For every building in the city that’s been spiffed up to within an inch of its life, there’s another that has been left to gather dust in peace, aging gracefully or becoming grossly disfigured with time.
One in the dust-gathering category is this old office building behind the Board of Trade, commonly known as the LaSalle Atrium Building. Located at the intersection of Van Buren and LaSalle, the building has long been a hang-out for traders.
My neighbor, whose offices were there until his recent retirement, has some colorful stories about its inhabitants, commodities traders who are famous for being eccentric. When they weren’t in the pit, what they wanted was relaxation. Their offices were places of resort–for napping, playing pool, or perhaps (on a bad day) pacing the floor. Pool tables and sofas were important furnishings. Perhaps a big fridge, maybe even a bar.
Prior to its life as an office building, however, the so-called Traders Building was originally a hotel. Designed by the famous architectural firm of Holabird and Roche, it was completed in 1914 and opened its doors as the Fort Dearborn Hotel. Its lower floors are encrusted with pale grey terra-cotta meant to evoke Venetian Renaissance style.
So cramped is its location that the building’s features are difficult to see. But back in the Gilded Age, when it was built, it was almost intended to be this way. Now we would consider this an extremely unfavorable site for a hotel, because a massive extension to the Board of Trade Building cuts off the street to the north, creating a kind of backwater. The towering profile of One Financial Place across the way casts over this modest old building a perpetual shade.
Plus, it is built right smack up against the tracks of the elevated trains (what guest could have slept?). Nearby are more rail lines, terminating in the LaSalle Street Station, invisible inside the Chicago Stock Exchange.
Yet, for the hotel’s proprietors back in the day, proximity to all these trains was just the thing, for they catered to traveling salesmen and other Babbitt-like types. A cousin to the nearby Hotel Sherman, which was known for its luxury, the Fort Dearborn aimed to provide “commercial travelers” with high-quality rooms and amenities at a revolutionary low price of $2 a night.
As air travel and driving supplanted the business traveler’s reliance on trains, the Fort Dearborn’s clientele dwindled and it fell on hard times. It was converted into offices in the mid-1980s, just after being added to the National Register of Historic Places. Yet despite its layers of undisturbed grime, the LaSalle Atrium is still surprisingly grand inside.