3.2. THE TACOMA BUILDING: WIRT D. WALKER

Holabird & Roche, Tacoma Building, Chicago, NE corner of La Salle and Madison, 1888. Note that the Tacoma sculpture at the third floor corner has been removed. (preservationchicgo.org)

The opening of the new, post-fire City Hall caused a renewal of demand for office space in close proximity to this reinvigorated center of municipal power.  One of these sites was the old, post-fire Chamber of Commerce building, on the southeast corner of La Salle and Washington, and another site was immediately to the south, at the northeast La Salle and Madison.  The architects of the buildings to be erected on both these sites would push the iron frame to the next logical step in its development: finally, Chicago’s architects began to use the iron skeleton frame in the exterior of skyscrapers, during the same period that Buffington was submitting his patent application.

Cochrane and Miller, Post-fire Chamber of Commerce Building, Chicago, SE corner of La Salle and Washington. The Tacoma site is to the far right. (The Landowner, February 1872; Chicagology.com)

Wirt D. Walker had initially managed to purchase the existing eight-story building at the northeast corner of La Salle and Madison that had 101’ 6” frontage on Madison, but only a 25’ depth along La Salle.  Walker was the scion of the late James M. Walker, former president of the Union Stockyards as well as the CB&Q Railroad, among other powerful positions. He had assisted another of the city’s young scions, Ferdinand Peck, in financing the Auditorium, and was now moving into real estate investment on his own.  The contrast between attorney Walker and “hustler” Francis Owings, as well as between the appearance of their respective buildings each erected during the same period was as stark as that between day and night.  

(I have used Robert Bruegmann’s excellent monograph on Holabird & Roche for much of the information on the pre-construction phase of the Tacoma.) Walker wanted to erect a larger building but was prevented by the owner of the lot on La Salle immediately to the north of Walker’s lot who knew of his plans and was holding out for a higher price than what Walker wanted to pay.  Walker was the younger brother of John Root’s late wife Minnie Walker when the two had married in 1879, although she had lived for only another six weeks after the wedding.  Therefore, it is curious that Walker did not hire Burnham & Root to remodel the existing building.  (The relatively small size of this project may have been the reason for not bothering Root.)  Instead, he returned to the small firm of William Holabird and Martin Roche (see Section 3.4 below), whom he had recently hired to design a six-story loft building at the southeast corner of Dearborn and Harrison.  In late 1885, he had queried a number of firms, including Holabird & Roche, for ideas of how to improve his existing building at the northeast corner of La Salle and Madison.  

Bradford Gilbert, Tower Building, 1888. Right: Diagram of diagonal bracing. (Landau/Condit, New York)

He chose their proposal to replace the existing building’s exterior masonry walls with iron framing  (similar in concept to Gilbert’s contemporary Tower Building in New York) that supported a new brick and terra cotta curtain wall à la the Rookery, in order to free up more rental floor area per floor.  There have been a number of speculations on who had first suggested using a system similar to that then being erected in the Rookery.  A firm employee’s recollections late in life had identified Chicago Terra Cotta owner Sanford Loring as having made the recommendation. I, however, favor George Fuller, who at this moment was building the Rookery with just such a system. Holabird & Roche were already involved with Fuller by this date for a project for Peter C. Brooks slated to be erected on the northwest corner of Dearborn and Harrison (the site on which the Pontiac Building would be built).

Walker did not, however, find the economics of the design to be profitable, and followed up with a demand for a new 12-story building.  During 1887 they explored a variety of structural solutions until in January 1888 they had arrived at a design that placed a three-foot thick bearing wall on the north and east edge of the site, up against the property line of the stubborn neighbor.  For the same reason that Gilbert had resorted to iron framing in the Tower Building, at about this same moment, they proposed that the south-facing Madison front “be constructed of wrought iron and steel, terra cotta, and glass,” again similar to Root’s detailing in the Rookery’s lightcourt.  

Burnham & Root, The Rookery. Elevation of the exterior walls lining the lightwell. (Author’s image)

Walker approved and gave the go-ahead to start construction.  Following the demolition of the existing building, excavation on the foundation began, when unexpectedly Walker stopped all construction.  His ruse had worked.  Walker had played a game of high-stakes poker with the “hold-out” neighbor and won.  Apparently, Walker had to start construction to call their bluff, for he caught even the architects off-guard.  Walker got the lot for $200,000 and told Holabird & Roche to go back to their boards once again and design a new building for the expanded lot.

FURTHER READING:

Bruegmann, Robert. The Architects and the City: Holabird and Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

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

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