In Chicago, architects have been celebrities. Sullivan, Adler, Wright, Mies van der Rohe–the names come easily to mind. There is also Benjamin Howard Marshall. Though not as well-remembered, he left a lasting imprint on the city.
He was born into a wealthy South Side family in 1874. As a boy he loved animals and would often smuggle pets into school. Once he brought a pony to church. Ben Marshall would always do things his own way. He was charming enough, rich enough, and talented enough to carry it off.
While he was in high school, Marshall was impressed by the grand buildings of the Columbian Exposition. He decided to become an architect. Rather than waste time in musty academic studies, he apprenticed himself to a local design office. He became a partner there at 21. A few years later, he opened his own firm.
Marshall specialized in large public buildings. His first major commission was the Iroquois Theater in 1903. The theater was destroyed by fire in less than a year, with a loss of 602 lives.
Tragic though it was, the Iroquois fire had little effect on Marshall’s career. In 1905 he went into partnership with Charles E. Fox. Over the next two decades, Marshall & Fox designed such classic structures as the Blackstone Hotel, Lake Shore National Bank, the Edgewater Beach Hotel, South Shore Country Club, and the Drake Hotel. The partners also built many stylish apartment buildings along the Gold Coast.
Marshall cut a flamboyant figure. He designed much of his personal wardrobe, which included elaborately ruffled shirts, flowing ties, and–for the golf course–a large sombrero with built-in ventilators. He drove a white, customized Packard convertible. On one occasion, he threw a party for the entire cast of the Ziegfeld Follies. He had money and he spent it, all the while giving the impression that if he didn’t have it, he would have spent it anyway.
The 1550 North State Apartments is a fine example of Marshall’s style. Its opulent Second Empire design suggests it might easily have been placed on the Champs Elysees, and in fact, Marshall labeled his plans in French. When the building opened in 1911, it was considered the height of luxury.
Each of the twelve floors had only a single apartment, a living space of 9,000 square feet divided into 15 rooms. The rooms facing east and north had magnificent views of the lake and Lincoln Park. The windows were fronted with iron balconies. Even the appliances were special–the kitchen ranges had three broilers, two gas and one charcoal, “so that steaks and fish need never be prepared on the same broiler.”
Marshall lived in the 1550 building for nine years. Then he erected a combination home and office in Wilmette. This complex included an entire room from a Chinese temple and an architectural studio large enough to accommodate a staff of forty-five. The property was so lavish it was listed as an attraction in Chicago guidebooks.
In 1936 Marshall sold his Wilmette holdings and retired to a suite in the Drake Hotel. He died there in 1944. Today the Benjamin Marshall Society educates the public on his life and works. This May 15, the society will celebrate “Big Ben’s” 142nd birthday with a gala at the Marshall-designed Drake Hotel.