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The Franklin Building

Architectural Gem of Printers Row

Origins and Renovation
Designed in 1912 by George C. Nimmons, 720 South Dearborn Street was built in 1916 by the Franklin Printing Company and housed presses until 1983. It is a fine example of the 'Chicago School' style of architecture. In 1987 the Franklin Building was purchased from the Borg-Warner Corporation for $2.7 million by developer Duncan Henderson who recognized the building’s unusual architectural features and potential. In 1976, Henderson moved to Chicago from New York City where he had lived in a loft in SoHo. He became a pioneer of loft development in Printers Row when he and architect Harry Weese rehabbed the Donohue Building (711 – 727 S. Dearborn Street) in 1977.

The 14-story Franklin Building underwent an extensive $9 million renovation. The structure’s interior was gutted and 65 residential units were created. The restored Franklin Building opened for occupancy in September 1989, the last major renovation of loft space on Printers Row, the two-block area along Dearborn Street, beginning south of the Congress Parkway and ending at the Dearborn Station.

According to Carl Condit, the Franklin Building reflects two parallel trends of the Chicago school of architecture:

1) “highly empirical in its concern with utilitarian and structural ends”, which is embodied in the Franklin Building’s straightforward design, and

2) “more concerned with ornamental variety and originality and with the plastic possibilities of building design.” Nimmons expressed this in the unusual gable treatment of the parapet surmounting the building. Equally distinctive is the position of the entrance in the northern bay with a deeply recessed door, which throws into relief the elaborate treatment of framing, a simple post and lintel system sheathed in decorative tile.

Terra Cotta Treasures
The outstanding feature of the Franklin Building that attracts the attention of casual passersby and intent scrutiny from walking tours of the Chicago Architecture Foundation is the decorative polychrome terra cotta ornamental tiles adorning the east façade of the structure. When the building was rehabbed, Nancy Berryman, a ceramicist and a faculty member at University of Illinois at Chicago, restored the tiles. The main mural over the entry entitled “The First Impression” depicts men working at the Gutenberg press. An inscription executed in terra cotta tile over the doorway reads, “The excellence of every art must consist in the complete accomplishment of its purpose.” Other picture tiles represent printing and publishing activities from Benjamin Franklin’s time. Chicago artist, Oskar Gross, designed all of these picture tiles specifically for the Franklin Building. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1870, Gross was a portrait artist. In 1898 he won a competition to paint murals for the Austro-Hungarian state pavilions at the World’s Fair in Paris. These murals attracted wide attention and he was invited to Chicago in 1903 to work on several orders for murals. Through contacts with Chicago architects Daniel Burnham and Louis Sullivan, Gross executed murals for public buildings all over the United States. His most famous ones were done for Louis Sullivan at the National Farmers Bank at Owatonna, Minnesota. After 1910, Gross returned to portrait painting. One of his paintings, a portrait of Dankmar Adler, hangs in the lobby of Roosevelt University. Several of the Franklin Building's tile images have been reproduced, framed and are displayed in the lobby.

The Architect
An architect of Chicago’s Prairie School, George C. Nimmons (1865-1947) was active in practice for nearly half a century and was prominently known in Chicago. A native of Wooster, Ohio, he attended the Academy there and later studied architecture in Europe. He was also a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1887 Nimmons was hired by the famous architectural firm of Burnham and Root where he served as a draftsman for 10 years.

In 1897 Nimmons formed a partnership with William K. Fellows (1870-1948), which continued until 1910 when Fellows formed a new firm with Dwight L. Perkins and John Hamilton. During their partnership, Nimmons and Fellows designed a number of large commercial buildings in Chicago. In 1904 they were awarded what was very likely the largest single commission in the history of Chicago building up to that date. Sears, Roebuck and Co. selected them to design their warehouse, distribution and administrative center on West Arthington Avenue at Homan. It was said to be the largest mercantile establishment in the world at the time and was built in exactly 12 months, an amazing feat of construction. Nimmons and Fellows also designed branch buildings for Sears in several midwestern cities. Another result of the Nimmons and Fellows collaboration is the Dixon Building at 411 S. Wells.

Nimmons’ experience with warehouse design and construction brought him the commission for a large office and storage building for Reid, Murdoch and Co., built between 1912 and 1913 along the north bank of the Chicago River between Clark and LaSalle. The building is noteworthy because it conformed to Burnham’s Civic Plan and was the first attempt to make the riverside of a building attractive in Chicago. Until recently, this structure was leased to the city for municipal offices. Practicing on his own from 1910 to 1917 Nimmons also designed the Kimball Piano Company Building during this phase of his career.

Working as the head of his own firm, George C. Nimmons and Co. (1917-33), Nimmons designed the American Furniture Mart at 680 N. Lake Shore Drive in 1923. In the final phase of his career, he was senior partner of Nimmons, Carr & Wright.

Printers Row: Decline and Revival
Printers Row or Printing House Row as it is sometimes called developed between 1883 and 1912 as the area for printing and publishing companies, just as nearby State Street grew to be Chicago’s major retail area and LaSalle Street emerged as the financial hub of the city. Built in 1885, the Dearborn Station, the oldest surviving rail terminal in the city, attracted commercial development in the last half of the 19th Century. In addition to printing and publishing businesses, there were also subsidiary trades that employed scores of workers, each with a particular expertise including typesetters, etchers, mapmakers and bookbinders to name some. Some of the more well-known businesses in the neighborhood included the catalog printers R.R. Donnelley and Sons and the Lakeside Press, Rand McNally which produced maps and atlases as well as railroad timetables and shippers guides, Fleming H. Revell, the country’s largest publisher of religious works, and Donohue and Henneberry which produced children’s books. The old hand printing press located at the intersection of W. Harrison and S. Federal Streets is a tribute to the once thriving printing houses.

Technological advances and rapid changes in the social fabric, including the decline of the railroad industry, forced the printing companies to leave the Printers Row area during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Many moved to the suburbs. By the 1960’s urban blight had set in. In 1971, Dearborn Station was closed for lack of traffic and Printers Row became virtually a ghost town.

In 1978, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic committed to the revitalization of Printers Row with a $30 million project to be privately financed. Two years earlier, architects Harry Weese and Lawrence O. Booth, real estate magnate John Baird of Baird and Warner Co. and developer Ivan Himmel formed the Community Resource Corporation, a lynchpin of Mayor Bilandic’s plan. In 1977, the Donohue Building became one the first buildings to be converted to residential space. For more details on the revitalization of the South Loop, consult Lois Wille’s book, At Home in the Loop.

The Printers Row Book Fair, established in 1985, is today the largest event of its kind in the Midwest and one of the largest in the country.

In 1996 the Printing House Row District was designated a Landmark District by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Many of the neighborhood’s buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Among the significant buildings on Printers Row are:

The Old Franklin Building, 521-5 S. Dearborn Street
Built in 1886. Architect unknown.

The Terminals Building, 537 S. Dearborn Street
Completed in 1892, one of the last works of architect John M. Van Osdel (1811 – 1891) considered Chicago’s “first” architect.

The Morton Building, 538 S. Dearborn Street
Designed in 1896 by the firm Jenney and Mundie, whose principal, William LeBaron Jenney was the “father of the skyscraper."

The Pontiac Building, 542 S. Dearborn Street
Designed by Holabird and Roche and completed in 1891. Commissioned by developers Peter and Shepard Brooks of Boston, MA. and named for an Ottawa Indian chief.

The Transportation Building, 600 S. Dearborn Street
Designed by Frank V. Prather and completed in 1911. Once housed office space for Elliott Ness.

The Donohue Building, 711 – 727 S. Dearborn Street
Designed by Julius Speyer and built in 1883 in Romanesque revival style; annex designed by Alfred S. Altschuler and added in 1913.

The Rowe Building, 714 S. Dearborn Street
Attributed to William LeBaron Jenney, built in 1892 and renovated in 1980.

Dearborn Station, 47 W. Polk Street
Designed by Cyrus L.W. Eidlitz and completed in 1885.

The Mergenthaler Building, 536 S. Plymouth Court
Designed by Schmidt, Garden and Martin and built in 1917.

The Moser Building, 621-31 S. Plymouth Court
Designed by Holabird and Roche in 1909.

The Pope Building, 633. S. Plymouth Court
Designed in 1904 and renovated in 1986.

Lakeside Press Building, 731 S. Plymouth Court
Commissioned by the R.R. Donnelley Co. and designed by Howard Van Doren Shaw (1868-1926), his first non-residential building, and built in 1897 and 1901.

The Borland Buildings (Printers Square), 610-732 S. Federal Street
Designed by Charles Frost of Cobb and Frost and built as a series from 1910 through 1928.

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