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CHICAGO – Ever since my office moved into a building designed by important Chicago architect and planner Daniel Burnham, I’ve sort of collected Burnham buildings.
Recently, I was in Cincinnati, where I stayed in a hotel in a Burnham-designed building that offered a view out to another one and was situated next to a third. A fourth Burnham design was just around the corner.
So, when the opportunity arose two weeks later to experience a new hotel in yet another Burnham-drawn building in Chicago, I couldn’t pass it up.
Owned by The Prime Group and managed by Aimbridge Hospitality, The LaSalle Chicago, 208 S. LaSalle St., is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection of exclusive properties.
It opened in June, with 232 rooms – many are suites – across three floors of the 21-story Continental and Commercial Bank building, completed in 1914.
In addition to the rooms, there is a ballroom fitted into an old basketball gym on another floor and on the reception floor there are meeting and event spaces, a fitness center, a bar, a restaurant, a solarium overlooking the light court and a quiet, almost secret, library with a fireplace.
On the building’s other floors are office space and a 12-story J.W. Marriott hotel that opened in 2010.
In case you haven’t guessed from all that, the building itself is huge.
Burnham, you may recall was not timid. He urged, “make no small plans,” and his ambitious 1909 plan for Chicago was and remains a landmark of urban planning. His design for the 1893 Columbian Exposition still stirs imaginations today.
His 1911 plan for the Continental and Commercial Bank Building – which wasn’t finished until 1914, two years after his death – was similarly ambitious.
In fact, the structure – in the area that became known as the city’s financial district – was the first privately owned building in Chicago to fill an entire city block.
According to the designation report written for its 2007 landmarking, “It was the largest site ever selected for an office building in the city and the combination of the 21 stories in height with the entire block made the building one of the largest office buildings in the U.S. In this manner, the Continental and Commercial National Bank would become the precursor to other monumental block sized buildings constructed in the 1920s."
Interestingly, it wasn’t Burnham & Company’s first such building in the neighborhood. Just around the corner, on Clark and Adams, stands the Commercial National Bank building, completed in 1907.
That 18-story bank building – drawn and supervised by Burnham & Company’s Ernest Graham – was at the time of its completion the second largest and most expensive building ever put up.
But within three years, the bank had merged with Continental National Bank and the gargantuan new entity – Continental had boosted its business by helping out small Midwest banks and had recently swallowed up Bankers National Bank, the American Trust and Savings Bank and the Hibernian Bank – wanted a new home.
The old building was sold to Commonwealth Edison in 1912 and launched a design competition for a monumental new structure on the square block of properties that bank president George Reynolds had spent years acquiring piecemeal.
Interestingly, even though Burnham, 64, was on the board of directors of the bank, he was not initially enthusiastic about throwing his hat in the ring, perhaps due to his advancing age. But others were not so reluctant and firms like Holabird and Roche; Jarvis Hunt’ Jenney, Mundie and Jensen’ Schmidt, Garden and Martin; Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge; and Marshall and Fox all submitted plans.
After a change of heart, Burnham and Co. did so, too, and their design – one of Burnham’s last – was chosen on June 5, 1911. Burnham would erect a counterpoint to his stunning 1888 Rookery building – designed with his late partner John Root – directly across the street.
Burnham took the work very seriously, writing, “Now at my age I cannot expect to take another go at a monumental job and I am going to put into this one all I know. I hope to make it the final word in business buildings in every particular.”
He and Graham worked tirelessly on the project and Burnham noted in his diary, “Here all day until 12 (midnight) ... worked hard ... over the presentation for the Continental Commercial National Bank competition.”
In just a month, the plans for this truly enormous project were complete. In addition to his age, Burnham was feeling pressure from another source, too.
"The Continental and Commercial National Bank is about to build; the permit must be taken out on or before Sept. 1, because at that date the ordinance confining buildings in this city to 200 feet height instead of 260 feet comes into force,” he wrote. “No one else can work out and determine the final plan and elevation and I must stick to it day and night until this is accomplished.”
Burnham and Company pulled the permit with two weeks to spare and construction began, during which time the bank continued to occupy the building it had sold to Commonwealth Edison.
Then, On June 1, 1912, Daniel Burnham died.
A new firm founded by his right-hand man Ernest Graham – Graham, Anderson, Probst and White – became Burnham and Company’s legacy firm and saw the work through.
In time the firm would also build the Federal Reserve Bank a block south, in 1922 and, in 1924, the Illinois Merchants Bank, across the street.
This new structure was designed in the Classical Revival style that had, by that time, become de rigueur for banks all across the country. The solid granite and terra cotta construction, along with brilliant brass trimmings, ornamentation – including carved lion heads and pilasters – and sturdy, looming columns shouted “security” and “reliability.”
In 1915, Architectural Record wrote that the building, “May be regarded as the culmination of the important work done in the last 15 years of the firm as D.H. Burnham and Company. It was designed in its essential features during the lifetime of Mr. Burnham and marks the last great works with which his fame is intimately connected.
“Located directly opposite the Rookery ... (it) displays the distance Burnham traveled since Root’s death and the use he made of his late-life education, now fully integrated in the design of the tall office building. The bank’s classical language and light granite and terra cotta facade contrast with the dark medieval tone of the Rookery.”
Originally, the building’s lobby was a soaring space, capped by a barrel-vaulted skylight, and with equally awe-inspiring columns marching in two lines through the hall. Two large staircases – one on either end of the impressive space, called the banking room – led to the lower level.
On the upper floors were eight-foot wide double loaded corridors with offices profiting from light and air from either the street sides or the light court. The walls and floors of the hallways and public bathrooms were covered in white Alabama marble.
Although the configuration of the offices spaces changed over the years to suit the needs of renters, much of the interior marble had survived, it seems, until a massive, nearly $400 million renovation took place just after the landmarking.
As part of that work, the grand hall was divided up and although a Marriott ballroom now benefits from the lovely skylight, the rows of monumental columns are now either gone or hidden.
The Marriott opened with a spa, restaurant, 29 suites and 609 rooms in 2010 and the remainder of the building above continued as office space.
Beyond the skylight, there’s very little of the original building left on the inside.
In some stairwells there are original stone treads and cast iron railings, and the lobbies have some brass grilles and details that might date to the early days, but over the course of more than a century, this building has been lived in and adapted to the requirements of its tenants.
Now comes the LaSalle Chicago, which is not to be confused with the old Hotel LaSalle, designed by Holabird and Roche and built in 1909 at Madison and LaSalle. That hotel was rebuilt after a 1946 fire and was torn down in 1976.
But there is something of a connection in that the old LaSalle was renowned for its luxury and its well-heeled clientele.
Nowadays, that level of style is not something typically found in The Loop, notes Shannon Moore, who is the director of sales and marketing for LaSalle Chicago.
“Our owner saw there was no real luxury destination in the Loop,” she says. “There are hotels like the Four Seasons and The Drake north of the river, and he wanted to create that kind of experience here in the Loop.”
The Presidential Suite on the 20th floor is an incredibly lavish accommodation that rivals anything in the Windy City – with glowing marble countertops, a huge bathroom, a butler's pantry and fine finishes – but the other rooms and suites are well-appointed, too.
Designed DiLeonardo International and Chipman Design Architecture, the Art Deco-inspired interior is comfortable and classically classy but without haughtiness, so that everyone will feel welcome.
“We really wanted a luxury experience and paid attention to the details, from the millwork to the the marble in the bathrooms, the artwork and the colors, which reflect the era when the hotel (building) was built.”
The remainder of Burnham's oft-quoted urging goes like this, "Make big plans, aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever growing insistency."
That's surely been the case with the LaSalle Chicago, which aims high, and with Burnham's Continental and Commercial Bank building, which more than a century after his death, remains a living thing.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.