Unearthing the Forgotten History of Chicago’s Oldest Buildings
Like many others, I have vivid memories of sitting in my high school history classes, slumping in my chair and using my textbook as a pillow. Old stuff didn’t matter to me back then. My grandparents would reminisce about the good ol’ days and scorn the rapidly-evolving technologies which they never seemed to catch onto. But later on in life, after they had passed away, the only pieces of them that remained were the yellowed pages of books they’d once read, newspapers that once lay sprawled across their ancient breakfast table, aging film from cameras that once captured their love and lives in black and white. As I palmed through these tactile memories, I rediscovered a childlike fascination with the past. Everything obsolete that was once innovative, everything decayed that was once pristine. Rare remnants from ancestors, the only surviving pieces from generations of hardship and survival. I consider myself incredibly lucky that my entire job is to traverse relic after relic of downtown Chicago, investigating the stories that have long been forgotten. The quote-unquote “flight to quality” has encouraged a surface-level thirst for what’s shiny and new, but under the iceberg of Chicago’s architecture lays an endless ocean of history. Today, I’d like to share with you some of my favorite stories from our portfolio of buildings.
100 N LaSalle
100 N LaSalle is a building unlike any other. Constructed in 1927 by Anker Sverre Graven and Arthur Guy Mayger, this architectural gem was formerly known as The Lawyers Building. In its infancy, 100 North played host to the Cook County Real Estate Board, offering proximate access to City Hall and the Chicago Title and Trust Building. It was constructed from brick with a detailed terra cotta trim, and the lobby was treated with imported marble.
The Lawyers Building was designed to replace the Merchant’s building, which had been built in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Construction broke records when it was determined that the building was erected in less time than any other with equal tonnage and height in the city of Chicago.
In 1932, a 99-year lease was signed to the Reywal Building Corporation in order to keep, quote, “the battalion of sharpshooters, chiselers, and other racketeers who flock around the building,” at bay. Reywal, of course, is Lawyer spelled backward.
Today, 100 North LaSalle has taken on a new life, with renovations to almost every facet of the building. A stunning new lobby with modern finishes, a penthouse suite slated to host an event space, refurbished common corridors, and massive glass walls have turned the Lawyers Building into a highly desirable space where small to midsize companies can enjoy all that the Central Loop has to offer.
819 S Wabash
The Loftrium at 819 S Wabash stands tall and proud in the former Film Row of Chicago, where major movie producers used to house their operations during the Golden Age of cinema. But its exquisite, distinctive appearance belies its rich and storied history, comprising of over a century of drama, betrayal, mystery, hubris, and the pursuit and failure of The American Dream.The story begins with a familiar Chicagoland namesake:
In the mid 1800s, the Gurnee family settled in Chicago to establish a saddle-and-whip store. The latter quickly gained influence via political connections, and achieved success through real estate developments across the state. In 1869, Amelia Gurnee married Joseph Armour, the owner of a massively successful grain merchant company. In the years following the Great Chicago Fire, however, their marriage fell apart, and Amelia died of an undisclosed cause. Shortly thereafter, the widower Joseph began to develop a mysterious illness and spent much of his time receiving extensive treatments at local spas.
A few years later, Joseph married his widow’s sister, Carrie, and quietly moved back to Chicago after a quick European wedding. Joseph’s health continued to decline, and a series of illness began to plague the Gurnee-Armour family. In rapid succession, Carrie’s father, her son, and her husband all passed away.
Carrie was the sole inheritor of $3 million in cash and bonds, as well as her late husband’s share of his company. Two years later, she became acquainted with and married Charles Munn, who had strong business connections with the Dows and their extremely successful freight brokerage and grain commission company. The Dows company and Munn family had worked together in New York not long after the Munns immigrated from Ireland, and became close even after the latter moved to Chicago.
Carrie and Charles Munn had two children and quickly worked their way up the social latter with the help of the Dows. Their family frequented Newport, New York City, Mancester, St. Augustine, and Palm Beach. With their success came mansions, vacations, and exclusive access to the famed Chicago Club and Union Club. But even legendary wealth couldn’t protect them from tuberculosis, which unexpectedly killed Charles at age 50.
During the Gurnee-Munn’s time in Chicago, Carrie had become acquainted with the son of a supreme Court justice and “Chicago’s first lawyer,” Arthur Caton. Caton’s wife had famously maintained a lengthy affair with Marshall Field, whom she later married. Caton had died of unknown causes during their marriage, and Field, too, dropped dead just five months after his wedding to the former Mrs. Caton.The Gurnee-Munn children often held playdates with the Caton children at the White House, where the eldest Munn befriended Robert Todd Lincoln. Through a series of high-society teas and meetings, Carrie successfully commissioned the construction of the Munn Building at 819 S Wabash. She also financed a nearby building which was regarded as “the world’s largest music house.”
During their time in Washington D.C., Carrie’s daughter and namesake became close with Ethel Roosevelt and spurred rumors that she was due to be engaged to Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. She instead married Reginald Boardman of Boston, but stayed close with the Roosevelt family.
Carrie Munn suffered a stroke in 1912 and was confined to her Washington home, where her children stayed by her side for months. Carrie survived the stroke, but was killed in a tragic car accident when her limousine inexplicably crashed into a telephone pole only a year later.
Her estate was carried out by her children, at which time S. Karpen & Bros signed a 99-year lease at 819 S Wabash. The building has since changed hands several times over the past century, and at one point ironically hosted a coffin factory. But today, the building boasts almost all of its original charm: namely, a massive central atrium whose light reflects off every surface, not unlike its original creator. The Gurnee-Munn family continued to make headlines for their luxurious lifestyles, with one Munn child becoming one of the first people to film their wedding day. The others went on to be fashion icons, developers, and eventually retirees — some settled in their former vacation towns, and others’ fates were lost to time.
The once-gilded age of the Munns trickled slowly into grit, and then was again revived in the mid-20th century when the South Loop underwent revitalization efforts by developers and played host to dozens of major film companies. Another handful of decades later, yet another transition attempted to rebrand the area into a desirable location for professional service firms. The only remnant of its glitzy and glamorous past is the pale, haunting ghost signs boasting colorful, flashy ads across its facade. Its rich history may be buried, but 819 S Wabash stands strong over 100 years on.
40 N Wells
The Washington Block sits quietly and modestly on the corner of Washington and Wells (formerly 5th Avenue). Oft-overlooked in favor of more visually striking skyscrapers, 40 N Wells is rich with history. Its walls have seen a wealth of tragedy and triumph since its construction in 1873. The reconstruction boom sought to begin healing the wounds left by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. It was commissioned by Barbara Cure and John P Olinger of Olinger & Ballard, who hoped that The Washington Block would help to extend the Loop’s business district further west.
Designed by the Baumann cousins, the building became the first signifacnt example of an isolated pier foundation, which was a major advance in developing adequate stable foundations for the city’s infamously compressible soil. Multiple ornate textured surfaces, punch-open windows, carved hoods, and a timely Victorian influence characterized the internal and external aesthetic of the building. An optimistic report shortly following the building’s construction stated that “this building, with those occupying the other three corners, (all of which are very beautiful,) combines to form a series of the most attractive business corners on the South Side of the Chicago River, and virtually does away with all rumors regarding the low value of business property in the location named. It probably has enhanced the price of real estate at least 25 percent within the past six months, and no doubt this figure will be doubled within the next twelve months.”
Unfortunately, such optimism was misplaced. In the late 1800s, 4-5 story skyscrapers fell out of favor, and the construction of the El line further detracted from interest. Nearly all buildings with similar construction were demolished by the early 1900s for later replacement by 10+ story buildings, including all of the Baumanns’ buildings… except one.
The Washington Block survived by sheer luck due to its isolated location at the time. It flew under the radar for decades, which made it a highly desirable location for speakeasies and surreptitious gambling sites. In the 1920s and 30s, The Washington Block saw multiple police raids and dozens of arrests, particularly in t he wake of the 1919 Black Sox scandal which uncovered a massive gambling scheme that slithered through Chicago’s dark underbelly. Gambling and prohibition raids plagued the Central Loop, with business-owners and agents facing arrest nearly every day at 40 North Wells. Were that not enough, a 1926 investigation revealed a massive health scam on the part of a medical tenant who prescribed unnecessary procedures and expensive snake oil drugs to unsuspecting patients seeking help for, well, “lost manhood” issues. The quack doctor lost his license, but not before draining many innocent patients of their time, money, and self-esteem.In the 1950s, the building faced yet another scandal: its contemporary remodeling removed many of the historically significant finishes, shearing off the original metal facings, stonework, and cresting, replacing nearly all of the interior features on the ground floor except for the original spiral staircase which can be admired even today. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that developers began reforming the original tooling and keystones that made The Washington Block so attractive.
In 1997, the building was designated a Chicago landmark, and signified as “Red” by the Chicago Historic Resources Survey. A red designation is only awarded to structures that are architecturally or historically significant in the context of the City, the State of Illinois, or the country. A red designation is a major honor, and signifies long-awaited recognition for a building that had been overlooked and under-appreciated, abused and ignored, for over a century.
Today, The Washington Block is a distinguished and distinctive home for small-to-midsized tenants, boasting stunning hardwood floors, 12-foot ceilings, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the hustle and bustle of the city.
218 S Wabash
The tale of 218 S Wabash begins in 1899. A devastating fire caused by a freak accident turns the original McClurg Building into unrecognizable ruins, which then froze over in the subzero temperatures, making restoration efforts impossible. Hundreds of rare and priceless books from the first-floor bookstore are destroyed beyond repair. The remains of the building are torn down and the new McClurg building, the one we know and love today, is constructed. In 1926, scandal strikes. Two families, led by their respective patriarchs, conspire to steal from the tenants at 218 S Wabash. Fred Pauli and Joseph Kelly, each of whom were hired maintenance staff at the building, recruited their wives and children to assist in the organized theft of merchandise from the building’s wholesale jeweler tenant. They are held on what would be nearly $50,000 bond and charged.
In 1978, During a city council meeting to discuss the induction of landmark status to several buildings, including 218 S Wabash, multiple city officials walked out in protest of how such “ineffective, cumbersome” processes were handled. The hearing for landmark designation of the McClurg building is delayed when the building’s attorney requests more time to gather witnesses to speak against landmark designation.
In 1999, The McClurg Building is among multiple terra cotta- laden buildings in Chicago that are flagged as potentially dangerous to pedestrians after multiple incidents of falling structures peeling off of skyscrapers. Several passers-by are injured as a result of improper maintenance to the buildings, causing concern not only for the people of Chicago, but also for the future of these inherently delicate landmarks.
The problems continued in 2007 when 3 people are injured in a series of fires at 218 S Wabash and 228 S Wabash, which are investigated as possible cases of arson. The fires are contained, but temporarily displaced the city’s most acclaimed dance troupe, the Hubbard Street Dance Company.
In 2021, The McClurg Building’s sister, 228 S Wabash, is severely damaged after city staple Central Camera is destroyed and looted, suffering at total loss. Smoke damage permeates the Wabash Trio, but 218 S Wabash survives the ordeal mostly unharmed. Today, the beloved building has undergone a series of renovations, including a new lobby, restoration of the original flooring, upgraded ceilings, new light fixtures, and improved layouts. 218 S Wabash is revered by the Tribune as, quote, “a beautifully proportioned, early Chicago School commercial office structure … with very simple but elegantly scaled ornament.”
Finally, we’d like to share a few shorter stories:
850 S Wabash
In the 1960s, this South Loop building played host to a local committee that planned and protected anti-war and Black liberation demonstrations, advocating for peace during a turbulent time in the country’s history. Looking at it now, you would never guess that this area was once used as cheap housing for people needing a temporary shelter that wouldn’t ask many questions. But several decades and $40 million later, luxury apartment leases at the building were literally flying off the shelves. Additionally, the hotel portion was once the home of Charles J. Glover, a universally beloved lifetime bachelor who spent his post-WWII retirement years volunteering at local hospitals to provide cheer and companionship to recovering veterans and sick patients. 850 S Wabash isn’t just a dramatically-different office building with high ceilings and prime access to Chicago’s best dining and convenient transportation. It’s also an unofficial landmark for a slew of positive, joyful events from its modest pre-development days.
230 W Huron
Although this River North brick and timber loft has become an attractive hub for small tech tenants and high-end retailers, its early days bore perhaps one of the most quintessential Chicagoan inventions ever created: the dual-purpose hot dog and bun warmer machine, patented by The Ernest Reich Company. The company also filed several other patents for appliances you may use every day: the Chop-O-Matic food chopper, the Tearless Mincer, and the Double Sifter. Some say that when you take a tour of 230 W Huron, your stomach will growl in homage to Mr. Reich’s culinary genius.
If any of these stories resonated with you, we’d love to take you on a tour so you can see for yourself just how special these buildings are. We also encourage you to contribute to Preservation Chicago, the only nonprofit in the city dedicated to preserving and protecting Chicago’s architectural heritage through outreach, education, and partnership. By donating and volunteering with Preservation Chicago, you can help strengthen the foundation of this city and uphold its centuries-old legacy. Check out their website and learn more by clicking here.