William Stewart Dinwiddie:  Part III

Until now, I’ve switched back and forth between William Stewart Dinwiddie’s professional and personal lives. I’ll return to family matters shortly, but after substantial research into his professional life between 1903 and 1906, I couldn’t decide which details to leave out and which to include. So I’m leaving them all. One strange thing I’ve found is some inconsistency as to what William Stewart Dinwiddie Sr. was actually called. Some accounts refer to him as Will, others as Bill, and still others as William. And though I jokingly refer to him as “Hot Great Grandpa,” I hardly think that’s an appropriate way to detail his history! (Though when I DO say “Hot Great Grandpa” everyone knows EXACTLY which photograph I am talking about!) Since his son, my grandfather, called him Bill, I’ll do the same for now.

By weaving together the accounts of various individuals from various angles, I was able to reconstruct a better picture of his professional life during his first years back in Chicago while he working with his brothers in law, the Starretts. Though architects and financiers and other captains of industry are celebrated and their names have gone down in the annals of American history, those of the contractors—the men who turned the intricate plans and sketches into brick and mortar—their names have slowly faded. However, relentless research and new friendships have helped me bring some of these stories back to life.

This next part is kind of heavy on the history, but bear with me. It’s some pretty interesting stuff!

As you know from Part II, Bill Dinwiddie and his family returned to Chicago around 1900 when Bill accepted a job with his brother in law, Paul Starrett, at the George A Fuller Company. Upon completion of the 1902 Chicago Tribune Building, Bill was asked to join forces with another of his brothers in law, Theodore, at his new firm, the Thompson-Starrett Company.

  Theodore StarrettSmall   BillDinwiddieMercantile

Shortly thereafter, salesman-turned-construction-finance-whiz Louis J. Horowitz joined the Thompson-Starrett in the New York offices on Wall Street. Horowitz would eventually rise to the position of president following Theodore’s retirement, but in 1905, he was new with the firm and was employed as Theodore’s assistant. Thompson-Starrett was still in its infancy, but had quickly established itself as a pioneer in the construction of skyscrapers.


By the turn of the century, Sears, Roebuck and Co. had become the largest retailer in the world and was quickly outgrowing the multiple buildings it operated from throughout the Chicago. In 1904, company president Julius Rosenwald and vice president Albert Loeb purchased 41.6 acres of land in Chicago’s west side Lawndale residential district and commissioned the architectural firm of Nimmons & Fellows to design a state-of-the-art facility. The 527 foot wide by a half-mile long plot of land was located along the B&O Railroad Line at Homan and Arlington, and would consist of six buildings with a combined excess of five million square feet of floor space. The new plant would be unlike anything the world had ever seen. Chicago City Council even allowed the permanent closure of several streets to allow the massive buildings to be built over them.

When Bill learned through the Chicago grapevine that the Sears & Roebuck project was IMG_9968going out for bid, he quickly telegraphed New York, and Theodore immediately dispatched Horowitz to Chicago to land a meeting with Rosenwald—and to help Bill land the contract. A few other, and more well known, Chicago contractors were also bidding on the job, but Horowitz was a brilliant salesman. He succeeded in getting on Rosenwald’s schedule, and he knew he had to bring every bit of salesmanship he had within him to convince him that Thompson-Starrett—and Bill Dinwiddie—were the best choice for the project.

In Louis J. Horowitz’s 1937 memoirs, he details the meeting with Julius Rosenwald and Albert Loeb (whom Horowitz mistakenly calls “William” Loeb in his memoirs) in one of the most fascinating stories I’ve ever read. I rarely ever quote more than a sentence or two in a row from another source, but Horowitz’s telling of the story is simply too well told to try to paraphrase it. (The following is directly quoted from “the Towers of New York; Memoirs of a Master Builder” by Louis Jay Horowitz with Boyden Sparkes, Simon & Schuster, 1937.)

Beyond the $400,000 estimate their architects had given them, Mr Rosenwald and Mr Loeb had no information at all; no plans, no specifications. However, they had their site and they wanted the plan; indeed, they wanted it yesterday from the time of starting. Well, at this time, about February, 1904, Thompson-Starrett was a comparatively new concern. It had been organized in 1900, and there I was, trying to take this contract away from some much better known building concerns in Chicago.

Mr Rosenwald watched me through his glasses as I talked to him; he was relaxed in his chair and I knew I had his attention. I told him how we were organized, how much experience Dinwiddie had lived through, how useful that would be on the Sears, Roebuck project; how careful we were in buying materials. I believed implicitly in the Thompson-Starrett Company, and I feel sure Mr Rosenwald was impressed by my sincerity.

“Now, Mr HoIMG_9966rowitz,” he said at last. “I have listened carefully to what you have to say, but, frankly, I am confused. Before you came in here, I talked with the head of a firm competing with yours; while he talked I was persuaded that I could not do better than to give the contract to him. The head of a third firm of building contractors is waiting outside” (Mr Rosenwald picked up a card that his secretary had placed on his desk), “and Ifeel pretty certain that when I was talked with him, he will have persuaded me that his firm is the best. I have got to be satisfied with one of you and I really do not know what to do.”

I was burning inside with a white heat of enthusiasm, and out of that combustion in my spirit there came a flash of selling inspiration.

“Now, Mr Rosenwald,” I said, as softly as a spider attaching it web, “I understand your confusion. You’ve never seen me before in your life, and I am asking you to give me a $4,000,000 job and a fee of $250,000. That fee is what brings me here; there can be no question about it. Of course, it is also true that I feel deeply that in earning that fee your interest will be served, but you have no way of knowing whether or not I am not simply talking glibly.

“So I am going to make a suggestion whereby you will not have to take me on faith; instead, I will take you on faith. I am sure if you could believe that what I say were true, that we are as good as I have been telling you, you would give us the job.”

“Yes,” said Mr Rosenwald in a tone so low I barely heard him..IMG_9965

“Very well,” I said, “my proposition is that we will put up your $4,000,000 building and charge you for our fee just one dollar. After the job is finished you, and you alone, shall determine whether or not we have earned $250,000 for our services. I am not willing that you be permitted to determine the amount of our fee. If we are as good as I say we are worth the $250,000, but you shall be the one to determine whether we get it—when the job is finished.”

“Do you mean that?” Mr Rosenwald’s swivel chair spring creaked as he sat up straight.

“That is precisely what I mean.”

“You leave the room for a minute; I’ll talk this over with Mr Loeb.”

It was more than a minute; it was more nearly half an hour of such suspense as nearly had me frantic before I was summoned back into Mr Rosenwald’s presence. He said, “We have decided to have you do the job. However, instead of one dollar we are going to make the fee $40,000, because we are informed that it is a stronger arrangement legally if the fee arranged for is a substantial one. Nothing in our contract is to refer to any further compensation.”


That was the contract with which I returned to New York, and when Mr ET Bedford heard about it he inhaled deeply before asking me, in a tone like thunder, “Young man, can you afford to do business on a one per cent basis?”

I gave him an elaborate, a dramatic account of my talk with Mr Rosenwald. Clarence Kelsey was impressed but worried. Mr Bedford was excited, almost angry.

“When you are as old as I,” he said, “you will have learned that you are doing extremely well in business when you succeed in getting the other fellow to fulfill the scant terms of this contract with you. To expect him to do more is running after a will-o’-the-wisp.”

“Mr Bedford,” I pleaded, “I made this proposition because of the character of Mr Rosenwald. If we do our part he will keep his part of the bargain.”

“Time will tell,” said Mr Bedford, frowning at his watch, “but if we should get our fee, we ought to have a flag celebration.” His head was shaking from side to side as he hurried from the meeting.

Now you are DYING to know if Thompson-Starrett (ie Bill) got the job, aren’t you? You’re also DYING to know the rest, aren’t you? Well, you’ll have to wait for the next part. You’ll love it.

Photo Credits: Theodore Starrett and William S. Dinwiddie, personal photo collection of the Starrett/Dinwiddie/Dirkes/Phelps family; Louis Jay Horowitz, from his memoirs; Julius Rosenwald, Sears online archives; Albert Henry Loeb, from the Castle Farms blog, vintage photo of Wall Street in New York in 1905, where the Thompson-Starrett home  offices were located when Horowitz returned to inform the Board of Directors of the terms of the contract he had proposed to Rosenwald and Loeb.