Chinatown’s On Leong Building
January 20th, 2010Filed under: Exhibitions
On Leong Merchant’s Association Building, 1928
Anyone who has been to Chicago’s Chinatown will recognize this distinctive and beautiful structure. It is the visual cornerstone for this community, and its story reveals much about the development of the Chinatown neighborhood and the people who have lived there for over one hundred years.
Currently known as the Pui Tak Center, the On Leong Building is actually the second structure built to house the On Leong Merchant’s Association in Chicago. The first was built in 1912 on 22nd Street, today Cermak Road; shortly after the original Chinese American community was pushed out of the South Loop area. In 1921, after an expansion of Chinatown and association membership, the On Leong Merchant’s Association purchased the property at 2216 S. Wentworth Avenue for a new, more majestic building that would reflect the vitality and traditions of this rapidly-growing community.
Drawing of the façade of the On Leong Merchant’s Association Building, 1926
Construction started on the On Leong Building in 1926. David Wu, executive director of Pui Tak Center, described some of the challenges the developers faced. At that time, “…there wasn’t a Chinese American architect that they could turn to to design their headquarters building. They wanted a building that reflected Chinese culture so they brought a stack of Chinese architecture books to a bunch of architecture firms downtown, and eventually the firm of Michaelsen and Rognstad [got the bid].” Michaelsen and Rognstad were native Chicagoans of Norwegian heritage. While their designs drew from Chinese as well as Western European traditions, the building is pure Chicago, including the use of architectural terra cotta for the exterior surface, the building material of choice in 1920s Chicago. After spending $1 million on construction, the new building was dedicated and opened on May 2, 1928.
Architectural terra cotta plaque from the On Leong Merchant’s Association Building, Courtesy Chinese American Museum of Chicago
In 2007, the Pui Tak Center’s leadership was awarded a $100,000 grant from the “Partners in Preservation” program. The building received the most votes of all the nominated historical sites in Chicago; people voted from as far away as Hong Kong and Slovakia. The money has been used to repair the terra cotta exterior and clay tiles on the roof.