Old Chicago Skyscraper of the Week–City/County Building


“A practical building that will be an ornament to the city as well,” according to Inland Architect, the Cook County Courthouse (shown left) and its later conjoined twin, Chicago City Hall, were commissioned and built in the wake of the Post Office debacle.  Determined not to repeat the cost and schedule overruns of that building, and to avoid the functional problems that plagued it, Cook County held a nationwide competition in 1905 to replace its crumbling courthouse, built in 1885 to designs by James Egan.  That building, along with the twinned City Hall by John Van Osdel, had been constructed on experimental mat and pile foundations, which had failed in the intervening decades.

Perhaps understandably reluctant to hire designers from out of town, the County awarded the grand prize to a St. Louis firm, but gave the commission to Holabird & Roche, whose scheme had come in a distant third.  Their plans, however, cleverly split up the half-block mass with a single, C-shaped corridor on each floor, thus avoiding problems of daylighting that had plagued other entries.  The scheme also contemplated that the City would eventually build a mirror image structure on the western half of the block, and allowed for corridor connections and continuity in elevations as and when this took place.  Extensive structural problems were alleviated by complex steel trusswork that allowed large, column-free courtrooms to slide in underneath upper stories of office space.

Work was finished on the County building in 1908, but due to a later start and labor problems during construction, City Hall itself was not complete until 1912.  For a very brief time, the County Building stood alone against the older City Hall structure, as shown above, showing the evolution of the City in its scale, and of changing tastes and technology.

In particular, the gargantuan Corinthian colonnades were heavily critiqued at the time, both for being insufficiently rigorous in their use of the Classic language, and in their pretentiousness.  Holabird & Roche had scaled and spaced these columns to permit daylight in to the offices behind–both buildings were finished well before electric light became cost-effective for daytime illumination–but the result did not, in critic Montgomery Schuyler’s view, adequately express the nature of the spaces behind.  Likewise, the choice of classical language was not universally popular, though it reflected general tastes for civic buildings throughout the country.  Harriet Monroe, sister-in-law to the late John Root and still his champion more than twenty years after his death, decried the complex as “a pretentious building of a heavy squareness,” which it undoubtedly was.  Elsewhere, the technical achievement of its 21,000,000 pounds of structural steel found a warmer reception.

Perhaps the building’s greatest achievement was to have been built with no evidence of corruption, graft, or nepotism–no small achievement in Chicago at the time.  Holabird & Roche cemented their reputation for honest dealings with this project.  It stands as an example of the fairly successful wedding, in their work, of classically derived language and functional requirements, and with the completion of the Daley Plaza across the street, it is the visible symbol of the City and County governments–pretentious, but at 200 feet no longer dwarfing its neighbors.

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