How Chicago’s Historic Fisher Building Got Its Fish, and Other Things That Make It Special

Sited among an incomparable collection of surviving early Chicago skyscrapers, the Fisher Building (343 South Dearborn Street) doesn’t resemble any of its neighbors. Though technologically modern, its decorative scheme unabashedly hearkens back to the Gothic cathedrals of Europe.

South Dearborn Street in the 1890′s was hot real estate. Until the 1880′s, the area was residential, but when Dearborn Station was built at Polk Street in 1885, a new Midwest center of publishing sprung up around it. Between Printers Row,  the central business district, and the train station that fed both, lay some excellent development opportunities.

Fisher BuildingLucius G. Fisher, president of the Union Bag and Paper Company, commissioned D.H. Burnham & Co. for his modern office building. The Fisher Building was, as the Chicago Tribune declared, built to “outshine anything of its kind.”

Its height would be part of its glory. A few years earlier, the Chicago City Council had been working to limit the height of new construction to twelve stories. But the permit for the Fisher Building was granted before that rule took effect. At eighteen stories, it would be one of the tallest in the world when it was completed in 1896.

Its technology dazzled. Construction was fast: the steel frame was erected in one month, and was occupied just nine months after groundbreaking. Glass and golden glazed terra cotta clad the structure, with virtually no masonry involved.

The proportion of transparent glass to solid terra cotta was astounding for its era: the exterior was fully 75% glass; even more glassy than its revolutionary predecessor, Burnham & Co.’s Reliance Building. The Fisher became known as “the building with no walls” and made people of the time plenty nervous.

Fisher Building 343 South Dearborn Avenue entrance

Its site also added to its modernity. Because of the way the streets were laid out in the area, the lot is on a long, narrow block, bordered by Dearborn, Van Buren and Plymouth Court. Facing three streets allows in an exceptional amount of light and air. And about a year after the building’s completion, trains began running on the brand new Loop elevated track along the Van Buren Street side.

The Fisher Building offered high-quality office building amenities: six banks of elevators, a Carrara marble lobby, mosaic flooring, and offices finished in mahogany.

But its most distinctive attribute then – and still today – is its exterior design. The profusion of ornament on this modern Chicago School building sets it apart from every other. The brilliant Charles B. Atwood was the creative mind behind it, and this would be his last project. He died before it was completed.

Fisher Building Chicago Frog

Atwood had some fun with Lucius Fisher’s name by decorating the exterior with a whimsical marine theme. Aquatic details and mythical sea creatures abound in visual puns: crabs, salamanders, dolphins (door handles), starfish, frogs, ornamental fish (incised on the vestibule glass).

As if that weren’t enough fun, Atwood clothes the building in fanciful Gothic style. While the Gothic style may have seemed anachronistic for a modern Chicago skyscraper, the soaring verticality of Gothic cathedrals shares much in common with soaring commercial buildings. Some saw skyscraper construction as the greatest architectural development since the Gothic cathedral; skyscrapers were an entirely new building form in the 19th century, just as Gothic cathedrals were in the 12th.

The 1977 Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks said of the Fisher Building, “Atwood’s curiously progressive design marks one of the high points in the creative experimentation of the Chicago school of architecture.” Atwood indeed created a most curious, yet delightful, skyscraper. Not only did he find a pleasing balance between the strident verticality of the piers and the filigree tracery on the spandrels, he successfully tried a flamboyant garment on a no-nonsense frame.

With a change in Chicago’s height regulations, D.H. Burnham & Co. returned to add a 20-story addition to the north side of the building in 1907. With the exception of the projecting bays, architect Peter J. Weber echoed most of the features of the original.

The Fisher Building was mercifully spared the midcentury wrecking ball. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976 and designated a Chicago Landmark in 1978. And it stands today as a successful example of adaptive reuse.

In 2001, the building was converted to residential use and underwent a major restoration by Pappageorge/Haymes. 6,000 pieces of terra cotta were replaced, two of the entrances were entirely recreated, and 1,200 wood-frame windows were repaired or replaced.

Today, the Fisher City Apartments feature striking views out the still highly coveted amenity of plentiful windows.

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Wendy Bright

Author: Wendy Bright

Wendy Bright is a Rogers Park architectural historian and the curator of the History of a House Museum. She has a masters in art history and is an avid photographer.

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