The short-lived life of the world’s tallest building

From Chicago Reader:

Thus the Land was stirring and quivering in impulses, wave upon wave. . . . [Chicago] was pushing its structures higher and higher, until the Masonic Temple by John Root had raised its head far into the air, and the word “skyscraper” came into use. –Louis Sullivan, from The Autobiography of an Idea

On a warm evening in the summer of 1892, Edgar Lee Masters boards the night train for Chicago. He is 22 and one year a member of the Illinois bar, but he’d rather be a poet than an attorney. The train carries him northward, away from his home in Lewistown, and Masters sits awake by the window watching for the exact spot where prairie gives way to city. He comes upon Chicago at dawn, and though he does not know it, the first thing he sees of the city is its red-light district.

When he steps off the train, Masters is hungry and tired. His starched collar has wilted, and his white vest is covered in cinders. His enthusiasm for urban life, however, is unabated, and after breakfast at his uncle’s rooming house at 2128 S. Michigan Ave., he asks to be shown the sights. He is shown them.

Forty-four years pass. Masters spends eight of them as a law partner of Clarence Darrow. He publishes one remarkable book of poetry. Of his first day in Chicago he remembers that he especially wanted to visit “the tallest building in the world, from the top of which, according to an old Polonius in Lewistown, one could see Council Bluffs, Iowa. . . . I had to try that out, and Uncle Henry took me to the Masonic Temple.”

From the mosaic floor of its marble lobby to gabled roofs and glass-domed gardens, the Masonic Temple at the northeast corner of State and Randolph stood 302 feet tall. It was, according to Henry Justin Smith, a managing editor for the old Chicago Daily News, “a wonder of wonders. . . . Everything about the building made the city burst with pride, and gave country visitors kinks in their necks.” In fact, the building achieved a notoriety generally reserved for the Brooklyn Bridge and other “marketable” real estate. Vaudeville comics told the story–and Smith went so far as to claim it was an actual “colloquy” frequently overheard in Chicago’s turn-of-the-century courtrooms–of a cop approaching the bench with several con men in tow. “What’s the charges against these men?” asked the judge, to which the arresting officer would reply, “They took money off a rube, your honor, told him they were selling him the Masonic Temple. And when the rube said he liked the building but not the direction it faced, they said for five dollars more they’d turn it around.”

By 1939, however, the luster had worn off and the Masonic Temple was regarded as just another obsolescent and costly giant. Brick by brick, it was demolished from the top down, relegated to Chicago’s sizable scrap heap of architectural gems.

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The short-lived life of the world’s tallest building