A History of Chicago’s City Hall and Cook County Building

Chicago City Hall - Chicago, Illinois - May, 2009 - 003a

Chicago’s City Hall and County Building is intriguing. It is not a single building but is, instead, two identical buildings joined as one.

The County Building—(118 North Clark Street) facing east and Daley Plaza —is the slightly older of the two (1907) and houses Cook County department offices. City Hall (121 North LaSalle Street) faces west and was completed in 1911. It contains the Mayor’s office, the City Clerk, City Council, aldermen’s, and other City department offices.

For such a young city (less than 180 years), some Chicago building sites have seen relatively frequent reiterations:

  • The Federal Center complex of buildings is on its third manifestation at Adams and Dearborn.
  • The former Marshall Field’s store at Washington and State is on the same site it has occupied since the Civil War but it has gone through four different buildings since its inception.

And these two examples are from only the Loop. Of course, the Great Fire of 1871 necessitated some of that aforementioned reconstruction.

Likewise, Chicago’s City Hall and County buildings have lived a nomadic existence through the years. Due to various architectural, planning, and physical disasters, Chicago’s current City Hall is in its seventh manifestation. Two bronze plaques in the City Hall lobby show the parade of buildings.

Chicago City Halls - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2014 - 002aCity Hall #1 (1837-42)

In 1830, the federal government gave land to Cook County for public use in perpetuity. Conversely, the City of Chicago, founded in 1837, did not enjoy such a benefit. The County has held the title to Block 39—bounded by Clark and LaSalle and Randolph and Washington—ever since. In 1845, on part of the site, the County erected a two-story brick building, complete with meeting hall.

In 1837 the newly incorporated City of Chicago rented space nearby in the Saloon Building at the southeast corner of Lake and Clark (it was a “saloon” more in the French idea of “salon” than of a drinking establishment). The City used the space for its first meetings and Municipal Court.

Chicago City Halls - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2014 - 003aCity Hall #2 (1842-48)

When the Saloon Building lease expired after five years, the City moved on to different rented quarters at the northeast corner of La Salle and Randolph. For six years, all City administration was conducted in Mrs. (“Widow”) Nancy Chapman’s two-story, wood frame building.

City Hall #3 (1848-53)

After renting space for more than a decade, the City was ready for a serious commitment to permanent digs.
Chicago’s first municipal structure was known as “Market Hall.” The City’s first official architect, John Van Osdel (1811-1891), designed the two-story structure with tower; it was located down the middle of current day State Street, between Randolph and Lake, and featured 32 public market stalls on the first floor.

Chicago City Halls - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2014 - 004aCity functions took up the four larg3e rooms of the second floor, which contained a library, the City Clerk’s office, the Common Council chambers, and more.

After only a few years, the Council made plans to expand because the size of the City government was growing in proportion to the explosive population growth. The City needed bigger quarters.

City Hall #4 (1853-71)

During this period, Cook County had outgrown its building and was planning to build a new County courthouse in the middle of Block 39, complete with spacious landscaping in a town square-style motif.

The County also owed the City $30,000 for services rendered. So the County offered the City the western half of the Cook County block in repayment. The site plan was adjusted to create the first shared City Hall-County building.

Chicago City Halls - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2014 - 005aOnce again, John Van Osdel was the architect of choice. His design provided the City/County building a stately two-story structure with Italianate proportions and neoclassical touches. It featured two flat domes and cupola atop, and two imposing stone stair entrances. The building was faced with gray marble quarried from Lockport.

This would be the first City Hall and County Building photographed.

Completed in 1853, the building filled up quickly. City offices filled the first floor while the Common Council met on the second floor opposite the courtroom. The jail, living quarters for jail inmates, and the sheriff’s office were located in the basement.

The City and County soon needed more space, so Van Osdel designed a third story and a tall, colonnaded cupola. It was completed in 1858.

In May of 1865, the rotunda of the building was host to President Lincoln’s body lying in state, while 7,000 mourners per hour paid their respects.

Van Osdel added two substantial wings to the building in 1869, but the entire structure would be engulfed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the bell tolling in warning…until it ultimately collapsed.

Days after the fire, the City Council appointed a committee to secure new quarters and they found an interesting location: City government operated out of the West Madison Police Station for fourteen months following the fire.

Chicago City Halls - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2014 - 007aCity Hall #5 (1873-1885)

If a police station seemed an odd choice for a City Hall location, the next would prove even more curious. The City hastily built a two-story structure around a large elevated water tank that had once served the south side. The building at Adams and LaSalle was known as the “Rookery” for the birds that apparently roosted there.

In 1873, the City moved in all of its departments, along with the first public library, which was housed inside the water tank. Although the City intended this situation to be quite temporary, City offices would remain at the Rookery for 12 years.

The County had granted the City “for $50,000 and other considerations” the right to again occupy the west half of Block 39 “henceforth and forever.” So the County and City went ahead with plans for a new, shared building, and announced an architectural competition in June 1872.

Chicago City Halls - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2014 - 008aCity Hall #6 (1885-1908)

James Egan (1839-1914) designed the new, combined City Hall/County building, with construction starting in 1875. After many delays, the County section was completed in 1882 and City Hall in 1885, a full ten years after construction began.

Problems beset this building from the start and talk of replacing it started almost as soon as it opened. The colonnaded French Renaissance exterior was stylish enough but the interior was problematic: tall ceilings with small windows and dark, drafty corridors made it uncomfortable. Plus, the building had taken so long to complete that it quickly proved inadequate and crowded.

Unfortunately, architect Egan used an experimental mat-and-pile foundation system that would eventually fail. In 1905, the building’s foundation sank six inches, which caused a gas pipe to rupture and cause an explosion that blew the roof off the building.

The City and County saw their chance to rid themselves of the defective structure and finally construct a proper City Hall and County building.

Chicago City Hall - Chicago, Illinois - May, 2009 - 003aCity Hall #7 (1905-present)

The City and County moved swiftly on the new building.

As in the 1870s, another design competition was held. Successful Chicago architect Henry Ives Cobb (1859-1931)—known for such classic, monumental designs as the University of Chicago campus and the Newberry Library—had put in his design first, for a surprisingly modern, monumental, 14-story skyscraper for Chicago’s new civic building.

He was turned down flat. Chicagoans in the early years of the 20th century, while surrounded by innovative skyscrapers, did not want their new civic monument to look like a commercial building.

Memories of the 1893 Columbian Exposition still held sway and Americans loved the grandeur of classical architecture, especially for public buildings. Large, columned neoclassical buildings were going up all over the country and Chicago’s new City Hall and County Building would be in that manner.

Holabird & Roche had been one of three finalists in the competition. The County building committee set a date for a meeting when all three winners would come before the building committee and present their plans. Prior to pitch day, Holabird & Roche met with various department heads to ascertain their needs; thus, their presentation proved to be the most thorough and customized. Holabird & Roche understood what their clients wanted and, in 1905, were awarded the contract.

The firm’s winning plan included an innovative, C-shaped corridor on each floor that allowed plentiful light, a seamless connection of the twin County and City buildings, and complex steel work that allowed for large courtrooms amidst floors of offices.

In January 1906, excavation began on the Cook County Building. The County moved its offices in by July 1907 but the City had to wait for the state to expand its debt ceiling.

The old 1885 building came down in halves while the new building went up in halves. The central rotunda of the old building was removed so that construction on the County Building could proceed. The architects and builders also arranged for all necessary steel structural connections should the City want to follow the County’s plans, which indeed it did when Holabird & Roche were (not surprisingly) awarded the City Hall design contract in 1907. For a brief time, the County Building stood complete against the old City Hall structure.

Demolition of the old City Hall began in August 1908 and construction of the new building began in 1909. The new structure was dedicated on February 27, 1911. City employees occupied the new building fully by the spring of 1912.

The new dual, 11-story building was joined seamlessly, its two halves identical. Holabird & Roche had faced a design challenge: to design a monumental public structure that would also work as an efficient office building, a modern structure that would not look like its skyscraper neighbors.

It was built with 21 million pounds of structural steel and the most modern of methods. Its gray Woodbury granite and terra cotta exterior looks back to ancient times. Holabird & Roche used the classical Corinthian order with colonnades of outsized, purely decorative, 75-foot high columns. Each column was nine feet in diameter and hollow with twelve foot tall capitals—the largest in the world at the time.

Holabird & Roche took liberties with the classic architectural design. For instance, they spaced out the columns to allow more light into the offices and doubled the scale of the exterior facades. The design was criticized at the time for being less than rigorous in the use of classical style and for being pretentious.

Relief sculptures grace the exterior. At the LaSalle (City Hall) entrance, four John Flanagan granite reliefs symbolize four principle areas for City government: playgrounds, schools, parks, and water supply.

The first-floor lobbies of the City Hall-County Building are particularly handsome with polished Botticino marble walls, marble stairways, graceful lamps, and mosaic vaulted ceilings. The County side is slightly more elaborate than the City side.

Several modifications to the building have occurred over the years:

  • The cornice was removed in the 1940s.
  • A 1957 fire destroyed the oak-paneled Italian Renaissance Council Chamber and its murals; it was rebuilt in a modern style by 1958.
  • A major interior renovation took place in the 1970s.

A roof garden was installed in 2001 to test the benefits of green roofs as part of the City’s Urban Heat Island Initiative. It contains 20,000 plants from more than 150 species. Most are native prairie plants selected for their ability to thrive in rooftop conditions (such as sun, wind, and aridity).

Even though the current building has, at times, seemed too small for City and County needs, city and county officials have made the building work for life in modern Chicago. And it is safe to conclude that this century-old building has attained iconic status and is here to stay.

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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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2 Comments

  1. I wanted to know if you can. How many basements are there in city hall?
    I know there is a way to the freight tunnels. I think about 3 maybe 4.
    Please let me know.

    Thanks,

    James

    Post a Reply
    • Editor

      I think it depends on what you mean by “basement.”

      There is a below-grade level that connects City Hall with the pedway system. I believe at a lower level there is also a vault, but haven’t actually seen it. How the building is connected tot he tunnel system is unknown. It might be connected anymore. A lot of the downtown buildings sealed off those connections years ago.

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