Industrial Harvest

A CBOT Walking Tour with Mike Wolf by sarah kavage

Back in December, I met Mike Wolf, a talented artist and thoughtful person who has done a lot of perambulating and mulling over global institutions and big systems.  Being a bit of a perambulator myself, we hatched up a plan to go for a walk around the financial district and check out the new home of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (otherwise known as the old home of the Chicago Board of Trade). 

Looking Down the LaSalle St. Canyon

Looking down the LaSalle St. canyon, Chicago flags flap in the wind on a bitterly cold day. The CBOT is at end of the 'canyon,' fading into the sky in this photo.

For those of you who don’t follow commodities or futures markets, up until 2007 there were TWO commodities and futures exchanges in Chicago:  the Chicago Board of Trade (the CBOT, est. 1848), which traded grains, gold and ethanol, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (the Merc, est. 1898), which traded butter, pork bellies, and lumber. 

The CBOT and the Merc merged in 2007 and are now known as the CME Group.  It’s pretty confusing trying to decide what to call them now – no one seems to use the term ‘CME Group’, some call it the CME and other folks still call it the Board of Trade, depending on what is being traded of course.  With the merger, the CME moved into the CBOT building; trading pits, already going out of style, were consolidated and there was apparently quite a bit of controversy around whose hand signals would be the new standard in the pits.  Yep, each exchange had its own unique signals!  Pity the poor trader that screws that one up. 

Mike speculated that the names of two of Chicago’s sports teams – the Bulls and the Bears – might be connected to the city’s financial markets.  I would guess the Bulls actually probably refers to the stockyards, but if Mike’s not right, he should be.  Although Wall Street gets all the attention, there’s a huge amount of $$$ and power rolling through Chicago’s financial district, at the heart of which is the Mercantile Exchange.  I mean the Board of Trade.  Er, no, the CME Group.  In 2008, the CME Group acquired the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX), and this year bought up 90% of the Dow Jones indexes, including the ubiquitous Dow Jones Industrial Average.  That’s quite a portfolio. 

Here’s – to the degree that I’ve been able to reconstruct it – the CBOT building history.  If there are any people out there that know these dates / locations definitively, by all means tell me if these need to be corrected…I found some conflicting – or not quite clear – information. 

  First site at 105 S. Water St.
1856:  Moved to S. Water & LaSalle
1860:  Moved to temporary location on S. Water St.
1865:  Moved to LaSalle & Washington (Chamber of Commerce Building); this building was destroyed by the Chicago fire of 1871.  After the fire, the CBOT moved to the Wigwam at Washington & Market.  The Wigwam was a gigantic convention center built to house the Republication national convention that nominated Lincoln for president.  Once the Chamber of Commerce Building was re-built, the CBOT moved there until 1885, when it opened its own building, a large brick Victorian style designed by William Boyington, in the current location at LaSalle & Jackson.  The building was the tallest in Chicago for a time. 

1930:  The first LaSalle & Jackson building was replaced with the current art deco building.  It’s a beauty (although I heard somewhere that Frank Lloyd Wright poo-poohed it when it first was built) and was recently renovated back to its art deco grandeur.  Unfortunately, since 9/11 access into most of the building and to the trading floors are limited – Mike and I had to stick to the lobbies, the main hallways and the lower level restaurant Ceres.  It looks like if you go with the Chicago Architecure Foundation on a lunchtime tour you can take a peek at the trading floor. 

We also walked around the outside of the building, noting the ornamental touches:  grain motifs everywhere, the famous faceless sculpture of Ceres, goddess of grain at the top, and the gorgeous portraits to either side of the clock by Alvin Meyer – a Native American Indian woman to the left holding corn, and an Egyptian holding wheat. 

1980:  A major addition was tacked onto the existing building.  I have to say, Helmut Jahn’s postmodern rectangular steel and glass box clinging to the back of the tall and stately existing building was impressive, but lacked the grace of the original building and certainly has a tough time relating to it architecturally.  Still, it’s not as bad as the dull boxlike Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) building lurking just behind it.

the CBOT's postmodern addition

the CBOT's postmodern addition

Other modern additions include a parking garage and widespread use of the CBOT octagon logo, which represents the octagonal trading ‘pits.’

CBOT parking garage, featuring octagonal 'pit' logo

CBOT parking garage, featuring octagonal 'pit' logo

A close-up of the CBOT (CME Group) logo.

A close-up of the CBOT (CME Group) logo.