9.3. VAN OSDEL’S PRACTICE TAKES OFF

Van Osdel’s loss of the commission for the Second Presbyterian Church may have been a blessing in disguise, for his practice was growing as Chicago’s economy regained its lost vigor.  In January 1848, he was hired by Common Council to design a combined municipal building and market hall, modeled in part after Boston’s Faneuil Hall.   When the city’s lease of the Saloon Building had expired in 1842 at the depth of the depression, the city administration had moved to less expensive quarters in Mrs. Nancy Chapman’s two-story building at the northeast corner of Randolph and La Salle. By 1848, the population of the city had increased to 20,023, an increase of 12,000 from its size only four years earlier.  (This translated into the fact that there were more newcomers in Chicago in 1848 than those who had been residents since 1844.)

It no longer seemed appropriate for the municipal government of such a large populace to still have to lease space for its everyday functions because it lacked its own permanent headquarters.  In addition, the city’s burgeoning population had also outgrown the meager Market House erected in 1840 at the corner of State and Lake.  Unfortunately, the city coffers were not deep enough to cover the cost of a traditional City Hall, so Chicago’s frugal leaders had Van Osdel combine a new, larger market hall with the program for the city’s space needs in order to help pay for the project.  City leaders also avoided the cost of procuring the land for the project by placing the building in the middle of State Street, that, coincidentally, had been recently widened by a third to 120’ from the river south to Randolph Street.  Hence, Van Osdel responded with a two-story brick and stone building that had a 40′ front on Randolph from which sprouted a clocktower and ran 180′ north to Benton Place.  The first floor contained thirty-two market stalls, while the municipal offices were located on the upper floor.  The upper floor was divided into four rooms: a 40′ by 20′ office for the city clerk occupied the south end, while an identical space at the north end was reserved for a library.  The 40′ by 140′ space in the middle was divided into two rooms (40′ by 68′ and 40′ by 72′) by folding doors that could be opened up for Common Council meetings, the first of which took place on November 13, 1848. During this period, the County also had decided that it needed to expand its courthouse on the northeast corner of the Public Square and so commissioned Van Osdel to design and build a new courthouse (no images appear to have survived) on the southeast corner of the Square, directly south of the original 1835 Courthouse.

John M. Van Osdel, Municipal Building and Market Hall, State at Randolph, 1848. (Mayer and Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

9.4. THE TREMONT HOUSE

Faneuil Hall was not the first architectural influence that Boston had provided for Chicago, for even earlier the Tremont House had been so named after the famous Boston hotel.  Van Osdel became involved with its western namesake after the second Tremont House (that was erected in 1840 after the original had also been destroyed by fire) burned on July 21, 1849.  Its owners, Ira and James Couch, hired Van Osdel to design a replacement that would be the city’s grandest hotel, at the same location on the southeast corner of Dearborn and Lake Streets but on a much larger parcel of land.  Van Osdel, following the latest fashion in New York, produced a magnificent five and a half-story brick Italian Renaissance palace or palazzo that was so much larger than any other local hotel that it was often referred to “Couch’s folly,” for people could not understand the necessity for such a large hotel.  It was not only the tallest brick building in town, but also the first building in Chicago to incorporate imported stone trim (that was gray in color) that Van Osdel had shipped from a quarry in Lockport, N.Y.  Similar to his recent design for the First Presbyterian Church, he eliminated all traces of a roof, opting for a straightforward expression of the hotel’s walls, which were capped with a bracketed cornice.  

John M. Van Osdel, Tremont House III, southwest corner of Lake and Dearborn, 1849.  Many important speeches, including the Senatorial campaigns by Douglas and Lincoln, were delivered from its balcony. (Gilbert, Chicago and its Makers)

The design of the elevations foreshadowed the challenge to be faced in the near future in the composition of the elevation of a tall building, for instead of detailing each story of windows as a line of independent openings in the building’s wall, Van Osdel grouped the windows of the third and fourth floors together into an elongated unit with a recessed spandrel, thereby imparting a vertical accent to the facade that helped to balance the building’s long, horizontal elevation.  Hence, the upper four stories progressed upward in a subtle tripartite (three-part) rhythm of 1-2-1. This he placed atop a ground floor of stores that appear from its radical degree of openness to have been a cast iron storefront.  The main entrance on Dearborn was marked by a two-story high portico that consisted of a set of paired columns at each corner from which sprung Van Osdel’s favorite entrance motif, the triumphal arch.  This was placed in the center of the Dearborn facade, that Van Osdel had arranged into a composition of a center with corner pavilions by projecting the wall containing the last three windows at both ends ever so slightly as corner pavilions, that again helped to reinforce the vertical counterpoint of the long elevation.

FURTHER READING:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Ericsson, Henry L. Sixty Years a Builder: The Autobiography of Henry Ericsson. Chicago: A. Kroch, 1942.

Industrial Chicago-vol. 1: The Building Interests. Chicago: Goodspeed, 1891.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago–I I. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Randall, Frank A. History of the Development of Building Construction in Chicago (2nd ed.). Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1999.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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