The Reliance Building, designed by Charles B. Atwood of D. H. Burnham & Co., was completed in 1895. It was one of Chicago's, and the world's, earliest "skyscrapers" rising an impressive fourteen floors above State Street, a glass and terra cotta beauty that "seemed to defy gravity." A little over one hundred years later it was re-born as the appropriately-named Hotel Burnham which features an equally appropriately-named restaurant called Atwood.
This collection of photographs was made during the lowest point in the Reliance Building's history, the period just prior to its restoration and rebirth.
One of many icons for American accomplishments of the 20th Century, the Reliance Building had, by the end of that century, fallen onto hard times. Viewed by those passing on the street as more albatross than phoenix, it is rather remarkable that it did not suffer the same fate that befell many other of Chicago's noteworthy edifices.
The historical significance of the Reliance Building is well-documented:
"The first comprehensive achievement of the system now known as Chicago construction" (GreatBuildings.com)
"During the late 1800s, a commercial architectural style surfaced in Chicago, which later became known as 'the Chicago style.' The Reliance Building was not only a premier product of this school of architecture, it was the first direct predecessor to the modern skyscrapers." (Hotel Online)
"The original 1894 design was unique: it was the first skyscraper to use white glazed terra cotta for the façade and, while clearly in the classic Chicago School tripartite design, its glass curtain wall foreshadowed the International Style that developed nearly 30 years later." (Chicago Architecture Foundation)
The Reliance Building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1970, a City of Chicago landmark in 1975 and a State of Illinois landmark in 1979.
By the early 1990's, landmark status or no, the Reliance Building was nearly devoid of tenants and was in a serious state of neglect, disrepair and abandonment. The exterior tiles, once a light cream color (described as "airy") had cracked, crumbled and aquired a blackened, city-gray patina. The street-level stores, initially occupied by Carson Pirie Scott & Company and later by Karoll's, a successful men's clothing chain, were now empty other than a hot dog stand and a lingerie shop.
The fourteen floors inside of the building, declining since the 1960's, were vacant but for a handful of lingering occupants. It had suffered an unfortunate amount of cheap "remodeling" on the lower floors but was largely untouched on upper ones. Untouched by human hands, that is, but touched greatly by water coming in through deteriorating windows, from leaking plumbing seeping through the walls and floors, from decades of urban grime and touched, mostly, by the passage of time.
Embedded in all of those things and in over a century of existence is the story of the Reliance Building. The story is different from the facts quoted above and is different from any lists of tenants or itemizations of objects. The story is about the feeling of the space, the history it wears on its surfaces, the densely layered evidence of use, disuse and abuse that it carries with it.
The story is what the Reliance Building would tell you if it could speak.
The story is what these photographs are about.
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