Reid Murdoch Building

Reid Murdoch Building Chicago

Odyssey Chicago River Experience/Reid Murdoch Building
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> The Reid Murdoch Building opened in 1914. It was constructed for one of the country’s largest grocers to be used as a warehouse and food processing facility.

> It was also used as a makeshift hospital on July 24th, 1915 right after the S.S. Eastland capsized on the opposite shore, directly across from the building.

> The SS Eastland was one of 3 ships set to take Western Electric's employees' families to Michigan City, but it never left the Chicago River

> The ship was designed for 2500 passengers but had over 3200 aboard that day. The extra life jackets were cleared to make room for more passengers, but 844 people lost their lives when it capsized.

An Ode to Commerce

The Reid Murdoch, which made the National Registry of Historic Places in 1975, was originally built in 1913. The building is a magnificent example of what local means to a community. It was built to house the offices and grocery warehouse of Reid, Murdoch & Co. Reid, Murdoch & Co. was a behemoth grocery company with humble roots. They primarily imported and manufactured canned goods, which they then distributed to independent merchants. As part of their distribution center, the building connected a freight tunnel system 60 feet below street level. So although the company was huge itself, it remained a champion for smaller businesses by not selling to chain grocers. At the time, the building contained a water tower to supply the sprinkler system and a humidor to roll tobacco into cigars.

“When a Chicago business attains dimensions which overshadow those with which it may be compared, it becomes in the broadest sense a Chicago institution and belongs in a manner to every Chicagoan. It stands for Chicago pluck, Chicago brains and Chicago energy.”— Frank H. Spearman, writing about Reid, Murdoch & Co. in the Sunday Times-Herald, March 26, 1899

One of the building's standout qualities was first considered a mistake. Building designer George C. Nimmons had the front of the building facing the river. At the time, nobody designing on the riverfront did such a thing. The reason was simple: the Chicago River was polluted. The wafts of odor were just too much. But then years later, city engineers changed the river's current flow. So what seemed like a terrible idea at the time now looks brilliant.

The design is an example of the "Chicago School" of Architecture complete with a red brick facade over a skeleton of steel and concrete. Other distinct features include the terra cotta embellishments and four-sided clock tower. The clock tower is actually 3 stories tall and connects to the building's base. However, the terra cotta decor was removed during interior remodeling that included new entrances, elevators, and escalators.

In 1930 the city demolished western portions of the building when they widened LaSalle Street. The building has since been used for local government offices and is currently the headquarters for Encyclopedia Britannica.

The SS Eastland Disaster

It was used as a temporary morgue after a ship capsized on the opposite shore. On the morning of July 24, 1915, families of the employees of Western Electric boarded 5 ships on an outing meant to go to Michigan City. The SS Eastland, known as the "Speed Queen of the Great Lakes", was one of those ships, but she never made it to the lake. The already top-heavy ship was loaded to 700 people over capacity. The ship lost its stability and quickly capsized. It happened so quickly that there was no time to deploy lifeboats or hand out life jackets. A total of 844 people lost their lives, including 22 entire families.

The tragedy struck not only Western Electric but the community as a whole. The Chicago Department of Health quickly dispatched personnel and aid resources. A total of 250 patients were treated in nearby hospitals, and the Reid Murdoch building was used as a temporary morgue for those who didn't survive. The rooms were cleansed and fumigated after the bodies were removed.

“We are the victims of a disaster so awful that the world has stood aghast at its horrors, even in this year of horrors. Of our fellow workers, five hundred have gone down to sudden death. Many are mourning for members of their families, and many for friends and acquaintances. Gloom hangs heavy.” -- Harry B. Thayer, Western Electric's President

Cover image source: Kristina D.C. Hoeppner, CC BY-SA 2.0, no changes made.

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