When Chicago businessman and real estate entrepreneur Levi Z. Leiter
[Second Leiter Building – Robert Morris University (1891) William Le Baron Jenney, Jenney & Mundie, architects /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
purchased the southeast corner of State and Van Buren Streets in 1881, he was buying a piece of Chicago pop culture history. Back when the interesction was so far out-of-town that it was barely recognizable as an intersection, William Bross put his in-town, wood-framed house on wheels and rolled it down the mud rut that eventually became State Street and planted his house at the corner of Van Buren. He decided to leave it sitting on its wheel base so as to prevent the home from sinking into the mud, and his story became one of those often repeated early Chicago urban legends.
By the time Leiter purchased the property from Henry C. Rew in February,
[Second Leiter Building – Robert Morris Univeristy, 403 S. State Street, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
1881 Gross’s house was long gone, the Chicago Fire had burned through the area and there was a post-fire commercial property standing on the corner. Leiter had just ended his long-time and very profitable realtionship as Marshall Field’s retail partner. He was done with the day-to-day grind of Field Leiter & Co.
and ready to grow his large bank account with investments in real estate, railroads, banks, and Chicago’s emerging rapid transit system.
Leiter’s purchase comprised a parcel that consumed one-half of the block
[Second Leiter Building – Robert Morris University, National Historic Landmark, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
frontage running south along State Street from Van Buren, and over the next eight years, piece-by-piece, purchased the remaining frontage south to Congress Street. As a stockholder in the Chicago City Railway Company which took over the Chicago and South Side Rapid Transit Elevated Railway, Leiter may have known, or played a role in, having the Loop terminus of the south side line end at Congress Street
, abutting the southern edge land investment – or perhaps it was pure coincidence. He then got to work on improving the block-long property and hired one of the city’s most promiment and developer friendly architects William Le Baron Jenney. Leiter had already worked with Jenney on another piece of downtown commercial real estate the dry-goods-merchant-turned-venture-capitalist had constructed in 1879 at the corner of Wells and Monroe Street
. Jenney produced a building that was Miesian before Mies. The architect opened up the spans between supporting piers as far as technology would allow and filled the open bays of the loft-style building with panes of glass that would help plant the seeds of the future revolutionary style that became known as the Chicago School. In the Second Leiter building Jenney would do much of the same.
The Second Leiter was much larger than the first and included structural
[Second Leiter Building – Robert Morris University, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
innovations that Jenney came to use in other projects, like his renowned Home Insurance Building. Jenney had also been working with an industrious young man named William Mundie, who would become a full partner in Jenney’s firm and have his name added to the door by the time the State Street Leiter building was completed in 1891. The building was bare bones structurally. The minimal yet strong, supporting metal frame
allowed for an open flexible interior, and as with the First Leiter
, large, 16-foot-high window bay openings were filled with glass. Plus, the frame and foundations were able to handle the two stories Leiter eventually added to the original seven. The grey granite exterior was heavy and hefty looking, far beyond any structural requirement, but it gave the building substance and attracted the attention of Siegel, Cooper & Co. Siegel & Cooper already had a presence in a retail emporium located at the corner of Adams and Wabash
, but in August 1891, just as construction was winding-up on Levi Leiter’s latest investment, Siegel, Copper & Co. nearly burned to the ground. After surveying the damage they renegotiated the lease on their burned-out corner lot, then in an abrupt about-face, leased the 12-acre, 538,620 sqaure-foot Leiter building for a term of ten years at $280,000 per anum, joining a long line of large-square-foot consuming retailers that stretched along Chicago’s retail mecca, where they remained for another 16 years.
By the time Siegel, Cooper vacated the premises in 1917 Levi Leiter was dead,
[Second Leiter Building – Robert Morris University, Loop Retail Historic District, Chicago /Image & Artwork: designslinger]
and his son Joseph was overseeing his father’s vast estate. Joe Leiter got in touch with Bill Mundie who had taken over the architectural firm from Mr. Jenney, with the intent of using that flexibly-partionable interior space to its best advantage by creating an indoor shopping mall of a sort. Instead of looking for one tenant to take over the whole building, Joe’s idea was to lease space to a variety of retail tenants and create a kind of indoor shopping arena. It didn’t work out as well as Joe had hoped. Then in the early 1930s just as the Great Depression was really beginning to place the U.S. economy in a stranglehold, Sears Roebuck & Co. decided to take over the entire Leiter property and open their first downtown Chicago retail location. The grand opening on March 1, 1932 was so overwhelmingly successful, drawing tens of thousands of shoppers in one day, that Sears took out a full page ad in the Chicago Tribune
on March 4th with a prominent banner exclaiming “Thank You Chicago!” The good times for Sears on State lasted until the early 1980′s when many of the large State Street department stores began folding up their tents and vacating what had once been the city’s primary retail destination. In 1998 Robert Morris College moved into Jenney’s adaptable building and continues to occupy the massive structure today as Robert Morris University.
See more of William Le Baron Jenney and William Mundie at: Manhattan Building; Ludington Building; New York Life Insurance Building, Chicago; 19 S. La Salle Street/Association Building; Morton Building, Chicago.