What’s That Building? Former Morton Salt Headquarters

Morton Salt factory building
Dennis Rodkin / For WBEZ
Morton Salt factory building
Dennis Rodkin / For WBEZ

What’s That Building? Former Morton Salt Headquarters

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Between Wacker Drive and the Chicago River sits a horizontal, squat-looking building overshadowed by its much taller neighbors.

“This just looks like somebody forgot to build higher,” Crain’s Chicago Business real estate reporter Dennis Rodkin told Morning Shift.

Today, there are plans to replace the five-story building, which once served as the headquarters for the Morton Salt factory, with an 800-foot building, which would make it one of downtown’s tallest all-office buildings.

How has the “little stainless steel sandwich” managed to hang on to its riverfront location? Rodkin shared the backstory of what’s kept it from being replaced for so long:

It’s the 1940s and cars are transforming cities and peoples’ lives. Everybody is moving out to the suburbs and driving back into city. Parking is lucrative, and here’s this prime riverfront site, right next to the Civic Opera and the Daily News Building. There are these phenomenal buildings and then there was this blank spot, where there was parking.

The McCormick family owns the lot at the time and Stanley McCormick leaves it to his wife Katharine Dexter McCormick. She’s an amazing figure in Chicago history and she played a huge role in funding the research that led to the birth control pill. A year after her husband dies, she is liquidating a lot of the fortune he left her, much of which will eventually go to the birth control pill.

She sells this lot and a woman named Ida Alpert buys it. She too was a widow at this time.

Her husband was a leading parking entrepreneur, and she took over his business after he died. In the mid-1950s, Sterling Morton, one of the Morton Salt family, comes to her and says: “I want to build an office building, how about here?” Rather than sell him the land, she leases it to him for 99 years, at a rate of $45,000 per year.

Morton tapped the architectural firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White to build the low, sleek, no-nonsense building we see there today.

In 1991, the Morton firm has moved across the street and the developer who now owns the building tells the Chicago Tribune he plans to tear it down and build a bigger tower. He mentions the land is still subject to that lease, which at this point still has 41 years on it, but doesn’t seem to think it’s an obstacle.

But it wasn’t until 2014 that the Howard Hughes company bought out the remainder of that lease, paying nearly seven times the amount that was still remaining on the lease.”

Before it’s torn down, Rodkin recommends looking closely at some other architectural details worth noting in the building’s facade.

Hear his full conversation with Morning Shift by clicking play above.