Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Municipal Court Building, Michigan Avenue, Chicago
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Municipal Court Building (1906) Jenney Mundie Jensen, architects; (1985) renovation, Pappageorge Haymes, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

As the 19th century turned into the 20th, the administrators of the City of Chicago and the County of Cook decided that the time had come to tear down their inefficient, outmoded downtown headquarters and start from scratch. It took a number of years before all the alderman, County Board members, the mayor, and the Board president could agree on a plan. But once the demolition ball got rolling in 1906, temporary office space had to be found for all governmental offices, including the Municipal Court. Only problem was, there weren't too many building owners willing to lease large amounts of space for the short term. And by the time the City finally got around to looking for a four year lease to house their Court, there was no one left in the business district interested in anything other than a 10 year commitment.

  [Municipal Court Building, 116 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Jacob L. Kesner owned a vacant piece of property on Michigan Avenue between Monroe and Adams Street, and approached the city with an offer. Although his lot wasn't very wide at just 40 feet, with a depth of 171 feet and a 12-story building sitting on it, Kesner could offer the city 88,000 square feet of space, priced at a dollar per square-foot, and would include a very enticing four year lease. He had hired the prominent architectural firm of Jenney, Mundie & Jensen to draw-up plans and submitted them in 1906 to a special City Council subcommittee assigned to finding some kind of interior space that could serve as interim courtrooms. Then, just as the committee was considering Kesner's proposal, the owners of the Sibley Warehouse building on Clark Street at the Chicago River, offered the same amount of square footage, but at a reduced rate of 80 cents per square foot.

  [Municipal Court Building, Historic Michigan Boulevard District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The subcommittee voted to accept the Kesner offer, passed it on to the Finance Committee for approval, and construction began. The building was supposed to be ready for occupancy by December 1, 1906 but only the first four floors had been completed. Upon further inspection, the City's architect found that the actual rentable space totaled up to 60,094 square feet, not the promised 88,000. Democratic Mayor Edward Dunne called for an investigation and got the States Attorney actively involved, whose office placed seven members of the Finance Committee -mostly Republicans - under scrutiny. Although the subcommittee had recommended the deal, the alderman seated on the Finance Committee had the final say over the approval of the contract and were therefore legally responsible for due diligence in the negotiations. The alderman of the subcommittee said they had voted in favor of the lease and its attendant new building, because the idea of placing the Court in a warehouse, however temporary, was an insult to the American justice system. Kesner when questioned, said he gave the city the figures his architects gave to him, and never thought anything more about it.

  [Municipal Court - Lake View Building /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Soon after the building was finished in March, 1907 and the Court was all moved in, Dunne lost his seat to Republican Fred A. Busse. Dunne, a progressive reformer, went on to become the 24th governor of Illinois, while Busse's notorious one term in office became known for its particularly open, in-your-face, corrupt, administrative style. When the Court moved out of Kesner's building in 1911, he added an additional 5 floors to his existing 12-story tower. The Peoples Gas Light & Coke Company were constructing a 21-story building right next door at the time, which would have cast a long shadow over Kesner's now stubby narrow structure. In the mid-1980s when the American Conservatory of Music sold the building and architects Pappageorge Haymes began oversight of a multi-million-dollar renovation, the Illinois Athletic Club Building - right next door to the north - was climbing an additional 7 stories, which left Kesner's slim-lined tower sandwiched in between its neighbors.
Ironically, after declining to move the city's court business into the Sibley warehouse and degrade the honor of the justice system, a different generation of alderman saw no problem moving a division of the municipal courts into the old Reid Murdoch warehouse in the mid-1950s to hear traffic violation disputes. Today Kesner's narrow tower serves as classroom and office space for the ever expanding campus of Chicago's School of the Art Institute.

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