At the corner where Lincoln and Marshfield meet School Street stands a triangular building with an identity crisis. On its Lincoln side, cracked letters spell out “Brundage Building” atop the main entryway. On its Marshfield side, the words “McKinley Building” are painted on a window in gold outlined with black. And at its street-corner point one word of graffiti–“true”–is spray painted above a boarded-up door.

Back in 1923, when it went up to house a bank whose vault still stands in the basement, this was the Brundage Building, a commercial real estate project like many others from its namesake, engineer and builder Avery Brundage. The building is rather less distinguished than the builder, whose fame lies not in construction but in athletics.

More than any other American, Avery Brundage made the modern Olympic Games the worldwide institution they are today. Born in Detroit in 1887, he came to Chicago as a child and in 1909 graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Illinois. The young engineer, who quickly began nurturing the businesses that eventually made him a multimillionaire, was also a champion amateur athlete. He represented the United States in the 1912 Olympics–competing in discus throwing and the pentathlon and decathlon–and afterward continued to shine in amateur competitions, winning national recognition into his 30s.

Then he channeled his passion for amateur athletics into administration, becoming president of the U.S. Olympic Association and Committee in 1929. In 1936 he joined the International Olympic Committee, replacing a member who opposed holding the 1936 games in Berlin. Brundage, who adamantly believed athletics should be apolitical as well as noncommercial, pressed to keep the United States in the Nazi capital’s Olympics even though Jewish athletes had been excluded from the German team.

In 1952 Brundage became president of the IOC. During his 30-year tenure, which encompassed much of the cold war, there were frequent outbreaks of East-West hostility over Soviet athletes’ use of steroids and other performance enhancers. In 1968, when he insisted that skiers competing in the winter games in Grenoble cover the manufacturers’ trademarks on their skis, many commentators, noting that Eastern-bloc athletes were state supported, accused him and the IOC of hypocrisy.

Race fueled other Olympic controversies during Brundage’s watch. In 1964 he lost a round to apartheid foes, who pushed South Africa out of Olympic competition. The same forces banned Rhodesian athletes in 1972, again over his objections. But he prevailed more often than he lost, most famously in 1972, when he insisted that the Olympic Games in Munich continue after Palestinian terrorists attacked the Israeli team and 11 Israelis died.

Brundage retired from his post after that tumultuous year, returning to his alma mater in 1974 to endow the Avery Brundage scholarships, which reward outstanding University of Illinois student athletes. He died in 1975, having seen his beloved Olympics transformed from a purist, elitist meritocracy to a worldwide television extravaganza ripe for exactly the kind of commercial exploitation he’d always deplored. By 1983, when he was inducted posthumously into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, corporations were deeply involved in Olympic financing and many Olympians were no longer amateurs.

As for the building that bears his name, it’s natural to wonder why, in a neighborhood bursting with redevelopment, the first floor remains vacant and unsightly. “The upper levels of the building were converted to condos seven years ago,” explains Bert Fujishima, a realtor who recently sold a couple of units there. “At that time the residential area was kept separate from the commercial. The developer retained control of the ground level, but the condo association and the developer haven’t been able to agree on what should go in the ground level.” He says the association turned down a bar and restaurant, but other proposals are pending.

Meanwhile, the building’s street-level interior and exterior have appeared in several movies and television shows. “We’re pretty sure the ‘McKinley Building’ sign is left over from Early Edition,” says Illinois Film Office assistant director Bob Hudgins. “The building also is in Hoodlum, the Laurence Fishburne movie. In Straight Talk the building was the home of the radio station where Dolly Parton had her talk show. And it was the kidnappers’ hideout in Baby’s Day Out.”

Hudgins, location manager on Baby’s Day Out, is especially fond of the way that film used the Brundage Building. “We made it look like seven floors instead of four–very spiffy,” he says. “So it told a big lie, but it really looked great.”

–Susan Figliulo

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.