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Back of the Yards

The Stock Yards Bank Building, A Back Of The Yards Cornerstone, Is Ready For An Overhaul 50 Years After It Closed

The Stockyard Bank Building was born when Chicago ruled the meatpacking industry. Nearly a century later, some hope it can reshape the community.

The former Stock Yards National Bank at Exchange Avenue and Halsted Street in the Back of the Yards on April 12, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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BACK OF THE YARDS — A cornerstone of Chicago’s once-bustling meatpacking industry has a shot at a new life after sitting empty for almost half a century.

The Stock Yards Bank building has towered over the corner of Halsted Street and Exchange Avenue since 1925, withstanding a fire that wiped out much of the surrounding yards in 1934 and a drastically shifting workforce since the stockyards closed in 1971.

Modeled after Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the building housed financial institutions for decades and, later, a handful of businesses for its last years of operation. It was closed in ’73, which led to more deterioration and 8 feet of standing water in the basement for nearly a decade.

Now, it is poised for revival.

Developers and city officials spent part of the past year stabilizing the building and repairing the most severe damage. With the building structurally sound again, local leaders said they hope someone will step up to redevelop it into a modern amenity that can anchor the South Side community as the bank once did.

“I think this would be a tremendous catalyst,” said Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th), whose ward includes the building. “I think having a vibrant Stockyard Bank Building will just help solidify that part of the community.”

Credit: Provided/Dan O'Brien
A news clipping that includes the Stock Yards Bank Building on the far left.

‘To Demolish Something Like That Would Just Be A Crime

The bank, 4120 S. Halsted St., sits east of the Union Stock Yards gate, one of the entrances to the meatpacking industry. At 45,000 square feet, it was built to meet the need of the burgeoning 1920s economy.

“At that time, the city of Chicago was producing more economy than many states,” said Scott Steffes, project director at Wight & Company, which stabilized the building. “So you see a slew of banks opening between 1920 and 1930.”

Abraham Epstein designed the building; he later became renowned for his role in designing the stock yards after the 1934 fire, which destroyed structures around the bank.

The building has steel framing with concrete floor slabs, and it’s decked out with terracotta and ornate details. The lobby has 19-foot-high ceilings, marble floors and pendant chandeliers.

The building has its quirks, too.

Tucked into a column in the first-floor lobby is a pill box where guards watched over the halls of the financial hub. The spot was used to deter robberies by the rifle-wielding security team.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Concrete and steel structure on the second floor.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The pill box where armed guards could shoot in case of a robbery.

Frances Rovituso-Strange, a coordinating architect with the city’s Assets, Information and Services department, said such grandiose details are unheard of in modern construction, which is dominated by buildings of “glass and steel.”

“This type of architecture is just not feasible anymore,” she said.

The two banks that originally called the building home merged, and the institution moved out in 1965. The Union Stock Yards closed midnight July 30, 1971, and the bank building has been closed since 1973.

It isn’t clear what happened to the building after that. Steffes said there were remnants of rugs and carpets there, indicating short-term use, but developers couldn’t find any records to clarify that. The Tribune reported it once was used as a hotel furniture warehouse.

Emblazoned on the first-floor lobby’s wall is a logo for The Color Inn Co., and there is a 1970s stream of colors over the peeling walls.

The city bought the building in 2000, saving it from demolition. Officials did minor renovations in 2007 and granted it landmark status in 2008.

“If we were to tear down buildings like this, that have so much history, our future generations would not have a clue as to what encompassed Chicago and how it developed and how it progressed and what influenced what is going on today,” Rovituso-Strange said. “It has so much history and beauty to it that to demolish something like that would just be a crime, in my opinion.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The interior lobby on the first floor of the Stock Yards Bank Building.
Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-163503; Gordon Coster, Photographer
The bank building looms in the background during the stockyards fire on May 19, 1934.

Last year, the city contracted with Wight & Company to do a full assessment and stabilization for the building. The architecture firm has worked with the city on projects like the Tiffany dome, Chicago Cultural Center and City Hall’s green roof.

Wight & Company completed the $1.5 million in upgrades over the last few months of 2020.

Ornate pieces like the exterior terracotta were removed and stored inside the building. The 8 feet of water in the basement was pumped out, revealing intensive damage — and multiple bank vaults. The crew cleaned and tuckpointed the south facade to show what the building will look like when it’s redone.

The building would still need more upgrades before it could be reused, but the stabilization will help make redevelopment more feasible.

“We were really impressed when we got on the inside because it’s a really beautiful building. The proportions are wonderful,” Steffes said. “The materials were high quality, and some of those still exists. It’s got wonderful light, and it has a lot of opportunity to it.

“You don’t have to rebuild it back. You don’t have to mimic it or adjust something in its like. It is physically there, and it’s in good shape. And so with some minimal effort, this thing can be brought back to its glory days and be a true representation of what the community was.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The stairwell leading up to the clock tower.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Rust and disrepair of safety vault of in the basement.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Scott Steffes, Em Hall and Frances Rovituso-Strange stand inside the clocktower.

A Steakhouse? A Museum? Maybe A Banquet Hall

Dan O’Brien, 36, recalls admiring the bank building whenever his father would take him back to “the old neighborhood.”

It was the first place his grandfather rode an elevator. His great-grandfather guarded the bank overnight. O’Brien received his great-grandfather’s watch from his guardsman days as a Communion gift.

O’Brien joined the Chicago Stock Yards Kilty Band when he was 10 — “one of the last living relics of the stockyards,” he said — and now is the group’s drum corporal and historian.

The last time the band got together, they noticed scaffolding on the clocktower. O’Brien said his bandmates and other people connected to the stockyards would love to see it “shine again and be an anchor” for the community.

“The Stock Yards gate, the bank building — there’s a few … relics of this industry that basically helped build Chicago, and that bank building is absolutely one of those kind of cornerstone buildings,” O’Brien said. “It was meant to be kind of this symbol of prosperity that if you save your money from your hard work, you can get a better life for yourself.”

Credit: Provided/Chicago Stock Yard Kilty Band Historic Archives
The Chicago Stock Yard Kilty Band performs outside the Union Stock Yards Gate on Exchange Avenue.

City leaders have proposed uses for the building over the years.

In his campaigning days, Thompson floated a proposal for a two-story banquet hall, museum and restaurant. In 2017, JAHN Architects sought to repurpose it as a renewable energy plant.

Any rehab of the building would need to meet modern code requirements, comply with historical guidelines and get approval from the Chicago Landmarks Commission.

Reviving the building could cost $20-25 million, officials said.

“We have a lot of landmark buildings, but not all have this kind of space available,” Rovituso-Strange said. “There are so many options that could be developed here.”

Redevelopment of even larger structures in similar condition have been tackled in Chicago in recent years, such as the Old Main Post Office building and Cook County Hospital.

The $800 million development of the post office brought in various businesses, who use it as office space. Meanwhile, the hospital now hosts a dual-branded Hyatt hotel.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The first-floor lobby.

Within the Stockyards Industrial Park is The Plant, a facility that was repurposed for the community and now works to cultivate local circular economies. O’Brien sees The Plant as an example of a way that people can be drawn to the Yards to invest their time and interest through a repurposed building.

“I think that proves that there’s definitely an opportunity for that bank building to be something pretty cool,” O’Brien said.

And Thompson still holds out hope his plan could come to fruition. The first floor could be converted into a restaurant, using the square footage for dining and a banquet hall. The alderman suggested a steakhouse, a hat tip to the area’s past.

The second story could be a museum honoring to the city’s history as “hog butcher for the world,” as immortalized in Carl Sandburg’s poem.

“It’s not just to have the building there, but it’s more to have the building there with a connection to what it meant, and a connection to what the stockyards meant to the city,” Thompson said.

The surrounding area has shifted dramatically since the livestock days, but industry remains “strong,” Thompson said. The Great Western Beef Company, where Thompson worked during his youth, remains in business down the street along with construction, manufacturing and recycling businesses.

“The Stockyards Industrial Park continues to be [an] extremely vibrant Industrial Park …, vibrant employer in the city,” Thompson said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Great Western Beef Company seen from the rooftop of the Stock Yards Bank Building.

Rovituso-Strange said community involvement is critical to determining the building’s future.

“It’s an important location. There’s a lot of development occurring within the area, and the community … they need it,” she said. “They need something that not only identifies their location, but they can relate to. It’s part of our history, and to put it to use in which it benefits them is like the most important thing to be considered.”

Residents have been curious about what’s happening with the building, Steffes said. Developers initially wanted to offer tours but scuttled those plans during the pandemic.

“There’s new bakeries around, there’s a few restaurants, there’s some real interest in the depth and culture of the neighborhood. Right now, it doesn’t seem to have that foundation or that central empowering element, and … I personally think this could do that,” Steffes said.

As for O’Brien, he hopes the Kilty Band will be there to perform at the grand opening of whatever happens with the building.

“Maybe a steakhouse,” he said, chuckling.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Em Hall walks past rust and disrepair on a vault in the basement.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The sun shines behind the clocktower.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A spiral staircase leading down to the first floor.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Scott Steffes opens the door to the roof overlooking the skyline and neighboring communities.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
An old elevator sign hangs on the first floor.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The interior lobby on the first floor.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A dusty bottle of Canadian Club sits in the stairwell.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Rust and disrepair on a safety vault in the basement.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The second floor of the Stock Yards Bank Building.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A face on the clocktower.
Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The formerly flooded basement, which housed vaults and work rooms.

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