3.7. THE FIRST TERRA COTTA FIREPROOFED BUILDING: MILWAUKEE’S MITCHELL BUILDING

E. Townsend Mix with Peter B. Wight, Mitchell Building, Milwaukee, southeast corner of E. Michigan and N. Water Streets, 1875. (Online)

The first building that employed both Wight’s fireproof columns as well as Loring’s porous terra cotta hollow tile floor arches, therefore being the first building in the U.S. that was totally fireproofed with porous terra cotta was not in Chicago, but in Milwaukee.  Milwaukee architect E. Townsend Mix was born in New Haven, CT, and had worked for a brief period with Richard Upjohn in New York.  In 1855 he moved to Chicago where he partnered with W.W. Boyington. He was supervising a firm’s project in Milwaukee in 1856 when he had decided to set up his own practice there.  Mix, who had previously worked with Wight in 1873 on the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, invited Wight in 1875 to work with him on an office building he was designing in Milwaukee for Alexander Mitchell to house the two companies that Mitchell was president of: the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company Bank and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. 

3.8. ALEXANDER MITCHELL: MILWAUKEE’S WILLIAM OGDEN

For all practical purposes, Alexander Mitchell was the William B. Ogden of Milwaukee.  I have so far kept Milwaukee’s competition with Chicago for the economic hegemony in the region in the background, but, obviously, can no longer do so.  Geography had blessed Milwaukee with a harbor and river that was better than Chicago’s, but unfortunately for Milwaukee, its river ran north, and not west to the Mississippi, as did Chicago’s.  Once the railroad had evened out any geographic natural advantages, however, Milwaukee could ship the grain of the NorthWest cheaper than could Chicago, simply because it was closer to the area of production, and it was also 100 miles farther north along the cost of Lake Michigan (shorter ship transit to the Atlantic). As early as 1847, then Milwaukee Mayor Bryon Kilbourn had understood this and had chartered the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad (whose name was changed in 1850 to reflect its ultimate goal, the Milwaukee & Mississippi), at the same time and for ostensibly the same purpose that Ogden had taken control over the bankrupt Galena & Chicago Union.  Businessmen in both cities understood the stakes involved with this race.

Born in Scotland, Mitchell had been brought to Milwaukee in 1839 by the NorthWest’s pioneer financier, fellow Scotsman George Smith to assist in managing his investments, eventually inheriting the control of the vast bulk of these when Smith had decided to return to Britain in 1857.  Smith had placed Mitchell in the presidency of his Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Company in 1839, a position he would hold for the next 48 years, on his way to becoming Wisconsin’s richest man.  (Mitchell’s grandson, Gen. Billy Mitchell, for whom the B-25 bomber was named, is thought by many historians to have been the father of the U.S. Air Force.) As had Ogden, Mitchell understood the potential of the railroad to enhance his personal wealth along with that of his hometown, especially by connecting it with the fertile areas in the NorthWest.  In 1864, he became the president of the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad (that terminated at La Crosse), one of two Wisconsin routes that ran between Milwaukee and the Mississippi River.  So while Ogden was busy building his Chicago & NorthWestern out of Chicago to Omaha, and going out his way to isolate Milwaukee in building his other line to St. Paul, Mitchell was essentially building Ogden’s main competition, except that Mitchell was building to Chicago, from Milwaukee, and had relied upon the good will and the tracks of the independent Chicago & Milwaukee for access into and out of Chicago. Once Ogden had sprung his hostile takeover of the Northwestern in 1864, (see Vol. 1) he wasted little time in also trying to shut-down any competition from Mitchell, by acquiring the Chicago & Milwaukee in 1866, thereby cutting Mitchell’s access to Chicago and forcing Mitchell to build his own line directly into Chicago.  Mitchell, being every bit as clever and resourceful as Ogden, chartered the Chicago, Milwaukee, & St. Paul (what would eventually be known as “The Milwaukee Line”) in Illinois in 1872, probably taking advantage of the chaos caused by the fire, and proceeded to build his own tracks into Chicago, finding a permanent home in Union Station.  Simply stated, over time, there would be no love lost between the NorthWestern and the Milwaukee Lines, as they moved their cars back and forth between Chicago and southern Wisconsin.

3.9. THE MITCHELL BUILDING

By 1876, in the depths of the depression, Mitchell had put his railroad on solid financial ground so that he could afford to erect a new, monumental building to house the company’s headquarters.  Mix designed the Mitchell Building at the southeast corner of E. Michigan and N. Water Streets as a straightforward Second Empire palace, in the waning months of the style’s fashionability, complete with the requisite mansard roof and corner pavilions.  He collaborated with Wight in fireproofing its ironwork by covering it with terra cotta, that Wight described in an 1878 article in American Architect:

“The dormers and chimneys, which are heavy, and rather crowded, are of stone; but all the ribs and crowning members of the roof which are of elaborate design and good detail, are of hard terra-cotta from Chicago Terra-Cotta Works.  The entire roof is covered with porous tiles set between T-iron rafters, the slates and metal covering being secured directly by nails to the porous terra-cotta.  All the iron columns throughout the interior are of the radiating web pattern, and made fire-proof by Wight’s process.  The girders are enclosed with porous terra-cotta; and the spaces between the iron beams are filled by a system of brick arches and hollow tiles, which fully protects the beams, and affords a very light construction, said to not exceed 40 pounds per foot.  This is the invention of Sanford E. Loring of the Chicago Terra-Cotta Works.  It is of such nature, however as to require diagrams for a proper description.  This is the first building in which it has been employed.  All the small partitions are of hollow bricks.”

Sanford E. Loring, Porous Terra Cotta Encased Iron Beams, similar to those used in the Mictchell Building, Milwaukee, 1875. (Amercan Architect, June 29, 1878)

The beams were encased by two pieces of porous terra cotta that sat on the bottom flange of the beam, joined on the bottom of the flange by mortar.  These formed skewbacks from which solid brick arches sprung at a spacing of two and a half feet.  The void between the arches and the top flanges was covered with two, 2″ thick, cellular terra cotta panels that were two feet long and one foot wide.  In this way Loring utilized his patented system of tiles, while avoiding infringing on Johnson’s patent.  The girders posed a different problem than the beams in that their sides were not protected by the floor arch as the beams were.  Therefore, Loring used three pieces of porous terra cotta to cover the girders.  Two side pieces with straight exterior faces were molded to fit into the girder and bear upon the bottom flange.  The bottom of the girder was protected by a piece that was bedded up against the iron and held in place by the side pieces with a dove-tall connection.  The entire assembly was held in place with mortar.  Wight, the “Chicago Correspondent” proudly stated that the building, which was occupied on February 1, 1878, was “The most costly private building erected in the West for many years, and is a monument to its owner.”

Sanford E. Loring, Porous Terra Cotta Encased Iron Girders, similar to those used in the Mitchell Building, (Building, December 17, 1887)

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

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