old chicago skyscraper of the week–trustees system services

May 27, 2010 § 7 Comments

Here’s a candidate for least-known skyscraper in the Loop that deserves a bit more.  Trustees System Services was a mid-sized industrial bank that sought both headquarters and speculative office space, and in 1929 they hired the relatively new firm of Thielbar and Fugard to design a thirty-story tower on the northeast corner of Lake and Wells.

Despite being recently founded, Thilebar and Fugard had an impressive pedigree.  John Reed Fugard had been a partner in a residential firm that had constructed several high-end apartment buildings on Lake Shore Drive (and he was a native of Newton, Iowa).  Frederick Thielbar was older, and had been superintendent of construction for Holabird and Roche for many years–he was credited with the design of the Chicago Temple.  Together, the firm aided Giaver and Dinkelberg during the construction of the Jewelers’ Building, but along with the McGraw-Hill building on North Michigan the Trustees System Services was their first major work.

Faced with a site of only 85′ x 150′, Thielbar and Fugard had little room to maneuver within the city’s setback code.  They divided the building’s mass into two elements, a block that filled the city’s 264′ height limit and a tower, delimited by setbacks and volume restrictions, that reached to 337 feet.  Like Holabird & Roche’s tower at 333 N. Michigan, the Trustees System Services had its tower pushed to the most public edge of the site, in this case along Lake Street, but Thielbar & Fugard capped theirs with a pyramid similar to that of GAPW’s Straus Building, concealing elevator machinery and mechanical systems in a rooftop penthouse.

Two innovations marked the building–one visible and one not.  To emphasize the building’s vertical thrust, and to unify the block and tower, Thielbar and Fugard chose enameled brick with curved surfaces for the building’s piers, adding texture and a subtle vertical grain.  They also specified brick that became progressively lighter from the base to the top, adding to the sense of height and upward reach.  Structurally, the building employed reinforced concrete and steel, a hybrid that was not, by this point, unusual.  But the building’s columns employed a new patented system that used tapering cast iron cylinders for reinforcing concrete columns.  This co-called “Emperger” system revived cast iron for its formidable compressive strength, but used concrete as both fireproofing and to enable monolithic connections, and thus wind bracing, with adjacent girders.

Much of the building has been converted into apartments, but the exterior has been faithfully preserved.  And while it has merited barely a mention in standard architectural histories, commuters from the north and west sides go past it every day as it forms one corner of the El’s downtown loop.

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§ 7 Responses to old chicago skyscraper of the week–trustees system services

  • Ed McDevitt says:

    Thanks for the very good information on this distinctive building. Among the other items of interest of the building are the remarkable reliefs by Gwen and Eugene Lux both in inside the lobby and on the south and west facades; and the wonderful Edgar Miller screen panels above the doorway, recently restored and encased in glass by restoration artists Andy DeLaRosa. Andy also recreated the Miller panels in the sidelights next to the door, The originals were reportedly destroyed in 1932 by an a angry crowd that had gathered when Trustees System Discount and Trustees System Service went into receivership.

    • twleslie says:

      Thanks, Ed! Good stuff–especially the happy ending to the angry mob bit…It’s one of the Loop’s hidden gems, good to see it being taken well care of…

      • Claire says:

        Hello: I am researching this building as I have heard it has a past not so well recorded in the history books. I know of some dealings that at the time were illegal, including a speakeasy somewhere on the property. I would really like to learn the time line of the residents (who owned what when) and any original interior work left inside. I know I’m going to need a few resources to answer these questions, but I was wondering if anyone had any leads? Maybe public records or the old library?
        Cheers and thanks for your help

      • twleslie says:

        Hi, Claire. This was a difficult building to research–it wasn’t all that well covered in the press when it was built. I think the conversion to apartments (mostly on the upper floors) happened in the 1990s. You might start with the Tribune’s single article: “City’s Newest Skyscraper.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Jun. 9, 1929. B1. And the Chicago Public Library or Chicago History Museum are always the best places to start these sort of quests.

        Do let me know if you find anything out…many skyscrapers have legends about speakeasys and I suspect many of them are true. This tower deserves more attention than it’s had over the years, as it’s a particularly good one.

  • Ed McDevitt says:

    Claire, here’s what the Wikipedia article on the building says: “The building has had a long list of various countries’ embassies as tenants.[2]

    The building was added to the National Register of Historic Places on September 3, 1998.[1]

    The property was converted from a commercial building to apartments in 2003. In August, 2004 the building was used to film scenes from the movie Batman Begins. In September 2005 the building became a condominium and its name changed to Century Tower.”

    The footnotes are the important parts of this entry:

    1. National Register Information System”. National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.

    2. Baldwin, Susan; Warm, Jessica (February 5, 1998). “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: Trustees System Service Building” (PDF). Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Retrieved November 29, 2015.

    I’ve found the applications to and notices of recognition of places on the National Register to be invaluable sources of otherwise completely hidden, unavailable information.

    • Claire says:

      Thank you for your help everyone. I am, of course, particularly interested in the illegal goings on of the time, as the building was of course built during a tumultuous time for Chicago. I did read it was home to a speakeasy, but that’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I can tell you there are some strange architectural bits that dont make much sense, but I haven’t gotten that far

  • Claire says:

    Also, Ed, thank you for your help with the sources.

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