Al Capone and the Jewelers’ Building

In my gig as a tour director for student groups, I take a lot of other peoples’ boat tours, bus tours, and walking tours. One thing I’m always curious to see is how they’ll tell the story of Al Capone throwing parties in the dome of the Jeweler’s Building at Wabash and Wacker. According to most tales, the dome was once home to the Stratosphere Club, a speakeasy that was either owned or frequented by Al Capone, depending on who’s telling the story. Some are quick to point out that Capone’s connection is just a rumor, others really double-down on saying it was true.

Capone stories almost always fall into the “Not true, but it should be” category of Chicago lore – and that of other cities, as well. I can’t even tell you how many tourists have assumed that I know all about their small town, because it was where Al Capone had his summer home/hideout/warehouse. It seems that there’s hardly a town in the midwest where kids aren’t told that Al Capone used to hang out in town a lot.

The other story of the Jeweler’s Building is that it once housed an elevator for cars, so that jewelry dealers who worked in the building would never have to step out of their car with their valuable stock and into Roaring 20s Chicago, even for a second. Instead, they could drive right into the building and be lifted right up to the floor where their office or showroom was.

Digging into the newspaper archives, it’s quite clear that the elevator story is true: much was made of the car elevator when the place was built; the twenty-three story garage took up about 25% of the total building’s space at the time. A 1924 article in the Tribune said that it would be the tallest garage in the world.  It didn’t totally protect the builders – shortly after it opened (and was quickly renamed The Pure Oil Building), there was a big jewelry robbery there in 1926; three young bandits burst into a gem shop with pistols and made off with $25,000 in jewels.

And the Stratosphere Club in the dome was certainly a real place – but it wasn’t a speakeasy, and there’s no way that Al Capone was ever there.

When the 40-story Jeweler’s Building was first built in the 1920s, the dome seems to have sat empty for some time. In 1932 it was reported in the Tribune that a hawk had taken up residence in the dome and was preying on migratory birds in the loop.  A reference or two in the archives seems to indicate that it was used for storage.

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

A Stratosphere Club matchbook I picked up on Ebay

The creation of the Stratosphere Club was announced in the press in the Jan 10, 1937 Tribune article entitled “City’s Highest Restaurant Being Built.” Owned by Paul Streeter and taking its name from a club that had been in Rockefeller Center in New York, the club was set to open in March, and would cover four floors – a kitchen on the 37th, a regular restaurant on the 38th and 39th, and a cocktail lounge on the 40th, with decorations to make it look as though one was in a hot air balloon. By March of 1937, when it opened, Capone had been in Alcatraz for some time, and liquor was perfectly legal again.

The club was a hit, by most accounts, but my 1954 the space had been converted into a showroom for a commercial artist (and still using the old circular bar at the time); it’s now the showroom of architect Helmut Jahn.

None of the necessarily proves that there wasn’t a speakeasy there in the 1920s, after it was first built, but people were generally pretty open in reminiscing about their favorite speakies in later days, and I’ve never found a reference to indicate that there was one in the dome. It’s one of those Chicago stories that isn’t quite true – but it should be.

Admiring Mr. Wrigley’s Restraint, 1920

The clock tower by Nathan Mac

If you look closely at the clock on top of the Wrigley Building, you’ll noticed that it doesn’t have numbers. Some say that the symbols are all the letter W, but if they are it’s in a rather abstract, just-close-enough-for-tour-guides-to-say-so sort of way. It’s as subtle an ad for chewing gum as can possibly exist.

And on April 4, 1920, Al Chase of the Tribune enthused that Mr. Wrigley wasn’t going to make more of a statement – against all expectations, since Wrigley was known for his huge chewing gum ads in Times Square. The new skyscraper was expected to become the tallest, most visible building in Chicago, and the advertising space would have been awfully lucrative.

“Pretty nearly every one of us,” wrote Chase, “has paid our nickels and worked our jaws towards financing what will be Chicago’s tallest building – to loom 398 feet above the plaza at the north end of the new Michigan Boulevard bridge.  The strangest feature of this great cloud-tickling monument to spearmint is that, although it will be on the most commanding site in the middle west for a wonderful electric display for the virtues of William Wrigley Jr’s chicle sticks, there won’t be an advertisement on the building.

“When one realizes that Mr. Wrigley pays a good fraction of a million dollars annually just to let the mazdas flash the fame of his gum to Times Square passersby in Manhattan, his modesty and restraint in keeping snaky electric advertisements from luring the eye of the boulevarder in Chicago to his magnificent building is something to commend.

“This $3,000,000 structure, which Mr. Wrigley is striving to make the finest office building in the world, will have a simple brass plate at the main entrance on the plaza, with merely the words ‘Wrigley building.'”

Just pointing this out to Mr. Wrigley’s neighbor, Mr. Trump. That’s all.



Why The Ceres Statue on the Board of Trade Has No Face

Ceres art deco dace (image from wikimedia commons)

Ceres art deco dace (image from wikimedia commons)

When built in 1930, the 600 foot Board of Trade building that anchors LaSalle Street was the tallest building in Chicago – an honor it held for decades. Though now dwarfed by the supertall skyscrapers around it, the art deco building is still stunning to behold, and pointed out by every architecture tour. But if you take a few, you might notice something strange: no two tour guides seem to agree as to why the statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture who stands atop the building, doesn’t have a face. Some say that it’s just an art deco thing, and others say that the sculptor figured that no other, taller building would ever be built nearby, so no one would be able to see the face, anyway. Some say outright that they’ve heard a lot of theories, but nothing totally convincing.

The truth, according to sculptor John Storrs’s own statement in 1930, lies somewhere in between – though the style did keep it in line with the art deco style of the building itself, he also figured that details were less important than outlines, given how far away most people would be from the statue.

Storrs, a Chicagoan himself who spent much of his time in Paris, explained his design and ideas in great detail to the Tribune in their May 4, 1930 issue, about month before the statue was to be put in place:

“When I was given the order to execute a sculptural piece to cap the tall Board of Trade building, I had two major points to consider. First, I wanted my work to be in architectural harmony with the building on which it was to stand. Second, I wanted it to be symbolical of the business which the organization the structure was to house.

“The first point I have accomplished through treating the subject in an extremely modern manner. The vertical lines of the building itself are retained in the lines of the statue. Because of the great height at which it will stand the matter of detail did not have to be taken into consideration. The outline of a woman’s figure is suggested rather than rendered exactly.

Ceres (from Wikimedia Commons)

Ceres (from Wikimedia Commons)

“As to the second point, I borrowed a thought from the classical period. Ceres well symbolizes the activity of the Board of Trade, so I took this goddess sister of Jupiter for my subject. However, while the thought is classical, the treatment is thoroughly modern.

“From the street the statue will appear to pedestrians mostly in silhouette. The hands holding the sheaf of wheat and the sample bag extend from the body abruptly instead of being attached to arms. The face, too, is suggested, inasmuch as there are no regular features.”

He also noted that he considered the top of the Board of Trade to be “one of the most commanding positions for a statue to be found in America.”

Chicagoans were very enthusiastic about the design when it was built. However, there was another reason why ignoring details was probably wise – within just a few weeks of being placed, the statue was completely blackened by soot from smokestacks, and didn’t get a bath for 12 years!