By Jordan Marsh

Chicago’s architecture lives and dies in dramatic fashion. Photographer Richard Nickel’s battles to save Louis Sullivan’s Garrick Theater and Stock Exchange Building from demolition in the 1960s and 70s are viewed as seminal events in the historic preservation movement. Obsessed with photographing and preserving the city’s architectural treasures, especially those designed by Sullivan, Nickel was killed in 1972 by falling I-beams while salvaging material from the partially demolished Stock Exchange.

As fond as he was of Sullivan’s buildings, as hard as he’d worked to save the Garrick, Nickel had this to say about the endangered Reliance Building, designed by the office of Sullivan’s contemporary (some might say nemesis), Daniel Burnham: “Twice the effort that went into the Garrick should be given to Reliance. A real noise should be made.”

For many years Chicagoans knew the Reliance Building, in the words of Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, as “a trashy-looking heap kitty-corner from Marshall Field’s.” Birthdays can be rejuvenating experiences, however, and in 1995 a funny thing happened to the century-old Reliance: One of Chicago’s, and perhaps the world’s, most architecturally significant buildings was reborn.

The peculiarly Chicago story of the Reliance Building begins in the aftermath of the great fire of 1871. Bounded by water on three sides and railyards on the fourth, downtown Chicago rebuilt upward instead of outward. “Tall” buildings of four and five stories were constructed, to the amazement of locals and visitors alike. Twenty years later, most of those awe-inspiring buildings were demolished. Chicago’s unrelenting growth and development (the city’s population more than doubled in the 1880s) had rendered them obsolete.

The buildings that followed the fire began to express a brand-new logic. Gradually rejecting Greek and Roman classicism as well as Italian and French historical styles, the new architecture became known as the Chicago commercial style (now called the Chicago school). The new style pioneered an unprecedented aesthetic of structural expressiveness, generating buildings whose facades acknowledged the skeletal grids behind the exterior walls.

The advent of the Chicago school coincided with innovations in electricity, telephone communication, and passenger elevators that transformed the new commercial style into a skyscraper style. Making this possible were the innovations of William Le Baron Jenney, a former bridge builder for the Union army. Using bridge technology, Jenney, an engineer and architect, learned to attach exterior wall materials to metal frames that supported the weight of a building. Prior to this development, buildings had been supported by their exterior masonry. The taller a building, the thicker its walls had to be, especially at the base, where the display of a retailer’s goods placed space and light at a premium. The metal frame liberated the walls to become merely a skin.

Enter William Hale, a devout Christian and capitalist who in 1882 purchased a lot measuring 55 by 85 feet on the southwest corner of State and Washington. The land held a four-story building that had once been occupied by a bank. In 1890 Hale announced that he planned to clear the site and build a retail-and-office skyscraper to be designed by his friend Daniel Burnham and Burnham’s partner John Root.

Hale had a dry-goods store ready to move into the first floor of his new building. The problem was that the leases of the existing building’s remaining tenants ran for another four years–and the tenants refused to leave. So Hale placed the upper floors on jacks and demolished the first floor beneath them, while his tenants, albeit with some grumbling, went about their business. After demolishing the first floor, Hale installed a foundation to accommodate a 16-story building. First-floor retail space was constructed, and Carson Pirie Scott moved in.

The designing architect for the Reliance was the sensitive, enormously talented John Root, who’d already designed the landmark Rookery, completed in 1888. If Burnham and Root had entered the movie business, Burnham would have been the executive producer, lining up the talent and financing. Root would have directed the movies.

Root designed a first floor that took full advantage of the steel frame. Enormous plate glass windows dominated the floor. Slabs of polished reddish-brown granite surrounded the windows and detailed bronze ornament covered the joints. This base departed from the load-bearing designs of the past, including the more recent buildings that were supported by metal frames but still cloaked in masonry. Architects had yet to devise an aesthetic to match the new technology–until the Reliance.

It is impossible to know precisely what Root had in mind for the building’s upper floors. On January 15, 1891, six and a half months before Carson Pirie Scott would open for business, Root died of pneumonia at age 41. Incredibly, no Root plans for the upper floors have ever been found.

Three months later Burnham hired a new chief designer, a New Yorker named Charles Atwood. Especially well versed in the classical Beaux Arts school of architecture, Atwood immediately went to work on the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, of which Burnham was chief of construction. Atwood designed the neoclassical Palace of Fine Arts, one of the exposition’s only permanent structures (now the Museum of Science and Industry).

In early 1894 he turned his attention to the Reliance. Dealing with a relatively small “footprint,” or floor plan, Atwood designed a 14-story tower clad in glazed white terra-cotta, a hard fired-clay product manufactured for the Reliance by a plant on Clybourn Avenue. The upper floors, like Root’s first floor, were dominated by tremendous expanses of glass. The prismatic nature of the building was emphasized by softly undulating bays. The Reliance utilized “Chicago windows,” which consisted of large immovable panes of glass flanked by narrow, movable sash windows. The idea was to allow in as much light as possible while providing for ventilation. The generous use of glass was crucial, as the higher floors of the building were intended for medical and dental offices, where natural light was at a premium. (For an example of the power of electric light at the time, walk through the lobby of the Monadnock Building.)

The terra-cotta covered little more than the building’s frame. Virtually everything else was glass. Clusters of thin columns at the corners of the Reliance contributed to its sense of refinement and delicacy. Atwood placed Gothic-inspired detailing on the terra-cotta. Looking like four-leaf clovers, these quatrefoils–four arcs surrounding a rosette center–were derived from French cathedrals, the closest thing to a glass tower that Atwood could find. The cornice, a slender flat slab, sat atop the Reliance like a graduation cap.

The construction of the Reliance, after the upper-floor leases expired, was an achievement in speed. The steel-and-iron frame was constructed in less than a month. The entire process, from the razing of the old structure to the closing in of the new Reliance Building, was completed between May and November of 1894. The upper floors of the Reliance opened for business in March of 1895.

The new building was like nothing the city or the nation had ever seen. Many commentators focused on the blazing white exterior. Architectural Record magazine hailed the use of glazed terra-cotta as a feature that “will make this building stand out as a conspicuous mark in the history of architecture in America.” The Economist praised a surface that could “be washed by every rainstorm and may if necessary be scrubbed like a dinner plate.” In his biography of Burnham, Thomas Hines called the Reliance facade “a tightly stretched skin of glass and terra-cotta that confined and articulated the crisp and shallow bays. Over two-thirds of the street-front wall surface was glass–a radical and prophetic ratio that heralded the glass architecture of the twentieth century.”

The design and construction of the Reliance Building was sandwiched between the deaths of two of this country’s greatest architects. Root had died after designing the base. After the Reliance was completed, Charles Atwood stopped coming to work regularly. In December of 1895 Burnham fired him. Nine days later he was dead at the age of 46. “Only then,” the Tribune’s late architecture critic, Paul Gapp, would write, “did a horrified Burnham discover that Atwood had long been a mentally savaged drug addict.” Thomas Hines wrote that with Root’s death, Burnham “lost his aesthetic gyroscope.” He retreated from the “Chicago idiom that was basically Root’s and Sullivan’s” to the neoclassicism Sullivan abhorred.

Warren Kling is the Reliance’s chief engineer. A full head of white hair, matching white mustache, and robust enthusiasm belie the fact that Kling has held the same position in the same building since 1959. “It’s my queen,” he says.

Unlike many on the outside, Kling never believed the building would be demolished. “It’s too important,” he says. “It was a first in too many cases, so I didn’t believe that at all. I didn’t worry about that at all.” He acknowledges that the situation got a little scary in the early 1990s. “Well there was a point where they were, kind of — ” he pauses, choosing his words carefully — “contemplating what to do with it. But I still had faith in this thing, I just did. I never wavered.” Kling pauses again. “I had too much invested in it,” he finally says with a laugh. “I could picture this thing when it was clean. And then when the [new] cornice came up I said, “Oh, it’s going to be beautiful,’ and it sure is.”

Kling tells a story of a young boy, 12 or 13, who approached him in the early 1960s. The boy wanted a piece of memorabilia from the building, something small. He brought a note signed by the building’s owner, Herb Karoll, granting permission to take something. “I don’t remember if it was a doorknob or a hinge” that the boy wanted, says Kling. “I looked at [the note]. I recognized Mr. Karoll’s signature, and I said, “Sure, son, you can have it.’ And he was just looking in awe at everything. He was just looking at everything.”

More than 30 years later, Tim Samuelson, now an architectural historian who works for the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks, remembers that day. “I was always interested in buildings,” he says. “I used to sneak downtown to see them, and [the Reliance] was one of my favorites.” He remembers meeting Herb Karoll and Warren Kling. “And they were both very nice to me.”

After attending Roosevelt University (because it was housed in Adler and Sullivan’s famous Auditorium Building), Samuelson went on to work for noted restoration architect John Vinci and for Richard Nickel. There may be no one who knows more about the Reliance Building than Samuelson and Warren Kling. And fittingly, Samuelson wound up working closely with the Reliance restoration team to return the subject of his youthful fascination to its original condition.

Samuelson says the significance of the Reliance lies in its unprecedented comprehensive solution to “the challenge of the skyscraper–a building that’s functional, expresses its technology, expresses its time, its context, its use, and at the same time a thing of beauty,” he says. “A lot of buildings you have different aspects of it–one that might express structure but not so delicately handled. But here it has all those aspects. All of them.”

Carl Condit, in his famous 1964 text, The Chicago School of Architecture, observed, “One short step further in the design of the Reliance and [Atwood] would have produced the transparent tower that Mies van der Rohe imagined in his Berlin project of 1919.”

Condit recognized the Reliance to be “a utilitarian structure” commissioned and used as an office building since its completion. “Yet if any work of structural art in the nineteenth century anticipated the future, it is this one.” Unfortunately, the future did not repay the compliment. A decade into this century, periodic physical alterations began to afflict the Reliance, especially its first-floor exterior, as the building was bought and sold and various combinations of retailers moved in and out. A mezzanine would be installed in the late 20s, and the cornice would be removed in the late 40s or early 50s, perhaps for fear of falling terra-cotta.

The number of tenants dwindled on the upper floors, though the retail spaces below continued to prosper. Occupancy peaked in 1910 at 295 tenants, mostly physicians, but by 1920 there were only 104 tenants, by 1930 just 41. The quality of the tenants changed as well, from physicians and dentists to hair dressers and massage parlors. By 1993, the Reliance was down to six tenants, one of them Ella’s Tea Leaf Studio (a fortune teller), on the seventh floor.

Ironically, the lack of tenants on the upper floors would turn out to be a boon to the historical integrity of the interior. Because fewer tenants meant fewer alterations, the upper floors of the Reliance remained remarkably unchanged. Such late-19th-century amenities as ornamental cast-iron stairs, mahogany trim, and terrazzo floors survived the building’s decline. From the outside, however, the Reliance of the 60s and 70s was a bald, grimy misfit. The roof was rotting, plywood had replaced broken windows, and water had seeped into the joints and corroded the hooks holding the terra-cotta pieces in place, causing some to fall off the building. Rumors of demolition abounded.

Despite its deteriorating condition, the Reliance Building was officially “landmarked” by the city in 1975. It had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places five years earlier, but the city designation was more important, as it alone protected the building from the bulldozer.

Beginning in the late 1970s, architects, preservation groups, and others began to make concerted efforts to save the building. In 1979, when the North Loop Redevelopment Area was designated, its southern border ran along Washington Street in a straight line, except for a dip south to take in the Reliance. In his recent book Here’s the Deal, about Chicago’s Block 37, Ross Miller indicates the general feeling about the Reliance during the go-go 80s when he discusses real estate tycoon Arthur Rubloff’s aspirations for the North Loop area: “In his mind, not one of the old buildings in the North Loop was worth saving except for the Reliance Building, already declared a city monument and virtually untouchable anyway.”

In fact, by some accounts the Reliance was used as a pawn in the demolition of another landmark, the neighboring McCarthy Building, in 1987. The McCarthy, an 1872 building designed by John Van Osdel, regarded as Chicago’s first architect, was considered one of the best remaining examples of postfire architecture, one of the few postfire buildings not demolished during the 1880s and 1890s. In 1984 the McCarthy’s facade was landmarked by the City Council, protecting it from demolition. Or so it seemed.

During the later 1980s, a real estate venture known as FJV proposed to redevelop the block bounded by State, Washington, Dearborn, and Randolph streets: the infamous Block 37. Early plans called for an office/retail complex, to be designed by architect Helmut Jahn, with a tunnel coming off Lake Street and running beneath two city blocks to service the block. When calculations revealed this to be a practical impossibility, it was determined that the only alternative was a ramp off Washington, right through the land occupied by the McCarthy Building. After rejecting the idea of moving the protected McCarthy facade to a different corner, FJV appealed to the city for permission to demolish the landmarked structure.

“The Reliance Building was a keeper, from my understanding, from the beginning,” says then planning commissioner Elizabeth Hollander. But the way Block 37 was conceived, “there was no way to keep the McCarthy Building there. It also, in my opinion, would have looked really silly, this little 1880s building in this megablock designed by Helmut Jahn.”

Hollander calls the decision to sacrifice the McCarthy “really painful.” Ross Miller calls it a trade-off. “Only by looking at. . . . all of the deals that were struck [by the city] with the developer do you realize that this was the understanding, because no one will ever tell you that this was a quid pro quo,” he said in an interview. “Because it’s not in anybody’s interest to say that monuments were traded, Reliance versus the McCarthy Building, nor that the city would have done this sort of dealing, that basically condemned a building that they were publicly committed to saving. But in the end this is what happened.”

Thus, the city agreed to dedesignate the McCarthy, but only after FJV promised either to restore the Reliance itself or to contribute $1 million toward its restoration as well as up to another million toward other unspecified preservation efforts. “All of this legal extortion of the private sector put the city in the odd position of holding its own monuments hostage,” wrote Miller in Here’s the Deal. “For enough money, any building could be taken down.”

Hollander would, of course, disagree. But she isn’t shy about expressing a preference in buildings, stating that “we always thought [the Reliance] was an important building, and more important than the McCarthy Building.”

On September 23, 1987, the Chicago City Council rescinded landmark status for the McCarthy Building. A lawsuit filed by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI) succeeded in delaying the inevitable, but the building was demolished in late 1989. Today the entire block remains undeveloped, the commercial real estate market having collapsed at about the same time the McCarthy did.

In 1988 developer Irving Markin made a deal with Herb Karoll, who owned the Reliance Building and whose flagship men’s store occupied the first floor. Markin, in conjunction with the LPCI, purchased an option to buy the building. “I suggested that what we do is renovate the building completely and turn it into a co-op, the shares of which would be owned by not-for-profits,” says Markin. Markin’s group got 15 not-for-profits to commit tentatively to the project. The city promised to ante up FJV’s million-dollar contribution as well as some matching funds if other money should come through. The rest would depend on grants from foundations. However, according to former LPCI program coordinator Vince Michael, a feasibility study determined that the project was confusing and would not translate into grant money, and the plug was pulled. That year, the 93-year-old, steadily deteriorating Reliance was declared one of 14 “landmarks at risk” by the National Park Service.

The problems posed by the Reliance that made restoration so difficult to finance were essentially two. The first was the complicated ownership arrangement. In 1893, while waiting for the upper-floor tenants to vacate, William Hale had sold the land to fellow developer Otto Young, who in turn leased it back to Hale for 198 years. In late 1986, the ground was purchased by Cleveland developer Harvey Oppmann. The leaseholder was an organization called Reliance Associates. Under the original arrangement between Hale and Young, the leasehold interest controlled by Reliance Associates would not expire until 2091. To further confuse matters, Reliance Associates subleased the property to Herb Karoll.

The way it worked was this: Karoll paid rent to Reliance Associates (around $44,000 annually, according to Oppmann), which in turn paid about half of that to Oppmann. Anyone seeking clear title to the building would have to go through all three entities.

The second, more imposing difficulty was the small floor plate of the building (less than 5,000 square feet per floor), which precluded larger tenants and easy leasing. Another complication was the cast-iron staircase running up the middle of the building from the 7th floor to the 14th. Though an architectural highlight, the staircase would pose a security concern by allowing access to the middle of any upper floor. This reduced the marketability of the Reliance even further. A private developer was unlikely to earn back in rents what it expended for renovation.

The problems posed by the Reliance were not unique; older buildings throughout the country experienced similar difficulties. As an incentive to restore these buildings, the U.S. Department of the Interior offers tax credits to developers whose restorations adhere to the department’s standards. Despite this, the Reliance, one of the most celebrated structures in architectural history, could not attract a buyer.

In late 1990 a New York-based student exchange group called AFS International announced its desire to purchase and restore the Reliance Building, with plans to occupy nearly all of the Reliance’s 57,000 square feet. In addition to restoring the Reliance, AFS’s relocation would bring hundreds of new jobs to Chicago. The city of Chicago, waging a bidding war with Baltimore, promised six million dollars in grants and low-interest loans for restoration. The state treasurer’s office pledged another five million dollars in low-interest loans. In October of 1991 Karoll decided to close his menswear shop, further clearing the way for the AFS move.

But the deal collapsed at the last minute. Unable to find a buyer for its Manhattan headquarters in a weak New York real estate market, AFS decided not to move.

By this time the Reliance was in such a shoddy state that city planning officials and preservationists alike worried that it might not survive many more winters. Finally concluding that the Reliance would not be saved without significant government intervention, the city decided to acquire the Reliance itself, and then find a developer to restore and purchase it. The city sent out requests for proposals by developers, and the team of Baldwin Development Company and the McClier Corporation, architects, was chosen. The team had recently completed an award-winning restoration of the landmark Rookery, and McClier had been contracted to design the restoration for AFS International before that project fell through. According to city officials, the team’s work on the Rookery and the fact that the Baldwin/McClier proposal requested the least money from the city ($5 million) contributed to the team’s selection.

One of the other bidders was Harvey Oppmann, the Cleveland developer owned the land on which the Reliance sat. Oppmann had heard about the Reliance in the early 1980s, while working on a restoration of Chicago’s Dearborn Station with Chicago restoration architect Wilbert Hasbrouck. When Oppmann visited the Reliance he was awestruck. “It sounds corny, but I fell in love with the building,” he says. “You walk down right across from Marshall Field’s on State and Washington, you’ve got a building that maybe to the average person looks like just a lousy, run-down, dirty, blighted building. But underneath all that was an absolutely spectacular edifice that was screaming to be restored.”

Oppmann set up a meeting with Herb Karoll, who told him about the ground lease. Determined to purchase and restore the Reliance, Oppmann learned that this lease contained several requirements and prohibitions limiting the building’s use. Not wanting to own the building subject to such onerous restrictions, Oppmann spent two years negotiating the purchase of the land lease, finally securing title to the ground under the Reliance in late 1986 for $210,000. Then he met again with Karoll. But now Karoll showed no desire either to restore the building or to sell it to Oppmann. At a crossroads, Oppmann decided to sue both Reliance Associates, the original leaseholder, and Karoll, claiming that the lease required the building to be maintained in the best possible condition.

The suit dragged on for years. Oppmann produced a letter from the city stating that the Reliance had been cited for 11 building code violations in 1987. Reliance Associates and Karoll countersued, alleging that Oppmann was obligated to maintain the building. The counterclaim was dismissed, and Oppmann’s lawsuit was still dragging on when the city awarded the restoration contract to Baldwin/McClier. After a decade of work in pursuit of the Reliance, Oppmann was out of the picture.

Although the Baldwin proposal initially called for a $17 million restoration of the interior and exterior of the building, a comprehensive study done in 1994 determined the total cost would exceed $22 million. The city balked at paying the escalating costs associated with the project. The plan was modified: only the exterior would be restored initially. The interior would be addressed when the future use of the building was settled.

“It became pretty apparent to us that the interior restoration . . . was highly dependent on use, and no one really knew what that use wanted to be, should be, could be at that point,” says Alan Schachtman, vice president for development of U.S. Equities, a multifaceted real estate firm acting as the city’s consultant on North Loop projects. “Our whole thought was that if you go ahead and restore the exterior and show people what this thing really could be, you’re going to get a ton of interest from all kinds of people who want to do something with the building, and the whole marketing process and the selling process . . . would be much easier and much more beneficial to the city, the taxpayers, and everything else.”

Thus Baldwin, which had originally proposed to restore the entire building and subsequently purchase it from the city, became merely the project manager of the exterior renovation, with no decisions made about the future of the interior or the future ownership of the building.

Before any restoration could begin, however, the city needed to resolve its ownership of the Reliance. Since the city had become an active participant in the process and was resigned to owning the building at least temporarily, the next step was to exercise its eminent domain powers. Essentially, eminent domain is the right of a governmental entity to condemn or appropriate private property for public use. The authority conferred by eminent domain is broad, and the three criteria–statutory authority, public purpose, and necessity–are easily met. Basically, if an authorized governmental entity wants your property it can take it, though it must pay you “just compensation.” Eminent domain is used most often to obtain land for large-scale public projects like highways and universities (the Dan Ryan Expressway and the University of Illinois at Chicago, for instance).

One drawback is the requirement to negotiate price with the property owner. If such negotiations fail, a court will determine the price. This takes time. In situations where time is of the essence, for instance when a landmark building is turning to dust before one’s eyes, a city may use its “quick-take” powers. Quick-take allows the city to obtain title to a property before its fair market value has been determined. It’s a risky approach, because once it seizes the property the city is at the mercy of the court. It is bound to pay whatever the court determines is a fair price. In this case, the deterioration of the Reliance was sufficiently alarming that quick-take was used for the purchase. The city ultimately paid $1.2 million for the building.

The next step was to fund the exterior renovation. The Daley administration, vocally in support of the Reliance effort, requested an allocation from the City Council of the estimated $6.4 million it would take to adequately restore the outside of the building to its 19th-century condition.

The money, if approved, would not come from the city’s general revenues. Instead, it would be Tax Increment Financing (TIF) money designated specifically for the North Loop redevelopment area, into which the Reliance had been gerrymandered years before. When a TIF district is designated by the city its property tax levels are frozen. That is, the tax revenue generated by the existing properties is determined, and for a set number of years any revenue generated by property in the district beyond that original amount goes into a special fund.

The North Loop TIF district was created in 1984. Since that time, new buildings such as the Stouffer hotel, the R.R. Donnelly Building, and the Leo Burnett Building, all on Wacker Drive, have greatly increased the amount of tax revenue produced by the area. Every dollar produced above the 1984 revenue level has gone into the North Loop TIF fund, which can be used only in the North Loop area, and only to redevelop existing structures and to purchase property. The fund cannot finance the construction of new buildings.

Not known for its love of landmarks, the City Council was being asked to spend millions of public dollars to fund the restoration of a building whose commercial viability was doubtful, on a very important corner in the middle of the Loop. Alderman John Steele led the opposition. “I suggest we take the $6 million and blow the building up,” he said, “and then we can sell the land underneath and maybe make some money on it.” Alderman Ed Burke, speaking reluctantly in favor of the funding, lamented that “we never should have landmarked [the Reliance]. But the city is left holding the bag when we made it a landmark. We have no other choice.”

A perhaps surprising vote of confidence for the Reliance came from Alderman Burton Natarus, whose ward would soon encompass the building. “If we had to repair the Lincoln Memorial or the Washington Monument . . . would anybody object to that? No. This building in Chicago is as important as that.”

In the end, by a vote of 39-6 the City Council approved the funds.

“We don’t often buy buildings for purposes like this,” says Greg Longhini, spokesman for the Department of Planning and Development. “The Reliance is a very important building in a redevelopment area that had been targeted for 20 years for redevelopment, with a financing district in place that could allow for the purchase of the building. It’s not going to happen frequently.”

According to Alderman Steele, it perhaps shouldn’t have happened at all. “If on the open market the building had very little value,” asks Steele, “why [was] the city . . . saying that it was worth so much, when to the public it wasn’t? I just felt as if we were moving into an area that we had no business moving into.

“Certainly, I think we should save and preserve buildings that have landmark status and that are of importance. But I don’t know if the city should personally take on this responsibility or if this is the responsibility of the private sector.”

Asking for such a significant subsidy from the City Council was “a major political risk,” says Robert Bruegmann, professor of art history and urbanism at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Only a mayor like Daley, the current Daley, is firmly enough in control of the political situation that he was able to pull it off.” The use of TIF funds only underscored the risk. “Here you have a city that has tremendous economic problems, and for the city to spend millions of dollars on a project where it doesn’t even benefit the rest of the people in the city, that’s a very hard sell.”

Longhini doesn’t agree. He thinks the Reliance renovation will pay for itself in years to come. “It will help, and be a catalyst for further renovation on the street and the area, which ultimately will benefit the city,” he says. “And I think when you look at the other developments that have taken place since we finally started working there, the Disney lease at the Chicago Theatre, the Oriental Theatre . . . other developers’ interest in State Street. I’m not sure that all that would have happened if it had still sat there [unrestored]. What we did with the Reliance Building is a symbol of the city’s commitment to still invest in that area.”

Is the Reliance, standing alone, economically viable? “Is it viable without $6 million from the city?” asks Bruegmann. “Almost certainly not. If it had been, someone probably would have done something with it. The converse of that is that anything is viable if you put in enough money on it.” On the other hand, Block 37, considered one of the most viable locations in the city, and the object of countless millions of dollars, sits undeveloped, as it has for seven years.

The restoration of the Reliance is occurring in three phases. First came a comprehensive study of the building’s condition, which led to a three-volume historic structures report (HSR). Phase two was the exterior restoration itself, and phase three will be the interior work. If the initial study had determined that the building was not salvageable, phases two and three would have been canceled.

It was determined that the exterior renovation would be completed as a “design-build” project, with McClier and contractor UBM Inc. acting as joint venture partners. This step, unusual for city-funded projects, consolidated the design and construction aspects of the renovation and allowed architect and contractor to carry out their respective tasks in unison, instead of McClier producing the plans and then handing them off to UBM.

The exterior restoration was led by McClier’s Gunny Harboe, a preservation specialist who’d been chief architect on the Rookery. Harboe was determined to restore the building to its 19th-century condition. In order to ascertain the dates of the Reliance’s many alterations over the years, the architect played detective. Harboe used a combination of historic photographs, old building directories listing Reliance tenants, and building permits to figure out the chronology of events in the building’s history.

The exterior of the Reliance hadn’t reached the point of no return, Harboe noted, but its condition was poor. Terra-cotta, like any clay product, tends to expand slightly over time from moisture in the air. At the same time, the “stack” effect of the terra-cotta pieces over 100 years had led to compression. These opposite forces caused severe cracking. (Expansion joints would have accommodated the movement but they didn’t exist in 1894.) Water had seeped inside the facade through the cracks in the terra-cotta and elsewhere, corroding the metal anchorages and loosening the terra-cotta from the frames. Of the approximately 14,000 terra-cotta pieces on the building, over 2,000 would need to be replaced and 1,000 more would need to be removed and reinstalled. Also, it appeared the terra-cotta hadn’t been cleaned for decades.

The missing terra-cotta cornice was rebuilt in cast aluminum, a lighter material that resists corrosion and could be molded to produce the same fine detailing as the original. As a result, the new cornice is more durable, easier to maintain, and less likely than its predecessor to corrode and send pieces of itself onto the heads of pedestrians.

The most striking difference between the renovated Reliance and the original involves the windows. The firm of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, which consulted on the terra-cotta facades and windows of the Reliance, found that most of the large plate glass windows were in poor condition, some threatening to come loose and fall. Architect Harboe and Tim Samuelson of the landmarks commission recognized to their chagrin that the replacement windows would never truly duplicate the originals, all of which would have to be replaced to avoid a checkerboard appearance. The existing windows were composed of single panes of plate glass three-eighths of an inch thick that reflected light evenly and without distortion. The new windows, thicker and double-paned, would reflect with a slight but distinct distortion.

“I feel we left no stone unturned as far as trying to get the best glass possible,” Harboe says. “But what we have there is what is available for the modern glass manufacturing processes. . . . This is a problem that you have throughout preservation; it’s not just this job. . . . You just have to find the best match you can get and then work with it.”

The fact is, he says, that nobody makes polished plate glass of the size required anymore, nor do single-paned windows of that size meet current industry standards. Large single-paned windows have a tendency to create drafts as cold is transferred from the outside to the inside of the glass.

The once operable windows on either side of the large picture windows were sealed shut. Modern office-building standards require a “closed system,” says Harboe. Allowing tenants to open and shut individual windows would throw off a central heating and cooling system.

“We were very interested in trying to maintain the original look of the windows from the outside,” he says, and aside from the slightly distorted reflection, “the windows that are in there now are identical in how they look from the outside of the building.”

The look of the original windows was of such importance to Harboe and his team that they kept a set of originals on the eighth floor of the Washington Street facade. Harboe’s talk about distortion in the new windows seems like hair splitting until one views the originals surrounded by the new windows. The difference is dramatic. The new windows reflect blue sky, clouds, maybe a “house of mirrors” image of Marshall Field’s. The original windows, however, seem to reflect nothing. They appear as “voids in the building’s white frame,” as Blair Kamin put it.

Other major components of the restoration included the rebuilding of two second-floor bays, one on the east facade and one on the north, that had been removed in 1941. These bays were restored with their original decorative bronze bottoms, which provided an elegant transition to the building’s red granite base. That base, however, has yet to return. The first floor of the building is now housed in a temporary facade of dark glass and aluminum. The base, like the interior renovation, must wait for the next phase. Also on hold is the restoration of a light well on the Washington Street sidewalk that allowed light into the basement. The light well–originally lined with glazed brick–was filled in sometime between 1905 and 1914.

So what is everybody waiting for? “The next step,” says U.S. Equities’ Alan Schachtman, “is to figure out what the real highest and best use is, and do that by looking at other examples, which we’ve started to do already . . . and also by testing the market.”

Once that’s accomplished, he says, “what will probably happen is the city will negotiate a redevelopment agreement with somebody which involves a purchase of the building and a redevelopment of the building. Whether the city will put additional funds into the building or not is . . . who knows at this point?”

So the next phase, including the interior renovation, the first floor, and related activities, is a whole new ball game. Baldwin’s chief financial officer, Robert Fraley, says the company would like to stay involved. “Baldwin is interested in seeing the project completed,” he says, and “would be interested, under the right circumstances, in being the owner. . . assuming certain things can be worked out relative to the balance of the financing needed.”

If Baldwin does not ultimately purchase the building, Fraley says, it would still like to serve as project manager, with McClier continuing as architects.

Being great does not ensure the survival of a building any more than it does of a person. Richard Nickel died at the age of 44. John Wellborn Root at 41, and Charles Atwood at 46. The Stock Exchange was demolished in its 76th year, the Garrick in its 69th. But the Reliance Building, despite many shaky years, is going strong at 101. What happened to put the Reliance in the category of a survivor? Many things, perhaps. The destruction of its brethren, possibly. The Garrick was demolished in 1961, the Stock Exchange in 1972. Both were Louis Sullivan buildings, and their demolition may have wakened something–in people, and even perhaps in government–that ultimately saved the Reliance. And the McCarthy Building’s absurd death may be imbued with some meaning after all. All these things may have made a few key people in key positions look at the Reliance and decide that they didn’t want to pave another paradise.

The Reliance was lucky. Lucky to be included in the North Loop redevelopment area and thus eligible for TIF funds. Lucky that the block on which it sits was not targeted for new development, which could have endangered it. Lucky, too, that the prior demolitions made the city self-conscious when the Reliance’s time might have been up. But it was the inherent quality and significance of the building that did most to protect it. The Reliance is a building about which it could be said, “If they knock this down, they can knock anything down.”

Cities occupy a special place in our imagination, in large part because they embody the tension between history and change. The best American cities experience this tension to a profound degree–none more so than Chicago. A city without a dynamic future is doomed: so is a city with no sense of its own history. The beauty of a city is its evolution, its fluidity, its growth. Yet, without the ability to see today in the context of yesterday, the city proves true the words of Nelson Algren, that “Chicago lives like a drunken El-rider, who cannot remember where he got on nor at what station he wants to get off. The sound of wheels moving below satisfies him that he is making great progress.”

Chicago can be a tough city, and when commerce runs up against beauty, watch out, because the results may not be pretty. The ruins of the Garrick weren’t pretty, and neither were the ruins of the Stock Exchange. Today, the Reliance is a practical dinosaur, and if the market ruled tyrannically it would also be gone. The market doesn’t have a soul, but Chicago, it turns out, does. The Reliance was too crucial a part of our identity to lose, too strong a link to another time. It softens the edges of life. It stirs our blood.

According to biographer Robert Twombly, Louis Sullivan claimed that Daniel Burnham and the neoclassical 1893 world’s fair had “set back the progress of creative American Architecture . . . for an indefinite time to come.” Burnham’s “commercialization of the art has literally crowded us into the gutter.” Perhaps Sullivan would turn in his grave to think that his masterpieces were destroyed so that any building associated with Burnham could live.

Yet Sullivan himself wrote of skyscrapers: “The appeal and inspiration lie, of course, in the element of loftiness, in the suggestion of slenderness and aspiration, the soaring quality as of a thing rising from the earth as a unitary utterance, Dionysian in beauty.” If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was talking about the Reliance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Building photos courtesy of McClier/photo by Leslie Schwartz.