Chicago’s Transportation Building—Former Headquarters of Eliot Ness and The Untouchables
The historic Transportation Building at 600 S. Dearborn celebrated its 100th Anniversary in 2011. The tall, slender, unassuming building rode the roller coaster of neighborhood ups and downs over the past century, serving as both the headquarters for Eliot Ness and the Untouchables and an abandoned, boarded-up hulk sheltering homeless squatters. Its renovation and conversion into luxury apartments in the late 1970s led a resurgence of the Printer’s Row neighborhood and helped usher in a national trend toward urban living in repurposed buildings.
Designed by architect William Strippelman (but often credited to Fred V. Prather), the 22-story Transportation Building rose 231 feet tall on a sliver of a narrow block between Federal and Dearborn Streets. Only 67 feet wide, the building stretched nearly 300 feet along Dearborn Street, helping to move respectable businesses south from the Loop. The large, block building was the tallest building in Chicago south of Congress Street (only the tower of Chicago’s Grand Central Station was taller), and its style helped usher in a more functional, practical, modern style of architecture with minimal adornment. Most people seeing the building for the first time without knowing its history would have a hard time believing it wasn’t built in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
Only a decade before it was built, the neighborhood surrounding the Transportation Building site was a notorious slum full of brothels and nefarious taverns known as the Customs House Levee District; after withering criticism from social reformers the city had cleared the high traffic area to guard against unsuspecting visitors from being drawn into rampant vice. Almost without missing a beat, the Levee District immediately relocated a mile and a half to the south for the next three decades.
Printer’s Row sprang up almost immediately—taking advantage of proximity to three major railroad stations within two blocks-- as light manufacturing, and transportation-related offices filled the district. R.R. Donnelley, Donohue, and Franklin printing companies built large plants in the area, and manufacturers filled lofts between Congress and Polk Streets.
Home to Eliot Ness and The Untouchables
With the advent of Prohibition in 1919, the Bureau of Prohibition was created as an enforcement arm of the U.S. Treasury Department. The 300-member strong bureau offices in Chicago rented considerable space in the Transportation Building, with agent offices occupying the entire 3rd Floor of the building and executive offices in a corner of the 22nd Floor.
University of Chicago graduate Eliot Ness joined the department in 1927, and within two years was charged with heading Volstead Act enforcement operations. Ness targeted the illegal brewing activities and supply routes of Al Capone, who had consolidated control over much of the illegal Midwest liquor trade. Seeking to form an incorruptible staff, Ness weeded through the records of all Prohibition agents to create a team of 11 agents that came to be known as “The Untouchables.” Within six months, Ness and his team set up a wire-tapping and informant operation that cut into Capone’s operations and eventually led to Capone’s prosecution on 22 counts of tax evasion. On October 17, 1931, Capone was sentenced to 11 years in prison, and began his sentence in 1932.
Neighborhood Decline and Resurrection
The Great Depression, repeal of Prohibition, and changes in the transportation and printing industries began a steady decline of the neighborhood. The South State Street Skid Row, just two blocks east of the Transportation Building, became increasingly seedy. By the 1970s, the Transportation Building was vacant and boarded up; few respectable businesses remained in the area, and two of the nearby train stations were totally vacant or demolished.
AuthorsRon Gordon and John Paulett documented the rise, fall, and resurrection of the Printer’s Row neighborhood in their 2003 book, “Printer’s Row, Chicago” (Arcadia Publishing), including an extensive section on the late-70s rehabilitation of the Transportation Building. The fact that the building survived its severe neglect is an amazing story.
Today, the Transportation Building is an upscale condominium development with a healthy mix of restaurants, businesses, and convenience stores on its ground floor. Within one block of the Transportation Building, there are a number of healthy and desirable residential, hotel, and retail facilities that make Printer’s Row a very early and astonishingly successful example of effective urban gentrification, adaptive re-use of historic buildings, and architectural preservation.