It hadn't been a great week for J.W. Bryant, upstanding citizen of Louisville.On June 22, 1879 the Chicago Tribune carried a large banner headline titled, "The Odorous Bryant Block," followed by an article describing "the God forsaken rendezvous," "where loafers loll in filth," "and pimps and prostitutes hold nightly orgies." The paper went on to describe in one sensational sentence after another how the person "presiding over the the renting department" of the property had been renting rooms "in one of the best buildings in the city, in the heart of the business district" to these undesirables. Bryant felt that he had to make it clear that he bore no responsibility for the building bearing his name, nor the nefarious activities occurring on the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn Streets that summer of 1879. He sent the Tribune the following statement, "I no longer have any control over the building. It is now and has been for about 2 years in the hands of Henry P. Isham, Receiver of the Court. J.W. Bryant."
[Delaware Building, Chicago, 36 W. Randolph Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
This wasn't the first Bryant Block to stand on the busy central business district corner, the Louisville investor's first block had come down in the Great Fire in the Fall of 1871, and this highly detailed Italianate facade was already on the drafting boards of the office of architects Wheelock & Thomas in January, 1872. Otis Wheelock was one of the first architects in the city - following close on the heels of the the very first man to be crowned with that title, John Van Osdel - and the office was teeming with work as the business and financial communities made a commitment to see Chicago rise again from the ashes. By the first week of April, Bryant was in town to give his okay to the architects plan for a new five-story building on the site, and within a week contracts were being let for construction. The project was then expanded to the east two years later when Bryant secured a long term lease for the land on two adjoining lots.
[Delaware Building, Chicago, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Although Mr. Bryant claimed no responsibility for the goings on in his block in 1879, his heirs were in litigation in 1885 to prevent foreclosure proceedings from moving forward on a $19,000 still held mortgage on the property. Four years later, the matter was resolved when Chicago's Real Estate Board moved in, and added three floors with an updated the name - the new Real Estate Board Building. The Board never had problems with prostitutes or pimps during their tenure, but by the turn of the 20th century the organization was on the move and in search of larger and newer quarters. This is when attorney Levy Mayer entered the picture. Mayer had come to Chicago months before the fire burned down the old Bryant Block, and by 1900 had made a fortune as one of the country's top constitutional and corporate lawyers. He began adding Randolph Street properties to his extensive real estate portfolio, and was one of the attorneys involved in the land lease negotiations for a Randolph Street parcel next door to the Real Estate Board property as the spot for the new Iroquois Theatre building.
[Delaware Building, Chicago, City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
Then, after the devastating Iroqouis fire in 1903, Mayer returned to the negotiating table in 1906 representing Klaw & Erlanger and their Metropolitan Theater Company in negotiations to secure the lease of the rebuilt Colonial Theatre. Seizing on an opportunity, Mayer bought the land under the theater from a trust for a cool $380,000 and now owned almost the entire north side frontage of Randolph between Dearborn and State Streets. As his law practice grew, so did his downtown Chicago real estate holdings, and when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1922 his estimated $25 million estate made him the nation's wealthiest practicing attorney. His widow Rachel Meyer Mayer and their two daughters were now in control of some prime downtown Chicago real estate. When the local fraternal organization known as the Masons, decided to ditch their substantial Burnham & Root designed building at Randolph and State for new headquarters, they continued negotiations begun with Levy Mayer and secured the Colonial Theater as the location of their new building. The Masons also acquired those two parcels of land that J.W. Bryant had leased all those years ago when he expanded his building, and took over 40 feet of the easternmost two bays of the aging Delaware's Randolph Street frontage. When demolition began on the at the end of May 1924, Bryant's Block lost a chunk of itself.
[Delaware Building, Chicago, Chicago Loop / Image & Artwork: designslinger]
The National Register and City of Chicago Landmark is one of a handful of immediate post-fire buildings still standing in the Loop business district, and a reminder of the commitment, daring, and fortitude of a group of business leaders, financiers, and architects, which gave rise to the city we see today.