Back before supermarket chains and corporate food distribution systems, most of us shopped at a small grocery store that was within easy walking distance of home. Wholesalers supplied these tens of thousands of mom and pop establishments with the goods that packed their corner grocery shelves, and the city’s rail-linked central location made for a cheap and effective way to distribute teas, coffees, spices, canned goods, and a menagerie of household items. Simon Reid and Thomas Murdoch had the realization early on that big things were happening in Chicago, and relocated their twelve-year-old grocery business from Dubuque, Iowa to the flourishing Lake Michigan adjacent municipality in 1865. It proved to be a wise move. By the time Reid died in 1892, Reid Murdoch & Co. was one of the largest wholesale grocers in the nation, along with Chicago-based firms like Sprague & Warner, Franklin MacVeagh & Co., W.M. Hoyt, John W. Doane, and John Sexton & Co. – a handful of companies that controlled a majority of the wholesale grocery trade in the United States.
When 81-year-old Thomas Murdoch died on Christmas Eve in 1909 his $4 million estate was left to his nieces, and the firm’s management was taken over by a team of executives that had been with the company for decades. In July of that year the Commercial Club of Chicago had released a visionary plan for the city engineered by architects Daniel Burnham and Edward Bennett. The scope of the project was immense and called for a rethinking and reworking of Chicago’s built environment in the hopes of creating a better, more livable, and more beautiful city. When the heads of the Reid Murdoch firm went on the hunt for more warehouse space in 1913, they set their sights on a piece of property on the north bank of the main branch of the Chicago River between La Salle and Clark Streets. Not only would the parcel provide easy access to the river, but it also abutted a branch line of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. The Western Warehouse buildings occupied the western two-thirds of the site, and a row of storefronts with “Rooms” above them lined the eastern third along Clark. The grocery concern was able to acquire the warehouses, but only the owner of one of the Clark Street buildings overlooking the river would sell, so although Reid Murdoch would have the entire river frontage from Clark to La Salle, their building would have to step back to allow for the remaining Clark Street row of buildings than ran up to the C&NW tracks. Architect George C. Nimmons would be the first to apply the principles of the Burnham Bennett plan to a river front location.
Nimmons, in partnership with William Fellows, had made a name for himself as architect of the massive Sears, Roebuck & Co. complex on the city’s west side. When Nimmons, now on his own, got the Reid Murdoch commission in 1913 the architect introduced a few of the motifs used by the practitioners of a style that would one day be known as the Prairie School into the design. He nudged the structure’s facade away from the typically utilitarian exterior that encased the standard loft warehouse, and broke up the usual plain, flat brick surface with a repetition of setbacks, embellishment with geometric-patterned, terra cotta. To top it all off, a 5-story clock tower was placed smack in the middle of the river facing facade, and unlike its neighbors, the new warehouse building would sit back from the river’s edge to allow for a bit of Burnham Bennett breathing space.
In the early 1920s the city began talking about implementing another piece of the 1909 Plan by widening La Salle Street from Washington Street to Lincoln Park. One segment of the overall scope of the proposed project was spanning the river with a new bridge, replacing the old La Salle Street tunnel that had run under the river since the Great Fire. By the Fall of 1926 construction of the bridge was underway, and not only did La Salle grow by an additional 40 feet in width, but 20 plus feet of the Reid Murdoch building had to be removed in the process. The loss of the one westernmost bay was seamless. The La Salle Street side of the building was removed, rebuilt, and unless you took the time to count, you might not have even noticed that the building wasn’t bay symmetrical any longer. In 1946 Reid Murdoch’s new owners Consolidated Grocers finally purchased the Clark Street buildings for $60,000 not long before the City of Chicago began talking about relocating the traffic court division to a new facility. In 1954 the city paid $2,130,000 for Nimmons warehouse, and over the next 47 years millions of people begrudgingly came to the Traffic Court building. The city sold the structure to developer Albert Friedman in 1998, which sent the Cook County Board into a tizzy since they would now have to pay much more than the token $1.00 a year to rent space for the courts, and were finally out of the building three years later. The renovated, concrete slab floored structure is now home to the headquarters of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and a number of retail and office clients.
An archival update. We’re still hard at work transferring our archives in an attempt to make our stories about Chicago’s spectacular built environment linkable, searchable, and therefore, once again accessible. It is quite an undertaking. Hope to be done soon – we’ll keep you posted!