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TODAY

Sunday, December 8

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Airbags

Monday night I watched the flames in horror. As the local news provided live coverage of the fire at 135 S. LaSalle, I saw three years of my life flashing before my eyes.

From 2000 to 2003 I worked at 115 S. LaSalle, just north of the site of the fire. And, from my perch on the 32nd floor, I loved to look out across the alley towards my neighbors in the LaSalle Bank Building and marvel at how thousands of us could be working in such close proximity and yet be wrapped up in our own individual worlds.

During those three years I was in the LaSalle Bank Building nearly every day. I must have walked through its two-story Art Deco lobby a thousand times. Former colleagues had offices in the building.

It is one of my favorite buildings in the city, not only because of its place in my personal history, but also because of its place within the architectural history of Chicago.

In the late 1920s the trustees of the estate of department store founder Marshall Field developed a plan to construct the largest skyscraper in the Loop. It was an audacious plan. Chicago was being hit hard by the Great Depression, and undertaking an ambitious building project under the circumstances seemed like pure folly.

But Marshall Field and Company had already proven it had the financial resources to see such a project through completion. On the Chicago River just a few blocks away another Marshall Field project, the Merchandise Mart, was being constructed.

For the proposed Field Building, as the LaSalle Bank Building was originally known, the trustees selected Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the same architectural firm that designed the Mart, to carry out the plan.

Construction on the Field Building began in 1931. Six earlier buildings were demolished to make way for the new structure. Much is made of the fact that one of these six was William LeBaron Jenney's Home Insurance Company Building, built in 1884 and considered the world's first steel-framework skyscraper.

From the debris of the 10-story Home Insurance Building rose a 43-story tower framed by four 22-story wings. The LaSalle National Bank Building is characterized by "soaring verticals with sleek Art Deco lines." (Saliga 171) The building is faced with Indiana limestone, and the identical five-story entrances on LaSalle and Clark Streets are bordered by polished black granite.

The building offered many modern amenities when it was completed in 1934. They included high-speed elevators, alternating electric current and "man-made weather," or air conditioning. But one of the most well known features of the LaSalle Bank Building is the elevator indicator, a bronze relief in the shape of the building, located in the lobby behind the information desk.

The LaSalle National Bank Building was the last major skyscraper built in Chicago's Loop before the Great Depression and World War II forced a temporary end to construction downtown. It wasn't until the completion of One Prudential Plaza in 1955 that a new age of Chicago construction -- and Chicago architecture – would begin.

Sources

Miller, Donald L. City of the Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Saliga, Pauline A., ed. The Sky’s the Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Wolfe, Gerard R. Chicago In and Around the Loop. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Zukowsky, John and Martha Thorne. Chicago Architecture. New York: Rizzoli, 2004.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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