Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Fairbanks, Morse & Co. Building
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Fairbanks, Morse & Co. Building (1908) Christian A. Eckstorm, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

What do you get when you combine a scale, a windmill and a gas powered engine? The makings of Fairbanks, Morse & Co. Over time, add to that a variety of other items like washing machines, radios, air conditioners, diesel engines, locomotives and fire hydrants - and you have the company brothers Thaddeus and Erastus Fairbanks started in 1829.

  [Fairbanks, Morse & Co. Building, 900 S. Wabash Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1824 E. & T. Fairbanks began making cast iron plows in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. They then began manufacturing machinery used in the hemp dressing business which led Thaddeus to patent a design for a large platform scale that could be used to weigh agricultural products like bales of hemp. His scale designs didn't end there, and soon E.& T. Fairbanks & Co. were making larger and larger capacity platform scales that you could drive a wagon on to, weigh the load, unload the contents, re-weigh the empty wagon, subtract its weight, and move on to the next load of corn, hay, coal, or even steel. Since manufacturing the scales was a major undertaking, Fairbanks & Co. set-up shops around the country and overseas in England. In 1853, 20-year-old Charles Hosmer Morse, a St. Johnsbury native, joined in his uncle in the Boston office of the Fairbanks company in an entry-level clerk position. It wasn't long before Morse found his calling as a sales rep and was sent to Chicago in 1855 to set-up a Fairbanks outpost with L.L. Greenleaf. After spending three years in Cincinnati establishing a Fairbanks presence in that part of the country, Morse returned to Chicago in 1869 and rejoined the Fairbanks, Greenleaf & Co. office.

  [Fairbanks, Morse & Co., National Register of Historic Places, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Morse, like many post-fire Chicagoans wasn't going the let the destruction of his business by the Great Conflagration stop him in his tracks. He bought-out Greenleaf, renamed the business Fairbanks, Morse & Co., and used the city's central location in the vast expanse of the western United States to his advantage. His territory covered everything from the Allegheny Mountains west to the Pacific Ocean, and by the turn of the 20th century Fairbanks, Morse was not only in the scale business but had also become a leader in the production of the new-fangled gasoline powered engine. With business booming, Morse purchased a piece of property at the northeast corner of 16th Street and Wabash Avenue in 1906 and planned to spend $400,000 constructing a building from which he could oversee his ever expanding empire. Instead, in 1907 construction began on a new Fairbanks, Morse & Co. building at the southwest corner of Wabash Avenue and Eldridge Court (9th Street today).

  [Fairbanks, Morse & Co. Building, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The exterior of architect Christian Eckstorm's 7-story, loft-style building was enhanced by a decorative cast-iron frame that outlined the lower two floors. When the building was completed in March 1908 Morse moved his offices from Franklin and Monroe Streets to Wabash and Eldridge. The business hummed along as Morse expanded the company even farther into a variety of far flung business enterprises, and when he died on May 5, 1921, his two sons inherited the company and their father's multi-million dollar estate. Unfortunately Charles, Jr. and his brother Robert didn't see eye to eye. The first kerfuffle arose in 1936 when Charles tried to out fox his brother and launch a proxy fight. Things settled down for the next 20 years before Charles once again felt that under his brother and nephew's oversight, the company wasn't performing up to its full monetary potential. This very public and nasty proxy battle lasted 3 years before the dust settled and Fairbanks, Morse was spun-off into a series of industrial-based entities that are still in operation to this day. While the former headquarters building has been converted into loft condominiums, Fairbanks still produces scales.

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