The Monadnock Building is a favorite for many Chicagoans, and we are ecstatic to call it the new home for Chicago Detours. A landmark skyscraper built in the 1890s, the Monadnock has been through a lot.
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Architectural History of the Monadnock Building
The Monadnock building is huge in architectural history because it is a bridge between traditional and modern architecture. The Monadnock was built in two phases between 1889 and 1893, during the first burst of skyscraper construction in downtown Chicago, and the birth of the Chicago School of Architecture.
The famous architecture firm of Burnham and Root designed the building’s north half using nothing but masonry. During this time, most architects were experimenting with using steel and iron to build taller commercial buildings in downtown Chicago. So when we say “nothing but masonry,” we mean that a building was built with bricks and stone, just as the ancients built temples and pyramids. In fact, Burnham and Root designed the exterior architecture of the Monadnock building to resemble an Egyptian pylon.
With 16 soaring stories, the Monadnock Building was the tallest commercial structure in the world in 1891. A building that tall is tremendously heavy, which means the brick walls are six feet thick at the base. While the structural engineering of the building does not foresee modernism, the architecture of the Monadnock uses simple yet powerfully austere lines that are elements of the Modernist movement in architecture. Interestingly, today its neighbor is the Mies van der Rohe-designed Federal Center.
Expanding the Monadnock Block
The success of that initial building lead the owners to hire another architectural duo, Holabird and Roche, to extend the building to take up the whole block. This time though, they took full advantage of the steel frame structures which had revolutionized architecture in the 1890’s. The relatively-small cost and size of the steel framework allows the southern half of the building the feature more interior space.
The addition made the Monadnock Building the largest office building on Earth upon its completion in 1893. We love taking private tour guests to visit. While there, we explain how the Monadnock was once so impressive that visitors left the White City to see it.
The Monadnock Building Since the 1890s
As time passed, newer skyscrapers surpassed the Monadnock Building’s style and amenities. In order to avoid demolition and attract new tenants, the building management launched an art deco-style modernization project. Then over the years, individual offices were drably modernized bit by bit, until the current restoration that started in 1979. This project, which lasted 13 years, eventually returned the Monadnock to its original Gilded Age luster. Once again it is among the most beautiful office buildings in downtown Chicago.
The Experience of the Monadnock Today
Now when we come to work, we step past massive walls that are unlike any other skyscraper in the world. The painstaking restoration of the lobby makes walking through it feel like stepping into a time capsule. The mosaic floors, textured glass windows, and marble wainscoting make it feel like you should be wearing a three-piece suit and fedora (and thus the perfect location for Optimo Hats and Zeglio Custom Clothiers).
The Edison bulbs that suffuse the lobby and hallways with a dim glow add to the historic aura. When we wait at the elevator to head to our office on the 13th floor, we see the former floor under a pane of glass. Because of the weight of the building, as well as the construction of the Blue Line subway and the Modernist Kluczynski Federal Building next door, the Monadnock Building sank. Before redoing the floor, you had to step down to enter from the sidewalk!
Only a few buildings in downtown still have small offices. That means that only certain kinds of businesses seek this kind of office space. On the glass windows of the doors, you’ll see the names of lawyers, therapists, small non-profits, and of course architects who love the architecture of the building.
Visit the Monadnock Building
These architectural details in the Monadnock lend to its charm. Hand-painted signs adorn the glass windows of doors. The staircase is an experience to walk down. And we get a sweeping view of the south end of the Loop from the big windows in our office.
You can experience the Monadnock Building for yourself during regular business hours. The lobby is open to the public and contains a few retail shops. An old-fashioned barber, restaurants, a bar and an Intelligentsia Cafe are on the ground floor. Take it from a couple architecture dorks – it’s worth it to take a stroll through the lobby. You’ll experience the lighting, see the historic details, and gaze up at the ornate staircase.
– Amanda Scotese and Alex Bean
ABOUT CHICAGO DETOURS
Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tours, content production, and virtual tours.