Carbide and Carbon: Skyscraper Capped In Gold

As the home of the skyscraper, Chicago has all types it architectural forms – from boxy steel and glass high-rises of the modern International Style to the lavish stone of Art Deco towers. One of my favorite art deco skyscrapers of Chicago, and perhaps one of the most unique, is the Carbide and Carbon Building. In addition to being one of the star attractions of our Chicago Architecture History Crash Course Tour, the building is topped in real gold!

The Carbide and Carbon Company

chicago union carbide and carbon
Photo Credit: Infrogmation Flickr, Wikimedia Commons Bakelite radio. Photo Credit: Courtesy of www.rgbent.com

The Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation built this skyscraper on Michigan Avenue in 1929. Carbide and Carbon was a chemical company that had found a more economical way to produce ethylene gas. They were most known for their innovation of the dry-cell battery. Over its history, the company has held the brand name for both Everyready and Energizer batteries along with other well-known household products such as Glad bags and wraps and Prestone antifreeze.

The company grew as they acquired related chemical producers, my favorite of which was the Bakelite Corporation. Bakelite made one of the first-ever synthetic plastic products used for toys, jewelry, telephones, radios and even electrical insulators. Many mid-century modern buildings took advantage of the product, such as the Farnsworth House. This iconic Mies van der Rohe buildings used Bakelite for some of its electrical panels.

Building an Iconic Tower

Carbide and Carbon Building Open House Chicago 2018
The beautiful Carbide and Carbon Building, capped in gold leaf. Photo by Ken Lund via flickr.

When the Carbide and Carbon building was built in the signature style of the 1920s: luxurious Art Deco. Sons of the prolific Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, aptly named Daniel and Hubert Burnham, designed the Carbide and Carbon Building. It was the first skyscraper to extensively use color in its exterior facade. Instead of the drab grey limestone finish of its predecessors and contemporaries, the building employs the use of dark granite at the base, deep green terra cotta on the tower, and real 24-karat gold leaf at the top. The addition of real gold expresses the grandeur of the times and the luxury the building was intended to, and still does, exude. Our Crash Course guests always rave this building at the tour’s conclusion.

The exuberant style also effectively acted as a marketing tool for attracting clients to purchase their chemicals and products, and also for other companies to rent office space within. A rental brochure from the 1930s for the building read, “The effect of such beauty in a building upon the morale of the people employed in it is unquestionably beneficial and inspiring; and to clients, business associates, and visitors, it is constant assurance that the organizations they are dealing with are of the highest calibre.”

Nowadays, a Landmark Hotel

carbide and carbon chicago art deco
Carbide and Carbon Building blueprints. Photo Credit: Courtesy of ArchiTech Gallery

The building received city landmark status in May of 1996. When the Hard Rock Hotel Chicago came into the Carbide and Carbon in 2004, they underwent a major renovation and restoration to the building. The renovation cost $106,000,000 and included the replacement of 7,700 blocks of terra cotta from the exterior. And true to 1920s luxury, the polished gold interior is quite the grand entrance for many Chicago visits. In short, the architecture embodies rock n’ roll.

The building changed hands in 2018 and is now know as the St. Jane Hotel. The name nods to our local Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Jane Addams of Hull-House. What does she have to do with a gold-peaked Jazz Age landmark? Nothing. But, oh well. The architecture itself is what makes the visit worthwhile.

–Jenn Harrman

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