CHAPTER 1. 1879: THE ECONOMY REBOUNDS IN CHICAGO
The opening of the new Shillito’s store in Cincinnati occurred in October 1878, at about the same time the U.S. economy had finally begun to improve, so we can now pick-up where we left Chicago after the 1874 fire. The economic rebound started first in New York, where we left off with the construction of the first skyscrapers: the Equitable, the Western Union, and the New York Tribune Buildings. I am going to use the Tribune Building as the portal between the period before the fires of Chicago (1871) and Boston (1872) and what changes were made in construction as the result of the combined lessons learned from these holocausts.
1.1. SUMMARIZING VOLUME TWO: 1874-1879
As I promised at the start of Volume Two (remember Volume One that covers building the Chicago that burned, is located on my Instagram site: “thearchprofessorinchicago”), I “laid the foundation” for your understanding and appreciation for what the Chicago School architects will achieve during the 1880s. As you have just finished reading Volume Two, I will skip the summary that I intend to locate here for those who come later to the blog. The most immediate impact on what will occur in Chicago in 1879 was caused by the two large buildings completed in Cincinnati in 1878, the Cincinnati Music Hall and the huge John Shillito’s Department Store.
1.2. WHERE CHICAGO’S LEADING ARCHITECTS WERE IN 1879
While Chicago’s economy was dull during the Depression years of 1874-9, its architects had to find business wherever they could to keep bread on the table. The major personalities in Chicago’s architecture community during the early 1880s as of 1879 were:
John M. Van Osdel: age: 68 (1811-1891) We last saw Van Osdel, after having started the post-fire redesign of the second Palmer House, was forced by physical exhaustion to take a tour of the West and then a grand tour of Europe. Although he returned in May 1875 and renewed his practice, his days as a leading force were over.
W.W. Boyington: age: 61 (1818-1898) The post-fire rebuilding had launched Boyington into the position of the city’s leading architect, being responsible for the redesigns of most of the city’s hotels and railroad stations. Prior to the 1871 fire, he had designed the longest clearspan roof in the U.S., the La Salle Street Station trainshed, as well as two of the city’s taller structures, the 175’ high steeple of the First Universalist Church and the 154’ iron iconic Water Tower.
Prior to the start of the Panic, he had just finished Chicago’s largest building, the Interstate Industrial Exposition Building, He would soon be commissioned to design the city’s tallest building, the 303’ high tower in the new Board of Trade Building. Meanwhile, his practice had stretched across the U.S. that had kept him in business during the Depression.
Peter B. Wight: age: 41 (1838-1925) In the last volume we followed Wight launch his fireproofing company, in response to the second, 1874 fire, into one of the country’s leading manufacturers of clay fireproofing. He had correspondingly left his architectural practice with Carter Asher and William Drake.
John Wellborn Root: age 29 (1850-1891) We last saw Root brought to Chicago by Wight and put in charge of Carter, Drake and Wight’s drafting office. He would join his co-worker, Daniel Burnham: age 33 (1846-1912) in leaving the firm to begin their own practice, Burnham & Root. They will eventually overtake Boyington as the city’s leading firm in the 1880s.
William Le Baron Jenney: age 47 (1832-1907) After having designed the post-fire Portland Block for Boston’s Brooks brothers and the Lakeside Building, his first and truly only large architectural commissions in downtown, Jenney’s career since the Panic of 1873 had slid back to where it had been before the 1871 fire, doing landscape design, small houses in and around Riverside, the western suburb he had helped to layout, and a few small churches and commercial buildings. The highlight of this period surely was being offered a teaching position at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) in 1875. The state legislature had just passed an act funding a school of architecture (there were only three other university programs in the country: MIT (1865), Cornell University (1870), and the University of Illinois (1871). This position lasted only a year (1876-7) with Jenney taking overnight trains between Chicago and Ann Arbor each week, before the state yanked its funding. He rightfully enjoys the reputation of being the city’s leading architectural intellect during this period, but his list of built architectural projects in the business district through 1879 pales in comparison to that of Boyington who deserves to be known as the Dean of Chicago architecture during this period.
Dankmar Adler: age 35 (1844-1900) Adler had been born in Germany in 1844 and emigrated with his family at the age of ten, settling in Detroit, where his father had been called by a synagogue to be its rabbi. The young Dankmar had easily gravitated to architecture with the help of a local architect. His father had moved the family in 1861 to Chicago where he had been called by a local synagogue. Adler worked for a brief time with German-born architect Augustus Bauer before enlisting in the Union Army. After the war he returned to Bauer’s office for a brief time before moving on to the office of Ozias S. Kinney, where he stayed until the 1871 fire. The business generated by the fire was the opportunity of a lifetime for young architects, and Adler had formed a partnership with Edward Burling.
Louis H. Sullivan: age 23 (1856-1924) We last saw the seventeen-year old Sullivan being let go by Frank Furness in November 1873 because of the recession, and having nowhere else to turn for food and shelter, had travelled to live with his father and mother who had moved to Chicago in 1868. He eventually found employment with Jenney, where he stayed for seven months before he resigned in July 1874 to travel to Paris to take the entrance exams for the École des Beaux-Arts. He had passed the tests and spent the fall semester of 1874 trying to become accustomed to the academic methods employed, but eventually became disillusioned as he had done at MIT in 1872. It appears nothing nor no one could keep the attention of the itinerant prodigy for any length of time. Meanwhile, one of Sullivan’s friends in Jenney’s office, John Edelman had also left Jenney with the promise of two commissions. Both jobs were religious buildings that called for interior frescoes that Edelmann offered their design to Sullivan. So inspired, Sullivan had travelled to Rome in April 1875 to study Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. He studied it for two days, had an epiphany concerning his future, and immediately returned to Chicago in May 1875 to work on both projects.
There will be other personalities, architectural as well as clients who will commission the buildings, but I will wait to introduce these until the information is relevant to my narrative.
Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
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