopes used in WW1 to the UNIVAC computer series when it merged with the Remington-Rand Corporation in 1955) had designed a nineteen-foot high “corona” of twenty electric arc lamps to be placed on top of the tower’s spire. 

Sperry had attempted to have the installation completed for the opening banquet but fell ill and had to delay the work until the end of the year, when the installation was in place that increased the height of the tower to 322.’  The corona’s spire was topped with a gilded iron schooner that was 8’ high and 11’ long.  From the 6” diameter iron mast that supported the ship were suspended four fourteen-feet long arms that supported the ring of lamps in such a manner that it could be lowered to a balcony where the lamps were accessible for maintenance.  

Close-up of Sperry’s Corona. (Wade and Meyer, Chicago)

On the night of New Year’s Eve 1885/6, Miss Zula Goodman, a recent acquaintance of Sperry’s whom he who would soon make his wife, threw the switch with a playful “let there be light.”  And indeed, there was light: 40,000 candlepower!  It was said that on a clear night, the corona could be seen from Benton Harbor, Michigan, some 75 miles away!  The corona generated sufficient light in the evening that one could read a book within a four-block radius. The Tribune reported that “The atmosphere was very luminous, and as far away as Douglas Park (4 miles away) houses cast shadows from the light.”  (I would be interested if anyone knows how long each night the corona was lit and for how many years it operated?)

Already controversial in design and construction, the building’s final cost totaled over $1,730,000, 75% more than the figure initially budgeted.  What made matters only worse was the poor design of the building’s foundation.  Instead of placing the entire building on one, monolithic raft, as was done, the heavier, concentrated weight of the tower should have been physically isolated from the rest of the building and placed on its own foundation, completely independent of the foundation supporting the rest of the building, that would have allowed it to settle at its own rate,  The heavier tower was going to settle much more than the rest of the building, and if need be, it would take its portion of the raft foundation with it, which was exactly what happened.  A six-foot thick foundation of timber-reinforced concrete simply was not strong enough to spread the load of the tower, nor resist the extra settlement of the tower.  Cracks began to appear caused by the difference between the tower’s greater settlement and that of the rest of the body of the building.  During January 1894, small chunks of granite began to fall off the tower. (Fortunately, the tower waited to fail until after the 1893 Fair was over. Imagine what fun the New York Press would have had if the tower began to fail only four or five months earlier….) The Board’s Directors queried Boyington on the problem who responded:

“There is no danger of this tower falling. It leans now about nine inches to the north. It has leaned over four and one-half inches at the time it was constructed. It can’t fall until the center of gravity is displaced, and that would mean a settling and leaning of ten feet.”

Drawings of Cracks in the Board of Trade due to the differential settlement of the Tower. Chicago Tribune, January 21, 1894. (Chicagology.com)

The Directors were in no mood to own “The Leaning Tower of Chicago” and voted to have the tower dismantled.  The Boston firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge, who had just opened a Chicago branch office the year before, were hired to manage the project and redesign the area from where the tower would be removed.  

Shepley, Rutan, & Coolidge, Redesigned Tower of Board of Trade, 1894. (Chicagology.com)

By June 1894 the tower was gone, leaving Burnham & Root’s Masonic Temple as the tallest building in Chicago.  By then, however, New York had already reclaimed the record of the country’s tallest building with the completion of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building, completed on December 10, 1890, with a height of 310’ and a spire that topped off at 350.’  And guess who was the architect? But of course, George Post, who else?

George B. Post, New York World Building, New York, 1889-90. (Online)

A side note: The Root family gained a modicum of satisfaction after the original loss in 1881 of the Board of Trade commission.  Root’s son, John Wellborn Root, Jr. would design the building’s replacement that now terminates the La Salle Street vista, in 1925.  It was then and would remain Chicago’s tallest building until 1965.  The ghost of the proud papa could stand in the Burnham & Root office on the top floor of the Rookery and proudly watch his son’s tower rise into the heavens, surrounded by seven of his own designs within a one block radius (the Insurance Exchange, the Rialto, the Counselman, the Phoenix, the Traders, and the Commerce Buildings, and of course, the Rookery).  

John Wellborn Root and John Wellborn Root, Jr. (Online)
Holabird & Root, Board of Trade, Chicago, 1925. (Online)

The tower pierced the 260’ height limit enacted in 1920 that Root’s former partner Daniel Burnham had intimated would eventually be enacted in his 1909 Plan of Chicago. We will discuss at the end of Volume III why the height of his son’s building defying his former partner’s vision for the future Chicago might have brought a warm smile to Root’s spirit… 

Daniel Burnham, Edward Bennet and Jules Guérin (Illus), The Plan of Chicago, 1909. (Online)

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

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