Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prudential Building - One Prudential Plaza, Chicago
 by: chicago designslinger

[Prudential Building (1955) Naess & Murphy, architects /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In the mid-1950s and right up until the late 1960s, there was something thrilling about going up to observation deck at the top of Chicago's Prudential Building. Times were different. Most of the country had not taken to the air yet and traveled close to the ground. 100 story buildings hadn't appeared on the skyline yet, and the Prudential, at 550 feet, was the tallest building in the city offering amazing views of the surrounding area before the John Hancock, Sears Tower, and air travel took the thrill away. Thousands of school kids, tourists, residents, and a few nervous marriage proposers, fell under the spell of the distant view while standing 41 stories in the air.

   [Prudential Building, One Prudential Plaza, 130 E. Randolph Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The building was the first skyscraper the city had seen rise in its downtown sector since 1934. The Great Depression and the Second World War had put the kibosh on this kind of development for nearly a generation, so the announcement that Prudential was going to build here in 1951 was a very big deal. The plan had been underway, in secret, for over a year-and-a-half because there were a lot of t's that had to be crossed and millions of i's to be dotted before anyone wanted to let the cat out of the bag.

  [Prudential Building - One Prudential Plaza, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The development was the brainchild of one of Chicago's major real estate players, Leo J. Sheridan. The Prudential Insurance Company expressed an interest in establishing a Midwest branch in Chicago and Sheridan had an interesting idea for a site. The Illinois Central and Michigan Central Railroads had a huge train yard that extended from Randolph Street north to the River, and from Michigan Avenue east to the Lake. In 1929 they announced plans to construct a massive, multi-building project, built in the air above the tracks, but after the October 1929 crash and the subsequent economic depression, nothing ever came of the plan. Until Leo Sheridan entered the picture.

  [The Prudential Rock, Alfonso Ianelli, sculptor /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Sheridan approached his friend Charles Murphy, the business-getting partner of the architectural firm of Naess & Murphy. At the same time Sheridan approached his Chicago Club cohort Wayne Johnston, president of the Illinois Central, with a proposal to build over the tracks just east of Michigan Avenue and the edge of the Randolph Street viaduct, where a giant Pabst Blue Ribbon illuminated sign stood. But Leo didn't tell Wayne who the building client was when they met, or at subsequent meetings. Prudential didn't want their name associated with the project until they were assured that the building would be built - on ground they owned. The company knew that they would have to pay for the air rights above the tracks, but wherever a supporting column met the ground, they wanted to own that tiny piece of land outright, including the ground beneath the 100 foot deep caisson that the steel post sat on. And until that could happen, there was no deal. While Sheridan worked with the Illinois Central to acquire the hundreds of little plots of land where each supporting pier would stand, Murphy brought together a group of architects and engineers who worked on drawings in a secret office in the firm's headquarters. Then Sheridan found out that the Illinois Central didn't actually own many of the required parcels but leased them for the Michigan Central under a long term ground lease. Finally after over a year of negotiations, leaseholds bought and sold, and registering the longest deed ever recorded in Cook County history, Wayne Johnston was told who the client was, and in 1955 the observation deck of the Prudential Building offered its amazing views to the public.

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