Why The Former Chicago Public Schools Headquarters Is Becoming a Landmark

125 South Clark Street

125 South Clark Street

The City of Chicago is moving forward with a plan to landmark the former Chicago Public Schools headquarters building at 125 South Clark Street. You probably know it better as the building with the 7-Eleven on the corner across the street from the Federal Plaza Post Office. But it was originally known as the Commercial National Bank Building.  It’s currently being renovated and rebranded into an office building called The National.

There have been several buildings in downtown Chicago bearing variations on the name “Commercial National Bank” over the centuries. Name changes are just part of the ebb and flow of life in the big city. Even this, soon to be officially revered, building has had at least as many names as it has had lives. For a long time it was known as the Commonwealth Edison Building.

The Classical Revival building was designed by D.H. Burnham & Company and completed in 1907. It’s the oldest Burnham high-rise bank building still surviving in The Loop. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks describes it this way:

The Commercial National Bank Building was also among the first of Burnham & Company’s designs to tie the tripartite commercial high-rise to the iconic temple-style bank building to create a new form of bank building in Chicago. Firm architect Ernest Graham used engaged Corinthian columns to mark the second-floor banking hall, recalling the colonnades of traditional bank buildings, while retaining the relatively unadorned center shaft and ornamented cornice typical of high-rise commercial buildings of the period. This marriage of forms would characterize nearly two dozen downtown bank buildings designed in Chicago and other US cities by Burnham and its successor firm, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, throughout the 1910s and 1920s.

The building went up at a time of frenzied construction in The Loop. How frenzied? Well, they didn’t wait for the buildings already on the northeast corner of Clark and Adams to be demolished before starting on the new building. Caissons were sunk into the ground while people were still working in the existing buildings. And you thought Margie from Accounting’s mole was the most awkward thing you’d ever see in an office building.

125 South Clark Street

125 South Clark Street

It’s not uncommon for buildings in Chicago to open for business before they are officially completed (*cough* Shoreham *cough*), and the Commercial National Bank wasn’t an exception. Once the building got to the fourth floor, a temporary roof was put on it so that the offices of the Santa Fe and Nickel Plate Railway (now the Norfolk Southern Railway) could move in. For you railfans, the NKP weaved a freight web to most major locations between Saint Louis and Buffalo, and its passenger trains were well known for their silver and blue livery.

As Ferris famously noted, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” That was as true in 1910 Chicago as it was when he said it about 1986 Chicago. Just three years after opening its celebrated new building, Commercial National Bank merged with Continental National Bank and a few years later moved down the street to 208 South LaSalle — today’s J.W. Marriott Chicago.

In 1912 the building was sold to Commonwealth Edison, and the utility moved in two years later, once the bankers had decamped. The banking hall was transformed into a customer service lobby, and the retail space was combined and used to showcase and sell the latest in electric conveniences. Sadly, the banking hall was removed in a 1951 renovation by Ness & Murphy.

ComEd stayed in the building until 1998, though it moved its head office staff to what is now the Chase Tower in 1969.

1998 was the year that Chicago Public Schools bought the building, leaving in 2014.

So what makes the building so special that it deserves to be a landmark? The city committee is very specific about that. Broadly, it’s an example of exemplary architecture and was designed by a significant architect. More specifically:

  • The Commercial National Bank Building is an early example of a Classical Revival commercial high rise bank building in the Loop. Completed in 1907, the building was a precursor to the monumental Classical Revival banks that would form an urban canyon along LaSalle Street by the late 1920s.
  • The Commercial National Bank Building epitomizes the Classical Revival architectural style utilized for large-scale commercial buildings. The building’s monumental colonnaded base, arcaded capital, and overhanging cornice are all hallmarks of the style.
  • The Commercial National Bank Building, with its rusticated granite base and giant-order granite columns, exhibits excellent design and craftsmanship in traditional masonry.
  • The Commercial National Bank Building is the oldest surviving example of a high-rise commercial bank building in Chicago designed by D. H. Burnham & Company, one of the most significant architectural firms in Chicago during the late 19th and early 20th century.
  • The Commercial National Bank Building epitomizes Daniel H. Burnham’s design sensibility for grandly scaled commercial office buildings with Classical Revival detailing. The building, compared to Burnham’s earlier bank buildings including the First National Bank, reflects the firm’s evolving ideas on the merging of the iconic temple-front bank buildings with a tripartite commercial high-rise form.
  • Daniel Burnham became a national figure in his role as Director of Works for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where he supervised scores of architects and workmen in the construction of Chicago’s first world’s fair. The success of the “White City” was in no small part due to Burnham’s drive and vision.
  • Burnham’s involvement with the 1893 Expo led to a successful career as an urban planner, which culminated in his development with Edward H. Bennett of the Plan of Chicago in 1909. The plan called for, among other things, a continuous park along the Lake Michigan shoreline and inspired the creation of Grant Park, the extension northward of Michigan Avenue, and the construction of the Michigan Avenue Bridge and Wacker Drive.

Can we open a firehose on a historic building? Yes. Yes we can.

  • Address: 125 South LaSalle Street
  • Architect: Ernest R. Graham
  • Architecture firm: D.H. Burnham & Company
  • Cost: $2.6 million
  • Floors: 18
  • Length: 190 feet
  • Width: 180 feet
  • Construction start: January 10, 1906
  • Official opening: May 1, 1907
  • Caissons: 92
  • Columns: Corinthian
  • Base facade: white granite
  • Shaft and crown facade: white terra cotta
125 South Clark Street

125 South Clark Street

Location: 125 South Clark Street, The Loop

Editor

Author: Editor

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

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