I recently had the very good fortune to tour Chicago’s newest office- building-to-hotel renovation. What was once the venerable Roanoke Building has become the Residence Inn Marriott. The hotel occupies the storied site at 11 South LaSalle Street in the heart of Chicago’s financial district.
My guide was Brittany Matthews, the Sales Specialist Leader for the hotel chain which manages some 700 hotels worldwide. She generously revealed her extensive knowledge of the building and its operations. The whole of the building was remodeled leaving only a lobby-located vintage mail box, and a few doorknobs that hinted of earlier times; all else was new and executed with expected conservative color tones—brown, tan, and beige—and an overall “safe” and reserved décor that is very comfortable, but decidedly all business.
The conversion of offices to 381 guest rooms and various public interior spaces, including some 6,700 square feet of meeting spaces, was spearheaded by the Chicago architecture firm of VOA Associates, in conjunction with the Aria Group Architects. The firm of Darcy Bonner & Associates was responsible for the design of the hotel’s main lobby and its adjacent lounge. Commercial retail space is targeted for the currently-vacant first floor spaces that march along West Washington Street. The total price tag for the remodeling of the old 37-story Roanoke Building into the Residence Inn Marriott was reportedly $140 million. Marriott’s hefty commitment was an investment in more than just a century-old building, it was a statement of faith in Chicago, its Loop, and the history of this wonderful city.
Before the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the southeast corner of Washington and LaSalle streets was occupied by a building named the Major Block, a four story structure designed by the architect T. V. Wadskier. Of course this building was totally destroyed, like some 17,500 others, by the three-day inferno. The site of the office structure was quickly cleared, and by 1872 a new Major Block rose, a seven-story “skyscraper” designed by architects Dixon & Hamilton. This splendid Victorian pile measured 136 feet along LaSalle Street and 66 feet on West Madison Street. It rested upon spread foundations, and it almost certainly sported an early, steam-driven elevator. Sometime during its short life—it stood only 42 years—the second Major Block was renamed the Roanoke Building. (Nineteenth-century building owners often named their investments after romantic, exotic, or faraway places. In Chicago these often took the forms of Native American place names or terms. Consider the following names of prominent downtown Chicago office and residential buildings: Monadnock, Tacoma, Pontiac, Virginia, Lakota, Montauk, and Old Colony.) Curiously, the new name was a nod to the ill-fated, yet historic, 16th-century, Roanoke Island (Virginia) Colony.
In January of 1914, Robert Rutherford McCormick (1880-1955), the manager of the Leander McCormick Estate and noted member of the wealthy and powerful McCormick family of Chicago, announced the organization’s intention to construct a loop-located skyscraper. This real estate investment would rise from the site of the 1872 Roanoke Building and be called the Lumber Exchange Building. It was to house firms involved with the lumber industry and that industry’s law, banking, real estate, construction and various affiliated concerns.
Within months of the fateful announcement, the distinguished Major Block/Roanoke Building was demolished. Within one year a new building was completed to the plans of the prolific and distinguished Chicago architectural firm of Holabird & Roche. Completed in 1915, and standing at 11 South LaSalle Street, the Lumber Exchange Building rose 16 floors, an even 200 feet high. It was constructed with a full steel skeleton and was wrapped with tan brick, brown terra cotta by the Midland Terra Cotta Company, and tons of plate glass. The Lumber Exchange’s facades were busy with designs that borrowed from both Gothic and Renaissance sources. It boasted three basements and was supported via a rock caisson foundation far below street level. In 1922, five more floors were added to the Lumber Exchange, bringing the total height of this skyscraper to 21 floors, 260 feet tall.
In 1925 the life of the Lumber Exchange Building was to take a dramatic turn. The parcel immediately to the east, along West Washington Street, was acquired by the McCormick Estate and its building demolished for a tall addition to the Lumber Exchange Building. By 1926, and with the address 125 West Madison, the Roanoke Tower was completed to the designs of Holabird & Roche (again), and Rebori, Wentworth, Dewey and McCormick. The adjacent skyscraper was faced with complementary materials to the original Lumber Exchange, but it dramatically towered overhead; it stood a whopping 37 floors, 452 feet tall. The Roanoke Tower became Chicago’s fifth tallest building upon completion, and it certainly ranked as one of the very tallest in the nation outside of New York. (The Roanoke Tower stood at 452 feet tall and was the fifth tallest in Chicago upon its completion in 1926. Only the following Chicago buildings were taller then: Chicago Temple—21 floors, 569 feet tall; the Morrison Hotel—45 floors, 526 feet high; the Straus Building—32 floors, 475 feet tall; and the Tribune Tower—36 stories, 462 feet tall; (Source: Almanac and Year-Book for 1926, pp. 986-990.)) It was then that the two-building office complex was renamed the Roanoke Building and Tower and the Lumber Exchange moniker was relegated to obscurity; the name change was in homage to its predecessor, the 1872 Roanoke.
And what a magnificent skyscraper the Roanoke Tower was. The tall building rose in a series of setbacks that culminated in a delightful chiseled form. Surmounting the skyscraper’s roof was a carillon housing four bronze bells, the largest weighing 3 ½ tons; these rang every quarter hour. (As a lasting tribute to Robert McCormick’s ancestor, one of the bronze bells is emblazoned with the name Leander J. McCormick, one of the founders of the family fortune. Leander J. McCormick (1819-1900), along with his older brothers Cyrus and William, founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company—later to be renamed the International Harvester Company. He later became a real estate developer too, focusing on properties in downtown Chicago.)
But, that is not all. Chicago architectural historian, Pauline Saliga, relates the following concerning a large rooftop addition: In 1928, as commercial aviation was becoming more common, a forty-five-foot beacon tower was constructed at the top; featuring twenty-four neon tubes and two rotating beacons, the light was visible for a hundred miles. (Pauline A. Saliga, The Sky’s the Limit A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers (New York: Rizzoli, 1990), 84.)
The facades of the 1926-tower were tame when compared to those of the 1915 Lumber Exchange/Roanoke. With the former, a host of demons and devils portraying ghastly goings-on (disembodied heads among other oddities) were situated upon the LaSalle Street facade. Originally, behind these walls were the elegant offices of a large bank, with “money spaces” and vaults; patient forest-dwelling pixies and demons still wait to pocket money from within. The Tower’s design was more subdued, even severe by its former standards; the horrific-based Gothic genre was abandoned during the Roaring Twenties in favor of a more appropriate streamlined motif of similarly-colored brick and terra cotta.
Today, a ring of lights outlines the Residence Inn Marriott, marching around the building at the second floor level. This welcoming nighttime gesture was restored to the building façade as it was an original feature of the old Lumber Exchange/Roanoke Building. What would be a smashing architectural addition would be the lighting of the tower by floodlights. Each of the tower’s setbacks, and the rooftop carillon, could be bathed in white lights making it once again a brilliant fixture on the night sky. Although not the colorful mast of the 1920s, the lighting of the tower would definitely call attention to the new hotel and emphatically make visible, once again, the tall tower of the romantic Roanoke Building. I urge the owners, after already spending a fortune on the building, to go the extra mile and not let this handsome skyscraper languish invisible on the night sky. Both Leander and Robert McCormick would be proud.
Repurposing, not demolishing, old Loop office buildings is a noble and laudable pursuit. Kudos to Residence Inn Marriott for pursuing this route of preservation, and to the bold rebirth of the century-old Roanoke Building and Tower. What a romantic and altogether proud thing to do for Chicago and its historic Loop; after all, in 2008 the skyscraper was declared a National Historic Landmark. For the Residence Inn Marriott, it is not a fortune spent, but a fortune invested.
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