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Delaware Building outside

The Delaware Building, located at 36 W. Randolph St., first rose during the massive rebuilding effort after the Great Chicago Fire.

K’Von Jackson for WBEZ

What’s That Building? The Delaware Building

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 ascend was the Bryant Block at the northeast corner of Randolph and Dearborn.

Italianate arched windows and carved pilasters lining the building’s six stories had “an appearance of boldness and solidity,” according to an article in The Landowner.

Real estate and insurance companies were among the first tenants, but later the Bryant Block became notorious for prostitutes. One 1879 writer, who used the pen name Decency, called the Bryant Block “one of the very lowest and most degraded dens that infest Chicago.”

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

Now known as the Delaware Building, the property is trying to rise from the metaphoric ashes. The lawyers who took over ownership in a “deed in lieu of foreclosure” deal five years ago want to convert the shabby office building into apartments, part of the post-pandemic trend in turning unused downtown office spaces into housing.

In early January, one of the owners, Steven DeGraff, told the Chicago Sun-Times the plan has been hung up by McDonald’s. The fast food company has a 99-year lease on the first floor space where a McDonald’s restaurant operated until closing down during COVID-19. DeGraff said he needs about 93 square feet of the McDonald’s space to add a required second means of egress from the building. McDonald’s hasn’t agreed to give up the space, said DeGraff, who added that the chain said it doesn't plan on reopening in the space.

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

The Delaware Building is the shape of a giant doughnut with an open center daylit by a rooftop atrium, staircases and walkways on every level.

For reference on what the building could become: Two of Chicago’s best-known atrium apartment buildings are the Yale in Englewood and the Brewster in Lincoln Park.

The atrium would certainly be a big draw for renters, especially if the rehab includes bringing back hundreds of glass cylinders that were set into the staircases and walkways. The Swiss cheese look allowed daylight to pass through and penetrate deeper into the atrium, but have since been covered.

DeGraff said that until McDonald’s makes way for a second staircase, there can be no decision on details like bringing back the cylinders or stripping green paint off the brass handrails, restoring transom windows over the doorways and ripping out the shared bathrooms on every other floor.

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

In October 1872, on the first anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, the Chicago Tribune cataloged all the investment in the “Great Rebuilding,” including JM Bryant’s $165,000 on Dearborn Street. That’s equal to about $4 million today. The architecture firm Wheelock and Thomas designed a detailed façade of arches, brackets, dozens of arched and square-topped windows marching across the upper four floors, two street fronts, taller shop windows along the streets and three grand doorways on Dearborn, on Randolph and on the chamfered corner.

When the building was fully up and running in 1874, some of the first tenants were a pair of real estate companies and an insurance agency.

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

There are other claims of sex and violence in the building at what the Tribune called “the notorious Bryant Block,” but one of the most sensational connections to the building involves a presidential assassination.

In July 1881, Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield, who died after serving just six months in office. Guiteau, who grew up in Freeport, about 100 miles northwest of Chicago, had a history of mental instability. Guiteau’s sister Frances and her husband George lived in Oak Park. George was an attorney mostly handling real estate law, but he became one of two defense lawyers for the assassin, working from his office in the Bryant Block.

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

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

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