3.7. THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE BUILDING

Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce Building, Chicago, SE corner of La Salle and Washington, 1888. (Online)

The Tacoma Building was the first, but only the first in a number of experiments that builders erected during the period 1888-89, in the process of carefully divorcing the iron frame from the lateral support imparted by the masonry wall.  The second experiment in Chicago occurred in the Chamber of Commerce building, one of the least documented and appreciated Chicago School buildings, but one of my favorite designs.

An eight-story addition was placed on top of the post-fire Chamber of Commerce building at the southeast corner of La Salle and Washington, just north of the Tacoma.  In fact, both buildings were on their respective drafting boards at the same time, so one can consider the Chamber of Commerce to simply be a bigger experiment of the Tacoma concept.  Once again, we can point to Cincinnati for the impetus for this project. 

H.H. Richardson, Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, 1885. (Online)

The new Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce, for which H.H. Richardson had won the competition in 1885 had opened its doors on January 30, 1888. (Doesn’t it already look dated?)  During the period of its construction, the owners of Chicago’s outmoded Chamber of Commerce, following the jump of the Board of Trade to the south end of La Salle Street had simply continued to wallow in self-pity.  Construction of the Cincinnati building was garnering national recognition that simply forced the Chamber’s directors to take action.  The new construction was also influenced by the completion and occupation of the post-fire City Hall, that sat directly across on the northside of Washington Street. A group of Chicago investors bought the old building and hired Edward Baumann and Harris W. Huehl to remodel the existing building to accept an eight-story addition.

Edward Baumann (1838-1889) was born Marienwerder, near Danzig, Prussia, in 1838, completed his polytechnic training in 1856, and immediately immigrated to the US, being hired by his cousin Frederick in 1857.  (Frederick Baumann is often mistakenly credited with the design of this building.) Harris Huehl (1862-1919) was a native Chicagoan who had experienced all of his professional training in the office of Edward Baumann, who made him his partner in July 1888, as the project became a reality.  It was a prudent decision on the part of Baumann, who died before the building was completed, in Berlin, Germany, on January 25, 1889.  Huehl was left to see the building through to completion. The reason some authors connect Frederick Baumann with the design of this building is that the addition was erected with an iron skeleton frame and Frederick had been one of the earlier architects to actually publish an article discussing the possibility of such construction in the March 15, 1884, issue of Sanitary News, “Improved Construction of High Buildings.” (see v.3, sec. 8.15)

Cochrane & Miller, Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, 1872. (Chicagology.com)

The existing building was one of the first post-fire buildings to be erected so as to encourage investors to rebuild the city and to quickly replace the home of the Board of Trade to get its operation “back to normal.”  It had been designed by Cochrane & Miller.  There were two floors of offices that were topped by the three-story high Exchange Hall. While the new owners decided to keep much of the stone exterior of the old building whose existing structural rhythm would determine the elevation of the new addition, because the Board of Trade had abandoned the building in 1885, its outdated Exchange Hall was no longer needed so the building’s interior was gutted and replaced with the insertion of the iron frame within the existing stone walls.

Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce Building. Typical floor plan. (Ornamental Iron)

Baumann & Huehl lined the perimeter of the site with a single-loaded corridor plan that left a narrow 24’ wide (if we ignore the cantilevered walkways, it was 32′ wide) atrium that ran through much of the rear two-thirds of the plan and extended for the building’s entire height of thirteen stories.  This was covered by a 35’ x 108’ iron and plate glass skylight. (I’ll remind you that the skylight in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel (1871) was 84’ x 144.’)

Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce Building. Lightcourt. Note that the walls were sheathed in white Italian marble to reflect light. The walls also contained half-height windows that provided daylight to the inner row of offices (see floor plan).(explore.chicagocollections.org)
Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce Building (#7). Note the skylight. Behind is the Tacoma Building (#13). The Chicago Opera House Block (#8) is to the left. I included it to show how the scale of these buildings had quickly changed in only four years. (Rand McNally View 19)

After having demolished the interior of the existing building, new foundations were placed upon which were set the wrought iron columns of the skeleton frame, including those in the three public faces.  As Holabird & Roche had done in the Tacoma Building, Baumann & Huehl designed a hybrid structure that combined the rigidity of the iron frame’s connections with the stiffness of masonry lateral walls. The floor plan shows the location of two lateral masonry walls, that were interrupted at the atrium. The rear or alley wall appears from the plan and elevation to also have been a masonry wall.  Finding the centerline of the plan, these three walls were decidedly offset towards the southern portion of the building.  (This is obvious because the two walls do not align with the two “wider” central piers.) This leads me to speculate that the architects/engineers relied on the thick masonry piers to either side of the central pavilion (with the five windows) and, most likely, the elevator/stair cores (there were eight elevators) at the northern portion of the building to provide lateral support.

Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce Building. The south elevation. (digital-libraries,artic.edu)
Above: Cochrane & Miller, Chamber of Commerce, Chicago, 1872. (Chicagology.com); Below: Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce, 1888.

They kept the entrance portico with its four columns (and reprised the alternating drums of different diameters in the upper pediments). While they also kept the main piers of the deep-jointed stone two-story base, they eliminated the secondary piers and the arcade these supported in order to create larger windows. This forced them to keep the wider piers that framed the old elevation’s center pavilion, that they used in the same manner in the La Salle façade.  They also kept the arched entry along La Salle Street, which explains its asymmetrical location in the new building.  It appears that of the original upper portion, they kept only the four major pilasters on each front and the entablature these supported.

Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce Building. The awnings are on the west façade. Note the offset location of the La Salle Street Entrance. (Gilbert, Chicago)

The presence of the iron frame in the exterior of the addition is easily seen in the large openings between the piers in both elevations.  In the ten bays the architects inherited along La Salle Street, they placed triple windows. In the shorter Washington facade, they celebrated the strength of the steel beams by detailing an unprecedented line of five windows in the center pavilion that was framed with corner pavilions that had four windows each.

Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce Building. Note the large span, five-window central bay in the north façade. The Tacoma Building is at the right edge of the image. (Gilbert, Chicago)

In order to merge the older, horizontally layered original base, Baumann & Huehl broke the elevation of the eleven new floors into a layered composition with a rhythm of 3:3:4:1, the top floor terminating the elevation with an arcade that continued the spacing of the windows of the lower floors.  Although this rhythm inverted the conventional reduction of floors within a layer as one reached the top of the building, I think in this case putting the four floors in the top layer actually reinforced perspective to make the building look taller than it was. By recessing the spandrels (which they did not have to do!) they created a vertical accent that counterbalanced the horizontal layers, imparting what I find to be a true sense of repose in the building’s facades.

As opposed to the neighboring Tacoma Building where the bay windows gave the facade a three-dimensional quality while blurring the reading of the structural frame, Baumann & Huehl have rendered the elevation as flat as possible by detailing the windows almost flush to the masonry. The result was a frank expression of the gridline nature of the iron skeleton frame that supported the building. The centers of both facades were marked by a yoke-shaped pediment (similar to Root’s in the Phoenix) that was framed with the reprise of the alternating drums of the original portico that  successfully tied the old with the new design. 

Above: Baumann & Huehl, Chamber of Commerce. Pediment; Below: Burnham & Root. Left: Insurance Exchange; Right: Phoenix Building.

The architects chose a new color in Chicago for the exterior masonry, a bluish gray, in order to harmonize with the color of the existing stone in the base.  When completed, the building rose to a finished height of 182.’  So successful was Baumann & Heuhl’s design that, as I mentioned earlier, many historians simply assumed that the building had been designed fresh from the start.  Unfortunately, Baumann died while on a trip to Germany and never saw his completed building.

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

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