The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Chicago’s Beloved Marquette Building

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It is one of those buildings that the unsuspecting might pass right by, its unflashy brown façade and comparatively modest scale giving no overt clues to its architectural significance and the artistic treasures it contains. But the Marquette Building (140 South Dearborn Street) is a quintessential example of an early skyscraper and the Chicago commercial style, a successful office building rich with art that honors Chicago history, and a prime example of architectural preservation.

It was built the year of both the World’s Columbian Exposition — also known as the Chicago World’s Fair — and a devastating national financial panic. But the Marquette Building nevertheless still rose on the corner of Adams and Dearborn Streets in The Loop. Dearborn Street at the end of the 19th century had the world’s busiest train station and was highly desirable real estate. Office space was in great demand and most of it on Dearborn Street would be located in stunning new skyscrapers.

Completed in 1895, the Marquette Building was the work of architectural firm Holabird & Roche, one of most prolific in Chicago. The firm’s history goes back to 1880, when William Holabird and Ossian Simonds founded a Chicago architecture firm called Holabird & Simonds. Martin Roche joined the firm in 1881 and two years later the firm was renamed Holabird & Roche.

Along with Adler & Sullivan and Burnham & Root, Holabird & Roche designed many of Chicago’s first skyscrapers and most distinguished buildings. The firm would grow by leaps and bounds well into the 20th century to become one of the largest architectural firms in the United States.

The Marquette Building was commissioned by the same duo that worked with Burnham & Root on the Rookery and Monadnock buildings: Shepherd and Peter, the Brooks brothers of Boston, with Owen Aldis as their local representative.

marquette upThe Brooks brothers and Aldis had long been snatching up some of the best property in the business district of Chicago, and dynamo Aldis managed all aspects of planning and construction.

Aldis was also an amateur historian who had recently translated from French to English the journals of an important early Chicago figure: Jesuit priest and explorer, Pere Jacques Marquette.

Marquette spent the mid-1670’s in the area we now know as Chicago, journaling his experiences. He is considered Chicago’s first European resident. He joined Louis Joliet’s expedition to explore what was then the colony of New France and the Mississippi valley and settled for a while in a cabin near the South Branch of the Chicago River. It was likely Aldis’s idea to name the new skyscraper in celebration of Marquette and his exploration of the New World. This would provide rich fodder for the artistic design of the new skyscraper.

The Marquette Building is a pioneering office building. It conforms to Owen Aldis’ system of principles for creating a superior office building. Among them: Only first-class office space would be provided, such as proximity to windows for light and air. The building should feature the best public amenities, such as a beautiful lobby filled with world-class art, plenty of elevators, and the flexibility to meet tenants’ needs.

Tentative at first, the Brooks brothers eventually surrendered their misgivings about new-fangled steel-frame construction and realized that the fast and economical building method fit their profit model perfectly. And the Marquette Building would indeed prove profitable. The building was so successful that in 1906 an addition was added to its west side.

marquette south facadeBut, as happened to so many buildings, in the post-war years the Marquette was subjected to modernizations that compromised the integrity of its original design. Further maintenance efforts paid little mind to the idea of historic preservation. In 1950 its cornice was removed, along with the Ionic columns at its entrance. In the lobby, the center bank of elevators was ripped out to create a walkway to an adjoining building.

The lobby also grew much darker as its interior light well was covered up. The porthole windows at the back of each elevator were removed and the grillwork elevator doors (one now at the Art Institute of Chicago) were replaced with solid bronze doors. The original mosaic ceiling was removed from the lobby and replaced with a drop ceiling.

Vacant space became the norm, and the Marquette Building was seen as a likely candidate to be razed. A sad 1970’s Richard Nickel photo says it all.

About this time, the preservation movement in America was gathering momentum. In Chicago, it was spearheaded by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois. 1974-75 marked the 300th anniversary of Marquette and Joliet’s exploration of Chicago and this motivated several developments: the formation of the Citizens Committee to Save the Marquette in 1973, a protest in the building’s lobby by actors in period costumes, and in 1975 the City Council designating the building a Chicago Landmark, saving it from demolition. In 1976, it was further designated a National Historic Landmark.

Banker’s Life and Casualty company (owned by John D. MacArthur) foreclosed on the Marquette Building in 1975. It then underwent a $17 million renovation in 1978-80 and much of the exterior terra cotta was repaired (although not the cornice), storefronts were returned to their original appearance, and the lobby marble and mosaics were cleaned and repaired, including removal of the drop ceiling.

In 2001, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation assumed ownership of the building. As one of the largest private foundations in the country, it supports non-profits in 60 countries, awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and loans each year. It looked into whether fully restoring the Marquette was feasible and determined that it indeed was, thereafter launching an extensive restoration program that included recreating the cornice and restoring all of the windows. The Marquette Building is now the foundation’s international headquarters.

Chicago historian Tim Samuelson explains that Holabird & Roche were experts at giving expressive form to this new type of tall, commercial building. And the 16-story Marquette is one of the company’s most successful works. It is a quintessential example of what is known as the Chicago School of architecture: coherent, strong, dynamic, with good proportions.

The Chicago School describes a type of commercial architecture that developed in the 1880’s and 1890’s and a group of architects who worked with many of the same concepts, methods, and materials.

Chicago School buildings share several marked characteristics. They were built quickly and less expensively than traditional large buildings thanks to the use of steel-frame construction. This frame became the skeleton upon which the exterior skin or curtain wall of the building could be hung, often made of brick, terra cotta and large expanses of glass. In the case of The Marquette, the building is covered in dark brick and terra cotta, with Renaissance-inspired designs.

Often the steel frame is “expressed,” meaning that one is able to see evidence of the underlying grid on the surface. This relatively spare and exposed grid was a novel idea in an world where heavy classical and European-style ornamentation was the usual way to articulate a building’s form. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin praised the “regularized, bare-boned beauty” of the Marquette Building.

Chicago School buildings often feature “Chicago windows,” which were designed to maximize light and air flow. They typically have three parts: a large fixed pane in the center (sometimes divided, as it is here), flanked by smaller double-hung sash windows. The Marquette Building’s first two floors have especially large windows, making the retail spaces more attractive from the outside, and the merchandise within better illuminated by natural light.

Late-19th-century architects faced the unique challenge of deciding what this new building form should look like: tall commercial office buildings were entirely new to the world. One solution that the Chicago School – in particular, Louis Sullivan – devised was a tripartite organization. The tall building’s façade was divided into three parts, much like a Greek or Roman column. The lower section is the base, which grounds the structure and gives a sense of solidness. The middle section is a shaft drawing the viewer’s eye up, until it reaches the capital, the celebratory cornice. This made for a building that was more than just a decorated box; it was designed as one piece, it had integrity.

The tripartite design is obvious in the Marquette Building, but Holabird & Roche further celebrated the verticality of the skyscraper through the incorporation of uninterrupted piers and set back horizontal spandrels.

The exterior of the Marquette Building is not eye-catching or spectacular, and unless one knows the particulars of its design, it is easy to miss. But the entrance signals that something exciting is going on within. In keeping with the aim of making this building exceptionally deluxe (and profitable), no expense was spared in creating an awe-inspiring entrance and lobby.

At the main entrance are four bronze relief sculptures by Hermon A. MacNeil illustrating Father Marquette and Louis Joliet’s travels. They depict the pair launching their canoes, meeting Native Americans, arriving at the Chicago River, and interring Marquette’s body. On the revolving doors are kick plates with tomahawks and push plates with panther heads designed by Edward Kemeys (of the Art Institute lions fame). The vestibule features French and Catholic motifs like fleurs-de-lis and the cross.

Inside is an exceptionally large elevator lobby for the time; a two-story rotunda with white Cararra marble trim, accented with classical motifs. The lobby was originally part of the center arm of the building’s E-shaped floor plan, intended to maximize access to light and air in all parts of the building. The elevator banks once gave plenty of light to the lobby, so the low level light of the electric bulbs (fairly faithfully recreated) were merely supplementary.

marquette lobbyAbove each elevator door are more designs by Kemeys: illuminated bronze relief busts depicting members of Marquette and Joliet’s expedition party and important Native American chiefs of the area. Each is labeled, including the recognizable name “Chicagou.”

The busts of Marquette and Joliet were designed by Owen Aldis’s sister, Amy Aldis Bradley, a practicing artist, who based her young and handsome depiction of Fr. Marquette (whose appearance was unknown) on an employee of her husband’s company.

On the balcony face is a frieze of six stunning iridescent glass and abalone mosaic scenes depicting more of Marquette’s adventures and his untimely death. Designed by Tiffany designer J.A. Holzer and executed by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company of New York, the mosaics feature a colorful array of seventeenth century characters, costume, weapons, and symbols.

Unlike other Chicago office buildings that restricted public access after 9/11, the Marquette Building remained open to the public. Visitors can go up the lobby stairs to the second floor for a grand view. In 2007 the MacArthur Foundation opened a free high-quality interactive exhibit, which shows the building’s history. It is on the first floor (past the elevator lobby) and open from 7:00am until 10:00pm daily. The security guard is usually happy to answer any questions and provide a brochure. The spot is a favorite of Chicago tour guides so the chances of overhearing illuminating commentary in the lobby are good. If you’d rather not eavesdrop, The Chicago Architecture Foundation offers guided tours of the building on the first Friday of each month.

In a city where many masterpieces of architectural innovation and design have been lost, it is most fortunate that the Marquette Building has survived, prospered, and remains highly accessible. In a city with some visually spectacular architecture, it is gratifying to know that there exists such an outwardly unassuming gem in our midst.

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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