Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934

Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934

by Thomas Leslie

ISBN: 9780252037542

Publisher University of Illinois Press

Published in Calendars/Architecture

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Sample Chapter


October 1871

Peter Bonnett Wight was one of many entrepreneurs and builders who went to Chicago following the Great Fire. Frustrated by a stalled career in New York and seeking to leverage connections he had made during an earlier sojourn to the city in 1858, Wight and a young, talented colleague took up with builders Asher Carter (d. ca. 1890) and William H. Drake (n.d.). Carter, Drake, and Wight would design more than fifty buildings over the next two years, almost all of them four-story mercantile structures in the burned district; Wight's fellow traveler, John Wellborn Root (1850–1891), became the firm's chief draftsman. Within a year, Wight had also hired the feckless son of a local wholesaler as a favor. Edward Burnham's son, Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846–1912), had worked briefly in the office of Chicago architect William Le Baron Jenney (1832–1907), whose military engineering expertise in the Civil War had translated to the larger structures being demanded by the growing city. Burnham and Root became fast friends, and they would soon leave Wight's firm to set up their own practice, counting on Wight's mentorship and consulting expertise throughout their careers.

The city that Wight and Root found in ruins had been a boomtown over the previous decades. As William Cronon has shown in Nature's Metropolis, Chicago's location at the near-confluence of two immense waterborne trade routes guaranteed that it would attract traders and speculators. The slow, shallow Chicago River entered Lake Michigan along a sandbar that created a natural harbor, and the river's headwaters a few miles to the southwest were within portaging distance of the Des Plaines River, which fed the Illinois and eventually the Mississippi. Since fur-trading days, the proximity of the Mississippi watershed to the Great Lakes made Chicago a stopping point for nearly all goods heading east or south from the great plains. The completion of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1848 meant that goods could be carried by boat from New Orleans to New York without a perilous ocean voyage, but only if they passed through the increasingly mercantile city. Goods were transferred from shallow-keeled riverboats to lake boats at Chicago, providing a guaranteed market for labor, provisioning, shipbuilding, and shoreside leisure. The city attracted a reputation for its rapacious commercial market and its culture of vice and corruption.

Beginning with the Chicago and Galena Railroad of 1848, railroads were rapidly concentrated in the region. Lake Michigan forced all railroads between the plains and the East Coast around its southern tip. As tendrils of rail connections reached the city from the east, entrepreneurs extended the city's road and rail connection into agricultural and logging territory to the west and north. The Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroads provided the city's first connection to the east in 1852, while routes west extended to the Pacific by 1869. These systems shared Chicago as a terminus. Goods were unloaded and reloaded there, and layovers provided opportunities for trading and speculation. A new class of financier moved to the city to wager on future prices, making spectacular gains and losses in markets that sprung up first on the banks of the river and later moved to more salubrious environments downtown.

The prospect of fortunes to be made in Chicago led to migration and investment. Chicago's population grew explosively throughout the nineteenth century, reaching over 300,000 by 1871. Many of these were laborers, but a growing proportion were engaged in finance. These businesses demanded office space that was cost effective and well located. Deals were struck and relationships nurtured in person, and proximity to other traders became more important than proximity to the goods being traded. The peninsula between the Chicago River's south branch and the Lake became the business and social center of the city. Businesses directly related to river trade—warehouses, grain elevators, provisioning shops, and dens of vice occupied Water Street, a congested artery that ran alongside the river. The city's commercial district focused on Lake Street, one block inland from the chaos and filth of Water Street. The lakefront along Wabash Street and Michigan Avenue was lined with higher-end residences, leaving the inland core of the peninsula for the businesses of trading, government, and more respectable lodging and entertainment. This district's streets were raised and paved between 1855 and 1858, providing improved sanitation to what would become the most prestigious and important district in Chicago.

Investment in what would later be called the Loop was rapid—indeed, explosive. Yet another class of speculators, those gambling on real estate, moved their money to the city and built structures for the growing ranks of traders, financiers, and other businessmen. Like the hardware purveyors of the California Gold Rush in the 1840s, these speculators insulated themselves from the volatility of the actual agricultural markets, relying only on the futures trade itself to ensure that their investments could be rented. Eastern capital was so interested in Chicago, however, that its real estate became an intensely volatile market on its own. Boundaries created by the river and lake and a dense network of rail yards to the south exerted a natural pressure on renters and thus investors. This band of iron and water around the Loop left a fixed quantity of land, and a cycle of rabid speculation and climbing prices fed on itself throughout the century, slowed only by the Panic of 1857 and the depression of 1873–1879. Around 1882, local press reported that it had become necessary for developers to "materially increase the number of stories" available in order to maximize return on exceptionally high land costs. Speculation fed on itself as individual neighborhoods within the Loop attracted interest; the opening of South Dearborn Street to a new rail station in 1885 had immediate consequences for the neighborhood now known as Printer's Row, while the Board of Trade's move to the foot of LaSalle Street in 1884 intensified building and investment in neighboring blocks.

Speculation was the engine that drove Chicago's building culture. Financiers demanded efficient, lettable floors stacked to the greatest feasible heights, multiplying the dimensions of their sites as many times as possible. There were formidable limits, however, to the heights that could be achieved with available materials on the city's muddy, clay soil. If the speculative engine provided a voracious appetite for more floor area and greater height, the limited mechanisms by which such height could be achieved held even the most ambitious projects to six or seven stories. The average pre-fire commercial block in Chicago was just five.

Most apparent was the lack of efficient access to these upper floors, despite significant advances in elevatoring in the 1850s. While elevators conveyed freight and passengers in shops beginning with the Haughwout Store in New York (1854), they remained exotic novelties in office structures, where they broke down regularly and required constant maintenance. They were also slow and noisy and required full time attendance by trained operators. Moreover, the provision of a single slow cab—or, occasionally, a pair—failed to provide effective service at the beginning and end of the business day, when they were swamped with passengers. Rather than extending the reach of early skyscrapers, elevators through the 1870s played only an adjunct role to grand staircases that still provided the primary access to most of a typical building's leased floors.


Alongside inefficient elevators, skyscrapers in the post-fire era were limited by their materials, too. Timber—despite its low strength and combustibility—remained a widely used, economical material throughout the 1850s and 1860s. As the nation's leading lumber market, Chicago had easy access to the best forests of Wisconsin and Minnesota, and its builders were able to purchase at wholesale prices from incoming freight. But pressure to build cheaply and quickly also encouraged the use of shoddier wood. Mill construction, which relied on heavy oak for columns and girders that resisted fire by charring, was often replaced by framing made of smaller, more flammable pine. The city recognized that, collectively, it was building a tinderbox, but individually builders continued to risk conflagration by building cheaply. The city government mandated three "fire districts" in the 1860s that banned such construction, but these restrictions were universally ignored and "immediate profits" were placed above "future security."

Builders and owners who sought greater security against fire could turn to local granite, limestone, and sandstone that was convenient for building fronts, foundations, and even bearing walls. These stones varied in strength, weathering qualities, and costs, and thus found use in a variety of circumstances. Granite and limestone generally offered the best crushing strength; granite provided an average of about 750 tons per square foot and limestone around 625. Sandstone was weaker at around 200 tons per square foot, but this relatively low performance also promised greater ease of cutting and workability. In addition to strength, however, architects and builders had to consider weathering, and it was here that granite was worth its price. While published reports suggested lifetimes of as low as 5 years for sandstone and 20–40 years for limestone, granite provided up to 75 years, and some published reports suggested a reliable working life of 200 years for better specimens.

Geologically, Chicago sits atop a bed of limestone, and this was the major product of quarries within canal or road travel from the city; sandstone could be found further afield, and granite further still. Granite was expensive for Chicago builders, and its use was restricted to either street-level surfaces or to particularly high-end buildings. It was rarely used in the 1870s and only began to see widespread use in Chicago with the more expensive construction that occurred in the mid-1880s. By the late 1880s, midwestern stone quarries were supplying Chicago with granite from Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, but the bulk of the city's quality granite came from New England, particularly from Maine, which had long-established quarrying and cutting operations that guaranteed workmanship and composition. The same stone that had built Boston in the eighteenth century thus aided in the construction of many Chicago structures as well. Sandstone was available somewhat closer to hand, particularly from Berea, Amherst, and Sunbury in Ohio, from Le Grand, Iowa, and from Vert Island on the northern edge of Lake Superior, which produced a sandstone of remarkable strength and quality that could easily be shipped by lake.

Locally, the Des Plaines River basin offered extensive supplies of limestone that was convenient to downtown but that varied considerably in quality. These quarries' relationship to the Illinois and Michigan canal was no accident; it was excavations for this transportation link in the 1840s that revealed a bed of workable, drab limestone that gained a bright yellow hue when exposed to air. The stone was quarried around Lemont and used almost at once, in a house on West Water street in 1849 and then by John Van Osdel (1811–1891) for the Tremont House and Courthouse in 1850–1851. Thirty firms quarried and cut local limestone in Chicago by 1859.

Lemont was briefly renamed Athens and its limestone was called Athenian or Joliet "marble," but this nomenclature fooled no one; the stone from Chicago's local quarries was strong but it discolored easily and had remarkably poor weathering qualities. Some quarries at Lemont were contaminated with naturally occurring petroleum, which appeared only after installation. The porous stone also absorbed Chicago's smoke and pollution, rendering its original yellow a dull gray or even black. Worse, however, was the Lemont's tendency to erode and disintegrate when exposed to the acidic air that accompanied Chicago's pollution and smoke. Limestone that was sawn for ashlar fronts proved particularly susceptible to these corrosive effects, but carved, ornamental stone was also affected. This poor performance was exacerbated when Lemont's quarries associated in 1890, forcing builders to accept inferior stone from a pool, rather than by inspection, and by 1891 locally produced limestone was confined to foundations and paving.

But all building stone is vulnerable to water infiltration and pollution. It was simply a matter of time and maintenance before a stone cornice, for example, might succumb to the constant freeze-thaw cycles of Chicago's climate. Less permeable stone such as granite offered greater resistance but no guarantees against microscopic flaws that permitted water and ice to gain leverage. Granite, too, was vulnerable to acidic atmospheres. Over time, stone's fire resistance also proved elusive; water embedded or trapped in limestone or sandstone turned to steam in the heat of a fire, leading to explosive spalling. Even granite contained trace amounts of fluid embedded in its quartz crystals that could explode in hot fires. On the whole, sandstone, despite its relatively weak structural performance, emerged as the most fire-resistive of the three and this gradually ensured its use for structural walls (figure 1.1).

Chicago came to be known as a city of steel, but well into the 1880s it remained a city of brick, which eliminated some of stone's drawbacks but offered problems of its own. The clay soil that made foundations such a problem proved to be a generous provider of strong, fire-resistant building material for the city, and the first post-fire technical developments to influence the city's tall construction involved brick and terra-cotta. A well-made masonry wall could support ten tons per square foot, but this could be compromised by lack of skill, neglect, or other attempts to save time or money. Mortar presented cost-saving opportunities for poor-quality lime or excess water, both of which compromised the brick bond. Bricklaying presented another conflict between quality, time, and budget. Masons knew when to "lay bricks solid and true" and when their employers' profits demanded faster, sloppier work. Mortar was also sensitive to freezing, leading to the "pernicious practice of covering mortar beds and foundations in winter with manure" that offered further opportunities for adulteration and imperfect setting. The image of the bricklayer quickly hoisting and laying brick while surrounded by steaming piles of manure-warmed mortar suggests that masonry, for all its advantages, was not a precisely engineered material. It was impossible to calculate precisely the strength of a masonry pier or wall given these variables, and masonry design and calculation remained entrenched in rule-of-thumb methods. Bricklayers and hod-carriers also faced appalling, dangerous conditions, and the emergence of bricklayers' unions had important effects on Chicago construction as demands for higher pay and better working conditions led to paralyzing strikes.

The quasimedieval conditions of bricklaying matched those of brick manufacture. Clay fields had to be tended by the back-breaking labor of turning and spading a layer buried under two feet of soil. Raw clay was then taken to large pits, where fresh water was added to achieve a workable consistency. The resulting "mud" was then stirred until uniform. "Mud-wheelers" next took barrows of the mixture to sanded tables, where brickmakers rolled out rough quantities and forced them into a mold, slicing off the excess with piano wire. Wet bricks were allowed to air dry before being stacked into kilns where a constantly stoked fire made the bricks monolithic and water-resistant.

At the time of the Fire brickmaking remained an antiquated industry, but progress in manufacturing came over the next decades. Horsepower was first used to mold brick in Philadelphia in 1835, but the process was increasingly automated after 1870 with lever- and steam-powered machines that could turn out four thousand "finely shaped" bricks per hour. Reconstruction after 1871 brought brickmakers from Philadelphia to Chicago, and a decade after the fire Chicago boasted over two hundred brickmaking enterprises. But alongside the growth of the city's brick manufacturers lay aggrieved makers and masons. Angry about low wages and the loss of jobs that came with the new machinery, these trades staged an epic series of strikes from 1882 to 1884 that impacted building construction, exhausted local supplies, and raised prices. The lingering threat of labor unrest in the masonry industries cast a shadow over the material; to use brick in Chicago was, henceforth, to gamble with the possibility of a strike.

Cast iron showed great promise in combining the fire resistance of brick with the light weight and labor-savings of timber. It was first imported to Chicago in the 1850s, and the New York factory of Daniel Badger and James Bogardus was contracted in 1856 to construct several commercial buildings on Lake Street in Chicago designed by architect John M. Van Osdel (1811–1891) (figures 1.2, 1.3). Cast iron required metallurgical knowledge and refined fabrication techniques, particularly to achieve complex or hollow shapes, but the ability to mass-produce structural or facade elements using a single mold and minimal labor made it a near-perfect material for Chicago's overextended building climate.

Excerpted from "Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934" by Thomas Leslie. Copyright © 2013 by Thomas Leslie. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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