Chicago Historical Society - Dearborn Street Building
by: chicago designslinger
[Chicago Historical Society - Dearborn Street Building (1894) Henry Ives Cobb, architect / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Although the narrow blade sign at the northwest corner Dearborn and Ontario Streets has borne the names "Limelight," "Excalibur," and most recently "Castle" over the past 29 years, the name carved in stone over the doorway of the imposing structure still reads, "CHICAGO - HISTORICAL - SOCIETY" the organization that constructed the rough-hewned Romanesque composition in 1892 - but hasn't occupied since 1932. The hefty red granite mass was the largest and most prominent of the Society's multiple homes since its founding fathers first came together and organized the repository of historical artifacts in 1856.
[Chicago Historical Society - Dearborn Street Building, 632 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
By the mid-1850s Chicago was becoming a major player on the nation's economic stage and was no longer the remote fur trading outpost of just twenty years ago. A handful of the city's well-known and esteemed businessmen decided that the time had come to create a repository for the collection and preservation of materials pertaining to the history of the North West territory and its emerging capital city, and formed the Chicago Historical Society. Their endeavor was a success, and as the collection of books and manuscripts grew, moving from one office space to another was becoming more and more cumbersome and impractical - the time had come to find a permanent home. So in 1864, as the month of November was drawing to a close, Isaac Arnold, E.B. McCagg, George Rumsey, William B. Ogden and his business associate Edwin H. Sheldon, raised $24,000 toward the purchase of a piece of land where they could build a fire-proof building to house the accumulating materials. By February the trustees had plans in hand, drawn-up by architect Edward Burling for the 120 x 132 foot lot they had acquired on the northwest corner of Dearborn Avenue at Ontario Street.
[Chicago Historical Society - Dearborn Street Building, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Twenty-four thousand dollars wasn't enough to build the entire project as designed, but it was enough to get the western third of the building constructed on Ontario Street. As often happens, that first burst of energetic momentum leveled-off as the organization settled in, and raising the rest of the money to complete construction as well as to grow the collection proved to be more of a challenge. The consuming conflagration of 1871 devoured not only the one-third of Burling's design that got built, but also the entire collection of materials that the Society had been able to accumulate since 1856. Recovery was slow. It took another six years before Arnold, Rumsey, Sheldon and a few of their friends were able to raise enough money to build a small, "temporary" brick edifice to house a small reconstituted collection, but the trustees had high hopes that a new building would soon be on its way and a collection larger than the one the fire had swept away. It took another fifteen years, but in the spring of 1892 the Chicago Tribune announced that a new $200,000 building designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb, was going to rise at the corner of Dearborn and Ontario.
[Chicago Historical Society - Dearborn Street Building, City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Cobb was on a roll that year. He had come to Chicago in 1882 with an engineering degree from Harvard and a job designing the Union Club where his brother served as treasurer. Well connected and socially astute, Cobb's business acumen and design sensibilities made him one of the city's "go-to" architects, and by 1892 his 130 person office was the largest in town. The design he proffered for the Historical Society looked for all intents and purposes as fireproof as a bank safe, and Cobb did as much as he could to make sure that fire fueling materials were kept to an absolute minimum. The thick stone facade encased a wood-free interior; staircases were steel and marble, floors were concrete and mosaic tile, all trim work was done in stone. The plaster lath was metal as were the window and door frames. So were the doors themselves, as were all the desks and chairs. If a piece of paper somehow came into with an open flame, the structure would not add fuel to the fire.
[Chicago Historical Society - Dearborn Street Building, River North, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
The Society thrived in their new home, and by the late 1920s the collection had outgrown its large fire-proof repository. It was time to move yet again. A deal was worked out with the city and the state to take over a corner of Lincoln Park at North Avenue and Clark Street, and the last few boxes were taken through the stone-carved doorway to their new home in 1932. With the shades pulled down over the large window openings of the vacant building, the old place finally found a tenant in 1946 when Laszlo Moholy-Nagy's Institute of Design moved into the castle-like structure. The merger between the Institute and the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1949 led to the design school's removal from Cobb's granite behemoth in 1955 when the ID relocated to architect Mies van der Rohe's recently completed building for IIT's School of Architecture. After a stint as the home of Boulevard Recording Studios and Gallery men's magazine, the sturdy structure became the Chicago outpost of nightclub impresario Peter Gatien's "Limelight." The drinking and dancing continued on for the next 29 years as the Limelight became "Excalibur," and then in the past year "Castle Chicago," which closed the first week of January. And yet, the name over the door still reads, "Chicago Historical Society."