The world’s most beautiful office building is no longer an office building. In June, the Chicago Tribune left their home for the past 93 years at the Tribune Tower and moved to One Prudential Plaza. Development is already underway to convert the tower into luxury condos and construct the city’s second-largest skyscraper next door.
Fortunately, I was invited to tour the Tribune Tower by WGN Radio, before their move to 303 E. Wacker. I was grateful for the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes in this historic building before it is transformed.
From its very beginning, the Tribune Tower boasted a unique history. To celebrate the Tribune‘s 75th anniversary in 1922, they announced an international design competition for the “most beautiful and distinctive office building in the world.” They received 263 entries from 23 countries, all vying for the high-profile project and $100,000 prize ($1.5 million today). Renowned architects from around the world contributed designs, including Walter Gropius, Adolf Loos, Holabird & Roche, and second-place winner Eliel Saarinen.
There never has been such a contest and it is very doubtful that there ever will be another.
– Chicago Daily Tribune, 1922
The winning design was submitted by John Howells and Raymond Hood. Their neo-Gothic tower was influenced by the old-world grandeur of the Rouen Cathedral in France and Belgium’s Malines Cathedral. The ecclesiastical design was meant to reflect the sacred responsibility and aspirations of journalism. The result is a 456-foot Indiana limestone skyscraper of vertical lines capped by ornate flying buttresses (decorative, not structural) and a crown. The effect is certainly not your average office tower.
One of the tower’s most recognizable features was nowhere in the design blueprints. Embedded in the facade are 150 fragments of stones from famous sites around the world. How did pieces of the Great Wall of China and Taj Mahal end up here? It’s a story so good I even included it in my book, Secret Chicago.
During WWI, Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick was covering the war in Europe. He took a piece of rubble from the ruins of a cathedral in Ypres, Belgium and the collection was born. “The Colonel” instructed correspondents to procure stones from famous buildings “by honorable means.” The collection has continued, with the newest fragments from Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park added in 2015 to the respective north and south sides of the front entrance.
These bits and pieces of history speak volumes about the oversized aspirations of the Tribune Tower’s creators: to make their fledgling skyscraper one of the world’s great monuments.
– Blair Kamin, Chicago Tribune
Playful sculptures called grotesques also decorate the building. While they look like medieval gargoyles, these figures have a lot to say about the ideals of the Tribune and journalism. Above the main entrance, a whispering man and a shouting man symbolize the difference between a rumor and a hot story. Look for the architects represented by a howling dog (Howells) and Robin Hood (Hood).
The Hall of Inscriptions
Entering the tower feels like arriving in a sanctuary. I often take refuge inside from the rush of Michigan Avenue for a few moments to absorb the solemn space and look for messages hidden in its craftsmanship. Like something out of Harry Potter, the lobby is named the Hall of Inscriptions for the quotations carved into its walls and floor referencing the free press.Above the front desk hangs a giant relief map of North America. It was supposedly the largest relief map of the U.S. when it was installed in 1927. You wouldn’t know by looking at it, but the map is made of plaster mixed with retired U.S. currency! The map originally showed more of South America, but the Colonel had two feet chopped off it to make the United States more prominent. Fortunately, the lobby was designated as a city landmark in 1989 and will be spared from redevelopment.
The Colonel’s Quarters
Up on the 24th floor, we visited the former executive offices of the Colonel and his co-publisher Joseph M. Patterson. At one time, McCormick had his own elevator car to arrive quickly from the lobby. This is useful, because getting from floor-to-floor in the old building can involve a complex knowledge of elevator transfers.The publishers’ former offices served as conference rooms for the Chicago Tribune in recent years. Patterson’s rich wood-paneled office made for a stately place to work. Behind one of these panels, a hidden door conceals an escape hatch! Both publishers had secret hatches leading to the floor above which were labeled “file rooms” on the blueprints. The narrow wood stair is still visible from Patterson’s office.
Of course, the Colonel’s grand office held oven more secrets. There was no doorknob in the pine-paneled room, and he allegedly enjoyed watching people try to find a way out until he pressed a button in his desk to open an exit panel. Decorated air vents in the ceiling hint at his past. A scroll and key represent a fraternal organization he belonged to at Yale and a cannon represents his WWI service.
In Plain View
A highlight of the tour was visiting the former observatory on the 25th floor. The open-air space offers jaw-dropping views of the Loop and Chicago River. It’s hard to believe that visitors only paid a quarter to enjoy this in the 1920s. After admiring the Tribune Tower’s crown for so many years, it was surreal to experience it firsthand underneath the flying buttresses.
We finished the tour by visiting the WGN Radio offices and iconic Michigan Avenue station. As members of the WGN team shared stories, it was incredible to think about all the notable people who have visited the studio over the years. One long-time employee told me that her grandfather was a bricklayer on the tower in the 1920s! She may have hidden a note describing this lineage behind one of the fragments in the building’s facade, but that’s a secret to spill another day.Tribune Tower
435 N. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60611
- Grossman, Ron. “Leaving Tribune Tower: ‘The world’s most beautiful office building.'” Chicago Tribune, 2 June 2018.
- Kamin, Blair. “A farewell to Tribune Tower and a shout-out to its architects.” Chicago Tribune, 6 June 2018.
- Kamin, Blair. “A Landmark in Every Sense of the Word.” Chicago Tribune, 6 July 2000.
- Kamin, Blair. “Cubs, Sox Bricks on Tribune Tower to Honor North Side-South Side Rivalry.” Chicago Tribune, 8 Oct. 2015.
- Kamin, Blair. Tribune Tower: American Landmark: History, Architecture, and Design. Tribune Co., 2000.
- Ori, Ryan. “Chicago Tribune Sign Will Remain on the Redeveloped Tribune Tower after Lawsuit Ends.” Chicago Tribune, 3 Aug. 2018.
- Staff. “The Tribune Building Contest.” Chicago Daily News, 1 Dec. 1922.