4.6. PETER B. WIGHT SOLVES THE FIRE PROBLEM OF IRON FRAMING

In the annals of Chicago history, there is a marvelous urban legend about how John Van Osdel had buried his drawings in the basement of the construction site of the new Palmer House in an attempt to preserve them from being destroyed by the 1871 fire.  To his astonishment, when he returned to recover them, they had survived the holocaust completely intact.  The legend goes on to credit this experience with Van Osdel coming up with the idea to fireproof iron columns and beams with fired clay coverings.  Highly romantic, and complete fiction.  The actual story of Chicago’s invention of terra cotta fireproofing is as follows:

In Volume One we saw how George H. Johnson, an architectural designer with Daniel Badger prior to the start of the Civil War, had developed an interest in fireproofing buildings, first by inventing a system of hollow clay tile blocks that was used to construct fireproof grain bins in grain elevators. 

George H. Johnson, Patented Hollow Tile System for Grain Bins, 1869. Note the terra cotta clamp tying two blocks together for added strength. These were covered over by the next course. George H. Johnson, Patented Hollow Tile System for Grain Bins, 1869. Note the terra cotta clamp tying two blocks together for added strength. These were covered over by the next course. (Brickbuilder, September 1897)

Although Johnson held the patent, he needed expertise in the manufacturing of fireclay products.  My research points to Johnson collaborating with New York’s leading fireclay producer, Balthasar Kreischer.  Kreischer had been born in 1813 in Bavaria to a father who was a brickmaker.  Following the 1835 New York fire, the twenty-two year old immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of finding work with his talents.  Within ten years he had uncovered beds of clay needed to make fireclay for baker’s ovens and bricks to line fireplaces.  There was no one more able in New York in 1869 to produce Johnson’s newly-patented clay tiles than Kreischer.

Stimulated by his interest in such systems, Johnson apparently had traveled to Paris in 1870, just prior to the start of hostilities with Prussia, to study the latest developments in fireproof floor construction. Johnson coupled this new information and with Kreischer’s experience of clay manufacturing they addressed the problem of fireproofed floors.  The two patented (#112,926) a hollow tile floor system on March 21, 1871.  Johnson and Kreischer’s system consisted of a monolithic terra cotta piece or pot that spanned between two beams.  The design that was almost identical to the system patented by Frederick Peterson some sixteen years earlier and used in the Cooper Union with which Johnson had personal experience as he was Badger’s chief designer for the building.

Frederick A. Peterson, Patented Hollow Floor Tile used in the Cooper Union, New York, 1855. Note that he has located the underside of the tilles below the bottom flange, thereby creating a void that was filled with cement coating to protect the iron from fire. (Brickbuilder, April 1897)
Vincent Garcin, Patented Hollow Floor Tile, Paris, 1867. I chose this example as being representative of the level of sophistication that the French had already achieved with this technology and had exhibited during the 1867 Paris World’s Fair. (Brickbuilder, March 1897)
George H. Johnson and Balthasar Kreischer, Patented Hollow Floor Tile, New York, 1871. (Brickbuilder, April 1897)

However, the monolithic nature of the design is curious in that the majority of patented French systems, that had been exhibited during the 1867 Paris World’s Fair and that Johnson would have seen during his trip, incorporated segmental arches and had been in existence at least five years prior to his trip.  The story becomes even more curious as Kreischer returned to the Patent Office later that same day and patented (#112,930) without Johnson the same system, except that it incorporated a three-piece segmental arch.

Balthasar Kreischer, Patented Hollow Floor Tile, New York, 1871. The only difference with the Johnson/Kreischer patent of the same day is the segmental nature of the system. (Brickbuilder, April 1897)

Nonetheless, the date of these patents prove that these two New Yorkers had applied fired clay as a fireproofing material for floors long before the 1871 fire.  So New York, and not Chicago had spawned the initial idea of using fired clay tiles for the construction of fireproofed floors.  The two went their separate ways, Kreischer starting a company in New York, while Johnson had moved to Chicago to take advantage of the rebuilding effort, founding a company that eventually supplied his floor tiles, that by then had also employed multiple tiles for the Kendall Building. The only role played by Van Osdel in this development of fireproof clay tile floors in Chicago was to use Johnson’s patented system, that had been developed in New York, not in the basement of the Palmer House.

George H. Johnson, Hollow Floor Tiles for the Kendall Building, Chicago, 1872. In a 1897 article, Wight showed this Kreischer-patented system as an example of those not only used the Kendall Building, but also in the New York Post Office and the St. Louis Singer Manufacturing Co. Building. (Inland Architect, April 1892)
John M. Van Osdel, Post-Fire Kendall Building, Chicago, 1872. (The Land Owner, February 1872)

Unfortunately, the recession and resulting slowdown in construction during the latter half of 1873 had forced George H. Johnson, to close his fledgling fireproofing business in Chicago and return to New York early in 1874. The call by the National Board of Underwriters following the 1874 fire, to stop the use of cast iron columns and substitute them with the use of heavy timber columns was a direct threat to Nathaniel S. Bouton’s Union Foundry Work’s structural iron business, pressuring him to take an active role in the development of a fireproofing system for iron framing.   

Johnson’s departure from Chicago in early 1874 had left a large void in the city’s collection of experts on fireproof construction.  Bouton, therefore, had turned to Peter B. Wight for assistance in developing a technique of fireproofing cast iron columns in order to save his business.  Wight and his partner William Drake wasted little time in beginning to experiment after the July 14 fire with timber as an insulating material for cast iron columns. Wight’s use of wood to protect iron should not come as a complete surprise, for following the 1871 fire in Chicago and the 1872 fire in Boston, many observers had begun to champion solid timbers as a total replacement for iron construction, that was only reinforced by wood’s lower cost.  In the latter part of August 1874, they attempted one of the earliest recorded tests of the ability of hard, slow burning oak to protect cast iron, by exposing three different types of columns to a controlled fire.

William H. Drake and Peter B. Wight, Patented Wood Encasing Fireproofing System for Iron Columns, Chicago, September 8, 1874. (Landau, P.B. Wight; Brickbuilder, August 1897)

Their protected column employed a cast iron column with a cruciform section with an outside diameter of 10.”  This was encased by four pieces of red oak that were attached to the column by recessed plates and screws.  Wrought iron battens covered the joints between the pieces of wood.  Plaster of Paris was then poured in from the top of the assembly to fill all of the gaps between the metal and the wood.  The other two columns that were to be tested were not protected; one had the same cruciform section while the other was a 9″ diameter hollow cylindrical section.  The test procedures did not maintain an intense heat for a long enough period of time, however, so the test results proved somewhat inconclusive.  Nevertheless, Drake and Wight (I believe that although Wight was the expert on such issues, the two partners listed their names alphabetically in the patent application) were granted a patent (#154,852) for this assembly on September 8, 1874.  Symbolically on October 8, 1874 (the third anniversary of the 1871 fire but more importantly, only a week after the insurance companies began to cancel insurance policies), they ran a successful test at Bouton’s Foundry.  After a one-and-a half hour exposure to an intense fire, the wood-encased column survived with only a slight charring of its surface while the other two columns had completely failed.

FURTHER READING:

Wermiel, Sara E. The Fireproof Building: Technology and Public Safety in the Nineteenth-Century American City.  Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

4.5. THE CHICAGO FIRE OF JULY 14, 1874, AND THE CANCELLATION OF ALL FIRE INSURANCE

Businesses, as well as workers, were being squeezed by the recession. The insurance companies that had paid out millions of dollars on “Great Fire” claims and had also loaned a substantial sum for the rebuilding, suddenly found defaults on these loans increasing at an alarming rate.  The Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company and the National Insurance Co., among others, now found themselves in possession of large amounts of real estate, primarily in Chicago’s business district.

Area destroyed by the 1871 Fire. (Sawislak, Smoldering City

While the 1871 fire had destroyed the business district and the Near Northside, the same conditions that contributed to the scale of its destruction still existed in the South Division, the larger portion of which had been left untouched by the fire and therefore, was to where the burned out retail businesses had relocated to resume business.  It was only a matter of time until the inevitable fire in this area occurred.  On July 14, 1874, it started in a two-story frame building at 449 S. Clark St. at 4.30 P.M. and raged with an intensity reminiscent of the “Great Fire” for eleven hours, destroying forty-seven acres bounded by Van Buren, Michigan, Polk, and Clark containing some 800 buildings.  

Extent of 1874 Fire. Some forty-seven acres was destroyed bounded by Van Buren, Michigan, Polk, and Clark (fig. 14.2) that contained some 800 buildings. (Online)

The fire was halted only when it came upon the new post-fire construction at Van Buren that incorporated thicker walls that prevented the farther spread of fire.  The next morning, twenty-five more buildings were destroyed by another fire at Sangamon and Milwaukee. Fortunately, especially for the insurance companies, neither fire had spread into the rebuilt Business District, where these companies were now in possession of a significant amount of the defaulted properties.  The 1874 fire, therefore, had convinced the insurance companies that nothing really had changed in Chicago since the 1871 fire, despite the claims of the “Fireproof Ticket.”  In fact, the insurance companies were in an even more precarious position following the second fire, as their own assets (the defaulted properties) seemed to be in danger of imminent destruction.

The National Board of Underwriters, whose companies all had home offices in the East, met on the night after the fire, July 15, 1874, to discuss what action to take in the face of the potentially devastating position in which they now found themselves. The consensus action was an unveiled threat to Council that demanded immediate improvements in the fire department and other various improvements pertaining to fire safety, or else face the possibility of the cancellation of all existing fire insurance policies within the city’s limits. No one, however, had ever successfully threatened Chicago’s political leaders, so Council simply ignored the threat.  The ensuing uproar in the business community that had become very adept at maneuvering around Council, as evidenced in the post-fire actions of the Relief Society, led to the formation of the Chicago Citizens’ Association headed by wholesale grocer/banker Franklin MacVeagh in August, but even these businessmen would take time to organize a viable response to the demands of the insurance companies.  With no response forthcoming, the National Board had no alternative but to formally request on October 1, that its members cancel all current fire insurance policies within Chicago, with the result that by November 1 the entire city was left without any fire insurance protection.  The tables had been turned, for now the business community was in a very vulnerable position with their assets totally unprotected.  This action forced MacVeagh’s group to generate in a very timely manner over $5,000 (without any action by Council) for improvements in the city’s firefighting capacity and repairs in some water mains.

While the Citizens’ Association’s action led to the restoration of the insurance policies, it also brought further demands from the insurance companies for better regulation of construction, including the prohibition of wood balloon frame buildings, the demolition of all wooden cupolas and awnings, and the prohibition of the use of cast iron columns.  The 1874 fire had finally confirmed the suspicions previously raised over the behavior of unprotected cast iron columns when subjected to the heat of a fire and the insurance companies were now making every possible effort to procure the substitution of cast iron columns with timber posts that had proven they could survive such a holocaust.

FURTHER READING:

Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

4.4. THE 1873 PANIC GROWS INTO THE 1874 DEPRESSION

As the initial panic of September 1873 grew into a full-fledged recession during the onset of winter at the end of the year, more and more people lost their jobs.  Correspondingly, over 6000 new men in Chicago had cast their lot with the Communist International Workingmens Association by Christmas 1873.  By January 1, 1874, the Tribune estimated that over 25,000 men in Chicago had lost their jobs, providing fodder for the fledging local sections of the IWA. The political climate had drastically changed since its initial 400 members had marched on March 28, 1872, to commemorate the first anniversary of the downfall of the Paris Commune.  In addition to the increasing number of the newly unemployed, European Socialist theory had finally gained a foothold in America and it now had effective English-speaking spokesmen who offered European socialism to the working class as an alternative economic model to American capitalism.  Encouraged by the recent sweep of nearly all city offices by the People’s Party candidates in the recent municipal election, Chicago witnessed its first mass Socialist rally on December 21, 1873, in Vörwart’s Turner Hall on the West Side, attended by a crowd estimated to have been between 5000 and 7000 men.  Speakers laid out a program not unlike what the Paris Commune had instituted less than three years earlier that comprised of four demands to be presented to the sympathetic Common Council: employment for all those able to work; money and provisions for those unable to work; working-class control over the distribution of the post-fire relief program (a direct swipe at the business-controlled Chicago Relief Society); and if the city did not have sufficient cash to provide these, the city would borrow the difference.

These four demands would form the basis for the IWA’s slogan: “Work or Bread.”

The following night, December 22, an even larger crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered on the West Side, split into two bodies, and walked silently, arm-in-arm, “Six, eight, ten sturdy fellows stood hand in hand, each fearing to let go, lest he should be lost in the great metropolis.”  Their goal that night was to present their petition to what they thought would be a receptive Mayor Harvey Colvin and Common Council at the temporary City Hall.  As the crowd peacefully waited outside, their representatives presented their petition to Council, only to told by the ones that they had just recently elected that the City had no money nor any extra credit to meet their demands due to the recession.  Eventually, the Council came up with a solution that passed the buck on to the Relief and Aid Society itself.  It was reported that the Society was sitting on almost a million dollars of relief that had yet to be spent.  Why not use this money to fund the IWA’s demands?  The Mayor asked the Society for a meeting to discuss the issue that was promptly ignored by the city’s elites.  All of Chicago woke up on Christmas morning 1873 to the Tribune’s headline, “Our Communists.”  For the first time in the city’s history, the paper had to take the burgeoning working class movement seriously, “So long as they are only debating, they are law-abiding citizens.”  But the paper quickly reminded its readers of how the Commune in Paris had ended with much of Paris in flames less than thirty months earlier…

Bread Riot in front of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society Building, La Salle and Randolph, 1873. (Online)

After Christmas the Relief Society answered with a complete rebuff to the Mayor and  the Council, rejecting the idea that they should turn over control of their relief responsibilities and resources to the city.  The new year saw the IWA turn its attention to the office of the Relief Society on La Salle Street, as its frustration and the needs of the city’s unemployed mounted over the winter.  The protestors threatened to seize control not only of the Relief Society’s office but more ominously also directed its threats to the newly-completed Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, as it was well known that the same men who controlled the Relief Society had been behind the construction of the Expo Building. March 28, 1874, saw a protest march to mark the third anniversary of the Paris Commune, in which the Red flag of the Commune made its first appearance in the streets of Chicago.

W.W. Boyington, Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, Chicago, 1873. (Online)

FURTHER READING:

Sawislak, Karen. Smoldering City: Chicagoans and the Great Fire, 1871-1874. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Siry, Joseph M. The Chicago Auditorium Building. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

4.2. JAY COOKE AND THE CRASH OF 1873

Cooke had rigorously studied the plans and personally surveyed much of the route before he agreed to become involved in such a large undertaking.  During this process, he was convinced that Duluth would ultimately become the next Chicago with a corresponding real estate boom, so he poured his vast experience and fortune into the railroad project.  Construction began in Duluth in July 1870, only days before France declared war on Prussia.  Unfortunately for Cooke, and most of the world, the coming events following the Prussian victory would cast a long shadow.  One of the main requirements that Bismarck included in the Treaty of Frankfurt, that formally ended the hostilities on May 10, 1871, was that France was required to pay an indemnity in gold of 5 billion francs to Prussia within five years.  The Prussians reminded the French that this was the exact same amount that Napoleon I had imposed on Prussia following his victory over the Prussians in 1806. While this was intended to hobble the French economy for a generation, Bismarck appears to have “gone one step too far” in his next move in December 1871.  Having assured that France would be drained of a good quantity of its gold, that was to be deposited into the new German treasury (the German Empire had just been declared on January 18, 1871), he then proceeded to rub salt into the wound by demonetizing silver.  That is, Germany would no longer mint silver coins: it was adopting the gold standard that would initiate a corresponding drop in the value of silver not just in France, but worldwide.

Meanwhile, Cooke had been out in the hinterland, trying to sell the NP bonds in order to raise cash for its construction company that in truth, was being run as a kickback scheme by the company’s Directors, similar to how Durant was running the Crédit Mobilier.  In other words, what was already a tough sell, a railroad through a land inhabited only by hostile Native residents (Gen. George Custer’s last stand at the Little Bighorn was still five years in the future) that was also inundated with a mountain of snow for sometimes months on end, was being made only the more difficult for Cooke by the extravagant construction contracts made by the company’s Directors.  Just as Cooke was about to offer over $300 million in new Northern Pacific bonds to finance the next phase of its construction, President Grant signed the Coinage Act of 1873 on February 12, 1873, in response to Bismarck’s demonetization of silver.  The U.S. was de facto also going on the gold standard and the value of silver in the U.S. would correspondingly drop, reducing the country’s money supply (with a corresponding increase in interest rates), and forcing potential investors to shy away from any new long-term obligations, including Cooke’s Northern Pacific bonds.  Cooke attempted to maintain the perception that the demand for the bonds was strong, by buying the bonds first with his own money, something that even his deep pockets could not support for very long, and then, with the deposits that his customers had placed in his bank.   Rumors began to circulate about the solvency of his bank, and a panic hit the streets of Philadelphia on September 18, 1873, only one week before the scheduled grand opening of Chicago’s Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building.  Cooke’s house of cards had collapsed and Jay Cooke & Co. was bankrupt.  Trading on Wall Street was suspended two days later for the first time in its history, for the next ten days so as to try to get a handle on the crisis.  The bank failure rippled through the nation and resulted in the Great Depression of 1874-79 that mercilessly ended Chicago’s post-fire reconstruction almost as quickly as it had begun. 

4.3. VANDERBILT GAINS CONTROL OF THE ROUTES TO CHICAGO

The 1873 Panic would also have a direct impact on Chicago’s overall urban pattern, as the financial crisis would eventually allow Vanderbilt to also buy the Michigan Central right out from under the noses of its Bostonian builders through a series of clever stock manipulations.  On September 22, 1875, the Chicago Tribune had reported on the ongoing battle raging between Boston and New York:

“There is hardly any doubt that the reports about Vanderbilt having secured a controlling interest in the line (Michigan Central) are correct…The election of Mr. Sloan to the directory, the substitution of Wagner’s sleeping cars in place of Pullman’s, and the removal of the headquarters of the road from Boston to New York prove that Vanderbilt is handling the reins…. In connection with this, it is rumored that Vanderbilt is also negotiating for the purchase of the Canadian Southern Railroad, which at the present time can be had very cheap.  It is believed that Vanderbilt has long had an eye on these lines so as to control all the Northwestern business and prevent Boston from making use of the Hoosac Tunnel as a direct route to the West.

Vanderbilt’s acquisition of the MC had not only severed the eastern link of the Bostonians’ highly profitable Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, its western link to Council Bluffs and the Union Pacific, but had also gained Vanderbilt a virtual monopoly of all rail traffic along the Great Lakes between Chicago and New York (the Pennsylvania’s route not only was farther south of the Great Lakes but also had to pass through Philadelphia on its way to New York).  As the Union Pacific was still the only transcontinental route at this time, Vanderbilt’s monopoly had even broader implications: he held a monopoly over the rail outlets for midwestern wheat and meat to New York City.  The only route along the Great Lakes from Chicago to New York that had escaped the Commodore was the Canadian Grand Trunk Railroad, yet even it had to rely on Vanderbilt’s good will to use the Michigan Central’s tracks to enter Chicago.  Vanderbilt could at any moment, without warning, simply close this off and control all rail traffic between New York and Chicago (that his son would do in the near future).

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

CHAPTER 4. THE 1873 PANIC AND THE 1874 FIRE

(In Volume One we saw how Chicago, after the Civil War, eventually overtook first Cincinnati, and then St. Louis to become the largest city in the West.  Lincoln’s decision to run the transcontinental railroad starting in Omaha, rather than St. Louis, (with a little push from the Civil War) would establish Chicago’s dominance in the rail network to the West.  However, Manifest Destiny didn’t stop on the shore of Lake Michigan but continued marching ever westward.  What Chicago had inflicted upon its older rivals, new cities such as Kansas City and Minneapolis/St. Paul would soon challenge Chicago’s dominance in meat packing and wheat shipping.  In fact, following the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing and the resulting politically charged trial and executions that, for all practical purposes, halted all speculative construction in Chicago for almost two years, it was in Minneapolis, and not New York or Chicago, where the first twenty-eight story skyscraper was proposed by Leroy Buffington in 1887.  The story of the Twin Cities’ skyscrapers begins with the Northern Pacific Railroad…)

4.1. JAY COOKE AND THE NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD

On Thursday, September 18, 1873, amongst all the planning for the 1876 World’s Fair going on in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s largest investment bankers, the city’s own Jay Cooke, declared bankruptcy that marked the beginning of the economic depression of 1873-78. During the Civil War, Cooke had emerged as the nation’s leading banker, having been personally responsible for selling the vast majority of the Federal government’s bonds that had financed the war effort.  While it took a herculean effort to market the debt, he had been financially rewarded quite handsomely, as had been the case with almost everyone involved with the government’s war business.  Meanwhile, the country’s planned second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific, had been formally approved by Congress on July 2, 1864.  The route from Duluth to Puget Sound had been one of the five surveys conducted under Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1853 (see Volume One), and William Ogden’s Chicago, St. Paul & Fond du Lac had originally chartered a Northern Pacific Railroad on March 31, 1856, whose objective was to link Puget Sound in the west with the Great Lakes at Duluth, MN, at the western tip of Lake Superior. 

1870 Map of the Proposed Northern Pacific Railroad. (Online)

Duluth’s potential threat to Chicago was clearly evident: the geographic distance overland between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans was significantly shorter via Duluth and Lake Superior (and, therefore, potentially quicker and more economical), than it was via Chicago at the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and this route could also completely bypass the monopoly of Chicago’s Great Lakes port and transfer facilities.  Anyone who looked at a map could appreciate this, but what stood in the way of Duluth, to Chicago’s early economic benefit, had been the 20 feet high Falls of St. Mary’s on the St. Mary’s River, at Sault Ste. Marie, that joined Lake Superior to Lake Huron.  Until a man-made route could provide a navigable route around these, lake traffic either had to be portaged around the falls, or cargo had to be transferred by hand from one side of the falls to the other.  Either method was expensive, so Duluth had slumbered while Chicago began its economic expansion.  This began to change, however, in 1855 with the completion of the first lock at Sault Ste. Marie that circumvented the falls and allowed through traffic between the lakes (which is when Ogden had first shown interest in the route’s potential with the chartering of the Northern Pacific).  First the Panic of 1857, and then the start of the Civil War had put any further planning for the road on hold, until Congress had finally approved a second transcontinental railroad.

Initial construction of the route, however, had languished as there was little interest in financing such a questionable business venture, that is, until the Union and Central Pacifics were on the verge of connecting their tracks for the original transcontinental railroad.  I have already noted in Volume One that Ogden had been enticed by the northern route’s original developer, J. Gregory Smith, to lend his name and expertise to the project as early as January 1867.  Duluth was the projected northern terminus for Ogden’s Chicago & NorthWestern Railroad (that at the time was the country’s longest railroad), so a second transcontinental route commencing there would only generate more business for his beloved company.  Ogden had resigned as the president of the C&NW on June 4, 1868, so that he could devote more time to assist the financial start-up for this new project from his new residence of New York.  His action may also have been spurred by a vote on December 11, six months earlier, that made Cornelius Vanderbilt the President of the New York Central.  Ogden had been somewhat aware of the Commodore’s plans to control the railroads in New York as early as April 1867, over a year before his final departure from the C&NW, for he was listed among the charterers petitioning the New York legislature for the charter of the somewhat mundane-sounding Spuyten Devil & Port Morris Railroad, that eventually proved to be the linchpin Vanderbilt would rely upon to connect his various roads to where he wanted to build Grand Central Depot.  By this time, Ogden understood that the Union Pacific’s vice-president, Thomas Durant’s corrupt objectives (that is, the Crédit Mobilier) gave a second, competing route a chance for success.  Ogden’s intuitive knowledge of railroads may have also allowed him to perceive the Commodore’s overall intentions and vacate the Chicago market before the first skirmish and begin planning for the northern route that would completely bypass Chicago and Vanderbilt’s control, for within a year of Ogden’s stepping down from the C&NW, Vanderbilt had bought the Michigan Southern, the first of his lines to Chicago.

In New York Ogden delivered what was required of him for the start of the Northern Pacific: J. Edgar Thomson, president of the Pennsylvania, George W. Cass, president of the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago (that Ogden held a large share of its stock), and Robert H. Berdell, president of the Erie, all lent their names and prestige to the project, that was what was needed for Congress to pass the necessary Federal legislation on March 1, 1869 (within two months the Union and Central Pacific would join up at Promontory Summit, Utah, so it finally had seemed “safe” for Congress to charter a second route).  On May 29, 1869, only nineteen days after the driving of the last spike, Ogden announced the new project in New York City as the keynote speaker for the annual meeting of the American Geographic and Statistical Society, as one that “from Lake Superior through Missouri and across the Plains to the Columbia river [will bring] us 800 miles nearer the Empire of Japan than the present Pacific Railroad.”  He also mentioned that negotiations with Jay Cooke to be the company’s financial agent were almost concluded.  The following year, Ogden traveled with Cass (who had Ogden’s ear and would be made the president of the NP in 1872) to the Pacific Coast to survey possible routes for the new line.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

3.10. WIGHT BRINGS ROOT TO CHICAGO

Root, at the age of twenty, became Snook’s superintendent of construction for the trainshed, and thus, had cut his professional teeth supervising the erection of the country’s longest clear span iron construction to date (poignantly, Root coincidently had been in Liverpool when construction on the Lime Street Station shed had begun, that had the exact same 200’ span as did the project he was to supervise). 

John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. Construction of the Trainshed. John W. Root was Snook’s construction superintedent for this project. (Online)
William Baker and Francis Sherman, Lime Street Station, Liverpool, 1867. Root was studying in Liverpool during its construction. (Online)

The New York Depot was scheduled to open on October 8, 1871, what would be the first day of the Chicago fire, the event that would set the course of Root’s future professional career.  With the end of the building’s construction in sight and needing to secure future employment, the young Root, reflecting his earlier British educational experience and inspired by the Ruskinian Gothic employed in Wight’s recently completed National Academy of Design, had pursued not the French-trained Richard Morris Hunt, as had George Post and Frank Furness, but the British-inspired Peter B. Wight, who at that time was also a nationally known figure as the secretary of the A.I.A., to seek a position with the avant-garde architect with whom he shared many theoretical positions.

Peter Bonnett Wight, National Academy of Design, New York, 1863. (Online)

Wight was quite impressed with Root but at that moment had no position to offer.  Once the Chicago fire had occurred, the rest of Root’s life fell into place, like a play by Shakespeare.  Upon Wight’s return from Chicago after the fire to prepare his move to Chicago, he offered Root a position in his Chicago office and in January 1872, Wight sent a telegram from Chicago to come.  Root boarded a train in New York (more than likely in the shed he had just finished supervising its construction only a few weeks earlier) and detrained near the ruins of the La Salle Street station. Wight installed the twenty-two year-old as the foreman of the office, becoming responsible for supervising a portion of the post-fire replacement of Chicago’s building stock.  Later that same year, as a favor for a friend, Wight also hired his friend’s peripatetic twenty-six year-old adult son, Daniel H. Burnham as a draftsman. 

3.11. ROOT TEAMS WITH DANIEL  H.  BURNHAM 

Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root in their office, top floor of the Rookery. (Online)

Daniel Hudson Burnham had been born in Henderson, New York, in 1846, four years before Root.  His father had moved to Chicago in 1855 and built a successful wholesale drug business. Daniel attended Central High School, becoming known for his athletic prowess and drawing abilities, as well as his lackadaisical approach to his studies.  One of his closest friends was Edward C. Waller, who would later provide many important commissions for his good friend.  In contrast to Root, Burnham failed the exams for both Harvard and Yale when he was sent to the East Coast to prepare for college, which may have left an inferiority complex in his psychological profile when it came to academic matters and towards those who had succeeded in this area.    Upon his return to Chicago in late 1867, he had obtained a drafting position, without any prior preparation other than a “knack” for freehand drawing, with Loring & Jenney, where Loring looked after his development.  This brought a brief, but important shift in his focus on his long-term prospects as he informed his mother in a letter dated May 11, 1868:

“A year’s experience among businessmen makes me feel quite differently from my former self.  I long to study now, and look back on the years that are gone… But I shall try to become the greatest architect in the city or country.  Nothing else will be near the mark I have set for myself.  And I am not afraid that I can become so.  There needs but one thing.  A determined and persistent effort.”

Not being able or interested in staying in one place for very long, however, Burnham succumbed to wanderlust once again and followed his friend Waller off to Nevada in 1869 in search of the Comstock Lode’s silver.  This adventure also failed to pan out and Burnham returned to Chicago, working for short periods in the offices of Van Osdel, Otis Wheelock and then Gustav Laureau.  He eventually tried his hand at being a druggist (his father’s profession), and then selling plate glass, until his father, finally frustrated with his son’s lack of direction and discipline, arranged the drafting job in Wight’s office late in 1872, where Daniel serendipitously met his future partner.  The younger Root seems to have had a maturing influence on the older Burnham, and the two young men quickly became good friends, moonlighting together on small jobs that Burnham was a natural at procuring (he was a “hustler” in the true sense of the word). With the economy in full bloom and a promised commission to plan a new suburb procured by Burnham, the two left Wight with his blessing and started their partnership on July 5, 1873. Their first designed house was erected on the southeast corner of Harrison and Ashland.  However, ten weeks into the partnership, the roof caved in on “Black Friday,” September 19 with the stock market crash.  The projects on their boards dried up, as happened with almost all of America’s architects, leaving them to fend as best they could during the winter of 1873-74 as the Panic slowly turned into the Great Depression of the 1870s.

(Louis Sullivan fans are probably pulling their hair out over why we aren’t talking about him.  Louis Sullivan had been born in Boston in 1856 and had attended the first three of the four-year curriculum at Boston’s English High School.  He applied for early admission to MIT, passed the entrance exams, and then also passed the exams required to skip the first two years of college, which allowed him to enter college in the fall of 1872, as a third year student in William Ware’s new Building and Architecture program, at the ripe age of sixteen.  The classes did not live up to his expectations and after a year, he decided to find a job with an architect.  After attempting unsuccessfully to procure a position with Ware’s former mentor, Richard Morris Hunt in New York, Sullivan then moved onto Philadelphia where he could live with his maternal grandfather and uncle, and eventually secured a job in the summer of 1873 with Frank Furness and George Hewitt.  Well, on Black Friday, the recently-turned seventeen-year old drafts-”boy” was still working for Frank Furness in Philadelphia, after having left William Ware’s MIT’s architecture program having attended only one year 1872-3, (albeit he had entered at the third-year level).  The nascent depression would eventually force Furness to furlough the young Sullivan, in mid-November 1873.  The unemployed teenager, with no one or nowhere else to turn to, moved back into his parents’ house for free room-and-board.  Serendipitously, his parents had moved from his native Boston in 1868 to eventually settle in Chicago by 1871.  Contrary to many histories of Chicago architecture, therefore, Louis Sullivan’s arrival had nothing  to do with the 1871 fire, or with the post-fire reconstruction (his Autobiography of An Idea notwithstanding) because by November the snowballing recession had stopped all new construction in its tracks.  Sullivan had no alternative but to move back in with Mom and Dad, and they now lived in Chicago.  Had the Panic of 1873 not intervened, Sullivan more than likely would have continued working with Furness in Philadelphia, especially with the preparations for the 1876 World’s Fair then being underway, until he could afford to travel to Paris and enroll at the École des Beaux-arts.)

Therefore, with the arrival of Peter B. Wight in November 1871, Chicago had gained not only one of New York’s leading professionally-trained architects who was well-versed in the British design reform movement, but also one of the country’s leading experts on building fire issues.  Wight was then responsible for bringing John Wellborn Root to Chicago, the person who would be the leading architectural figure during the pioneering decade of the 1880s.  From the standpoint of the future of Chicago’s architectural history, therefore, I repeat my earlier assertion that the relocation of Wight and Root from New York to Chicago may have been the most important result of the 1871 Fire.

FURTHER READING:

Hines, Thomas S. Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner. New York: Oxford University Press,   1974.

Hoffmann, Donald. The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University    Press, 1973.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

3.9. CORNELIUS VANDERBILT MOVES INTO RAILROADS

In Volume 1, I documented how William Ogden had made Chicago the hub of the country’s railroad network by the end of the Civil War (i.e., the final decision by Lincoln to build the Union Pacific starting at Omaha).  With the exception of Ogden’s Chicago & NorthWestern, however, the trains into Chicago were built and managed by men from the East: Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  It was these people we witnessed who had made the decisions of where to build the major stations in the city, that had profound ramifications of the city’s urban structure.  It is only reasonable, therefore, that the actions of the most powerful post-war railroad man, Cornelius Vanderbilt (and later his son, William H.) would impact Chicago in a number of ways, including its architecture and urban fabric.  Vanderbilt’s long shadow did not miss the young John Wellborn Root.  From originally controlling a monopoly in maritime shipping throughout the East prior to the start of the Civil War, “Commodore” Vanderbilt had profited during the war, as had Potter Palmer, Uranus H. Crosby, and many others; Vanderbilt by selling his ships to the Federal government for a handsome sum, that he then prudently reinvested in the railroad business.  While he had made some minor investments in railroads to learn the business before the start of the war, he made his initial controlling move into railroads in 1863 by purchasing the company that had been the eye of the spite battle between Joseph Sheffield (Michigan Southern) and Robert Schuyler (Illinois Central), the New York & Harlem Railroad (see Vol. 1).  The next year Vanderbilt gained control over Sheffield’s parallel Hudson River Railroad.  Once it became clear that the Union Pacific would succeed in completing a track to California, Vanderbilt decided to extend his empire.  On December 11, 1867, he was voted in as the president of the New York Central by its stockholders, that he then proceeded to merge with his Hudson River on November 1, 1869, under the new name New York Central and Hudson River Railroad. Meanwhile, during this period he had also bought control of the Michigan Southern, in his first move beyond the borders of New York State that had transferred the ownership of Chicago’s La Salle Street Station to him.  The stock market crash of 1869 had reduced the price of the stock of the Lake Shore Railway (that ran along the southern shore of Lake Erie) that allowed him to easily buy control of it, that he then proceeded to consolidate with the Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana under the new name of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad, thereby creating a shorter, more direct route to Chicago for his New York Central.  As with everything he did in life, Vanderbilt meant to control all rail traffic from the East to Chicago.  During this effort, Vanderbilt would become the country’s richest, and arguably, its most powerful person.

W.W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station, Chicago, 1867. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)

In the design of his new Grand Central Depot for the New York Central, Vanderbilt was committed to surpassing the size of Boyington’s Chicago station (and its national record clear span of 186’), for how could he permit his route’s western terminal in the mere midwestern backwater of Chicago to eclipse the eastern teminal where his trains to Chicago would begin?   He gave the commission to the same team that had just completed his gargantuan St. John’s Park freighthouse for the Hudson River Railroad on the lower west side: his inhouse engineer, Isaac C. Buckhout, architect John B. Snook, who was responsible for the overall design of the station, and his son, William H. Vanderbilt, who was in overall charge of superintending the construction of the project, that had commenced on November 15, 1869.

John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. (Stern, New York:1880)

The Commodore was truly committed to making his station the largest and most expensive (at $3 million, it may just have been that) station in the world.  While the final massing of the passenger station, indeed, resembled an expanded version of Boyington’s (with the exception that Snook had to increase the plan of the station house to an L-shape to provide more terminal space along the side of the shed), the building’s elevation did not emulate Boyington’s crisp, clean design, for the terminal’s design was a curious hybrid of both the latest architectural fashions from Europe.  While Snook kept Boyington’s French Second Empire massing scheme of a central pavilion flanked with corner pavilions, all three of which were surmounted with a square-planned dome, he dressed the building in the British Gothic Revival’s polychromy, employing red brick with cast iron ornamental highlights that were painted white to look like stone. 

George Gilbert Scott, Midland Hotel, in front of St. Pancras Station, London, 1865. (Online)

 In his choice of materials, Snook echoed George Gilbert Scott’s design of the Midland Hotel, then under construction immediately in front of the recently completed St. Pancras Station, that was the current longest clearspanned structure in the world at this time.  The main or front façade on 42nd Street was 249’ long and was placed at the head of the iron and glass railroad shed, whose dimensions did manage to just eclipse those of Boyington’s structure: 200’ wide (with 12 tracks) vs. 186,’ 652’ long vs. 542,’ and 100’ high (the iron arched trusses were semicircular in elevation) vs. 60.’

W. W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station Trainshed, Chicago, 1867. The wood and iron trusses clearspanned the 160′ wide space, that was 542′ long. (Douglas, Rail City: Chicago USA)
John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. Trainshed. John W. Root was Snook’s construction superintendent for this project. (Online)

While these did make it the largest clear-spanned space in the U. S., as I noted earlier both London’s St. Pancras Station (243’) and Birmingham’s New Street Station (211’) were larger in both span and length.  Vanderbilt would have to be satisfied with the fact that his New York station was at least larger than his station in Chicago.  All of the iron used in the shed was fabricated by Daniel Badger’s Architectural Iron Works would have necessarily involved two of Badger’s typically contracted designers in sharing the credit for designing the shed: Robert G. Hatfield (who had designed Bogardus’ Baltimore Sun Building) and Joseph Duclos.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

3.8. WIGHT INTERVIEWS JOHN WELLBORN ROOT

Following his talk to the A.I.A. in November, Wight packed up his belongings and moved to Chicago to begin his long and successful career in Chicago.  Once settled, he sent a telegram to a young draftsman in New York who had impressed him in an earlier interview and invited him to come out to Chicago and work in the office of Carter, Drake & Wight.  A week later, twenty-two year-old John Wellborn Root boarded a train in New York bound for Chicago in search of his adult calling.  Root had been born in 1850 in Lumpkin, Georgia, where during the Civil War his father had been a blockade-runner, until Gen. Sherman had taken Atlanta (with the aid of Jenney) and on Sept. 7, 1864, ordered the complete evacuation of the city.  In order to avoid his fourteen-year old son from being drafted into the Confederate army, his father had put John on a blockade runner that took him to one of his father’s business associates in Liverpool, England.  There, the young Root found inspiration, as evidenced by the growing passion for architecture revealed in his letters back home, for Liverpool can be viewed as the British parallel of Chicago with regards to commerce (grain and meat shipped from Chicago would land in Liverpool) and architectural innovation (such as the first British building to incorporate iron columns, St. Anne’s Church, 1770, to the city’s latest achievement, the erection of the train shed for the Lime Street Station.  With a clear span of 200’ it was designed by William Baker and Francis Stevenson to be the second longest clear span in the world, only surpassed by Birmingham’s (1854) New Street Station’s shed with its span of 211.’ (see Vol. 1).  

William Baker and Francis Sherman, Lime Street Station, Liverpool, 1867. When completed, its 200’ clearspan would be the second largest span in the world. (Online)

Root’s letters revealed his awakening interest in architecture, perhaps sparked by two very forward-looking buildings in Liverpool designed by local architect Peter Ellis: the Oriel Chambers of 1864, with its oriel windows and glass/sheet iron curtain wall in its light court, and the recently completed 16 Cook Street of 1866 with its cantilevered spiral staircase.  

Peter Ellis, Liverpool, Left: Oriel Chambers, 1864; Right: 16 Cook Street, 1866. (Online)
Peter Ellis, Oriel Chambers. Influences on Root: Left: Bay or Oriel windows; Right: Glass and sheet iron curtain wall hung in front of the building’s structure lining the Light court. (Online)
Peter Ellis, 16 Cook Street. Influences on Root: The cantilevered, glass-enclosed spiral stair that Root would employ as his signature in such buildings as the Rialto (that had two of these), the Insurance Exchange, the Midland Hotel in Kansas City, and of course, the only surviving example, The Rookery. (Online)

It is also quite conceivable that during his time in Liverpool, Root could have been introduced to some of the writings of the great British theorists Jones, Pugin, and Ruskin.  Therefore, as opposed to New Yorker Richard Morris Hunt, who had studied and worked in France during the Second Empire and had developed a distinctly French approach to architecture, Root, with his British background, would correspondingly develop a philosophy grounded in the theories of the British design reform movement.  He stayed in Liverpool for two years while he attended high school and took the entrance exams for Oxford, that he passed.

He was called back to the U.S. in September 1866 after his family had moved to New York after the war.  He was enrolled in New York University from where he graduated in Civil Engineering (as had George Post some 12 hears earlier) in 1869, and quite naturally, was the Commencement speaker for his class.  Unlike Post, however, who had then moved into the office of the French-trained Hunt, it should come as no surprise that Root’s first full-time employment was with New York’s leading Gothic Revivalist, James Renwick, who had earlier designed Chicago’s Second Presbyterian Church, the famous “spotted church.”  After a year in Renwick’s office (without Renwick’s presence as he was touring Europe), Root went to work for John B. Snook, another British émigré, who, at the time was designing Cornelius Vanderbilt’s new Grand Central Depot that was simply nothing more than a bigger and more ornate version of Vanderbilt’s recently-acquired Michigan Southern Station in Chicago that W.W. Boyington had designed three years earlier.  

W.W. Boyington, La Salle Street Station, Chicago, 1867. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago)
John B. Snook, Grand Central Depot, New York, 1869. (Stern, New York-1880)

Root, at the age of twenty, became Snook’s superintendent of construction for the trainshed, and thus, had cut his professional teeth supervising the erection of the country’s longest clear span iron construction to date. (At 200,’ its span would match that of the Lime Street Station in Liverpool.)

John B. Snook, Construction of Grand Central Depot, New York, 1870-1. Trainshed. Twenty-year old John W. Root was Snook’s construction superintendent for this project. (Online)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

3.7. PETER B. WIGHT MOVES TO CHICAGO

If, indeed, the fire of 1871 had only a minimum impact on post-fire Chicago’s architecture and construction, it could be said that the most important result of the 1871 fire on the city’s architecture was the relocation to Chicago, of New York City’s leading expert on fire construction, Peter B. Wight.  Once things had settled down following the end of the fire, local architect Asher Carter of Carter & Drake, contacted Wight in New York and offered him a partnership in the firm if he would come to Chicago to help with the overload of projects he anticipated from the imminent reconstruction.  Carter had first become acquainted with Wight back in 1858, when the then twenty year-old architectural apprentice had spent a year in Chicago, 1858-9, designing a small office building for one of his father’s friends at the southwest corner of State and Randolph, and had maintained correspondence with Wight after he had left. William H. Drake was also not a stranger to Wight at this time.  Drake, along with Sanford E. Loring, had been made a Fellow of the A.I.A. in 1869, in order to increase the size of Chicago’s chapter to three (John C. Cochrane had joined earlier) that was the minimum size required to officially form a chapter, which was done on Dec. 13, 1869.  Wight was the national secretary of the A.I.A. in 1869 and therefore, would have corresponded with all new members.

Wight traveled to Chicago three weeks after the fire in late October 1871, and visited for three days finalizing his contract, locating a residence, and observing the destruction.  Upon returning to New York to prepare for his move, he was asked to present his observations of the fire to the 1871 A.I.A. National Convention, held in Boston on November 14-5, 1871.  He listed five factors that contributed to the scale of the destruction:

1.  The walls of the buildings were uncommonly thin in proportion to their height, being only 12″ thick above the first floor (we have seen that this was sanctioned, however, by the building code).  He consistently hammered this point home by citing numerous examples of specific building failures such as the Chicago Tribune Building.  He observed that the fire’s intensity appeared to have diminished where the few walls that still stood remained, giving credence to the fact that had Chicago’s walls been thicker, the fire’s advance might have been slowed considerably.

2.  The materials in the thin walls did not perform well.  Brick walls performed better than stone (as the code had tried to make allowances for), but even many brick walls failed because they were often built with soft brick fillers.  He condemned stone walls outright, especially stone veneers, as being extremely vulnerable to the intense heat and totally useless as a fireproof material.  Almost without exception, every type of stone had spalled or cracked completely.  Much of the stone used in Chicago was Lemont limestone that had exploded upon contact with the heat.  Wight had amused his audience by comparing its reaction to heat to that of popcorn.

3.  Iron shutters on windows (required by code) were either non-existent or had not been closed.  He attributed the destruction of the otherwise well-constructed U.S. Post Office and Customs House to the fact that while it was equipped with shutters, one appeared to have been left open, exposing the highly combustible materials of the interior to the heat of the fire.  He went on record claiming that the building would have survived the fire intact had the shutter been properly closed. 

Ruins of U.S. Post Office/Customs House showing some, but not all, of the fire shutters were closed over the windows. (Boda and Johnson, Great Chicago Fire)

4. Exposed “fireproof” iron performed very poorly in the presence of the extreme temperatures:

“A. Wrought and cast iron beams gave way very quickly.  As mentioned previously, fireproof floors were constructed in Chicago prior to the fire, being either brick arches or concrete covered corrugated sheet iron arches.  Both of these flooring systems performed extremely well.  The Achilles heel of the systems, however, was the exposed bottom flange of the iron beam, which often sagged due to the loss of rigidity caused by the high temperatures.”

“B. Much of the devastation was the result of cast iron columns failing in one of the three aforementioned manners.  No matter which mode of failure prevailed, the result was the same, the collapsing of sound, intact floors that were supported above the column.  Wight cited the loss of the Post Office and Customs House as a prime example.  The fact that this type of column was allowed by the building code, let alone used by knowledgeable architects is perplexing, for there were many examples of failures of this type of construction in England that should have shown the vulnerability of such construction.  Also, as has been pointed out before, New York was requiring the use of double-walled, plaster-insulated columns by this time.  Wight was queried on this point after his talk to which he replied that he specifically raised the issue of this type of construction, to which he found no evidence either that the column was used or that it was even known about!  He suspected with good reason that these “relatively expensive” devices would not have been employed in the cheaply constructed “fireproof” buildings of a Chicago speculator/owner.”

“C. The practice of stopping a bearing wall at the first floor by supporting it on an iron beam, truss and/or column in order to open up the first floor proved to be the condemning flaw in many buildings once the iron member was subjected to the heat.”

Ruins of U.S. Post Office/Customs House showing some, but not all, of the fire shutters were closed over the windows. (Boda and Johnson, Great Chicago Fire)

5.  The roofs were perhaps the most insecure parts of the buildings.  Many were covered with tar and gravel that appeared to have encouraged the fire in the face of the tremendous downdraft produced by the fierce winds that fed the fire and the corresponding updrafts of the intense heat.

Wight then went on to recommend possible solutions and practices that could eliminate most of the hazards and potential problems that led to the scale of the Chicago Fire.  These can be seen not only as the “state of the art” from a contemporary expert, but even more so as a prediction of things to come.

1.  The Importance of a good, solid wall running the entire length from foundation to roof, that he considered the best construction for a fireproof building.  He recommended to avoid the use of iron storefront systems in the first floor that supported bearing walls above.

2.  What value was a good wall whose windows were not protected?  “But by all means keep out the fire from neighboring buildings, even if you have nothing in your own house to burn.”  Therefore, he recommended that all windows should have fireproof shutters, including the front (the usual practice was to locate these only on the rear windows).  

3.  He insisted that the roof be the best-constructed part of the building.

4.  He also addressed the problem of protecting ironwork.

“I was struck with one fact in connection with the use of rolled iron beams, and it was, that the beams often sagged before the filling gave way; and I was impressed with the idea that precautions should be taken in fire-proof buildings to protect the underside of the beam, so that the heat cannot affect the stability of its lower flanges.  The lower part being exposed, absorbed the heat, and the beams consequently sagged very often.  I would direct the inquiries of the Institute to the propriety of covering the lower parts of the iron beams with cement, artificial stone, or terra cotta, or perhaps to the advantage of plastering the ceiling underneath the iron beams.  All the buildings with iron beams that I happened to see, were without any plastering underneath, except where the soffits of the brick arches were plastered.”

Therefore, Wight had proposed a radical revision in fireproofing strategy from the existing practice of assuming that a building was safe if its interior construction could not support combustion (i.e., Bogardus’ claim for cast iron) to one that bears the experience of a major urban holocaust.  The danger loomed not from within, but from without.  The best fire protection for an urban building, therefore, was a fortress of brick walls and a solid roof, not dissimilar to those of a Renaissance palazzo.

3.6. HOW THE FIRE CHANGED CHICAGO’S URBAN STRUCTURE

While many of the claims that the fire had affected a major change in the architectural design of Chicago’s buildings are unfounded, similar claims can, and should be applied to the effect that the 1871 fire had on Chicago’s urban landscape. The rebuilt Chicago in 1874 was quite different in its overall urban pattern from the Chicago that burned in 1871 in at least ten ways:

Crosby’s Opera House ablaze during the Fire. (Online)

1. the loss of Crosby’s Opera House would be a major blow to the cultural life of the city, notwithstanding the erection of the Inter-state Exposition Building.  It would take over seventeen years to replace Crosby’s palace (i.e., the Auditorium).  Its loss relegated Chicago to an inferior position vis-à-vis Cincinnati in the Midwest’s cultural ranks during this period,

Poster showing Cincinnati’s Saengfesthalle and Exposition Buildings, 1873 Annual Industrial Exposition. (Online)

2. the debris left over from the fire was dumped into the lagoon between Michigan Avenue and the IC tracks, creating a large amount of new land along the lakefront that would force a decision to be made concerning what to do with this newly-formed, unoccupied land, 

The Expanse of land created in Lake (Grant) Park by the debris from the Fire. (Online)

3. the Inter-state Exposition Building will be constructed, in response to both the loss of Crosby’s Opera House and the success of Cincinnati’s new Exhibition Buildings on this newly-formed land, thereby establishing a new center of gravity within the business district. 

W.W. Boyington, Inter-state Industrial Exposition Building, Chicago, 1873. (Online)

The Exposition Building will also provide the eastern terminus of the new Adams Street corridor. 

View east down Adams, from State Street, showing the central dome of the Expo Building terminating the vista, c. 1886. (Gilbert, Chicago)

4. while the tracks of Chicago’s railroads had also survived that allowed traffic to continue unabated, riders coming into the city for the next eight to nine years aboard the MC, CB&Q, IC, or the C&NW got a rude introduction to the damage the fire had wrought for neither the IC nor the C&NW stations were rebuilt until after 1880, therefore passengers had to work their way around the ruins for these years.  Because Cornelius Vanderbilt had only recently taken control of the Michigan Southern (see next section), his deep pockets could easily afford to rebuild the La Salle Street Station, 

W.W. Boyington, Post-Fire Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Station, 1872. Note the company’s name has been updated from the “Michigan Southern & Northern Indiana” to the Vanderbilt “Lake Shore & Michigan Southern.” (Chicago Historical Society)

5. the “temporary” City Hall was built four blocks farther south at La Salle and Adams and remained there for fourteen years while the post-fire replacement City Hall/County Courthouse was under construction.  This meant that the city’s center of local politics had gravitated away from the northern portion of the business district to its southern edge,

John M. Van Osdel, Post-Fire Temporary City Hall, the “Rookery,” 1872-1885. Southeast corner of La Salle and Adams. Built around the Waterworks Water Tank that had survived the 1871 Fire, the tank acted as storage for over 8,000 books that were sent by Queen Victoria and Great Britain in the aftermath of the fire. (Andreas, Chicago)

6. the site of the U.S. Post Office and Custom House was moved two blocks farther south to the southwest corner of Adams and Dearborn, again reinforcing the Adams Street corridor, and replaced by a monumental building that established a new urban square in the southern portion of the business district that provided badly-needed green space and daylight, that eventually would become a major real estate center in the city.

William A. Potter, Post-Fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House, 1874-80. (Gilbert, Chicago)

The Post Office Square will be even more important after it was completed, as the open space provided by the pre-fire Courthouse Square in the northern portion of the business district would disappear first from the post-fire demolition and second, from the design of the replacement City Hall/County Courthouse, as its huge size would almost completely fill the Courthouse Square, eliminating the only open space that had been available in the northern half of the business district, 

James J. Egan, Post-Fire City Hall and Cook County Courthouse, 1875-84. Note that the architect has used the entire block for the building, leaving no open space that the Courthouse Square had once provided. (Online)

7. the move of the Post Office to Adams Street reinforced the southern relocation of the business district’s centroid and helped to establish Adams Street as a major urban east-west spatial corridor, that ran from the Expo Center’s central pavilion to its western terminus, William Ogden’s Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Station at Canal and Madison, that had survived the fire,

Bird’s eye view of Chicago, 1874. The emerging new Adams Street corridor that will run from the Expo Center (left arrow), anchored by the post-fire Post Office/Customs House (in the center, that while shown completed, will take over ten years to complete), to the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Station at Canal and Madison (right arrow), that had survived the fire. The city hall is shown completed (which it will not be until eleven years into the future, and it sports a never-constructed spire which is easiest the tallest structure in the city. (Online)

8. the city’s Wholesale district was moved from North Wabash on the east side of downtown to Market and Franklin Streets between Madison and Monroe on the west side,

9. the few congregations that were still present in the business district prior to the fire, took the opportunity created by their church’s destruction to sell their property and move outside of the downtown (with the sole exception of the First Methodist Block at the southeast corner of Clark and Washington).  There would be no steeples in the skyline of Chicago’s post-fire business district,

Burling and Adler, Post-fire First Methodist Church Block, southeast corner of Clark and Washington, 1873. The congregation was required to maintain a church on this site by the contract of the owner who first donated the site to the congregation, or return it to his estate. Although there was no steeple, the sanctuary was placed in the top floor so that income-generating rental space could be built below it, an early example of the use of air rights. A steeple was finally erected in downtown Chicago in 1924 when this building was demolished to make way for a skyscraper, the Chicago Temple. The final irony in this story is that when completed, the Temple was Chicago’s tallest building from 1924-1930, when it was finally overshadowed by the new Board of Trade, designed by the son of John Wellborn Root, John Wellborn Root, Jr. (Root was also a member of the firm, Holabird and Roche that designed the Temple.) (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

10. and less strategic, but still important, the fire’s debris will permit the City to finally complete the filing-in of the city’s streets to their final official elevations, and will also permit the completion of Potter Palmer’s plan to widen State Street so that it could finally provide an urban ambiance appropriate for the city’s rebuilt retail district.

State Street, ca. 1880. (Online)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)