Our New Office in the Monadnock Building

The Monadnock Building is a favorite for many Chicagoans, and we are ecstatic to call it the new home for Chicago Detours. As a landmark skyscraper built in the 1890s, the Monadnock has been through a lot. Alex and I have co-written this post to share a bit of history on the building, its incredible architecture, and the experience of being a tenant here today.

Monadnock building Jackson Blvd entrance
Photo credits for all photos on this blog post: Amanda Scotese

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.

Monadnock Building exterior
The Monadnock Building neighbors the Federal Center.

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. On our 1893 World’s Fair Walking Tour with Bars , we see the building briefly and mention how the Monadnock was mentioned in tour guide books for fairgoers as an attraction to see.

The Monadnock Building Over History

Monadnock Building lobby
The lobby of the Monadnock  restored to its original appearance.

As time passed, the Monadnock Building’s style and amenities were surpassed by newer skyscrapers. 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 so that it is one of the most beautiful downtown office buildings in Chicago today.

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).

Monadnock Building light fixture
The ornate light fixtures with Edison bulbs in the Monadnock lobby.

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.

Monadnock Building interior staircase
The Monadnock’s stairways were the first to use aluminum for interior decoration.

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

 

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Ellen

Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”
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Jen

Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”
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Elyse

Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.

Anthony

Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.

Marie

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”
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Sonny

Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Alex

Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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