old chicago skyscraper of the week–Masonic Temple

b+w extThe combination of steel construction, wind bracing, and elevator technology led to what Chicago claimed as the tallest building in the world, Burnham & Root’s Masonic Temple, constructed between 1890 and 1892 at the corner of Randolph and State street.

The building was designed to be both a home and an investment for the city’s Freemasons.  The lower dozen or so floors were planned to be an internal retail mall, with a central atrium that extended up through eight more floors of lettable offices.  At the top, the masonic halls took up attic spaces under its double pitched roofs, which surrounded an enclosed wintergarden.  Such a mix of uses was not unheard of–the auditorium, after all, had combined retail, office space, and a hotel with its large theatre.  But in its height and concentration of business and mercantile uses, the Temple was unique.

At this height, wind bracing became a paramount concern, and the building’s steel structure incorporated two planes of cross, or “x” bracing, concealed within the atrium walls.  These were designed to counter the sail-like effects of its broad State street facade and its relatively shallow depth along Randolph.  The elevator system was likewise advanced for its day, with two banks of elevators designed to serve only half the building apiece.

At its groundbreaking ceremony, the cornerstone was found, improbably, to be too small, and it had to be broken apart and relaid in private later.  Rumors abounded at the irony of a society dedicated to the mysteries of masonry failing to get such an important element of their headquarters right, and more suspicious attendees no doubt saw this as ominous.  Indeed, within a year both the head of the building committee, Norman Gassette, and Burnham’s partner and the building’s chief designer, John Root, were dead of sudden illnesses.

The building fared little better after its opening.  As Joanna Merwood-Salisbury notes in her new, outstanding book, Chicago 1890, the atrium proved a magnet for suicides, which the building endured at the rate of one every three months.  Its opening was rushed, leading to slipshod interior finishes and workers interrupting daily business for months after firms and retailers moved in.

Worst of all was the elevator service, which was barely adequate for the office and retail population it served.  Added to that was traffic from Masonic meetings, which added hundreds of passengers at a time to the upper floors’ bank.  Worse, the toilet rooms were concentrated on one of the upper floors, meaning that they, too, added passengers to these cabs.  A worker on one of the lower floors had to ride all the way down to the lobby, transfer to an upper zone cab, and ride all the way to the top of the building to simply answer nature’s call.  Tenants complained, too, about the attitude of the elevator operators who became used to the attentions of tourists heading to the wintergarden and developed a disdainful attitude to the building’s mere tenants.

The Masons moved out within ten years, leaving their halls to be rented out for theatrical productions.  Office tenants objected to the seedy crowd these attracted, noting that they had difficulty attracting secretaries who would have to share the elevators with morally challenged theater-goers.  The building emptied as occupants became disgusted with the long waiting times for elevator service and the declining atmosphere of the building.  In 1939, the owners chose to simply demolish it instead of paying for foundation upgrades as the new State Street subway was laid next door.  For over sixty years, the site of what had been Chicago’s tallest building was occupied by a two-story Walgreen’s drugstore, though it is now the site of the Joffrey Ballet tower by Booth Hansen, whose proportions echo those of the Masonic Temple, one of John Welborn Root’s last designs.

One thought on “old chicago skyscraper of the week–Masonic Temple

  1. Do you know if the Harold Washington Library Wintergarden is a send up to this building, or were they prevalent amongst early skyscrapers? Also, I think you should dedicate a chapter on the 13th floor: Which buildings have ’em and which don’t.


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