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Heart of Chicago Walking Tour: History, Art, and Architecture
Item 16 of 28
The Reliance building was erected as one of the world's first steel-frame skyscrapers in 1895. Designed by the famous Burnham and Root architectural firm, the building was built in two stages because the tenants living on the top floors of the existing building at this location refused to leave until their lease expired. In response, the engineers used jack screws which held up the top floors while construction began on the lower floors. Construction began in 1891 and the building stood fourteen stories when it was completed. Until the Great Depression, doctors and other medical professionals leased offices in the building; afterwards, the Reliance Building began to fall into disrepair until the mid-1990s when a major renovation occurred. Today, the Reliance Building serves as a boutique hotel, the Alise Chicago

This historic early skyscraper is now home to a boutique hotel.

This historic early skyscraper is now home to a boutique hotel.

The Reliance Building was completed in 1895 by the Burnham and Root architectural firm.

The Reliance Building was completed in 1895 by the Burnham and Root architectural firm.
In the late 1880s, real estate investor and elevator entrepreneur William Hale hired the famed Burnham & Root architectural firm (Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root) to build a 14-story to building at the corner of Washington and State. However,  a building which had survived the Great Fire already existed on the lot, and only the lower floor's lease would expire soon. The tenants on the upper floors refused to leave, waiting three more years for their end of their leases. Thus, the contractor used jack screws to hold up floors two through four while construction began on the lower floor. Eventually, by 1894, the residents moved and construction of the 14-story skyscraper took place (one that proved highly influential). The building was finished in 1895.

The Reliance is a perfect example of the emerging  "Chicago School" or style, which emerged during Chicago's building boom in the wake of the Great Fire. The first wave of that style reached its peak in the late 1890s when the Reliance was constructed. The Reliance celebrates the use of metal framing, hidden only subtly by the terra cotta exterior.  Meanwhile, the bays between the framework are filled with rectangular glass known as "Chicago Glass," Indeed, the walls consist of two-thirds glass. 

Sadly, Root died in 1891 well before the building was finished. Burnham hired Charles B. Atwood to complete the project (and his name now adorns the cafe on the lowest floor).  Together, the building enjoyed the fruits of modern innovation. For instance, the Reliance Building offered full electric and phone service in each office. Over time, numerous physicians and dentists leased offices in the Reliance (including Al Capone's dentist). On the other hand, the idea of trying to combat stains created by the thick coal-induced smoke with a smooth terra cotta that would easily wash in the rain -- exist as "self-cleaning," proved unsuccessful. 

The Great Depression took its toll on the building, as maintaining full occupancy rarely materialized.  The building fell into disrepair until the 1990s when the city purchased the building and funded its restoration; the windows and terra cotta enjoyed full repair. The renovation made the building worthy of sale and, as such, a private developer purchased it and subsequently renovated the interior. In time, it became the Hotel Burnham, and now, today, it is part of the hotel chain known as The Alise -- a luxurious hotel and boutique. 
Condit, Carl W. The Chicago School of Architecture: A History of Commercial and Public Building in the Chicago Area, 1875–1925. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. 

Pitts, Carolina. Nomination Form: Reliance Hotel. National Register of HIstoric Places. July 01, 1975.

"Reliance Building." Chicago Architecture Foundation. Accessed. July 28, 2017.