by: chicago designslinger
[Willoughby Tower (1929) Samuel N. Crowen, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1846 the Roman Catholic bishop of Chicago asked if nuns from an Irish-based order could come to his newly designated diocese and open a Catholic school. The Sisters of Mercy had already set-up an American outpost in Pittsburgh and started their journey out west on September 18th. They arrived, by wagon, seven days later at the bishop's small frame house located smack in the middle of a city lot that ran along Madison Street from the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue to the southeast corner of Wabash. The 6 sisters put down their bags, got to work, and held their first class in the house within days of their arrival. Soon thereafter they set-up shop across Wabash Avenue adjacent to the one-story, 300-seat, St. Mary's Cathedral.
[Willoughby Tower, 8 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By the time architect Charles Frost began designing a building for the Western Bank Note Engraving Company in 1890 the bishop's house at the corner of Madison and Michigan, as well as the old cathedral, were long gone. The fire in 1871 had swept away the Catholic cluster and by 1890, the old residential character of the neighborhood was just a distant memory in the minds of the older generation. This stretch of Michigan Avenue had transformed itself into a busy commercial thoroughfare lined with loft buildings and hotels providing lake views and cool summer breezes.
[Willoughby Tower, Historic Michigan Boulevard District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Western Bank Note owned and occupied a one-story building on the corner plot, and were looking to maximize their investment. They sold their property to a consortium of businessmen that included none other than John Quincy Adams II of Boston - grandson of one president and great-grandson of another. Western sold their prime piece of real estate for $200,000, agreed to build a building for not less than $125,000, with a 99-year leaseback agreement at 10 grand a year. Over the next decade the value of the land along Michigan Avenue increased as the city boomed. Seizing an opportunity, all parties involved in the Bank Note property sold their individual interests to retail merchant turned real estate tycoon Charles L. Willoughby - who named the building after himself.
[Willoughby Tower, Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Frost's 8-story Willoughby Building served its purpose until the mid-1920s. By then Chicago was experiencing another boom and Michigan Avenue was undergoing another transformation. The Willoughby Trust, set-up by C.L. who had moved to Plymouth, Massachusetts before his death in 1909, was overseen by his son Edward who knew there was more money to be made from the property, and found someone willing to provide it in architect Samuel N. Crowen. Crowen and the building's contractor Henry Ericsson formed the Willoughby Building Corporation and rented the land from the Trust for a term of 99 years, providing the estate with $16,700,000 over the life of the lease. Crowen now needed a building with enough leasable square footage to generate a profit, which meant building tall. The city however had passed an ordinance in 1923 that didn't allow anything higher than 264 feet unless the design provided set-backs, which in turn couldn't grow to take up anymore than 25% of the building's lot. So to comply with the code, and build to the square footage required to the pay bills and make a some money, Crowen designed a 440-foot, 38-story-tall tower with a set-backs starting at the 26th floor. Initiallly the exterior was to be finished in a black brick face trimmed with geometrically-shaped carved limestone, perhaps inspired by architect Raymond Hood's recently completed American Radiator Building in Manhattan. But by the time construction was underway in 1927 limestone had replaced the brick, and the contemporary Art Moderne details had been switched-out in favor of a stylized Gothic Revival decorative scheme.