old chicago skyscraper of the week–Mather Tower

One of the more bizarre skyscrapers in Chicago is the “pencil thin” Mather Tower on Wacker Drive.  Alonzo Mather had made a fortune by designing a more humane rail car for livestock, and invested in a small lot at 320 N. Michigan in the early 1920s.  In the overheating real estate market of the mid-decade, he purchased a similarly sized lot fronting on the new Wacker Drive, and announced plans for twin towers–one on each lot–to frame Alfred Alschuler’s London Guarantee Building (that’s it to the left in the photo).  With newly relaxed height limits, Mather was limited only by volume and setbacks, and his architect, Herbert Hugh Riddle, was able to exploit the zoning code’s nuances and proposed a 521-foot tower on a site that measured only 65 x 100 feet.

The structural and logistical gymnastics required to achieve this height were formidable.   Riddle, a residential architect who had never designed a tower before, did his best, but was left with a tapering profile that, at the top, provided less than 400 sq. ft. per floor after space for elevators and stairs were taken out.  Worse, the constant setbacks required by the zoning code meant that structural columns needed to be offset multiple times, creating large shear stresses that needed deep, cantilevered beams.  The tower was so thin, in fact, that calculations revealed a very real danger that the structure could topple over in a wind storm, meaning that the foundations had to be designed not only to carry the building’s gravity load, but also to hold it down against uplift caused by wind.

Not surprisingly, the second tower never got built.  Mather Tower, finished in 1928, never earned its $2.6 million construction cost back for its owner, whose estate finally sold it in 1945 for a mere $600,000.  Its tower was popular with artists, many of whom rented the small floor plates as studios with world-beating view.  The lower block is now a hotel that looks out on the equally slender Trump Tower, across the Chicago River.

6 thoughts on “old chicago skyscraper of the week–Mather Tower

  1. my grandfather, John(Turk) Owens was building engineer here in the 50’s. i grew up running amuck in this building. Mac, his assistant, and i watched the prudential and marina cities being built from the top cupola. below, on lower wacker, you can see the opening sealed off for their freight elevator up to the boiler room. we parked his ’56 chrysler wagon there.

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    • Fantastic–I always enjoy hearing stories like this of how these buildings were part of people’s lives. The view from there must have been extraordinary! I’ve heard many stories about the top couple of floors having no elevator service–tenants talk about having to walk up 2-3 flights to reach office in the cupola. Any chance you can confirm this?

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      • since the top floors narrowed as you approached the cupola, the elevator operator said that was the last floor. i remember the round control wheel and how they worked it up and down until the car was even with the building floor. i knew every one of them. sharp uniforms! for lunch my grandfather sent me down lower wacker to the billy goat with two thermos.’ Gus would fill one with coffee, the other with old fitzgerald whiskey! and a bag of burgers to take back.

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      • Many thanks for confirming that. I take visitors to the Billy Goat whenever I get the chance–even though I don’t think they’d fill a thermos with whiskey to go anymore…!

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