“So THAT’S why Union Station sticks out over Canal Street like that!”

December 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

A few weeks back, my pal John Needham and I were having one of our usual back-and-forths on Twitter. The genesis of the conversation was me making some wisecrack about how the Futures Industry Association had finally issued a statement about the MF Global meltdown, and he and I started cracking jokes about FIA being late to the party and issuing statements on some other historic events in our markets well after the fact. One of the events John joked about was when the CME moved from its former location over Union Station into its digs at 10-30 South Wacker. That former trading floor is now a health club. But one thing you’ll notice about the facility is that it juts out over the sidewalk on all sides, which is pretty unusual. I mentioned this fact to John and told him that there was a tale behind it. He told me that might make a great blog post. Weeks later, I’m finally posting it.

The story behind why it’s so is a classic tale of Chicago-style political sausage making, spearheaded by former CME chairman Leo Melamed. I worked for Leo’s firm in my first “real” job in the business for a few years – the stories from my days on the desk there alone are probably worthy of their own blog, but seeing as that I can barely keep up with this one that’ll just have to wait until I’m retired. Speaking of retired, Leo is 79 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. Here’s the story in his words about how the Canal Street cantilevering came to be, from his book “Escape To The Futures”:

“To move again after only four years in the building was really out of the question–we couldn’t afford it. But could we expand? The Chicago River made expansion to the east impossible. So our architects Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, who had built the Merc’s current structure came up with the only solution. We could increase the trading area by 40 percent by expanding the building to the west by 90 feet. Easier said than done. Such a solution required a major favor from the City of Chicago. We would need to purchase the air rights from the city in order to cantilever the present structure over the Canal street sidewalk, west of the Exchange. The Chicago Buildings Department rejected the plan out of hand. To build over a public sidewalk had only been allowed once in the history of Chicago, and that was for a hospital. The idea was dead in the water unless his honor, Mayor Richard J. Daley, would be willing to override his own Buildings Department’s veto.

I came prepped and rehearsed to the Mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall in the summer of 1976, bringing the architectural renderings and plans that Skidmore had provided. Although he knew me, I was alone and very nervous. After all, I was in my early forties, hardly known outside of Chicago while the Mayor was a world personality and a US powerhouse.He had just been elected to his sixth consecutive term. Besides, I was there to ask for a personal favor, so to speak.

The mayor listened quietly to my plea without interrupting and when I was finished asked one question, “What will it do for Chicago?”

This was not the question I expected, but I thought I knew the right answer. “Mr Mayor,” I responded without hesitation, “if I am right about financial futures, the IMM will move the center of financial gravity of this country a couple of miles westward from New York.”

The mayor broke into a hearty laugh. “I like that,” he said shaking my hand. “Go ahead and expand your building.”

And that’s why the black box on top of Union Station looks so funny, kids.

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