Atlas Obscura

This Historic Trading Room Was Taken Apart and Rebuilt Piece by Piece

The Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room.
The Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room.

Historic American Building Survey/Public Domain

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The meticulously recreated Trading Room is one of the few extant remains of the historic Chicago Stock Exchange building, designed in the 1890s by famed architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler (the ones responsible for bringing the then very modern Art Nouveau style to the United States). The space was almost lost to the wrecking ball in a misguided 1970s urban redevelopment scheme.

The Trading Room is a double-story, 100-by-75-foot institution of Midwestern finance. The ornate hall was once the scene of commodity deals that set the price of vegetables and meat across the country. Its decorative flourishes include beautiful organic wall stenciling (a now-forgotten craft that once defined Chicago design) and intricate stained glass skylights.

A man works on restoring the glass skylights.
Restoring the glass skylights.

Historic American Building Survey/Public Domain

It’s a quiet and contemplative space today, but when it was in operation, the Trading Room was the scene of frenzied activity. A Chicago Tribune reporter in 1960 described how “the shouts of the white coated, gray coated, and tan coated men” imparted a “sense excitement and tension even tho [sic] you don’t understand precisely what they are doing.”

By the 1970s the old Stock Exchange building had fallen into disrepair and was deemed “economically unviable” by its owners. According to Chicago historian Richard Cahan, the preservation and relocation of the Trading Room was “the price paid for the demolition permit.”

Photographer Richard Nickel and architect John Vinci were instrumental in the salvage work. Cahan records the challenge they faced when work began on Nov. 8, 1971:

The ceiling was dirty and peeling. Many of the stenciled canvases had fallen off or been ripped off for souvenirs. Dirt from decades of neglect had piled up so high that mice or rats had carved paths through it. It took a great leap of the imagination to see the beauty here. Even the gilded capitals looked like cheap plaster. But Vinci and Nickel knew the true beauty of this huge and foreboding place. “I think of it sort of like a holy room,” said Nickel after the work had began. “The more you are in here the more you are in awe of it.”

A worker recreates the stenciling.
Recreating the stenciling.

Historic American Building Survey/Public Domain

Over the course of three months, they documented the room and then unscrewed, pried, and sawed off every bit they could carry. The entire thing was rebuilt inside the Art Institute’s new wing in 1976. Nickel was tragically killed in a 1972 accident inside the old Stock Exchange and never lived to see the completed Trading Room.

Written by Atlas Obscura contributor Elliot Carter

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