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Towering equity

Towering equity 2008-11-01 Staff Writer When Colonel Robert McCormick announceWhen Colonel Robert McCormick announced in 1922 a competition to design the most “beautiful office building in the world,” in which to house the headquarters of the Tribune Company, architects from across the world scrambled to off

When Colonel Robert McCormick announceWhen Colonel Robert McCormick announced in 1922 a competition to design the most “beautiful office building in the world,” in which to house the headquarters of the Tribune Company, architects from across the world scrambled to offer their ideas.

At stake was not just $100,000 in prize money – $50,000 alone for first place – but also the chance to create a monument to the booming 1920s economy in Chicago. The challenge was immense, not least given the fact the architects had to win over the legendary publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the larger-than-life Colonel McCormick, a man described, even by friends, as a ruthless individual who disdained the common folk.

It was his sheer force of personality though that, in the end, led to the creation of one of Chicago's most famous landmark buildings. Designed by New York City architects John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood, the Tribune Tower stands as a monument to not only Chicago's economic prowess in the 1920s, but also the USA's.

Located at 435 North Michigan Avenue, the neo Gothic building is believed to have been influenced by the French cathedral at Rouen and the Tower of Malines in Belgium. Standing 36-stories tall, it was constructed with 9,316 tons of steel and 13,160 tons of stone, at a cost of $8.5 million. To crown the tower, the designers created an architectural tour de force of Gothic stonework that marks the building out from all its neighbours.

However McCormick also wanted his own input into the construction of the building. Ordering his journalists to bring back bricks and rocks from the world's most historically important sites, the Tribune Tower now boasts 136 fragments of famous buildings that have been incorporated into the lower levels of the structure. Among those included in the architectural worldtour are the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, the Palace of Westminster, petrified wood from the Redwood National and State Parks, the Great Pyramid, The Alamo, Abraham Lincoln's Tomb, and the Berlin Wall.

Attempts to add a piece of rock from the moon more recently have, however, failed as the moon rock is officially owned by NASA. It was though allowed to be displayed in a window in the Tribune's gift store.

It would be wrong to think though the tower's more recent history is less flambuoyant.

In December 2007, the co-founder of private equity real estate firm, Equity International, Sam Zell, bought the Tribune Company, which includes the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times and big US television stations, such as WGN-Ch, in a complex $8.2 billion deal structured around an employee stock ownership plan. At the time, Tribune said it would sell the baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, and its 25 percent stake in local cable channel Comcast SportsNet Chicago, in a bid to help repay its $13 billion of debts.

In June, Zell said he also wanted to sell the Tribune Tower as well as the headquarters of the Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square.

In the current credit climate, potential buyers have, so far, failed to step forward to take over the Chicago landmark (estimated to be worth around $200 million). However – like McCormick – Zell is nothing but a contrarian at heart. “I don't really believe in conventional wisdom,” he recently told the Chicago Tribune newspaper. “In fact, going against the conventional wisdom usually produces a positive result.”