8.19. LEITER HAS THE LAST LAUGH: MARSHALL FIELD’S 13-STORY OFFICE BUILDING, NOT!

Map of La Salle and Adams near the Board of Trade (H). (Author’s collection)

In the second week of March 1884, Marshall Field obtained a permit to build a 13-story office building on the southwest corner of La Salle and Monroe Streets, diagonally across the block of La Salle Street from the site of the 10-story Home Insurance Building.  For this structure, Field departed from his preference in the design his Prairie Avenue residence for hiring out-of-town architects (Richard M. Hunt).  Field logically hired S. S. Beman, the architect that his card partner George Pullman used to design his own downtown office building.  Field wanted to do his friend one better, so the Field Building was designed with 13 floors to top off at 170,’ five feet taller than Pullman’s.  Most likely influenced by Boyington’s successful use of all-granite facades in the Board of Trade and the Jackson Street elevation of the Royal Insurance Building, Field had Beman design the office building not in the currently fashionable brick, but completely in traditional rock-faced and polished granite.

Knowingly or not, in designing the Marshall Field Building, Beman had become involved in the vicious spite battle between two of Chicago’s merchant titans, Field and his former partner, Levi Leiter.  I last mentioned these two partners in the rebuilding of the Singer Building, the home of Field & Leiter, that had been destroyed by fire in Nov. 1877. (see Sec. 3.11) The partners had agreed between themselves to buy the new building and lot for $500,000.  But Singer demanded $700,000 and during the final negotiations while Field was in New York, Leiter, according to their plan, rejected the offer. Instead of lowering its price, Singer turned to their competitor, Carson, Pirie, Scott and offered them an annual lease for $70,000. Not wanting to lose the iconic corner on State Street, the two partners had ponied up the $700,000 from their personal funds, in addition to an extra $100,000 to compensate CPS to break the lease.  Field’s biographers record that Field blamed Leiter for this debacle, but this was, by no means, the only reason for Field wanting to be rid of his partner and friend for the past sixteen years.  Robert Twyman laid out a compelling case where Field not only wanted to be in sole control, but also wanted to reward his next generation of managers with partnerships, and this could only happen if Leiter’s percentage was available to offer these new partners.  Field and Leiter’s partnership contract was up for renewal on January 31, 1881.  Field, using their existing contract, mounted a well-orchestrated campaign that forced Leiter to sell his stake in their company to him, and their partnership was had been dissolved on Jan. 26, 1881.

Apparently, the break-up settlement had divided the holdings of the company between the two partners, as Leiter was given ownership of the adjacent lot to the west of Field’s corner site.  Leiter had immediately proceeded to erect a five-story building on his site, locating, as was convention but without any prior arrangement, the east party wall midway along the property line, half of the wall’s thickness on his lot, half on the corner lot.  Field eventually had acquired the corner lot for his new office building and struck an agreement with his former partner to use the mutually-owned party wall to support the new office tower.  Field promised to increase the wall’s strength and foundation to support the loads of the new building, as was typical of the era, without injuring Leiter’s existing building on the west side of the wall.  Excavation for the new Field Building proceeded through the summer of 1884, with the foundation being completed by September.  Construction then came to the traditional halt with the onset of winter.

The postponement may also have been a tactic on Field’s part to publicly leverage Leiter, because at this time there was no technique to increase the strength of the existing wall and its foundation without getting under Leiter’s existing building.  Leiter, rather cleverly I might add, had interpreted their agreement as stating that all of the construction needed for Field to use the party wall would be done on Field’s side of the wall (that, of course, at this time was impossible).  Leiter simply had legally outsmarted his ex-partner, and further allowed Field to dig himself literally into a deeper hole.  In March 1885, Field ordered Beman to complete the details of the building and construction on the site was renewed.  Field approved breaking into Leiter’s basement in order to shore up the existing wall and to place the new foundation.   Leiter countered by obtaining a permanent injunction in May 1885 against Field from doing any more construction on Leiter’s side of the wall.  Field was eventually vindicated the following year (in May 1886) when the Illinois’ Supreme Court ruled that the original agreement was a party wall contract, implying that the easement of support was given to both parties, and that one party could not have the benefits without submitting his property to the requirements of support for either party.   However, while Field had won the battle, he lost the war, for the time lost during the postponement in construction would kill the project as the building boom had oversaturated the rental market.  Somewhat ironically, although the height limit ordinance had failed to be approved by council, the tallest of the skyscrapers (13 floors) planned for the Board of Trade district was not allowed to grow out of Chicago’s soil.  The open excavation pit remained a scar exposed for five years on one of Chicago’s most expensive pieces of real estate: a grim testament to the realities of building tall structures on Chicago’s soil, as well as to the ferocity of the real estate battles being waged at this time on Chicago’s soil by America’s merchant princes.  (By the way, the battle between these two giants had only just begun…)

FURTHER READING:

Twyman, Robert W. History of Marshall Field & Co. 1852-1906. Philadelphia: University of  Pennsylvania Press, 1954.

I’d like to thank Brian Kelly of “brianbrands.com” for offering his knowledge of the Field/Leiter relationship.

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

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