For 93 years, the Chicago Tribune’s journalists practiced their craft from the majestic, neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, at 435 N. Michigan Ave. But the building has been sold to developers, and the Tribune is settling into a new home a few blocks south, at One Prudential Plaza. Last Friday, the final boxes were packed at Tribune Tower and the newsroom raised a toast to all of the work that was accomplished there.
After several years of company turmoil, the Chicago Tribune no longer owns the Tribune Tower, and most of its newsroom and business operations are quietly relocating. Journalists worked at the Tower through Friday evening, June 8, and reported to their new newsroom as soon as the following day.
Los Angeles-based developer CIM Group completed the $240 million purchase from Tribune Media, with plans to transform the historic North Michigan Avenue property into a mixed-use redevelopment.
Elements of the development could include retail, residential, office space and a hotel, with the landmarked 36-story tower at the center of any plans, according to CIM.
The Tribune’s move into Tribune Tower was hardly a quiet affair. On July 6, 1925, when the tower’s doors officially opened, an estimated 20,000 people showed up, according to the Tribune, eager to get a first look at what was inside.
“Judges and society matrons, folks from out of town, a mother with a couple of perspiring children dragging at her arms, a sister in her heavy black robes, an old fellow who boasted he’d read the Tribune for 35 years, all these and many more packed themselves into the lobby of the tower and swarmed over every one of its 34 floors,” the Tribune reported.
The paper delighted in printing the gushing tributes of notables and other newspapers.
The Illinois State Journal, a Springfield paper, wrote that the tower would “be a joy forever.” The Grand Rapids Press said that, because of the tower, “Chicago is everlastingly better as a place to live and visit because of the Tribune’s artistic tower on Michigan Boulevard.” A hometown rival, the Chicago Daily News, saluted the Tribune’s “exquisite achievement.”
Charles H. Wacker, the head of the Chicago Plan Commission, and his wife sent a telegram. “It was only one telegram among many,” the Tribune noted, “but a phrase in it seemed to sum up the day. ‘There is eloquence in stone and steel,’ it read. ‘There is inspiration in good architecture. There is character building in good surroundings.’”
For its part, the Tribune — founded in 1847 and already in its seventh location — hadn’t waited upon others to praise its new headquarters. Before there was so much as a single blueprint, the Tribune proclaimed its tower to be “the world’s most beautiful office building.”
That phrase was chief among the specifications Col. Robert McCormick and Joseph Patterson, cousins and co-publishers, set when announcing a competition for the tower’s design, on June 10, 1922. The prize money totaled $100,000.
“There never has been such a contest and it is very doubtful that there ever will be another,” the Tribune boasted. “Nothing of this kind has ever been offered to students and lovers of architecture.”
As the winning entry neared completion, the Tribune devised an imaginative stunt to demonstrate the grandeur of the project it had undertaken. On May 10, 1925, it announced that Ray Schalk, the White Sox catcher, would attempt to catch a baseball dropped from the top floor of the tower, about 460 feet above Michigan Avenue.
The next day, mounted police closed the street to traffic, and 10,000 spectators — the Tribune’s estimate — watched as Schalk succeeded on his third try. “Ray bagged the ball with as much ease as if it was simply one of those high fouls that are sometimes hit by Babe Ruth,” the Tribune reported. “Ruth never hit one-half that high.”
The Tribune previously noted that its building was “high enough to look down on the top of our neighbor, the Wrigley Building, across the street,” but expected to be overtaken by the Morrison Hotel, then also under construction and since demolished.
The tower’s pedigree, however, remained unique. Upon winning the Tribune’s competition, architects John Howells and Raymond Hood went to Europe to check their design against its medieval ancestors. “Tribune Tower is first cousin to the tower which is the glory of Rouen,” explained a Tribune story, referring to the Tour de Beurre at the Rouen Cathedral in Normandy, France.
Howells and Hood envisioned flying buttresses and gargoyles and were also inspired by a 14th century cathedral in Malines, Belgium.
A Tribune foreign correspondent interviewed Hood and reported: “Romance in stone and steel will be built into the Gothic tower of the new home of the Tribune that will stretch back 500 years to the building of Malines cathedral.”
The cathedral’s original plans had recently been found, and they showed that its famed tower was intended to be twice its size. “It would have been extremely difficult for the builders of Malines to have carried up the tower 600 feet, but with steel construction today it could be easily completed,” Hood explained.
His theory couldn’t be fully tested, given the height restrictions of Chicago’s building code. But his vision — a Gothic dream fulfilled by modern technology and American gumption — became the storyline for nearly all of the Tribune’s coverage of the tower.
When a German developer took a tour of the unfinished tower, it was noted: “He was dumbfounded to find the contractors don’t wait to put on the roof on before they begin to plaster and put in interior marble and woodwork.”
The Tribune gleefully reported the reaction of the German visitor: “… he discovered that Germany is only about one thousand years behind in modern building methods.”
The Tribune dubbed the tower’s architectural style “vertical classicism.”
Reporters and photographers guided readers through each phase of its construction. The Tribune’s foreign correspondents were tasked with collecting bits and pieces of other countries’ historic monuments and shipping them to Chicago. A chunk of the Taj Mahal in India; a piece of Scotland’s Edinburgh Castle; a bit of the Great Wall of China. They were mounted in the tower’s exterior walls.
The effort to get an American flag atop the tower midway through construction ran into a snag, but the Tribune turned it into a publicity bonanza. The top pulley of its 122-foot flagpole had come out of its socket. “Two hammer blows will put it back into place, but a man has to risk his life to wield the hammer,” the Tribune noted.
So in September 1924 the paper ran a want ad for a steeplejack, and it got 53 responses. One applicant drove 2,300 miles from San Francisco, only to discover that James Wiedersberg from Canal Street already had been chosen.
The Tribune printed a map showing the circumference of locations from which Wiedersberg’s climb would be easily visible to the naked eye. “The hour hand of the Wrigley tower clock will point up at him, while the minute hand will warn him of destruction,” it noted.
On the morning of Oct. 3, 1924, Wiedersberg announced himself as a no-funny-stuff guy. “I only fool around with death as a matter of making a living,” he said. “Six hundred feet up is too near heaven to start kidding St. Peter.”
As “so many thousands of people as to be uncountable” watched, Wiedersberg made the ascent in half an hour. The pulley was adjusted and the Stars and Stripes floated securely above Tribune Tower. Wiedersberg climbed down and telephoned his mother, as he habitually did after a climb.
In subsequent decades, one new structure after another has looked down upon the once formidable site of Wiedersberg’s climb. Tribune Tower is dwarfed by the behemoths that encircle it, such as the Trump Tower (1,389 feet) and the 875 N. Michigan Building (1,128 feet), formerly known as the John Hancock Center.
If the new owners of Tribune Tower, developers Golub & Co. of Chicago and CIM Group of Los Angeles, fulfill their plans, they will build Chicago’s second-tallest skyscraper on land that is now a parking lot immediately behind Tribune Tower.
As the Chicago Tribune moves out of its home of more than 90 years, it is only natural to worry about the newspaper’s fate. Those who do might well reflect upon something Col. McCormick said as the Tribune was moving into Tribune Tower:
“The newspaper is what we make it every day, not what it was 10 years ago or even last year.”