What’s That Building? The Former Armour Institute At IIT | WBEZ
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What's That Building? Inside The Former Armour Institute Of Technology

Amid the many modernist steel-and-glass buildings on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology stands a red brick Victorian that occupies nearly an entire block.

It caught the eye of a "What's That Building?" fan, who asked about the history of the "huge red brick building — maybe part of IIT."

It was built in 1893 to house one of IIT's predecessors: the Armour Institute of Technology. IIT was created in 1940 when the Armour Institute merged with the Lewis Institute, a West Side school. Students attended classes in the Armour building until it closed in the early 2000s. IIT sold it in 2017 and now a development group plans to gut the inside and turn the Chicago landmark into an apartment building.

That work hasn’t started, so the spot is vacant for now. But a look inside reveals a building still filled with hints of its history.

A tribute to the building’s namesake family

The most impressive detail may be the Tiffany stained-glass windows which illuminate a wrought iron staircase. The center window depicts a toga-clad hero among funeral lilies. The windows are a tribute to Philip Armour Jr. whose father, super-wealthy meatpacker Philip Armour, donated one million dollars to help found the Armour Institute.

The base of the stained-glass windows notes Philip Armour Jr.'s name and date of death.
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ
The base of the stained-glass windows notes Philip Armour Jr.'s name and date of death.

A green stained glass window reads 'In memory of Philip D. Armour Jr.'
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ
A stained glass sign reads 'Died January XXVI MDCCC'
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

Ghian Foreman, a developer working on the building, said the windows and staircases will be preserved in the rehab.

A plaque explains the origins of the Armour Institute

Congregationalist minister Frank Wakeley Gunsaulus, the first president of the Armour Institute, is memorialized in the lobby with a bronze plaque. It was Gunsaulus who inspired Philip Armour Sr. to make the donation to found the Armour Institute.

In a sermon in 1890, Gunsaulus said that with a million dollars he could build a school that would teach people the knowledge and skills they would need in the rapidly growing industrial economy. Philip Armour Sr. happened to be in the audience and approached Gunsaulus with an offer to fund his plan.

Frank Wakely Gunsaulus (left) and Philip Armour Sr. (right).
Illinois Institute of Technology
Frank Wakely Gunsaulus (left) and Philip Armour Sr. (right).

Old classrooms and leftover student work

The fact that engineers and architects studied here is evident in the abandoned classrooms. Leftover student drawings scatter the rooms.

A pile of technical drawings
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ
An empty classroom is filled with desks facing a chalkboard. The chalkboard is filled with writing.
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

Chalkboards are filled with notes from former IIT students.

A chalkboard filled with notes like 'Class of 2019'
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

Remnants of a model railroad club

The attic was once home to the Illinois Tech Model Railroaders, a club that met from 7 to 11 p.m. on Fridays, according to a sign on the door.

A yellow sign on a white door reads 'Illinois Tech Model Railroaders ITMR Fridays 7-11 PM'
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

Most of their domain has been dismantled, but tangles of wires hint at the intricacy of their work.

Yellow blue and red wires among other debris
Paula Friedrich/WBEZ

The leaning building of Armour

A series of fires damaged the Armour building over the years, including a 1950 fire that wrought significant structural damage on the south end of the building, according to the developer Foreman. That end of the building leans a little to this day.

A view of the first fire at that happened at the Armour building in 1909.
Chicago Sun-Times/Chicago Daily News collection, Chicago History Museum
A view of the first fire at that happened at the Armour building in 1909.

Repairing this tilt will be one of the first steps toward redeveloping the building, Foreman said, but it’s unclear when construction will start. He originally said he planned to have the transformation complete by August 2018. Foreman said there are two reasons for the hold up: He’s still waiting on the historic preservation tax credits to process, and he has two other historical South Side redevelopments on his plate.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for  Crain's Chicago Business and Morning Shift's "What's That Building?" contributor.

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