Post-Fire buildings’ architectural style is typically Italianate in varying degrees, and virtually identical to those destroyed in the fire. This is significant as it aesthetically forms a portal to the look of the “Pre-Fire” downtown Chicago building stock before it was completely obliterated. Functionally, the majority of the buildings served as wholesale commercial lofts, with each floor housing a different manufacturer of products appropriate for the era: leather goods, textiles, household amenities like pianos, steam heaters and boilers, and iron & woodworking machinery.
However, within a decade or two after they were built, these 4- and 5-story Victorian-era buildings quickly fell out of style, regarded as old-fashioned and obsolete in the rapid evolution of Chicago’s commercial architecture. Many were demolished within decades of their creation, to make way for larger, more efficient and spacious office-style buildings utilizing a steel and skeleton framework method.According to City of Chicago’s Landmarks Commission surveys, 75 of these buildings still remained in 1975. Fourteen years later, a new survey was done (prompted by the highly controversial “un-landmarking” and demolition of the McCarthy Building for Block 37 development) and showed less than 25 remaining: a staggering number of 50 had been demolished in just a decade and a half, during the “dark ages” of decay in Chicago’s downtown area. These occurred even with growing historic preservation awareness and municipal measures and ordinances in place to “protect” Chicago’s vulnerable historic architecture. Twenty-five years later in 2015, I have been able to identify 21 surviving buildings, displayed in the map below.
Of these 21, only 10 are recognized and protected as Chicago Landmarks. Some of the other 11 are “orange-rated” (or recognized as “historically significant” in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey [CHRS]), and a handful are not even “buildings” proper, but preserved façades with the original building demolished in recent redevelopment on the site. The rest hold no historic recognition, or even inclusion in the CHRS for unknown reasons. This article represents my attempt to document these remaining Post-Fire era “survivors”, spread out between the northwest corner of the Loop at Lake and Franklin Streets, down to the southeast at Adams Street and Wabash Avenue.
Built 1872 – 1875
Kent Building, 173 – 175 North Franklin Street, built 1875 (George H. Edbrooke, architect)
White Building, 177 – 179 North Franklin Street / 227 – 231 West Lake Street, built 1872 (Burling & Adler, architects)
Cole Building, 185 North Franklin Street / 233 West Lake Street, built 1873 (Burling & Adler, architects)
Rowney Building, 189 North Franklin Street / 235 West Lake Street, built 1873 (Burling & Adler, architects)
Status: Protected by Landmark Designation on February 26, 1997This block of buildings, known collectively as the “Lake-Franklin Group” is the largest intact collection of Post-Fire buildings that remain in the Loop. Details like the arched window bays with incised foliated keystones, varied window hood forms and the intact bracketed cornice of the Kent Building demonstrate the Italianate design that was in fashion at the time of creation. Well-known Chicago architects Edward Burling & Dankmar Adler designed all but one of these commercial lofts—the Kent Building (the one with frontage only on Franklin Street) was designed by George Edbrooke. Original tenants included various wholesalers and manufacturers of products like leather, textiles, machinery, and even a corner saloon. In 1896, a fifth-story addition was added to the Cole Building, without the unique molded terra cotta window hoods on its lower floors. Today, various retail establishments to support the Loop’s office worker population reside at ground level, dining ones like Chipotle, U.B. Dogs, and 5411 Empanadas, the Atlas Stationers paper and office supply store, and a nail salon. The Lake-Franklin Group was designated a Chicago Landmark on February 26, 1997.
Osborne & Adams Leather Company Building
209 West Lake Street
Built 1872 – 1874 (estimated)
Status: Orange-Rated in the CHRS, Not Protected by Landmark Designation, Demolition Imminent
During my visits to the Loop, walking east on Lake Street into downtown, I would always notice this curious building just two addresses east of the Lake-Franklin Group. It’s situated between a 3-story parking garage (now all but demolished) and the well-known, after-work spot Monk’s Pub. The cast-iron columns at ground-level painted in flashy, metallic silver seemed out of place, but provided a glimpse into the historic nature of the building (and its recent occupancy by a poorly-reviewed afterhours nightclub).
Out of nowhere in late August, in one of my regular checks of the City of Chicago’s Demolition Delay Hold List, I saw this address added and was immediately alarmed—I set out to find out as much as I could about the building’s history and significance.Looking at its façade, you sense a strong vertical, Italianate design, with window hoods that are varied in shape and form: flattened arches, segmented arches, and rounded arches, each topped with a faceted trapezoid-shaped keystone and surrounded by pillars with a square-relief detail. The building was originally built for the Osborne & Adams Leather Company, who processed and manufactured consumer leather goods and horse brindles and saddles. City records indicate a build date of 1882, but like most of these records I have encountered and cross-referenced with field experience and other data sources, it does not seem accurate.
It has been suggested that this building was designed by John Mills Van Osdel, recognized as Chicago’s first architect. This would certainly give even greater significance to the Osborne & Adams Leather Company building, but at time of publication I was not able to find any historic documentation or evidence to support this claim—aside from very similar designs like his aforementioned McCarthy Building and other Post-Fire buildings to be explored later in this article.The rear of the building faces Couch Place, a named alley that dates back to the 1850s, which provided a service area for the building’s unpleasant commercial activities such as unloading materials and refuse management (more on the history on the Loop’s “named alleys” in a forthcoming Chicago Patterns piece). It echoes the same 3-bay window layout of the front elevation, with the ground floor entrance surrounded by its own type of cast-iron rectangular pillars.
As I continued to investigate this further, I sadly found that the building’s fate was all but sealed: plans were made public for a future 33-story apartment tower to replace this site and the adjacent parking garage to the west. Finally, after the mandated 90-day Demolition Delay review period had elapsed with no plans emerging to save the structure, a demolition permit was issued for its destruction.At time of publication, scaffolding had been erected over the front elevation, presumably in an effort to dismantle and salvage the beautiful historic façade (speculated to be made of an “artificial stone” or formed concrete, or limestone). Demolition for this structure will take place in the coming weeks, and another example of the downtown area’s history as an integral wholesale district and its rare Victorian architecture will be lost.
203 West Lake Street / 186 North Wells Street
Built 1878 or earlier
Status: Not Included in CHRS, Not Protected by Landmark Status
One address east from the 209 West Lake building is another post-Fire era commercial structure, with a different variation of the Italianate commercial loft style. Like the White and Cole buildings of the Lake-Franklin Group, the building is L-shaped with street frontage on both Wells and Lake Street.
The Wells Street elevation is faced with Chicago common brick dotted with rod tie support bolts, with rustic, dentiled brickwork above the cast-iron storefront, and flattened arch window hoods topped by keystones with a relief detail on the second and third stories. It currently houses the Crepe Bistro restaurant and bar.The Lake Street elevation features a smooth masonry façade with the same window hood styles but painted green, and the ground floor houses a nail salon and recently-opened 24-hour Dunkin Donuts.
40 North Wells Street
Built 1873 (Frederick and Edward Baumann, architects)
Status: Protected by Landmark Designation on January 14, 1997
Situated at the southwest corner of Washington and Wells Streets, the 5-story Washington Block looks somewhat out of place among modern structures. When erected, it was one of the tallest buildings in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire, and is a remaining example of an “isolated pier foundation” which contributed to making Chicago the birthplace of the skyscraper.
The isolated pier technique employs several separate foundations, one at each of the load-bearing points beneath ground level. This revolutionary method allowed the Washington Block to be built on soft, compressible soil, instead of the solid bedrock once seen as a requirement.The building has a limestone façade in a strong application of the Italianate style, with heavily detailed window hoods, and originally included an exterior staircase that led to a second-floor corner entrance. The building was originally intended to provide fashionable offices for upscale companies wanting to be close to the nearby growing LaSalle Street financial district. However, when the elevated rail was built adjacent over Wells Street, these clients now found the building undesirable. During the mid 1900s, the owner removed architectural details at ground-level in order to modernize the appearance, but the current owners have recast some of the details, like incised keystones, during a restoration. Today the first floor is occupied by a 7-Eleven and the second floor occupied by the Carter Legal Group. It was designated a Chicago Landmark on January 14, 1997.
36 West Randolph Street
Built 1872 (Wheelock and Thomas, architects)
Status: Protected by Landmark Designation on November 23, 1983
Contrasted with the sleek “Block 37” development across the street, the Delaware Building certainly stands out on the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets. When originally built in 1872, the Delaware Building had five floors with a basement. The first two stories were made of metal and glass to provide attractive storefront windows for retail displays. In 1889, two additional floors were added, and three bays were removed from the Randolph Avenue façade.
This building is also notable and unique for its early use of a pre-cast concrete façade. It was designated a Chicago Landmark on November 23, 1983, and it was previously listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 18, 1974. A McDonalds currently takes up the ground-floor and second story. Other tenants including Fitzpatrick & Fitzpatrick, a law firm, and Guaranty National Title, whose executives are also owners of the building, reside in the upper floors. A foreclosure lawsuit was brought against the building owners earlier this year, so its future will be monitored closely.
66 – 70 East Randolph Street
Status: Orange-Rated in the CHRS, Not Protected by Landmark Designation
This 5-story building is situated across the street from the Chicago Cultural Center, near Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue. City records indicate it was built 1881, while the CHRS shows an 1870s build date. The building is catalogued in Frank A. Randall’s book “History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago” and listed as built in 1872 by architect W.W. Boyington. It currently houses the Gallery 37 art gallery and retail store, specializing in after-school workshops and art classes for students.
PAGE BROTHERS BUILDING
177 – 191 North State Street
Built 1873 (John Mills Van Osdel, architect)
Status: Protected by Landmark Designation on January 28th, 1983
With its simplistic, unadorned look, the State Street façade of the Page Brothers Building makes this 6-story structure appear younger than it is, but the decorative Italianate bracketed cornice gives away its true age. The north elevation (far left) obscured by the Lake Street elevated rail showcases one of two Post-Fire era cast-iron façades remaining in the Loop.
The building was designed by John Mills Van Osdel, whose cast-iron façade creations once lined a half-mile of Lake Street both east and west of State Street. Downtown commercial activity, once centered on Lake Street, migrated over to State Street at the beginning of the 20th Century, and the State Street façade of the Page Brothers building was renovated and improved to fit modern tastes. It was designated a Chicago Landmark on January 28, 1983.
Built 1875 – 1878
Couch Estate Building 139 – 143 North Wabash Avenue, 1878 (John Mills Van Osdel, architect)
Peck Estate Building 133 – 137 North Wabash Avenue, 1878 (John Mills Van Osdel, architect)
Burton Estate Building 129 North Wabash Avenue, 1875
Status: Orange-Rated in CHRS, Not Protected by Landmark Designation
The Couch Estate and Peck Estate buildings, seen below, are also Van Osdel designs, Italianate in nature with contrasting variations on the arched window bay. The rounded and flattened arch window hood designs of the Peck Estate Building are reminiscent of the Osborne & Adams Leather Company Building.
As noted in the 1989 Chicago Tribune article cited at the beginning of this article, landmark status was sought for this collection of buildings near the intersection of Randolph Street and Wabash Avenue, but was ultimately not obtained. In 2005, the 57-story Heritage At Millennium Park residential tower was constructed just to the east at 130 North Garland Court (another “named alley” of the Loop). The original Couch, Peck and Burton Estate buildings were lost but their historic façades were saved, and became part of the Heritage redevelopment—the upper floors conceal the parking ramp and garage for the tower (more on this contemporary practice in the “21 South Wabash Avenue” section below).
The Burton Estate Building appears very similar to the Kent Building of the Lake-Franklin Group and other vernacular Italianate commercial buildings, with red brick and the repeated masonry window hoods with a single foliated detail. The Wabash Avenue elevated rail runs adjacent to the buildings, and current ground-floor tenants include women’s clothing retailers, a fitness center, and a jeweler.
Built 1875 – 1877
Barker Building 18 – 20 South Wabash Avenue, 1875 (Wheelock and Thomas, architects)
Haskell Building 22 – 24 South Wabash Avenue, 1875 (Wheelock and Thomas, architects)
Atwater Building 26 – 28 South Wabash Avenue, 1877 (John Mills Van Osdel, architect)
Status: Protected by Landmark Designation on November 13, 1996
This is another collection of 4- and 5-story Post-Fire buildings on Wabash Avenue, just two blocks south of the Randolph-Wabash Group described above. The Haskell and Barker Buildings are four stories tall with a Classical Revival stone façade topped with a sheet metal cornice. The bottom floors of the Haskell Building were remodeled in 1896 by master architect Louis Sullivan, and his distinctive type of organic ornament done in cast-iron is used to surround the storefront windows.
This ornament had been covered and painted over after its 1927 occupancy by Carson Pirie Scott, and forgotten until an excellent, painstaking 2008-2009 restoration effort by current owners to renew the building’s 19th-Century appearance, as a part of the larger Sullivan Center. It is significant because it’s a precursor to Sullivan’s exquisite design at the former main store of Carson Pirie Scott at State and Madison Streets (now a Target store).The Atwater Building is another Van Osdel design, with elegant rounded arch window bays, and its cornice was reconstructed from 2008-2009 to match the original after being removed decades ago. The group of buildings were designated a Chicago Landmark on November 13, 1996.
21 South Wabash Avenue
Built 1872 (Frederick Baumann, architect)
Status: Green Rated in CHRS, Not Protected by Landmark Designation
The elaborate masonry facade is almost all that remains of the original building at 21 South Wabash Avenue. In 2004, the Landmarks Commission approved the demolition of some of the stretch of landmarked structures at 21 – 37 South Wabash Avenue in order to construct the postmodern 70-story Legacy At Millennium Park tower behind it to the east.
As with the buildings of the Randolph-Wabash Group, the existing façades were saved to maintain Wabash Avenue’s historic character, and were incorporated into the tower’s development. This practice can be seen as an example of a startling redevelopment trend, a kind of preservation “compromise” in today’s economy: preserving the facade of a historic building and completely replacing what’s behind it, disposing of the building’s 3 dimensional nature.
However, Holabird & Roche’s Sharp Building at 37 South Wabash was ultimately preserved and this one, along with buildings going north up to 21 South Wabash, are now occupied by the School of The Art Institute of Chicago. The architectural details seem to echo that of Van Osdel’s designs, and exhibit Italianate motifs like incised keystones and flattened arch window bays.
ADAMS STREET GROUP
Stone Building: 15 – 23 West Adams Street
Palmer Building: 25 – 27 West Adams Street (Charles M. Palmer, architect)
Status: Red-Rated in CHRS, Not Protected by Landmark Designation
This remarkable group of buildings is the second largest collection of Post-Fire buildings after the Lake-Franklin Group. As with that group, a strong application of the Italianate style imitates downtown’s Pre-Fire architecture. The famous Berghoff Restaurant resides in this building group, since 1898, as seen in the below image.
The Stone Building is divided into three sections, and features a smooth, sandstone façade detailed with incised lines and rounded and flattened arch window openings. Its third story once housed a public meeting hall, and is last remaining example in the Loop of this once-common usage. The look of 15 and 19 East Adams is virtually identical in nature. Simple keystones crown most of the second-story windows, with a beautiful “bifora” double-arched window featured in the middle of the second story of 17 East Adams.
A 2006 Chicago Tribune article chronicles their history and the unsuccessful attempt to protect these buildings with landmark status—although they are clearly a significant part of Chicago’s history and its surviving Post-Fire architectural inventory.
According to this 2006 Tribune piece:
In 1991, the Chicago City Council voted against designating the Berghoff buildings. The Council sided with the restaurant’s owner, Herman Berghoff, who said that landmark status would severely reduce the value of his property by sharply restricting changes that could be made to it.
This argument can be seen time and time again in efforts to protect Chicago’s historic architecture: the economic concerns of ownership always seem to trump the urgent importance of protecting Chicago’s architectural history.
The Palmer Building, seen below, features the other surviving cast-iron façade in Chicago’s Loop. These prefabricated façades were put together on site and fastened to the building’s load-bearing masonry walls. Abstract incised designs are meant to emulate stone decoration, and the symmetric repetition of a single design across 18 paired-window bays makes a powerful and stately presentation.
18 – 26 East Adams Street
Built 1878 or earlier
Status: Not Listed in CHRS, Not Protected by Landmark Designation
Little is known about this pair of 2-story buildings on Adams Street near Wabash Avenue. The façades of 18 – 26 East Adams Street look very similar to that of 15 – 17 West Adams Street, with the same incised lines patterns and flattened arch window bays. However, these are not protected by landmark status or even included in the Chicago Landmarks Historic Resources Survey. The windows on 26 East Adams Street (right) appear to have had keystones originally, now replaced with bricks. A number of businesses occupy the ground floors, including a nail salon and your pick of 3 different restaurants: fast food, fried fish and Persian cuisines.
I recognize that this was a highly ambitious project, and what I have tried to present here may be lacking in some respects. But I also felt it was an urgent and imperative undertaking, to document this extraordinary class of 140-year-old architecture now, in the fluid, ever-changing built environment of Chicago’s Loop. As we are currently experiencing with the Osborne & Adams Leather Company building (209 West Lake Street), and have witnessed in the tragic tale of the McCarthy Building, the fate of these rare Post-Fire era buildings is not secure.
The specter of economic concerns always seems to overpower our historic preservation responsibilities: a landmark designation can be granted one day, and rescinded the next. To counteract that, we need stronger, unimpeachable measures in place, with the support of our city government, to actually protect an architectural legacy of the single most important event in Chicago’s history, the Great Chicago Fire.
References and Further Reading
- “9 Buildings Seen As Landmarks” (Chicago Tribune)
- “McCarthy Building Puts Landmark Law On A Collision Course With Developers” (Chicago Tribune)
- Chicago Historic Resources Survey (City of Chicago)
- Demolition Delay Hold List 2015 (City of Chicago)
- “Developer Wants to Replace Loop Parking Garage With 33-Story Rental Tower” (Curbed Chicago)
- 209 West Lake Street demolition permit (Chicago Cityscape)
- “Loop landmark faces foreclosure” (Crain’s Chicago Business)
- Haskell, Barker, and Atwater Buildings (Harboe Architects)
- “Preservationists wary over future of Berghoff buildings” (Chicago Tribune)
- The Heritage At Millennium Park (Wikipedia)
- Legacy Tower At Millennium Park (Wikipedia)
- “Eureka! Chicago`s Total Of Cast-iron Fronts Just Doubled” (Chicago Tribune)