W.W. Boyington, Chicago Board of Trade. La Salle Street south from Adams Street. The Rookery is in the foreground with the Grand Pacific Hotel in the middle. (IChi-00253, Chicago Historical Society)

The year just ended had witnessed the start of four more ten-story office buildings in Chicago (Adams Express, Pullman, Royal Insurance, and Counselman) that added to an inventory that already boasted the Montauk and Calumet Buildings, and attested to the growing acceptance of the tall office building in Chicago. With the completion of the Board of Trade, the tallest building in the U.S., quickly becoming a reality and scheduled for the May 1st start of the 1885 renting season, the upcoming building season for 1884 promised to be one of banner proportions.  Office buildings in the Board of Trade area (La Salle Street) and along Dearborn Street that would be ready for occupancy on May 1, 1885, would necessarily have to be started in the spring of 1884.  Meanwhile, the professional maturity of architects in the NorthWest was growing, aided by the monthly publication of the region’s first architectural magazine, Inland Architect, that began in February 1883. This was accompanied by their rising impatience with what they perceived to be the snobbery of many Eastern architects.  This would come to a head in November 1884 when the Western Association of Architects declared its independence from the American Institute of Architects.  Of course, this movement would be spearheaded by Root and Burnham (I chose this order simply to make the point that they both played equal parts, in order to dispel the idea that it was Burnham who was the primary personality interested in “matters pertaining to business.”


Cyrus L.W. Eidlitz, Chicago and Western Indiana Railroad (Dearborn Street) Station, Chicago, 1883. (McGuire, Chicago: Then and Now)

The Commercial National Bank and the Adams Express Buildings notwithstanding, by the time they were under construction, the C & WI Railroad had surrendered to the pressure from the city and abandoned its plan to build its station at Harrison and Dearborn Streets.  With the Vanderbilt station now enjoying even more publicity with the construction of the Board of Trade under way, the C & WI finally decided that three and a half years was long enough to fight city hall and that it was time to lick its wounds, build its station two blocks farther south than it had planned to at Polk Street, and get on with business.  The company hired New York architect Cyrus L.W. Eidlitz to design the new station, with excavation having started in October 1883.  Although there was no way that the station at its distant location could better the overpowering image of the Board of Trade’s 303′ high tower at the end of La Salle Street, the company would at least go down swinging: Eidlitz placed a 195′ high tower (the second tallest structure in the city) on axis with the proposed route for Dearborn that at the end of 1883 stopped at Jackson and was still five long, unpaved blocks away from the station.


Burnham & Root, Insurance Exchange Building, Chicago, 1884. (Hoffmann, Root)

Not everybody in Chicago, however, was in favor of the tall office building.  This was especially true of the insurance companies that were still trying to gain some measure of control over the techniques employed in the construction of the ever-increasingly taller structures.  Their concerns continued to center around the lack of fireproof construction in many of these buildings, as well as in the fire department’s inability to keep pace with the upward race into the sky.  On February 16, 1883, Chicago’s Board of Underwriters and city council’s committee on fire had hammered out a proposal to limit the height of buildings to 85,’ unless they were “constructed wholly of fire-proof material, and then to be used only for office purposes.”

Cobb & Frost, Chicago Opera House Block, Chicago, 1884. (Condit, Chicago School of Architecture)

As in the past, the city council showed little inclination toward improving the situation, thus forcing the underwriters to once again take matters into their own hands.  They enacted a new schedule of premiums for unfireproofed structures that, in essence, increased the rates for the taller buildings by a factor of four.  This action at least made owners think twice about the type of construction to use in a new building, but as of yet, there was no consensus on what constituted “fireproof” construction.  In January 1884, Inland Architect joined the battle, asking city council to require all buildings above a certain height be made as fireproof as possible.

William Le Baron Jenney, Home Insurance Building, Chicago, 1884. (J.W. Taylor, IChi-00989; Chicago Historical Society)

At this point, the argument took on greater significance as critics, led by The Tribune, compounded the tall building problem by raising the issue of the larger shadows cast by the new buildings and the potential health threat posed by the corresponding reduction of sunlight along the city’s streets.  February 1884 saw Chicago’s first serious attempt to limit the height of new buildings in a proposed ordinance limiting the height of all new buildings to 100.’  Although Inland Architect pooh-poohed the shadow problem as a concern only for the distant future, Chicago’s capitalists reacted quickly to the potential threat by procuring building permits for the upcoming year’s buildings before such a limitation could be legislated.  

John J. Flanders, Mallers Building, Chicago, 1884. On the left is the Gaff Building and on the right is the Quincy elevation of the Royal Insurance Building. (Van Zanten, Sullivan’s City)

Within the first two weeks of March 1884, permits for seven tall office buildings were approved, with two more secured by the end of April.  The premature exposure of the plans revealed the overwhelming success of the move of the Board of Trade, for six of the nine buildings were slated to be erected in the immediate vicinity of La Salle Street.  

Burnham & Root, Phoenix Building, Chicago, 1884. (Hoffmann, Meanings)

Of these nine, Burnham & Root were commissioned to design five of these, revealing their connections with the developers of La Salle as well as those invested in Dearborn:

Burnham & Root:

1. Rialto-12 stories; behind the Board of Trade

2. John Quincy Adams Building-10 st.; SW Dearborn and Calhoun Place

3. Insurance Exchange-10 st.; SW corner of La Salle and Adams

4. Phoenix Building-10 st.; SW corner of Jackson and Clark

5. Monadnock Block-12 st.; SW Dearborn and Jackson

Cobb & Frost:

6. Chicago Opera House Block-10 st.; SW corner of Clark and Washington

William Le Baron Jenney

7. Home Insurance Building-10 st.; NE corner of La Salle and Adams

J.J. Flanders

8. Mallers Building-12 st.; SW corner of La Salle and Quincy Place

S.S. Beman

9. Marshall Field Office Building-12 st.; SW corner of La Salle and Monroe

Five of these buildings would be erected and in business by May 1885, flooding the city with new office space.  One would like to calculate to see if the total floor area in all proposed nine buildings would have surpassed the total office space contained in Chicago’s existing buildings?!

Burnham & Root, Monadnock Block, Chicago, 1884. Preliminary study of the Jackson Street elevation (12 stories plus basement). It still bears the original name for the building, Quamquisset. Root is slowly come to grips with verticality: here he has incorporated 7-story continuous piers. (Saliga, The Sky’s the Limit)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s