Chicago Stories and Tips

State St - Tiffany Domes and Prototype Architecture

Macy's Department Store Photo, Chicago, Illinois

A stroll down State St. in the Loop reveals many interesting and striking buildings, several of which were the forerunners of the glass and steel giants that now grace the Downtown area. The first on the list for today’s sightseeing is the Carson, Pirie & Scott Building at 1 S. State St. This remarkable structure was built in several phases, the first of which commenced in 1898. Further additions were made in 1902-1904, then in 1905-1906 when the 12-storey south extension was added, followed by another southern addition of 8-storeys in 1960-1961. The principal architect was Louis H. Sullivan with the extensions designed by D. H Burnham Co (1905) and Holabird & Root (1960).

The building was originally the home of the Schlesinger & Mayer department store and was revolutionary in its time for its modular construction. The first two storeys are decorated in cast iron giving the building an ethereal and almost whimsical appearance. These sections were attributed to George Grant Elmslie who was Sullivan’s head draughtsman after the departure of Frank Lloyd Wright. The basic structure is of steel, its strength allowing far more window areas and the accompanying additional light to the interior. The lack of huge masonry columns permitted larger displays of goods, made the store easier to navigate and allowed freedom of movement for it’s all-important customers.

The building was sold to Carson, Pirie & Scott in 1904 after the first round of architectural additions had been completed. They ran a successful business here until the 2006 Christmas season, after which C, P & S announced that it was to cease trading with the store closing for the last time in early 2007.

Next building of interest is the Reliance Building at 32 N. State St. The base was built in 1895 with the upper floors being added between 1894 –1895. This is generally regarded as the grandfather of all the steel and glass skyscrapers in the Loop today. It was designed by Burnham & Root and when it had been finished, at 202 feet tall, it was the highest building in the city. It has been said that the steelwork for the top ten floors was erected in just 15 days. The exterior is almost totally encased in glass, courtesy of this exceptionally strong and rigid steel frame. The “Chicago Window” was a feature of the building, this essentially consisting of a wide, flat front-facing fixed sheet of glass with two opening sash windows to either side. This emphasised the height and uniformity of the structure.

Strangely enough, the building was built for Carson, Pirie & Scott who only used the structure for a few years before relocating to the building described in the first part of this entry. More peculiar is the fact that the original building to occupy the site here was the 5-storey First National Bank of Chicago. Due to varying expiration of leases to office tenants, the FNB of C could not fully vacate the old building until after the intended commencement of work on the Reliance Building. The solution was simple – the remaining occupied three floors were jacked up on huge rams, permitting work to commence on the new structure with a temporary staircase being built to afford access to the remaining tenants.

The final building on the list, albeit not the last one worthy of a viewing, is the truly huge Macy’s department store at 111 N. State St. The building was originally built for the Marshall Field Company, with the initial structure being completed in 1892. Again, the principal design was by D. H. Burnham although its original size was nothing compared to today. As the business grew, Marshall Fields bought and extended into neighbouring buildings, both upwards and outwards until the building acquired its mammoth size that visitors are familiar with today, replete with its huge external columns and ornate verdigris-covered clocks at each external end of the store, high above the sidewalks. The interior is no less fascinating and impressive with Corinthian columns that lead the way to the huge atrium. The north side of the atrium is decorated with a spectacular Tiffany Dome. Tiffany didn’t build it himself but employed 50 artisans for eighteen months to realise his vision whilst he directed proceedings. The dimensions of the Dome are staggering; 6,000 square feet comprising an estimated 1.6 million pieces, the largest Tiffany Dome in the world. After asking one of the store’s employees “where to go for the best view”, he directed us to the fifth floor from where the splendour and sheer opulence of the Dome can be appreciated. I snapped away for maybe 10 minutes from every possible angle and no-one cared a bit. Truth-be-known, I bet more people come in to view the Dome than come in here to be relieved of their cash.

Although the name “Marshall Fields” graced the outside of the store until late 2006, differing companies had actually acquired the building prior to its sale to Macy’s, who were the first owners to actually change the name, much to the fury of many local Chicagoans.

There are other equally impressive structures on State St, not least of all the Washington Memorial Library but I decided to save it for my next trip to this wonderful haven of rich and historic architecture.

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