Carbide & Carbon Building
Carbide and Carbon Building

Completed: 1929
Architects: Daniel and Hubert Burnham

Is it an office building or an homage to a bottle of champagne? Though accounts vary, this much is known: in the 1920s, the fast-growing Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation commissioned a building of “distinction and perpetual advertisement for its occupants,” They hired architects Hubert and Daniel Burnham, Jr., sons of the great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, for the job. That's when things get murky.

According to one account, an executive who was trying to convey his vision to the Burnham brothers took a copper top battery, one of the company's signature products, and stuck it in the mouth of an empty champagne bottle. A more likely version has the Burnhams drawing inspiration from the black brick, gold-leaf-accented American Radiator Building (1924) in New York City. But the champagne bottle version makes for a better story, especially in a city that was home to some 20,000 speakeasies at the time.

Whatever the truth of its origins, the 40-story Carbide and Carbon Building at the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Wacker just south of the Chicago River is one of the memorable reminders of an exuberant era in skyscraper design. Rising from a polished black granite base, the L-shaped body is clad in dark-green-tinted terra cotta. The exquisite, 15-story tower on the east end of the building includes a 50-foot, spire-like representation of a battery adorned with gold leaf. As was common to buildings of the era, the windows are set in recessed vertical strips.

Decorative elements on the Carbide and Carbon's exterior include ferns and fossils, a nod to the importance of prehistoric carbon deposits to the petrochemical business. In its use of decorative motifs to express the company's purpose, the building pointed the way to perhaps the crowning achievement in Deco skyscrapers: New York's Chrysler Building (1930) and its radiator cap ornaments. The Great Depression largely brought an end to these flamboyant architectural expressions.

Near the Carbide and Carbon stand two other major projects from the Burnham brothers: the brick-wrapped, 41-story Bankers Building (1926), now known as the Clark Adams, and the neoclassical Engineering Building (1928) on Wacker. The brothers' most ambitious project, a 60-story tower on Michigan and Randolph at the northwest corner of Grant Park, was never built due to the stock market crash of 1929.

After a long life as an office tower, the Carbide and Carbon Building assumed a role more in tune with its appearance when in 2004 it became a Hard Rock Hotel.