Stand at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Jefferson Street in the West Loop and almost all around you are tall buildings, some of them dating back decades and others just a few years old.
There’s also the 10-story Social Security building finished in 1975 and a 23-story Hampton Inn that opened in 2016 nearby.
Between the Social Security and Hampton Inn buildings is a curious low structure that has been empty for several years and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.
The 600 W. Washington building almost looks like separate structures from different eras. The first floor is wrapped in smooth limestone panels typical of a mid-20th century building. Meanwhile, the second floor and partial third are clad in soot-covered red brick with handsome, churchlike peaks and window dormers on its two street sides.
Because the first floor is almost entirely blank — except for a set of glass doors set into a black stone panel on Washington Boulevard — the building is easy to overlook. But 600 W. Washington has a long history.
In the late 1800s, Chicago had a cable car system like the one in San Francisco. The cars moved by clamping onto a cable that was circulating underground and letting go when it was time to stop.
The 600 W. Washington building was made to power cable cars in the surrounding neighborhood. Inside were six giant, coal-burning boilers that generated the steam to crank a wheel three stories tall that kept the cable circulating.
There were no internal floors because the boilers and main wheel were so big.
A separate trio of streetcar-powering buildings had a similar purpose. However, the newer buildings were different because they powered overhead lines and were designed in the arts and crafts style of their day.
The exact age of 600 W. Washington isn’t in public records, but the building was in service with the West Chicago Street Railway by 1890. Within 16 years, all of Chicago’s cable cars had been replaced with street cars, which run on steel rails with a pole connected to an overhead wire, making the cable operation on Washington Street obsolete.
The 600 W. Washington building sat empty for a few years, but was eventually fitted with floors inside what must have been a cavernous space. Beginning around 1911, the building contained offices of various streetcar and transit companies that were predecessors of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). When the CTA moved its offices to the Merchandise Mart in 1952, 600 W. Washington again went vacant.
In 1954, 600 W. Washington became the headquarters of the union IBEW District 134. The IBEW stayed in the building through 2018, when it opened a new building on King Drive in Bronzeville.
Which brings us to the present owners: SC Johnson, the makers of the outdoor bug spray Off and the indoor bug spray Raid, Windex, Pledge furniture polish and Glade air fresheners.
The Racine, Wis.-based company bought 600 W. Washington in June 2016 for just under $8.5 million. In the deal, Johnson let the IBEW stay until its new building was ready two years later. SC Johnson was moving 175 jobs to Chicago at the time, and leased space for them a block east at 550 W. Washington.
In 2016, an SC Johnson official implied to Crain’s Chicago Business that the company planned to tear down the former IBEW building and put up something bigger.
This wouldn’t be a surprise. As far back as 1953, the Tribune was speculating the site of the obsolete cable car building would be a good place to erect a new skyscraper.
But seven years later, SC Johnson seemingly hasn’t moved forward. The company’s Chicago office is still a block east and the streetcar building stands empty.
WBEZ’s Reset tried from early January through this week to get SC Johnson to provide any details on its plans for the site: Tear it down? Sell it? Rehab it? Ultimately, Adrienne Pedersen, an SC Johnson spokesperson, emailed that “we don’t have an update to share at this time.”
So for now, the building squats on its corner site waiting for what might come next.
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.