The Old Colony Building – If These Walls Could Talk…

Do you remember when Lincoln was shot in 1866? Or Houdini was commanding crowds
on Wabash in 1888? Or how about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid robbing banks?
While we may have never witnessed this part of history, one building still standing
today can boast of being around while all these events occurred. Standing stately
and proud at the corner of Dearborn and Van Buren Streets, the 106 year Old
Colony Building reminds us of an era gone by.

The beginning of the Old Colony Building goes back to 1884 when the land was
purchased by Francis Bartlett for $126,000. While not expensive by today’s standards,
many people considered him to be foolish to pay that price for a worthless piece
of property. When it became apparent that the city was considering restrictions
on future building plans, Bartlett began construction on what would be the highest
structure at that time. Finished in 1894, the first five floors were rented
out to Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad before the building was even finished.
The Old Colony went on to gain landmark status in July of 1978 when it was declared
an historic building in the Illinois Register of Historic Places.

As one of the first buildings to be built after the Chicago fire, architects
Holabird & Roche developed a style of steel frame design that came to be known
as the “Chicago School” style, and was considered to be the forerunner of today’s
modern skyscraper. Typical features of these buildings included not only the
steel frame construction but also masonry cladding with terra cotta, distinctive
3-part windows and a minimal use of ornamentation. Such described the Old Colony.
But perhaps the most exquisite feature of the building was the use of rounded
windows on the corner bays. Known as oriel windows, they were commonly used
in hotels during this time. Holabird & Roche incorporated them to provide as
much openness as possible to increase the natural light available to office
space. These windows are encased in wooden frames and stand 5.5′ x 7′ and are
custom made.

Jim Smalek, Chief Engineer of The Old Colony Building.

At the time of its completion the Old Colony was the highest building in Chicago,
standing at approximately 215 feet. The base of the building is distinguished
by display windows. The second floor features large fixed windows with double
hung windows on either side. The rest of the floors carry pairs of double hung
windows. Encasing these windows on the first three stories and the top story,
the building is faced with Bedford limestone. Stories 4 through 6 are surfaced
with cream-colored roman brick and, although used sparingly, the ornamental
trim is done in white terra cotta.

While being admired for its beauty on the outside, the Old Colony is equally
remarkable on the inside. Three steel arches on the west side and three steel
arches on the east side of the building hold up each floor. There are no load
bearing walls. Wrought iron Phoenix columns constructed of four to eight vertical
pieces bolted together form the vertical parts of the framework. Horizontal
girders and floor beams are constructed of steel.

Surrounding this steel frame and providing what was to be considered the latest
in fire prevention at that time is a cover of pyroblock.

Originally three entrances allowed access to the building. Two of them have
since been closed. Upon entering the building one immediately notices the elegance
of the original lobby. Crests mounted on each elevator door signify the people
who came over on the Mayflower. Italian marble and quarter-sawed oak wood throughout
lend an air of richness to an already luxurious surrounding. While marveling
at interior corridors of marble and granite it is hard to believe that all the
“working parts” of the building are still in their original form.

The house pump has been in place for some time furnishing water to the oak gravity tank located in the building penthouse.

Water is supplied by an old wooden tank located on the top floor. Because the
original piping is still in place they cannot put in a pumping system. The water
tank operates on a float system. Located in the same area is the elevator room.
The elevators in the building were originally hydraulic and ran on steam. Once
the building was upgraded the elevators followed suit. Currently Schindler Elevator
handles servicing the four passenger elevators plus the manually operated freight
elevator. The Old Colony boasts of owning one of, if not the, oldest elevators
in the city. Called a Turn Voll, this elevator presents its own set of challenges.
Because of its age, when service is needed it is not easy to find someone to
work on it. A look around the elevator room reveals locker “cubbies” where tradespeople
employed by the building many years ago would house their personal belongings.

The oak gravity tank located in the penthouse still supplies domestic water through a gravity feed piping system.

Three low pressure Weil McLean boilers running on 5 lbs of pressure each are
located in the basement. Supplying steam to 544 radiators located in the building,
two headers on the first and second floor go to the roof and then branch out
two ways. Being a gravity type building the steam is “dropped” from 16 downfed
risers to the radiators. There each person can control their own heat through
the use of Dan Floss valves that were installed. While the old high pressure
boiler still exists and is functional, apprentice Tim McHugh said he would not
want to be standing there when it was fired up.

After a century of service the old scotch marine firetube boilers were abandoned. Set into place before the original building was completed these old workhorses were found costly to repair and maintain and too inefficient for present day use.

The old coal doors are still in place where, in days gone by, coal from the
street was delivered to the boilers to produce steam. It was then sold to other
buildings on the block. A 20 HP fire pump located here provides protection in
the event of an emergency. Chemicals for water treatment are injected manually
by the engineering staff. Readings are taken on a daily basis. In this day and
age of computers it is hard to believe that none of The Old Colony systems are
computerized.

Three newer Weil McLean low pressure boilers supply steam to the 544 radiators throughout the building, dropping from 16 down fed risers.

According to Chief Engineer Jim Smalec, each day on the job is a challenge.
Because of the age of the building no blueprints are available. When a problem
does arise it can be a sometimes difficult situation to determine the best course
of action to solve it. Despite this the rich, graceful old age of the building
makes the workday interesting.

Walking through current offices located on the second floor, one can see the
reminders of a bank doing business here many years ago. A mixture of original
marble and a plaster painted process to resemble the original marble graces
the office entrance. Intricate woodwork, all original, and high ceilings are
illuminated by a chandelier giving a soft, rich glow to the entire room. A bell
notifying the Western Union office located down the street that a pick up from
the bank was needed still stands in place although no longer used. Perhaps the
most interesting piece of equipment in this room is the rounded radiator standing
in a corner. This radiator was custom made to fit around a column located in
the room. Transom windows placed above doorways still provide for air flow from
room to room.

A custom made original cast iron radiator was specifically constructed to wrap around a corner, creating a unusual design. The radiators have been outfitted with thermostatic valves for confort and energy efficiency.

If the elevator is not your first choice of transport between floors, the
stairs make a good second. All stair railings are of the original wrought iron.
Each landing on the floor houses a urinal that has been left in place. Dating
back to the days before women gained the right to vote, the Old Colony was a
“man’s building.” There was no public washroom for women. This was changed as
women gained status in the community and washrooms admitting both men and women
were built out.

Each floor commands an area of approximately 9,000 square feet. Perhaps the
most unique floor in the building is the sixth. Rented out at one time by a
book publisher he re-finished and re-used much of the original woodwork in the
building. Adding to that is custom-made woodwork to complement the original.

Two fireplaces still stand on the 16th floor. While fully functional they
are not in use but lend an air of elegance to the office space there. Walking
throughout one will notice wall vaults still in place. These small storage rooms
provided fire safety as well as storage for documents and combustibles. This
type of fire protection was thought to be state of the art at the time. Most
office areas in 1895 had closets installed to house sinks. In some of the unoccupied
space these sink closets still exist. A close look at the date of the sink trap
will reveal a stamp of 1895, and most surprising is the excellent condition
they are still in.

Long before air conditioning was invented The Old Colony used the only cooling
process known at the time, the windows. Open windows on both sides of the building
provided a cross breeze off of Lake Michigan keeping tenants comfortable in
the hot summer months. Metal brackets attached to both sides of the window provided
a holding place for a long piece of glass to be inserted and used as a deflective
shield for air coming in. As the city began to grow, and the buildings began
to get taller this was no longer a feasible solution to cooling problems. Unable
to support a cooling tower on the roof, cooling is achieved by 48 air conditioners
ranging in size from 3 to 30 ton.

The new condensate tank and chemical feeder are seen here.

Current owners RN Management Company are involved in the process of many upgrades.
While the outside of the building cannot be altered in any way because of the
landmark status, the inside is continually being improved. At 85% occupancy,
The Old Colony Building has become one of the most sought after office buildings
available, partly due to the old-time charm present on each and every floor.
With a staff of two, Chief Engineer Jim Smalec and apprentice Tim HcHugh along
with help from freight elevator operator Lemorant Hudson find teamwork to be
an important part of their workday. Tenant problems are channeled through the
management office where work orders are initiated and then carried out. A key
system in the building is handled by the engineering department who installs
the locks. Mr. Hudson then carries on by distributing keys. Most calls can be
handled by Jim and his staff. For speed and convenience to the tenants, larger
projects will be put out to bid for outside companies to do the work.

Chief Engineer Jim Smalec has an extensive background in the engineering field.
Beginning at the Hyatt Hotel in 1975 Jim has worked his way through the ranks.
After six years at the Hyatt he moved on to various other positions before settling
at 919 N. Michigan. While there the management company asked him if he would
be interested in the job at the Old Colony and he has been here since. He met
his wife, Diane at the Hyatt. Diane is also a chief engineer, working at the
McCormick Place and was featured in our February issue. His son is also in the
engineering field, having just passed his license. They reside in Yorkville.
Jim likes to fish, golf, and provoke engineering arguments between his wife
and son and watch them figure out the solution.

Apprentice Tim McHugh has just recently joined the ranks of engineers having
passed his licensing exam. He has been at the Old Colony for two years. Coming
from an engineering family it just seemed natural to follow in his grandfather’s
and father’s footsteps. Tim was recently married and enjoys all kinds of sports.
He relates his interests are wide ranging, when he has the time.

Rounding out the staff is freight elevator operator Lemorant Cranston Hudson.
Besides working with the engineering department on a daily basis, Lemorant has
been given the prestigious honor of being the building Christmas caroler director.
During the holidays Lemorant organizes the tenants and leads them in rousing
verses of Christmas songs. Lemorant enjoys servicing the tenants. He knows almost
each and every one by first name and considers himself to be the building ambassador.
Jim calls him the “cruise director.” Lemorant is married with children and has
been a deacon in his church for 30 years.

A look at any class schedule for any school in the Chicago area will show the
abundance of history courses being taught our children. The Old Colony Building
can give our children what book learning cannot – a chance to view history in
the here and now. Chicago is proud to lay claim to a part of history. Let’s
hope the Old Colony is around long enough for our children’s children to experience
the beauty and wonder of an era gone by.