Chicago Neverbuilt: Episode 5 — City Hall Tower

Last week, Chicago Architecture Blog reporter Wendy Bright brought you the very long and complicated history of Chicago’s seven city halls.  When I read it, it reminded me of a drawing I once saw of the current city hall with a tower on top of it, and I said to myself, “Self, what happened to that tower?”

Chicago City Halls - Chicago, Illinois - October, 2014 - 009aSadly, the answer is “I don’t know.”  Digging through all of the usual sources has turned up nothing directly about the tower.  But several hours of digging through the Chicago Public Library’s archives sheds a little light on what may have happened.

Remember that the current Chicago City Hall is a mirror of the adjacent Cook County Building, built as the Cook County Courthouse a few years earlier.  There was a movement in 1905 to make the Chicago side of the building taller than the Cook County side, but that was quashed by city visionary and familiar fish philanthropist John G. Shedd.

The contest to design the Cook County Courthouse had 13 entries.  I found one reference in the archive to one of the entries having a tower, but no picture to compare it with the one above.  That entry was thrown out, along with any other proposal that was deemed to flashy.

According to newspaper reports of the time, the goal of the people deciding the contest was to have a city hall that reflected Chicago as a center of business, not a center of government.  They wanted the building to be utilitarian.  To pay homage to the Greek and Roman temples of the past, but not to look like a government building with domes and broad staircases and ceremonial spaces like in other places.  Chicago was to be a capital of commerce, not government, and should look that way.

For that reason, the three winners of the contest all look pretty much the same:

Chicago City Halls

First prize is on the left, second prize is in the middle, and third prize is on the right.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “That winning design doesn’t look like our city hall.”  You are correct, young grasshopper.

The winning design was by Saint Louis architecture firm Barnett, Haynes and Barnett.  What we ended up with was the second-place contender, the design by Chicago firm Holabird and Roche.  (The third place winner was by Rutan and Coolidge in Boston.)

So how did The Loop end up with Miss Congeniality instead of the beauty queen?  Politics.

While the winners of the competition were selected by a board of architects and civic leaders led by E.B. Ware, the former chair of the architecture department at Columbia University in New York, when it came time to actually start funding construction, 12 of the 15 Cook County Commissioners decided they would only write checks to Holabird and Roche.

Why exactly?  As is often the case in Chicago politics, nobody will really say why.  According to a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune, there were claims that the local politicians came under pressure from a particular suburban quarry owner who might stand to benefit if the second-place design was chosen instead of the first-place design which specified a different type of stone.

Perhaps by way of a consolation prize to Barnett, Haynes and Barnett, the county commission asked William Holabird if he would share the contract.  That didn’t go over well.  According to the August 29, 1905 Chicago Tribune, Holabird replied, “No, I am not… It is unbusinesslike and unsatisfactory.”

Thomas Barnett pleaded with the county to select his winning design, in part, because it included vaults that were both fire-proof, and tornado-proof.  But the commission voted against him.

Thus, with the design of the County Building set in stone, so to speak, the design of Chicago’s City Hall was to follow.

On July 20th, 1909 the cornerstone of the City Hall was laid.  Inside the cornerstone is a time capsule.  It’s a copper box containing some local newspapers of the day, a few city department reports, photographs of Chicago, as well as the family of Timothy Sullivan, the head of the city’s Public Works department, a copy of the Commercial Club’s city plan, a doorknob from the previous city hall, and Virgin Mary medal.

Also in that time capsule is a handkerchief from Mrs. Paul Redieske.  According to the New York Times, her husband would be caught up in a scandal where contractors tried to defraud the city of a quarter-million dollars.  He resigned his post as deputy chief of Public Works, and was indicted for conspiracy in late January, 1910.  A week later he was indicted again in connection with another scheme to defraud the city out of $45,000.

Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

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