3.9. FIELD VS. LEITER: ROUND TWO-THE SECOND LEITER BUILDING

William Le Baron Jenney, Second Leiter Building, Chicago, NE corner of State and Congress, 1889. (Zukowsky, Chicago Architecture)

If Root’s Rand-McNally Building can be viewed as his attempt to “one up” Richardson’s Field Wholesale Store, a more vengeful response to Marshall Field’s new building was announced soon after it opened by his former partner, Levi Leiter.  We left off with the spite battle between the two former partners in March 1885, when Field had ordered S.S.Beman to complete the details of his planned 13-story skyscraper at the southwest corner of La Salle and Monroe and to renew excavation from its winter lull.  Field had approved the breaking into of Leiter’s adjacent basement in order to shore up the existing wall and to place the new foundation for his building.  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 had been 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 had lost the war, for the time lost during the postponement in construction had killed the project as the building boom had oversaturated the rental market and the Haymarket Square bombing and trials had all but halted construction. (see v.3, sec. 8.19).  So the partially excavated hole at one the busier corners of S. La Salle Street had sat quietly for the next three years, until Field, following the opening of his new Wholesale Store, in a rare show generosity, offered the site to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in July 1888 (v.4, sec. 5.4).

Three months later it was announced the Leiter had obtained the entire half block on the east side of State Street between Van Buren and Congress.  In April 1889, the local press announced Leiter’s intention to build a huge new department store covering the entire site.  Leiter was quoted as saying that in planning the building, he anticipated that the almost-completed Auditorium would draw business farther south from the existing core.  Not only was Leiter’s new building (now commonly referred to as the Second Leiter Building to distinguish it from his earlier building, now known as the First Leiter Building, designed by William Le Baron Jenney in 1879) going to be 20% larger than Field’s (and three feet taller!), but it was also being designed as the most modern building in Chicago, said “to be as complete and perfect in all its appointments as the resources of modern art and science can make it.”  

Leiter’s intent was quite transparent, he was attempting to steal all of the publicity surrounding his former partner’s new Wholesale Store, while implying that it was already a dinosaur.  The contrast between the two buildings couldn’t have been starker, yet there were less than four years separating the two designs.  The Field Store was a rough-hewn medieval fortress while the Leiter Store was an open, light-filled cage of smooth-faced, light gray Maine granite, due to its modern skeleton frame construction.  The Leiter Store still stands today as a testament to the owner’s faith in new technology; the Field Store had to be demolished in 1930 primarily because its architect had still not learned the lessons of modern foundations.  Truly, Leiter would take great pleasure in his new building, for more than one reason.

Leiter turned once more to William Le Baron Jenney to design the store.  In addition to having designed Leiter’s building at the northwest corner of Wells and Monroe in 1879, Leiter had also commissioned Jenney in 1884 to remodel his six-story Tobey Building, located at State and Jackson.  Jenney would benefit greatly from his professional relationship with Leiter, for this new commission would reinvigorate not only his firm’s business, but also his historical reputation.  Between the bookends of the ten-year period from the First Leiter Building of 1879 to the Second Leiter Building of 1889, Jenney had designed only two rather significant buildings, the Union League Club (of which he was a member) and the Home Insurance Building.  The Home Insurance commission, as I have already documented, was due not his preeminence within Chicago’s architectural community at the time, but because of a personal favor given by the company’s Chicago agent, Arthur Ducat, a Civil War acquaintance of Jenney’s. 

List of skyscrapers designed by Chicago architects, 1881-1888. Note that even Jenney’s former employees, Holabird and Roche had designed a taller building than Jenney had in 1888.

Following the completion of the Home Insurance Building, Jenney had no more commissions for skyscrapers or other large buildings that were erected.  If the Home Insurance Building was such a pioneering achievement in construction or architecture, as it has been made out to be by many historians, why didn’t building owners and contractors flock to Jenney’s door in 1885 or 1886, before the Haymarket Square bombing, or in mid-1888 with the upturn in construction?  We only have to list Chicago’s major architects and their completed skyscrapers during this period prior to Jenney’s commission for the Second Leiter Building to ascertain Jenney’s meager output during this important era.  One can only imagine what would have Jenney’s future reputation had been if Leiter had favored a different architect or had died prior to 1889.

William Le Baron Jenney, Proposed Hercules Building, Chicago, 1889. Note the ten-story unbroken piers in the tower. (Turak, Jenney)

While Jenney was in the initial design phase of the Leiter Store, he also was working on what one can only describe as a monster project, the appropriately named Hercules Building.  Apparently commissioned by the site’s owners, the Young and Farrell Stone Company, Jenney had designed a mammoth building, reported to cost over $3 million, for a site on the west bank of the river, on the south side of Polk Street.  Its dimensions were 497’ by 372’ with eight floors at a height of 120.’  In the center of the building, Jenney positioned a 14-story tower that rose to a final height of 212,’ that divided the mass of the building into two equal wings.  The building’s primary intent was to provide manufacturing space in close proximity to the business district and the railroad terminals.  Jenney took advantage of the site’s slope to the river in designing the building’s section to provide for a very efficient system of movement of materials and goods throughout the building.  Wharves would line the river’s edge, while the sectional grade was such that railroad tracks passed through the basement.  These moves permitted him to design the ground floor with an unencumbered openness that would have allowed horse-drawn wagons complete freedom of movement under the upper floors.  The building was scheduled to have an unprecedented 28 elevators for people and freight.

Its construction was reported to have been steel skeleton framing with stone walls.  The openness in the elevations, especially the end bays in which Jenney placed five windows, obviously reveals that the stone walls (the building’s owner was a stone company) were merely a veneer, for only a steel frame in the exterior could have achieved such spans.  The design of the building’s elevation was quite functionally-based, especially those of the two flanking wings.  No nostalgic arches are used; the entire elevation was an unornamented field of a rectangular grid.  Jenney articulated the eight floors of the wings into a two-story, rough-hewn stone base, a four-story middle, and a two-story top.  A balance between the wings’ primary horizontal proportions was achieved with the six-story, unbroken vertical pilasters that Jenney used to frame the corners and the entrance of each wing.

While the overall profile of the tower owes its allegiance to Sullivan’s tower in the Auditorium, it is quite evident that Jenney had thought that Sullivan had designed the intersection of his tower and the lower body of the Auditorium rather poorly. Instead of just placing the extra floors of the vertically-articulated tower on the top of the lower horizontal body, and trying to resolve the inherent conflict in this solution by blurring the merging of these two forces with the slight projection of the edges of the tower as Sullivan had done, Jenney simply let the 84’ x 112’ deep plan of the tower extend all the way to the ground by recessing the first two bays of the wings on either side of the tower (which was actually the way that Adler had detailed the construction of the Auditorium’s tower).  This perfectly articulated the tower as separate from the body of the wings.  He reinforced this effect by also raising the tower’s stone base one more story than that of the wings (as had Sullivan).  While Jenney did resort to the arch in the design of the tower, it is his design of a seven-story arcade, continued another three stories into the stone base, with its unbroken, continuous 10-story vertical piers that is prophetic.  (He had superseded the eight-story run of the continuous piers that George Edbrooke had detailed in the Hiram Sibley Warehouse of 1883.)  While the Hercules, obviously, must have been far more costly than even its projectors had anticipated, and, therefore, went unbuilt, Jenney would succeed in building both the straightforward body of the wings, as well as the sheer verticality of its tower in his next two projects.  

George H. Edbrooke, Hiram Sibley Warehouse. River elevation. Note the continuous seven-story piers in the righthand portion of the elevation. (Historic American Buildings Survey)

FURTHER READING:

Turak, Theodore. William Le Baron Jenney. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1986.

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

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