owings

June 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

[This is another bit that has been largely relegated to the cutting room floor–not totally germane to the book’s argument, but a really good story and worth having out there.  Enjoy…]

Some measure of the variety of approaches to ornamenting the skeletal frame can be found in the wildly controversial Owings Building, a fourteen story structure erected on a miniscule lot of 50 x 75 feet.  The owner, Francis P. Owings, was among the more colorful of Chicago’s real estate speculators. The owner of a skating rink on West Madison in the early 1880s, he managed to parlay an investment of $50 into a portfolio of heavily leveraged leaseholds and short options during the decade, ultimately owning—though for a very brief time—some thirty buildings in the Loop.[i]  Owings seems to have been more a hustler than a professional real estate trader, and he was almost continuously involved in lawsuits during his brief, checkered career, including at least one in which he was accused of leasing the same theater to two different companies at the same time.[ii]  His primary contribution to the local market, however, was his canny invention of the ninety-nine year lease, which amounted, essentially, to a mortgage from owner to developer with increased security for both.  Cobb and Frost served as Owings’ architects in a number of these schemes, and when the small, almost leftover lot at the corner of Dearborn and Adams came available, Owings convinced the W. W. Strong family, the owners of the lot, to accept an option for development for $10—allegedly all the free cash he had at the time—and to finance the lot’s development in the form of a $350,000 investment that would be paid back under the terms of a ninety-nine year lease.[iii]

 

With the project so heavily leveraged, Owings clearly wanted to ensure as high a return as possible, and he instructed Cobb and Frost to prepare plans for a twelve story building.  According to later accounts, the architects balked at this height, and expressed more serious reservations as Owings subsequently demanded a thirteen, and then a fourteen story scheme.  Such proportions caused concern because of the potential wind loads incurred by Chicago buildings; they violated all conventional rules of thumb, which suggested that only a building with a much wider base could successfully resist the lateral loads on such a tall building.  In the end, the building boasted only twelve full floors, and one of these was really a half-basement; its reputation as the first ‘fourteen story’ building in Chicago rested on a tall cupola at the corner and an optimistic assessment of this element’s capacity for usable space.

 

Few documents of the Owings survive, but it is interesting to note that Cobb and Frost, in the end, refused all responsibility for the structure’s wind performance.  The Tribune noted in 1889 that its skeleton was to be formed of “iron columns and steel beams,” with hoops of steel girders forming horizontal diaphragms at the third and eighth floors, suggesting that the slender structure must have relied on extensive masonry walls for its lateral resistance.[iv]  Such walls could only have been located on the lot lines, given the small site, but may have been related to three elevators that were included and that would have been among the tallest installations in the country at the time.

 

The Tribune went on to note that Cobb & Frost “are not altogether responsible for the appearance of the tall, slender structure with its animated top and Gothic lines,” and indeed the Owings was the subject of considerable jest for its wildly energetic exterior; it appears that Owings’ aesthetic tastes rivaled his faith in extreme wind engineering.[v]  The building’s base included a three story stone base with grey terra cotta and Anderson brick, pressed into a long, flat, Roman shape, above.  The brickwork was claimed as the first modern use of such horizontal proportions, a foil to the building’s strong verticality that was, apparently, not entirely successful.  At the fourth story, a corner turret emerged from the block, continuing up the full height of the building and terminating in a tall, cone-shaped peak, 228 feet at the top.  This cone was offset visually by two gables, one on each façade, detailed to reduce the dangers of ice building up and sliding off to the sidewalk below.  Commentators could not agree whether the overall style was “Dutch,” “Norman-Gothic,” or simply “Picturesque,” but noted politely that it reflected the “strong individuality” of its somewhat notorious owner.[vi]

 

The Owings Building played an important role in the acceptance of the metal frame as a sufficiently robust structural idea after an accident near the end of its construction.  Workmen lifting the building’s water tank through a vacant elevator hoistway temporarily set it upon a section of terra cotta flooring whose mortar had not fully set; a 100 square foot segment of the floor collapsed, and as it fell the debris took out this single bay of terra cotta on each level into the basement.[vii]  Unbelievably no one was killed, or even badly hurt, but the noise and clamor of the incident caused understandable alarm, and initial reports suggested that the structure had been gravely compromised.[viii]  More sober analysis the day following the accident revealed, however, that aside from a handful of beams at the basement that bore the full brunt of the falling debris, the structure remained intact, and that only the tile arches themselves had been destroyed.  Inland Architect  noted the ‘absurdity’ of the initial, rather hysterical responses, reporting that the built fabric even adjacent to the fallen arches “did not show even a hair crack.”[ix]  Few, perhaps, believed Frost and Owings’ claim that the incident had been ‘trivial,’ but Frost was more convincing in claiming that the reason for the collapse had to do with the workmen and their mistaken assumption that the terra cotta tiling, without its crucial top layer of cement and iron, could bear such a load.  But the fact that the structure itself remained sound after such an incident was reassuring, and such robustness in what was, to then, the most serious accident to befall a major metal frame in the city helped prove to even the most skeptical that such seemingly fragile frames could in fact cope with loads even beyond those anticipated by engineers.

 

The building was Owings’ swan song; while it attracted a reasonable class of tenants Owings found himself unable to pay the Strong family the agreed upon $15,000 a year.[x]  Owings eventually took out a mortgage financed by New York millionairess and notorious miser Hetty Green, which the Strongs subsequently purchased.  Owings  could neither afford the terms of that mortgage nor find a buyer for the property as the amount owed proved to be greater than the building’s assessed value.  Eventually, the Strong family sold it, in 1898, to Cyrus McCormick, at a reasonable profit.[xi]  To no great surprise, Owings declared bankruptcy in 1900 with debts of over $5,000,000 and was committed, still in debt, to a psychopathic hospital in 1917, following years of menial work as a clerk in a real estate office.[xii]  The building itself, renamed the “Bedford” to avoid association with Owings himself, was ultimately doomed by its mat foundations. Like several of its neighbors on Dearborn street it was demolished by the McCormick estate when the city gave notice that it intended to build the Dearborn street subway line, thus avoiding an estimated $180,000 to build caisson foundations that would have extended safely below the work.  The site now comprises the northern end of the Federal Center.

 


[i] “Skyline Artist Losing Mind?”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 4, 1917.  7.

[ii] “A Theatre Row.”  Chicago Daily Tribune.  May 16, 1886.  16.

[iii] “Owings Loses His Big Building.”  Chicago Daily Tribune.  Dec. 7, 1895.  1.

[iv] “Chicago’s Sky-Scrapers.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 13, 1889.  2.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.  See also Industrial Chicago, op. cit., 191.

[vii] Francis Jackson, “It Was the Water Tank.”  Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb. 19, 1889.  8.

[viii] “Chief Swenie, of the Fire Department, visited the wreck.  He expressed the opinion that the inner walls were out of plumb and might have to be pulled down.”  “Flooring Crashed Down.”  Chicago Daily Tribune.  Feb. 18, 1889.  3.

[ix] “The Facts in Regard to the Owings Building.”  The Inland Architect and News Record.  Vol. XIII, no. 3.  March, 1889.  38.

[x] It was here that one of Green’s tenants, outraged at her pennywise approach to stable maintenance, paid a yearly rent in single dollars.  Green, apparently, counted the haul three times.  “In the Wake of the News,” Chicago Daily Tribune, June 13, 1896.  21.  See too “Sale of the Owings Building.”  Chicago Daily Tribune.  Mar. 20, 1898.  34.

[xi] ibid.

[xii] “Skyline Artist Losing Mind?” op. cit.

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§ 2 Responses to owings

  • Whatever happened to Mr. Owings? Did he die an insane pauper? When and where? Thanks!

    • twleslie says:

      Yes, he did! He had a life worthy of a novel–he began his career running a roller skating rink, became a real estate magnate, and ended up in an asylum after losing his fortune and taking up work as a clerk. He died in 1917…

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