By Barry Sears, Hon. AIA
The Chicago Board of Trade building at LaSalle and Jackson Streets (architects Holabird and Root, 1930) is a one-of-a-kind project for particular and well-heeled clients. It arrived in a new style for architecture which – suddenly, but briefly (1920s-1940) – became a world-wide sensation.
The style came to be known as “Art Deco”. One critic called it ‘the last of the total styles’ – recognizable immediately in an ash tray, a toaster, a washing machine, an ocean liner – or an American skyscraper. It celebrated the machine age with rich materials expressing modern and ancient motifs. Unlike older architectural styles, it could express a building’s purpose not just with a name, but through its ornamentation.
Art Deco first appeared in Europe, where the public, depressed after the devastation of the Great War, turned its attention to exotic, fresh places not noticed before. Archeology in the old Ottoman Empire brought to life ancient designs from the middle East. Meso-American imagery arrived via the Mexican Revolution. Cubism, in its flat, geometrical forms, dominated the art world.
Let us walk south on LaSalle from Madison Street. Observe the prominent CBOT tower – the city’s tallest for more than thirty years. Its location at the foot of Chicago’s historically most important business and banking street proclaimed its status as a signature city business. Its shape is different from older – and newer buildings. Zoning rules from 1923 required tall buildings to be “set back” above a certain height, to allow pedestrians more daylight. Anything exceeding 264 feet above the lot line could use only one-quarter of the lot’s size to go higher. As a result, many Chicago buildings of the Art Deco era acquired an “armchair” look – as you can see in the CBOT.
Tall buildings of the Deco era were typically clad in smooth, light limestone. Windows were recessed and separated vertically by darkened ‘spandrels’. Shallower set-backs typically appeared in the higher floors. Buildings seemed to reach for the sky compared to those from an earlier period, whose projecting cornices ‘stopped the eye’.
Getting closer, you can begin to see how ornamentation advances a theme. Ceres, the Roman goddess of grain, stands thirty feet tall on a pyramid at the pinnacle. Sharp eyes can detect her garment’s squared folds, mimicking the lower façade’s alternating pattern of surface limestone and inset windows.
Framing the lettering above the tall windows (inside was the original trading floor) are buffalo heads, representing animals that had roamed the prairies where farmers now grow grain. Left of the clock is the first farmer – a Sumerian? – holding the first crop ever cultivated by a human – wheat. To the right is an American Indian with corn, which of course was native only to the Western hemisphere. Above is a hawk, poised to protect the grain, let’s say, from rats and mice (interior protection is provided by owls, visible in nickel-silver below the second-floor level. They will hunt when the lobby is dark). Below, at the center, is time – a crucial factor in the era of ‘open-outcry’ trading.
Let’s admire the interior – visitors are welcome during the business day.
In the tracery above the exterior doors are historic haystacks. Entering through a revolving door, you’ve just walked under stalks of corn and beside sheaves of wheat. The elegant lobby ahead – you might think of Fred and Ginger taking a turn on the marble floor – is about to reveal some intriguing connections.
King Tut’s tomb, opened in 1922, fascinated the world and enriched the Art Deco style. A mummy, a bed, jewelry were all there – as well as amphorae laden with grain for the king’s afterlife. Recalling that you are under a pyramid, that you’ve just traveled through a lowered corridor into a tomb-like space … this might be Tut’s place!
Continuing south to the elevator hallway – leaving Egypt and Tut – notice the original elevator doors. Are you seeing tightly-bound sheaves of wheat … or martini glasses? Turning left towards the side exit, note the row of three mailboxes, each fronted with a stylized eagle. The first two are for regular mail. On the third – air mail – the eagle has a propeller.
Exiting east to the plaza, you might pause to imagine the fun that must have infected the architects and designers who invented these small details – and enriched the enormous work of art that is the Chicago Board of Trade.