If These Walls Could Talk…
It is a building that epitomizes Chicago: innovative with a touch of charm, yet tough, solid, resilient and built to last. Constructed in 1874 right after the Great Chicago Fire, the Washington Block building a t 40 North Wells Street is an architectural gem that oozes creativity with its soaring ceilings, bank vaults, fireplaces and an impressive hardwood spiral staircase with a skylight above that floods the common corridors with natural light.
Furthermore, public transportation is literally at the front doorstep and a healthy supply of pigeons call the cast iron fire escape which blankets the limestone facade their home, while the strategically placed fake owls incessantly tries to scare them all away.
To an individual walking down Washington Street on the way to City Hall or standing on the Washington/Wells L platform waiting for the Brown Line to arrive, the adjacent 40 North Wells building is an old, nondescript and slightly worn down low rise office building with a bar and 7-Eleven on the ground floor. However, diving deeper into the history of the Washington Block, one learns of its documented significance in Chicago history, which then leads to wonderment of what else really happened here during its 142 year history.
Designed by Frederick and Edward Baumann, 40 North Wells was designated as a Chicago Landmark in 1997. At the time of construction, this 5-story edifice was one of the tallest buildings in the city and is a rare example of isolated pier foundation, which uses several separate foundations at each load-bearing point underground to create a more permanent and robust foundation. This base allowed it to be erected on soft, compressible soil, instead of solid bedrock previously seen as a prerequisite. This technique played a key role in the subsequent creation of skyscrapers in Chicago and throughout the country.
Washington Block was originally created for prestigious companies wanting to office near the rapidly emerging LaSalle Street financial district. However, once the L was placed next to the building, the upscale tenants found the building undesirable and more budget-minded firms occupied the property from that point forward.
In a building of this vintage in such a vibrant location, there is no telling what has transpired over the years at Washington Block.
The saying, “if these walls could talk” had to be created for this very building. For example, is it really far-fetched to picture some of the legendary Chicago mobsters maintaining offices in the building? Given the vaults on each floor, maybe 40 North Wells is where Al Capone’s secret tombs were once located.
Under the guise of an insurance company, maybe John Dillinger and his gang of renegades developed their plan here for the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. With the proximity to City Hall and other government offices, it is all too easy to envision an endless number of politicians negotiating secret deals in their cavernous offices, both of the legal and illegal variety. Brilliant ideas might have been created that led to millions of dollars of profit, while others not quite as successful which may have ruined careers. Lifelong friendships may have ensued, while eternal feuds might have been developed. Lives may have been consummated, while some may have come to an end in this very building. The possibilities are truly endless.
One of the grand things about Chicago is that no matter how big or small, every building has a story to tell. The many secrets of 40 North Wells may never come out, and that is okay. Sometimes, it is more fun to leave things to the imagination. One thing I know for sure is that when my firm shows space at our newest listing, we will have no shortage of tales to pass on to prospective tenants, who will hopefully buy into the aura that is the Washington Block.