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What’s That Building? The Delaware Building

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In the early 1870s, when a new downtown Chicago was rising from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire, one of the finest buildings to construct was the Bryant Block at the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn.

Italianate arched windows and sculpted pillars lining the building six stories it had “an appearance of boldness and solidity,” according to an item in The landowner.

Among real estate and insurance companies first tenants, but later the Bryant Block became notorious for prostitutes. An 1879 writer, using the pseudonym Decency, called the Bryant Block “one of the lowest and most degraded dens that infest Chicago.”

The building is still there today, one of about 20 downtown structures which remain from those early years after the fire of 1871.

Now known as the Delaware Building, the property is trying to resurrect itself from the metaphorical ashes. Lawyers who took over the property in a “replacement deed” deal five years ago want to convert the seedy office building in apartmentspart of the post-pandemic trend to remain unused office space downtown in the lodgings.

former headquarters of McDonald's in the Delaware Building
McDonald’s had a restaurant on the first floor of the Delaware Building. K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

In early January, one of the owners, Steven DeGraff, told the Chicago Sun Times the plan was hung up on McDonald’s. The fast food company has a 99-year lease on the first-floor space where a McDonald’s restaurant operated until it closed during COVID-19. DeGraff said he needs about 93 square feet of McDonald’s space to add the second means of egress required by the building. McDonald’s hasn’t agreed to give up the space, said DeGraff, who added that the chain has said it has no plans to reopen in the space.

McDonald’s corporate communications office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from WBEZ.

The Delaware Building is shaped like a giant donut with an open center lit by a rooftop atrium, stairways and walkways at each level.

atrium of the Delaware Building
The Delaware Building has an open center lit by a rooftop atrium, stairways and walkways at every level. K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

For reference as to what the building could become: Two of Chicago’s best-known atrium condominiums are the Yale at Englewood and the Brewsters at Lincoln Park.

The atrium would certainly be a major attraction for renters, especially if the rehabilitation includes restoring hundreds of glass cylinders that have been inserted into stairways and walkways. The Swiss cheese look allowed daylight to pass through and penetrate deeper into the atrium, but it has since been covered up.

DeGraff said until McDonald’s makes room for a second stairway, there will be no decision on details like bringing back cylinders or stripping green paint from brass handrails, restoring transom windows above doorways, and stripping bathrooms in common on every other floor.

stairs in the Delaware Building
DeGraff says he needs about 93 square feet of McDonald’s space to add the second means of egress required by the building. K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

The building’s history has more layers than its stairways.

In October 1872, on the first anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the Chicago Tribune cataloged all investments in the “Great Reconstruction”, including JM Bryant’s $165,000 prize on Dearborn Street. That equates to about $4 million today. Architectural firm Wheelock and Thomas designed a detailed facade of arches, corbels, dozens of arched and square windows marching through the upper four stories, two street fronts, taller storefronts along the streets, and three grand doorways onto Dearborn, Up Randolph and on the chamfered corner.

When the building was fully operational in 1874, some of the first tenants they were a couple of real estate companies and an insurance agency.

But just five years later, the outlook wasn’t good. In June 1879 Decency wrote to grandstand that the building is a “godforsaken rendezvous … where many idlers hang out in the filth and pimps and prostitutes organize nightly orgies”. Decency also wrote of a young woman who moved into the building with her mother and siblings, but she “fell a victim to the lust of cowardly devils who followed her to ruin.”

Hallway of the Delaware Building
The entrance as seen from inside the Delaware Building, which is one of about 20 downtown structures remaining from the early years after the 1871 fire. K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

There are other reports of sex and violence in the building where the grandstand called “the infamous Bryant Block,” but one of the building’s more sensational connections involves a presidential assassination.

In July 1881, Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield, who died after serving only six months in office. Guiteau, who grew up in Freeport, about 100 miles northwest of Chicago, averaged history of mental instability. Guiteau’s sister, Frances and her husband George lived in Oak Park. George was a lawyer who practiced primarily real estate law, but became one of two defense attorneys for the killer, working out of his office on the Bryant Block.

Dennis Rodkin is the residential real estate reporter for Crain and Reset’s Chicago Business of “What’s That Building?” collaborator. Follow him on Twitter @Dennis_Rodkin.

K’Von Jackson is the freelance photojournalist for “What’s That Building?” Follow him on Instagram @true_chicago.

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Written by Natalia Chi

Chicago Popular; Chicago breaking news, weather and live video. Covering local politics, health, traffic and sports for Chicago, the suburbs and northwest Indiana.

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