Saturday, March 7, 2015

Oliver Typewriter Co. Building
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Oliver Typewriter Co. Building (1907) Holabird & Roche, architects; (1997) adaptive reuse and facade restoration, Daniel P. Coffey Associates, architects / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

As Spring came into bloom in 1902, Arthur F. Lyman, Lawrence Lowell, and Arthur Lyman, members of old-line Massachusetts families and trustees of a piece of downtown Chicago real estate, secured a long term lease for their land which wrapped around the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets. The property, fronting 60 feet on Randolph and 110 feet on Dearborn, bracketed the Chicago Realty Board Building which sat directly on the corner. But the lot proved to be no challenge for architect Benjamin Marshall who had been hired by a theater syndicate to design a new performance venue on their Lyman/Lowell leased land. Marshall wrapped the Iroquois Theatre around the old Bryant Block Realty Board building, placing an elaborate entryway on the Randolph Street side, and with a right angled degree turn to the left, had the theater's back stage wall sitting just 38 feet east of the Dearborn Street lot line. It was a decision that would come to play a significant role in the property's future.

  [Oliver Typewriter Co. Building, 159 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1891, and again in 1894, Thomas Oliver, a minister and an inveterate tinkerer, patented a new kind of typewriting machine, one in which the typist could actually see the keys striking the paper and read what was being typed as it was being typed. The device caught the attention of Lawrence Williams, Douglas Smith and Samuel Lyde who, in December 1895, incorporated the Oliver Typewriter Company in Chicago with a capital stock of $200,000, enough to get Reverend Oliver's invention into production and out into the marketplace. The odd looking device was a hit, and in 1898 Oliver secured another patent for a new and improved Oliver Typewriter and the company was on a roll.

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

In 1896 the young company moved its manufacturing plant from Iowa to a new facility in Woodstock, Illinois about 60 miles north of the corporate office in downtown Chicago located at 107 Lake Street. In November 1906 the Lyman/Lowell trustees came to an agreement with Oliver president Lawrence Williams to lease the strip of ground over on the Dearborn Street side of things, and architects Holabird & Roche were hired to design a 5-story building for the site. H&R were one of the innovative design firms who had helped develop a new commercial building style that would come to be known as the Chicago School, and had gained a reputation in the city as a team who could deliver a handsomely marketable building to real estate developers on time and on budget.

  [Oliver Typewriter Co. Building, North Loop, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The land lease was made a matter of record in July 1907 when the the Oliver Typewriter Company took up occupancy in their new corporate home. The fanciful facade fronted a typical loft-columned interior, supported by a foundation that could one day carry the weight of an additional five floors should the need arise. Thirteen years later, the need did arise and on June 13, 1920 the Chicago Tribune reported that Holabird & Roche would oversee the addition of  three more stories to the Oliver Building. It was Lawrence Williams last major corporate decisions. The president of the Oliver Typewriter Company since it's incorporation in 1895, died six weeks later at age fifty-six. Thomas Oliver had died years earlier when he dropped dead of a heart attack while waiting for a train on the platform of the Argyle Street elevated railroad station. By then he was busy running his Oliver Cotton Harvester company. When the Tribune reported the inventor's death on February 10, 1909 not one mention was made of his relationship to the widely popular Oliver Typewriter, only his involvement and inventiveness with the Harvester company made it into the paper.

  [Oliver Typewriter Co. Building / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Neither man lived to see the company take a precipitous decline in the years following Williams' death - by 1928 the company was out of business. The building served its original purpose as a commercial office property until the mid-1990s when the auditorium housing the theater next door was scheduled to undergo a massive restoration. The Iroquois had a disastrous fire in 1903, and after reopening eventually became the Colonial Theatre, which was torn down and replaced by a tall commercial structure that housed a wonderful 1920s-era movie palace, the Oriental. One constant through all the changes had been that the back stage wall of all the theatrical incarnations always remained 38 feet east of Dearborn, adjacent to the east wall of the Oliver building. The reinvigorated Oriental was going to be a live performance venue and needed a deeper stage, and to make it work, the Oliver property would have to be incorporated into the rejiggered performance space. So after much legal wrangling and to the chagrin of some preservationists, the interior of the Oliver building was gutted, Holabird & Roche's decorative facade masked the backstage area of the theater, and the original Lyman/Lowell lot had one contiguous building space sitting on it.

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