[Note: this was originally published on my old blog, Memoirs of a Loosh. I'm moving all the old posts here. Since 2007, the Old Colony has changed a bit, so I will publish an update to this post in short order.]
(Originally posted Feb. 24, 2008. Later edited January 12, 2009 and October 16, 2009.)
(The top photo is an early photo, from about 1895. You can tell how old it is by the absence of the 'L', which has run right next to this front entrance of the Old Colony Building since 1896. The bottom photo is from 2001.)
Chicago has a few streets that are lost in time. One of those is South Dearborn between about Jackson and Polk, especially the block between Dearborn and Congress. The same buildings stand now as they did 100+ years ago, though a little worse for the wear.
The anchor for this old block is the Old Colony Building. When it was finished in 1894, it was the tallest building in Chicago, at 212 feet and 17 floors tall. Each floor is 9700 square feet, and the total square footage is 157,406. Because its developer was from Boston and the building fronts on Plymouth Street, it was named after the “Old Colony” in Massachusetts of the same name.
The site, 84 feet long along Van Buren and 168 feet along Dearborn, was bought by Francis Bartlett in 1884, for $126,000, a price that many people at the time considered too high a price for a lot so far from the central business district of Chicago. Less than five years later, Dearborn had evolved into one of Chicago's most prestigious commercial streets and so the price was considered more than reasonable. Soon after purchasing the site, Bartlett erected a "one-story taxpayer" structure on the site, which was actually supposed to be pretty interesting architecturally, with a facade completely of glass and iron. The designer is unknown but it may have been Holabird & Roche.
Here is a picture of the site from 1892, looking southeast. The building in the foreground is the mentioned taxpayer structure. The Manhattan Building (2 buildings to the south) was just completed. The building just to the south would be torn down very soon to build the Plymouth Building, which opened in 1895 (and is currently in foreclosure as of Feb. 2008.)
The Chicago City Council was set to pass an ordinance in 1893 that would limit the height of any new structures to 130 feet. When Bartlett heard about this, he decided the time was ripe to build the larger skyscraper he knew the site could support, and which would get him a greater return on his investment. Through his connections with Bryan Lathrop, the current manager of Graceland Cemetery, Bartlett learned of the firm of Holabird & Roche. He met them and awarded them the new commission for the new skyscraper. The firm of Holabird & Roche had been founded as a very modest venture in 1881 but by the late 1880s had at least 3.5 percent of the new construction in a booming city under their design, including the three recently-completed nearby Chicago school skyscrapers: the Monadnock (1893), the Pontiac (1888), and the Caxton (1892, torn down late 1940s.)
The design was elegant. It was traditional in the sense that it included the typical tripartite arrangement of elements, with a 2-story base, a shaft, and a cornice. However, it had very little ornament, as was typical of the Chicago school, but did include lots of elements to increase rentable space and make some offices unique, such as the turrets that overhung the sidewalks, about which the architects bragged "they had achieved more than 100% site usage." The material for the base was limestone. Brick and terra cotta were used for the upper levels. The windows are all double-hung except for the middle row along the original front entrance which are chicago-style windows. An odd thing to note is that the brick that we now see as brown (see pictures at top) actually started as off-white. While all that brown is technically dirt, it is historic dirt :-) so it has been left, per the recommendation of a restoration report done in the 1970s. The following picture was submitted by Charles McLaughlin, a CAF tour guide who loves and respects the building. From this color print of the building from its early years, it can be understood how stunning the color difference is between the building's original design and its current state.
The width of the lot allowed an interior well-suited to the rule that no office be further than 26 feet from the windows in those days, when they were the main source of light, which allowed the building to be a block with no interior courtyard or light court. A central ten-foot hallway was lined with small offices, with interior walls of frosted glass and operable transoms above the doors. The floors of the hallways were yellow-brick mosaic tile, their walls were wood paneling of quarter-sawn oak.
The staircases were iron and the stairwell was originally open from ground to the top of the building. The building only has one stairwell, with emergency exit requirements handled by old-style iron fire escapes on the exterior. The elevators were originally manually-operated and were surrounded by intricate open iron grillwork. Throughout the building, much thought was put into intricate details, such as custom doorknobs that had the letters "O-C-B" branded onto them by hand.
Not including space created by enclosing various spaces since the building was built, the Old Colony has 89% rentable space, efficient even by modern standards. The basement was used for mechanical and storage space, the first floor the lobby and retail shops, floors 2-17 for offices, and the penthouse is a mechanical space. Here is the typical floor plan:
Upon opening, the building generally got positive feedback. Brickbuilder said of it in 1895, “The exterior is elegant, the interior is cramped.” In The Story of Chicago, published in 1894, just after the building's completion, it was stated “With its strong, graceful, rounded corners, its massive base, simple centre and pillared cornice, it is a delight to the eye and an ornament to the city.” In 1964, in his book The Chicago School "Not a typical example of the Chicago School. It is elegant but does not meet the doctrine that the visual divisions in the exterior represent real visual divisions in the interior, as the two-story colonnade at the top, then, has no meaning.” Like many buildings built in Chicago soon after the Great Fire, the Old Colony was built to be among the most fireproof of its day. Its features to this end included hollow tile surrounds around the structural columns and steel vaults in the suites for fireproofing, and a foot of solid masonry around exterior columns. A Russian visitor studying American fireproof construction technologies at the time, Prof. Alexander Krupsky, called the Old Colony “the most completely fire-proofed and and best constructed piece of steel work he could find in the country.”
The building is a combination steel and iron structure. The beams and girders are steel, while the columns are iron Phoenix columns. Phoenix was a brand of column used mostly in bridges, manufactured exclusively by the Phoenix Iron Company, an independent steel mill in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
The main mill structure is still partially standing, though Phoenix steel shapes were completely phased out by about 1900.
The structural engineer for the Old Colony Building was Corydon T. Purdy. Because a skyscraper had not been built to such a height before, a solution had not been found to deal with the huge wind forces that would buffet such a large building. The Old Colony was the first use of portal wind bracing. This consisted of four arches per floor. This resulted in no lost rentable space, and can only be noticed be tenants in the form of a few arched passages between rooms. The technology was successful, as it was tested soon after the building was completed, and with a 70 to 80 mile per hour wind, the building was off plumb only three sixteenths of an inch.
Some interesting structural details:
Beam to column connections:
Details of how steel was used to frame the overhanging turrets.
The foundation for the building is a system known as the raft grillage. It was first developed by John Root for the Rookery in 1888. It consists of a grid of steel beams embedded in concrete. The foundation of the neighboring six-story building went over the Old Colony's lot line and no agreement for a party foundation could be made. The architects got a signed agreement, however, that the old building's foundation could handle the weight of the Old Colony's southernmost column line. By the time construction had reached the third floor of the Old Colony, however, the old building's foundation had settled nine inches, so apparently the old foundation could not handle it. A new method had to be devised. Corydon T. Purdy developed a cantilever foundation, in which the foundation ends before the southernmost column line. Overall, the deferential settlement ended up being only one inch between the north and south ends of the building.
Section of Cantilever foundation
One of the most interesting aspects of the Old Colony Building in modern times is the fact that many of its mechanical systems are original, over 100 years later. Part of this is because its plumbing is all done via “wet” columns, meaning the pipes are embedded in the structural system, which makes them nearly impossible to fix or upgrade. Water is provided to the building gravity-fed via two original oak water tanks. The main one has a capacity of 1600 gallons, operates on a float system, and provides water to the lower 16 floors. A much smaller oak tank is higher, above the roof, and is fed from the lower tank, via a pump. It serves exclusively the seventeenth floor, because the pressure from the lower tank is not high enough to serve plumbing fixtures on that floor, crucial in the early days since the only men's bathroom was on that floor, in a massive skylit room. Because women were rare in office buildings in the late 19th century, a smaller restroom was provided for them on the 8th floor. By the 1970s, one had been added to the 17th floor as well. In addition to the main restrooms, a small closet off the stairwell landing including a urinal for use of building tenants. Each office originally had a closet that included a sink.
The building's heating system has been upgraded. The building is currently heated through three low-pressure steam boilers that were added in the 1990s. Until then, heating had been done by one high-pressure natural gas boiler and one coal boiler, though the coal boiler was out-of-service by the late 1970s. When it had been in operation, coal was delivered through a trap door in the sidewalk that led to a storage room in the basement. Steam is sent to the top of the building and gravity-fed down to radiators on each floor. The radiators were originally cast iron, and many of them remain. Heat flow to each tenant unit is controlled by manual valves on the radiators. There is no central air conditioning system. The roof cannot support the weight of a cooling tower, so cooling is done by individual smaller systems. The ventilation remains the operational transoms above the doors to each office.
This picture shows an unusual custom radiator that was built to curve around a structural column. (Left) One of the old boilers (Right.) The intervening years have held a variety of interesting challenges for the Old Colony Building. In the late 1940s, the Dearborn Street Subway (now the Blue Line) was constructed. To keep the building from settling as a result, caissons were added under the western side of the building. The Congress Parkway was built about 1950 just three buildings south of the Old Colony. This signalled the demolition of several old highrises in the vicinity, greatly altered the cityscape in the which the Old Colony sat and the blocks it inhabited, and because of the anti-pedestrian nature of the new highway, signalled the beginning of a decline of pedestrian traffic in the area, bad for a building with many first floor retail shops. However, these shops have generally remained leases, though the quality of tenants has varied. By the 1960s, the south end of downtown had become a forlorn, forgotten area, so attracting tenants was difficult. This remained true through the 1980s. In 1968, a restaurant exploded across Plymouth Court from the Old Colony's east entrance, so that entrance had to be rebuilt, and was done so in a modern style. At some point, the north – originally main – entrance was enclosed to provide more rentable space on the first floor and a storage area on the second. The elevators have also been replaced by modern automatic models. The freight elevator remains manually operated. These renderings show the difference between the originally north entrance and the enclosed one.
Despite these changes, some of the original flourishes reportedly remain intact behind the walls. The original ornamental elevator grillwork was never removed, just encased. The original coffered ceiling above the north entrance remains in the second floor storage space.
In the report written in the 1970s about the building (see references below), it was reported that some key pieces of the original fabric remained. Some of the yellow brick mosaic floors apparently remained in one hallway, much of the original woodwork, and the urinal closets remained intact. The building had received National Register status in 1976 and Chicago Landmark status in 1978. 30 years later, in October 2007, I went to see how much of that fabric remained. The area around it, however, has improved greatly since the 80s, and in some ways the building has been a victim of its own success as of late. Some floors are very well-appointed, some not, but none have much of the original intact. The urinal closets, may however, be. They were all locked upon my visit.
The old woodwork remains intact in many places, or is replaced quite faithfully. (Upper Right picture.) It's funny how this unit modification exposed the US Mail chute that runs through the building. A mail chute runs through most old buildings in Chicago (Bottom picture. Here's the door to the urinal closet on each stairwell.
The old iron staircase remains intact and open. (Left) Not sure what these transoms were for. Getting light and air into the stairwell, maybe? (Right)
What will happen to the Old Colony? Well, hopefully, someone comes around and restores the lobby to its old beauty. That could add a lot to the building's historic charm. Currently, a rather drab single-story modern lobby greets visitors. In general, it continues to do a good job of serving as an office building, mostly for lawyers and the occasional architect. I hope no one decides it's time to turn it into condos. This one still has many years to go before it can be written off by the business community. Its combination of historic statuses should keep it from getting maimed too badly or torn down for the foreseeable future, at least we can hope.
(All information in this post is my original research. I post it because you might fight it interesting. Don't steal it!!):
Where I got my information:
Birkmire, William H. Skeleton Construction in Buildings. 2nd ed. New York: J Wiley, 1894., 183-205.
Bruegmann, Robert. The Architects and the City: Holabird & Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1997.
Bruegmann, Robert. Holabird & Roche & Holabird & Root: An Illustrated Catalogue of Works, 1880-1940. New York: Garland, 1991.
The Chief Engineer. “The Old Colony Building: If These Walls Could Talk…” http://www.chiefengineer.org/article.cfm?seqnum1=525 .
Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks. Old Colony Building. Chicago: Commission on Chicago Landmarks, 1977.
Condit, Carl. Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875-1925. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1964.
Historical American Buildings Survey. “Old Colony Building.” Published 1964. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hhh.il0046 .
Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area. “Phoenix Iron and Steel: The Iron Works – Early Years.” http://www.phxsg.org/hspa/iron_works.html .
Kirkland, Joseph. The Story of Chicago, Vol. II. Chicago: Dibble Publishing Co., 1894.
Weese, Harry and Associates. Four Landmark Buildings in Chicago’s Loop: A Study of Historic Conservation Options. Washington: US Govt. Printing Office, 1978.