CHAPTER 4. THE FULFILLMENT OF DEARBORN

4.1. THE 1889 HEIGHT LIMIT THREAT

As the Owings Building and the tower of the Auditorium continued to grow taller during the spring of 1889, concerns over the negative aspects of such tall structures in Chicago began to be discussed in the pages of the city’s newspapers, especially in light of the excessive cracking and lean in the Board of Trade’s tower (v.3, sec.7.4). Most of this concern (over fire safety and the extent of the shadows such buildings would cast) was legitimate, but some of it we could assign to those who had already built new office buildings along La Salle as a backdoor offensive to limit the amount of competing office space that would be erected along Dearborn.  This is by no stretch of the imagination a “conspiracy theory” because I have documented (v.3, sec. 6.5 and 8.24) how those who owned property along La Salle had stymied using their “clout” with various aldermen, the plans of not only the new C.&W.I. Railroad to build its station at Dearborn and Harrison, but also the development plans along Dearborn that Peter and Shepherd Brooks had hoped to achieve with the assistance of their property agent, Owen Aldis.

I had documented the plans of the Brookses to develop the entire area at the intersection of Dearborn and Harrison because they knew about the secret plans to build the new C.&W.I. station on the south side of Harrison, in line with Dearborn.  The Brookses already owned the Portland Block (SE corner of Washington), the Grannis Block (just south of the Portland, and the Montauk Block (that sat on the north side of Monroe, a mere 100’ west of Dearborn.)  Plotting these buildings on a map in time shows a calculated march down Dearborn to Harrison Street.  The next building in this march was to have been the Monadnock Block, to be erected at the southwest corner of Jackson.  This lot was immediately across from the Post Office Square, a choice site indeed, (as was the case with the Owings Building) one of the very few in downtown that offered a long-distance view in (and out) to a building on this corner because of the open space that surrounded the post-fire Post Office, the only open green space left in downtown (except for Lake Park and adjacent Dearborn Park). 

William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

Unfortunately, these plans had conflicted with the La Salle Street interests who were planning their own secret development centered around the yet-to-be announced move of the Board of Trade into a new building at the foot of La Salle Street. These men had connections with the City Council and had used this “clout” first to stall the construction of the C.&W.I. station, eventually forcing its owners to build at Polk Street, a long two blocks farther south than they had wanted to at Harrison, and four blocks farther south from the La Salle Street Station. At the same time, they had the city postpone its plan to lengthen Dearborn from Monroe to Harrison, ensuring that any such development of Dearborn wouldn’t compete with the new space they were constructing along La Salle.  Although the first Grand Trunk train had arrived at Polk Street on February 9, 1880, Dearborn was not extended to it until 1885, after the success of the new office buildings along La Salle had been assured.

This was the reason the Brookses’ original plan to build the 13-story Monadnock Block at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Jackson had to be shelved (v.3 sec. 8.24). Peter Brooks had sent a letter to Aldis on March 16, 1886, stating “There is little chance of the Monadnock Block being begun before three years.” In those three years the Haymarket Square bombing and the ensuing court trial of the accused bombers had stopped investment in Chicago’s real estate dead in its tracks, so Brooks’ prediction of three years had extended for a number of months after.  But the Santa Fe’s arrival and then the defeat of Democrat Pres. Grover Cleveland by Benjamin Harrison in November 1888 had reignited their plan for the Monadnock Block.

Predictably, as rumors of a number of tall buildings being planned for Dearborn multiplied, June of 1889 brought Chicago’s second half-serious attempt (the first was in March 1884: v. 3,  sec.8.2) to limit the height of new buildings, this time to just the width of the street upon which they fronted.  While the restriction was not enacted, the flurry of building permits secured during this threat revealed plans for five buildings over ten stories high to be erected along Dearborn.  Owen Aldis had used this threat to finally convince the cautious Peter Brooks to begin construction on the project that Root had been working on and off again for the past five years with a terse telegram, “MONADNOCK BETTER BE SIXTEEN.”  The Monadnock’s permit was approved on June 3, 1889.  

Four days later on June 7, a permit was approved for the 16-story Manhattan Building, to be located on Dearborn in the middle of the two-block long block bounded by Van Buren, Harrison, and Plymouth Place.  This was to be designed by William Le Baron Jenney. Another 16-story building was proposed (but not built) by Eugene S. Pike for the Post Office Square, diagonally across from the Monadnock for the northeast corner of Dearborn and Jackson, where the W.C.T.U. had initially been planning to build.  The remaining two permits were for buildings to be located in the printing house district between Van Buren and Harrison: Brooks’ eleven-story Pontiac at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Harrison that Aldis had commissioned Holabird & Roche to design, and the twelve-story Monon Building to be designed by John Van Osdel.  All of these buildings, except Pike’s, was slated to be erected south of Jackson Street, where the city’s street grid changes from a square gridiron into a “three blocks per two main streets” pattern that resulted in narrow 68’ wide blocks. While this would prove a boon to the rental efficiencies of the buildings erected on these blocks (a doubled-corridor of 20’ deep offices on either side of an eight-foot corridor: no waste!) the narrow width would pose a distinct challenge to the engineers who had to figure a way to make these narrow slabs resist the wind loads on a 16-story building!

Map of Pre-1871 Fire Chicago. Note that Dearborn was constructed only to Monroe. Also, the “three streets in every two blocks” pattern was already established by the time of the fire that extended north to Jackson Street. The C.&W.I. would thread its tracks, as had the Michigan Central, between Third and Fourth Streets. The company had purchased the property on the southside of Harrison for its station, but the city made it build it at Polk Street, four blocks farther south than the La Salle Street Station. (Holland, Chicago in Maps)

While both the Monadnock and the Manhattan Buildings would be the first 16-story skyscrapers constructed in the world, they would represent a set of mirrored opposites in the way that they were designed and constructed.  While the Manhattan was the first skyscraper to be almost (read on…) completely iron framed (if the Tower Building in New York is discounted due to its small size), Jenney’s design of its elevation would not repeat the Spartan rectilinear grid of the Second Leiter Building, but curiously harken back to his past with the use of arches and multistoried horizontal layers.  In contrast, Shepherd Brooks would forbid Burnham & Root to use the iron frame in the exterior of the Monadnock.  So while it would be one of the last (but not the tallest as some historians claim: George Post’s New York World/Pulitzer Building was 309’ tall vs. the Monadnock’s 215’) of the bearing wall dinosaurs, Root would accept Peter Brooks’ challenge to design a modern building without any carved ornament.  The exterior design of the Monadnock was rationally inspired by its structural system: Root designed it to be one smooth, continuous wall, from which the ranks of bay windows appear to billow out.

FURTHER READING:

Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973.

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

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s