Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A.C. Nielsen Co. Headquarters, 2101 W. Howard

Each time I've gone by this building I knew it was too interesting to be just another Public Storage warehouse.  And sure enough, it has a history that's a bit more impressive.  In 1935 the oldest portion of this building was constructed as the headquarters of the A.C. Nielsen Company.

Arthur C. Nielsen started his career as an electrical engineer in 1919.  After 3 years with a publisher of business magazines he founded the A.C. Nielsen Company in 1923, where he brought scientific analysis to market research.  This involved test marketing of new products, measuring product sales using random samples, and various statistical sampling, especially in the food, drug and liquor industry.  But perhaps the company is best know for developing their radio, and later television, rating system.  I probably don't have to mention that this made his company phenomenally successful. 

The building was designed in the Georgian Revival style by architect Lewis B. Walton of the Benjamin H. Marshall Company.  Benjamin Marshall is better known as half of the firm Marshall and Fox, which were responsible for the design of many prominent revival-style Chicago buildings, including the Blackstone Hotel, the Drake Hotel, and the Edgewater Beach Apartments.  Fox died in 1926 but Marshall continued his practice until 1935.  When he retired the firm became Walton and Kegley.

Photos from the collection of the RP/WR Historical Soc.
The original 2-story portion of this building was constructed in 1935 for $60,000.  Built of reinforced concrete and faced with colonial brick and Bedford stone, it was also air-conditioned.  In 1937 two more stories and a penthouse were added.  In 1939 the size of the building was more than doubled with an additional wing on the west.  At this point it accomodated 600 employees. The cafeteria and recreational rooms were located on the fifth floor penthouse.   Later rear additions on the south were added between 1953 and 1958.  The Nielsen Company remained in this building until 1972, when they moved their main offices to Northbrook and later to Schaumburg.

Over years the building has retained much of its architectural integrity, although the original colonial-style windows have been replaced with modern aluminum windows.  And, thankfully, Public Storage hasn't yet chosen to paint it in their signature colors of purple and orange.  But its real importance is its historical association with one of the first, and arguably most important, firms responsible for establishing and refining the scientific marketing industry.  To know that its most important period of development occurred on a remote corner of Rogers Park is unexpected.

Information for this entry was gathered from Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, articles from the online Chicago Tribune Historical Archive, the Rogers Park/West Ridge online History Wiki, and the Ancient Building Permits of the City of Chicago (on microfilm).  The date of construction for the buildings are taken from the permit file, and actual completion was somewhat later.  Special thanks to the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society for sharing their photos of the building, which were donated by Arthur Nielsen Jr.


  1. The best story about the AC Nielsen Building happened back in 1966.
    Carol Channing's husband, Charles Lowe was sued when he conspired with another man to rig the ratings. He wanted to increase the rating for some TV show his wife did.
    So Rex Sparger, a former Congressional investigator went in the alley behind the building & went through the garbage looking for the paperwork to find the names & addresses.
    Apparently he did find some names & contacted them, offering them cash to watch the shows.
    Sparger claimed he had rigged the ratings of numerous shows before getting caught.
    The lawsuit was dropped when Sparger agreed to not do it again & return Nielsen's records.

  2. I love this story! Thanks for sharing it. Nowadays I'm sure they shred everything. Twice.

  3. Below are some recollections from Alan Gordon, who worked at the building back in the 1960s and 1970s. With his permission I'm posting them below. Thank you Alan!

    "Lots of executive/administrative people lived in Edgewater, Evanston, and other near north suburbs. Mr. Nielsen was a great businessman and he was quick to realize that Chicago was not a low cost labor market. He moved the tabulating of all that store data first to Fond Du Lac, and then as the company flourished Green Bay, Mason City (Iowa), and Lincoln (Nebraska).

    The actual data collection had to be done locally in the sample stores. A Nielsen employee (field auditor) would visit his (they were all men back then) group of stores. He had to live near his stores. Sample stores were chosen in every state. The auditors were trained at 2101 Howard Street and then shipped out all over the country.

    As the company grew and added new services, 2101 Howard was expanded again and again.

    Mr. Nielsen had the internal telephone system set so his calls had a distinctive ring (maybe we could say he even invented the ring tone?). Internal calls would ring-pause-ring-pause like any other call, but when Mr. Nielsen called, your phone would ring-ring-ring in one continuous ring until you answered. You can imagine how people jumped for their phone when it rang steadily."

  4. I worked at Nielsen for a time during 1966. Business activity at the firm was brisk and to meet their space requirements the firm leased space across Howard St on the Evanston side. I've noticed that Nielsen currently has a presence at a building located just south of Willow Rd near The Glen in Glenview.

  5. Do know know if their testing laboratory was on Howard? It's mentioned in a Tribune article, but I couldn't find it. I'd be interested to know if the building is still there.

  6. Richard A (Rick) BambergSeptember 3, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    I Remember how great it was to work for A.C. Nielson Co on Howard Street in Chicago 1962 through 1967. They cared about their employees. I remember company picnics at Lake Zurich and they gave us huge turkeys for Thanksgiving. My mom, grandmother, and cousin all worked for this wonderful company.

  7. I'm impressed at all the postive memories related to the Nielson Co. in Rogers Park. Are we going to hear from somewhere who was fired without cause at some point?

  8. I have two very large photos of the Nielsen Building in 1937 and one of a convention inside the building in 1938...would you like copies?

  9. I would love to see scans of your photos! I don't have much space to keep actual photographs, unfortunately.