It Happened Here

That’s the Manhattan Building1, the first building in Chicago2 with a steel skeleton frame. On its south end we have a ghost, which is a surprisingly long story.

The east side of the building, on the right, faces Plymouth Court, a narrow street that does not extend north to the Loop, Chicago’s downtown. The west side is the front of the building and faces Dearborn Street, a major thoroughfare. Not only is the Manhattan Building an important early skyscraper, so are its two immediate neighbors to the north: the Plymouth Building and the Old Colony Building. All three are part of The Structure of Skyscrapers.

I was curious about how long that ghost – the remnant of a now-demlished building south of the Manhattan Building – has been present. Here’s a HABS photo of the Dearborn facade and the south side from 1964:

You can see the pockets where the wood joists of the demolished building used to bear. I did not expect the ghost to be this old, but it turns out there’s a reason.

The south end of the Manhattan Building now faces Ida B. Wells Drive, a wide surface street that feeds into the Eisenhower Expressway, a controlled-access highway. That street, formerly Congress Parkway, is a relatively late addition to the street grid. Congress Street, its origin, was only two blocks long, and was cut through to the west to meet up with the new highway in the 1950s. The block with these three buildings used to be quite long, north-south, and the new street pretty much split it in half. The old Sanborn map shows an 8-story office building immediately south of Manhattan, but about half of that building would project into the roadbed of the new street, so it had to go.

You could build a very narrow building on the lot, but to justify the effort would take higher rent or sale prices for the space inside than this part of the city can command. So, more than sixty years later, the raw scar is still visible.

  1. I will never not be amused by the fact that this historic building in Chicago has that name.
  2. It was constructed simultaneously with the (now demolished) London & Lancashire Bank Building in New York. The title of “first skeleton-framed skyscraper” is a tie.
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