tribune observation deck, late 1927

Photographer unknown

Scrounging around for unconventional illustrations allows me to call eBay shopping “research” instead of just “procrastination,” but every so often it pays off. This week’s haul includes a set of Brownie photographs that were taken from the roof of the Tribune Tower (judging from the position of the Wrigley Building, lower left). You’re looking at the Marina City site in the foreground and the still-new Wacker Drive across the River–the only tall building on it is Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White’s Builders Building, which was just finished in 1927. The warehouses and factories that lined the riverfront are still mostly intact…not exactly the high-rent district it would become.

Photographer unknown

Our photographer has just turned to the left…Herbert Hugh Riddle’s Mather Tower–a building so slender it needed tension foundations to hold it down in a windstorm–is being finished on the right and if you look closely you can see that GAPW’s Pittsfield Building is up and nearly all clad, but missing interior walls. That was Al Shaw’s first major project and you can see that he brought a distinct style to the firm that had just done the solidly classical Builders the year before. Those two being under construction puts a pretty firm date on these–the Pittsfield opened in February, 1928, so these must have been taken sometime in Fall, 1927. Note the Peristyle at the head of Grant Park.

Photographer unknown.

And finally, swinging around to look almost due west. The Merchandise Mart hasn’t been started and you can see the “twin tower” Butler Warehouses and the Cold Storage building on the opposite side of the North and South Branches of the River–now all converted into residential uses. Over to the right is the 1892 Criminal Courts Building by Otto Matz, and the tower of George Nimmons Reid Murdoch Building (1913) is just peaking up on the main branch’s north bank. Other than those, there’s not a whole lot along Hubbard and Kinzie that’s still there.

Useful? Well, as a baseline for the development along the Main Branch, for sure, but mostly just a rare find of some comprehensive views of the city at the peak of its 1920s boom. Thirty years later in 1957 the view wouldn’t have changed much–but another thirty years from that and our anonymous photographer wouldn’t have recognized much…

4 thoughts on “tribune observation deck, late 1927

  1. Do tell more about the foundation for the Herbert Hugh Riddle’s Mather Tower and that it was in tension during high winds! Did they have socketed caissons then to generate the tension strength? Its slenderness ratio is 8 (521/65) so compared with buildings today that is not very slender.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The mention of its tension foundations is in: “Tower 256 Ft. high Tops 24-Story Building.” Engineering News-Record. Vol. 99, no. 21. Nov. 24, 1927. 824-827. It was as slender a tower as had been constructed in Chicago to that point, so my guess it that the foundations were the result of extreme caution more than mathematical necessity. I don’t know if they were socketed (I’ll have to dig up the article…), my recollection is that they were literally screwed into bedrock…


  2. We need to get you up to that same location so you can record what those views are today…94 years later (and then years from now you can gift them to the Chicago History Museum…and then decades after that someone else can photograph another set of the same views). And somewhere out there are some photo albums or storage boxes with images from the same vantage point taken in the intervening decades by others, so keep searching…. 

    The “construction” photo of Mather Tower is a great little piece of construction history. It looks like the construction scaffolding starts at the main roof, not the ground. What really was it? Do you happen to know? Can you put the original image under your magnifying glass? I don’t see any gear that suggests it might have been an elevator/lift of some type. Perhaps it is an extremely narrow open stair (a double helix, one side for up, and the other side for down?) needed because of the tiny floor plates all being constructed and finished off at the same time. The construction process for that building is probably an interesting story in itself…including the column/foundation relationship you noted (but don’t research that until after you have that third volume on Chicago skyscrapers finished)..

    As you may know, Mather Tower was supposed to have a twin on Michigan Avenue; and those two spires would have created an interesting dynamic on the skyline with the “Tempietto” on the London Guarantee Building. It might be the earliest of a long series of twin tower office projects in Chicago over the decades that never reached the second phase.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d figured that was a construction hoist, but you’re right that it doesn’t look to have any of the requisite machinery. Enclosed staircase is more likely, I suppose…The Twin Towers would’ve been dramatic, for sure–it’s pretty easy to figure out how the second one would have been sited and I’ve thought modeling that would make a good student project at some point…


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