December 11, 2023
Chicago’s historical Epstein-designed Live Stock National Bank within the Union Stockyards, which includes the International Amphitheatre, is currently up for redevelopment. Epstein was responsible for repairs to the 9-story Exchange Building, rebuilding the Stockyard Inn, repairs to the Live Stock National Bank, a new Boys’ and Girls’ Club, as well as numerous new office and retail buildings critical for Union Stockyards operations. All of these buildings were constructed for $4M ($98M in 2023), and at the time, it was the largest building program in Chicago since the beginning of the Great Depression.
Chicago’s 2nd ‘Great Fire’ struck the enormous Union Stockyards in May 1934, which were roughly bounded between Pershing Avenue to the north, Halsted Street to the east, 47th Street to the south, and Ashland Avenue to the west. With winds whipping up to 60 miles an hour the fire spread incredibly fast through most of the timber-constructed Stockyards. When this massive blaze was finally extinguished the following evening, roughly six square blocks of the Stockyards were destroyed, although, amazingly the major packinghouses were saved.
Built in 1924 for $500k, the Live Stock National Bank was subjected to minimal damage thanks in large part to its 'absolutely fireproof' design – a claim that would be proven true after the massive fire swept through the Stockyards incinerating much of the packing yard, but not the Bank. In fact the bank, save for some charred outdoor furniture, was open for business the day after the fire!
This Colonial Revival building was designed to replicate the grandeur and timelessness of Philadelphia's Independence Hall, and served as the bank for the cattlemen and meatpackers doing business within the adjacent Union Stockyards. To get some perspective on how important and influential this bank was in the early 30s it had nearly 2,500 industrial and manufacturing companies as depositors and was Chicago's largest bank outside downtown.
For those of you paying attention in your high school history class you’ll also know that this fire took place in the midst of the Great Depression. A time in which unemployment was at record levels and many private enterprises were struggling mightily to stay solvent. Epstein was no different. Prior to ‘The Fire’ our founder, Abraham Epstein, had his entire staff of 1/4 time and ran multiple shifts just to keep his engineers and architects employed. This reduction in time was not a feasible long-term solution for our company and Abraham was clearly facing some sobering choices about whether or not to continue as small business firm. This fire changed everything.
As the fire was burning its way through the Stockyards, Abraham received an urgent phone call from Arthur G. Leonard, a past Epstein client, and the president of the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company, the owners and operators of the Union Stockyards, telling him to get his team ready ASAP as a massive and incredibly urgent rebuilding program was to commence immediately. And, more amazingly that the rebuilding needed to be planned, design, engineered, and built by the end of the year. Why the hurry? Each year the Stockyards hosted the International Livestock Exposition at their Horse Auction Barn. A building that was constructed of wood, as you might imagine, burned to the ground. That year’s livestock show was scheduled to run from December 1st through the 8th.
Abraham gathered his team, a crew that was not only going to be working full-time, but overtime, on a new steel framed and concrete modern exhibition center. A $1.5M ($35M in 2023) 10,000 seat arena that would be called the International Amphitheater located at what is now Halsted and 42nd street, would include such ground breaking features as air conditioning as well as press and broadcast media spaces. The Amphitheatre’s iconic roof was comprised of 11 solid steel arch trusses, stretching 200 feet across the arena, and at the time of construction, these trusses were the largest in the world.
The Epstein team worked around the clock to develop plans at unheard of speed, working hand and hand with the construction personnel from Poirot Construction to complete the International Amphitheatre on December 1, 1934, a little over seven months after the fire. And, just in time to host the 1934 International Livestock Exposition.
The acclaim received by Abraham Epstein and his staff for their dedication and expert craftsmanship in the Union Stockyards rebuilding programed positioned Epstein as one of the preeminent Chicago-based engineering firms and led to numerous commissions that not only help the firm survive the Great Depression, but more importantly, thrive. These events set the foundation for our operations today not only in Chicago, but throughout the world.