In the previous two chapters I have presented 1884 as a banner as well as a pivotal year in Chicago’s architecture. The major threads that I identified were:
1. The political /social context of 1885 included the election of the first Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, in twenty-four years. In Chicago, class warfare had seen the city’s business elites battling a nascent labor/socialist movement over the eight-hour workday, In October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions had set the deadline for this to be implemented throughout the country on May 1, 1886. This timebomb was still ticking… The site for much of this class warfare had been the Exposition Building, in which the Socialists had established a tradition of celebrating the anniversary of the rise of the Paris Commune on March 19, 1871, with a mass rally each year. Ferdinand Peck had finally outwitted the Socialists by using the Exposition Building for the Chicago Grand Opera Festival in April 1885, as part of the overall celebration of the Grand Opening of the new Board of Trade scheduled for May 1, 1885.
2. Architects in Chicago and the Midwest had formed the Western Association of Architects in November 1884 in response to the “benign neglect” of the “Eastern” American Institute of Architects. I use this event as the birth of the “Chicago School” of architecture, as it was the first manifestation of the divergence between the Westerners and the Easterners in how the profession was understood and practiced. About this same time Wight, Jenney. Root, and Sullivan were speaking of the possibility of evolving a distinctly “American” architecture.
Just as these Western architects were finding their voices. the New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White was erecting the Henry Villard Houses in New York. Historian Richard Guy Wilson credits this building as “the first major appearance of Italian Renaissance precedent in the firm’s design.” Let me point out that George Post has been consistently using Classical details in his buildings since the 1872 Western Union Building. The difference between what he had done and the Villard Houses was that while he was employing “generic,” for the lack of a better term, details from the classical vocabulary, the designer of the Villard Houses, Joseph M. Wells, one of the firm’s associates, had accurately reworked the detailing from a specific building from the past: the exterior of the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. This practice was diametrically opposed to the design theory Chicago’s architects were then evolving, following the ideas of mid-century European architectural theorists who promoted the learning from, but not the copying of historic precedents. In the The Grammar of Ornament, first published in 1856, Owen Jones had exhorted his readers not to “slavishly copy” the works from the past, but to develop new styles of art for the contemporary world:
“How is any new style of art or new style of ornament to be formed, or even attempted to be formed?… It is for their use that we have gathered together this collection of the works of the past; not that they should be slavishly copied, but that artists should, by an attentive examination of the principles which pervade all the works of the past, and which have excited universal admiration, be led to the creation of new forms equally beautiful… “
Root had thoroughly digested Jones’ theory and applied it rigorously :
“The object of all this study of architectural styles must be to acquire from former times the spirit in which our predecessors worked; not to copy what they did.”
This issue will continue to drive the two regions further apart in their architectural theory until Root and Burnham, having the courage of their convictions, arranged to plan to have both aesthetics constructed side-by-side for the American public to view and comment upon during the 1893 World’s Fair. Such was their plan until Root tragically died on the eve of the first meeting of the Fair’s architects. (I will examine this divergence in detail in the chapter on the planning for the 1893 World’s Fair.)
3. The new Board of Trade building had topped off at 303’ (its corona extended it to 322’). This made Chicago the home of America’s tallest building, finally surpassing the long-time record holder of New York’s Trinity Church spire (281’). (This ignores the Washington Monument (555’) that was finally topped off in December 1884 because it was a monument, not a building). John Roebling’s Brooklyn Bridge, with its 272’ tall pylons had opened in May 1883, finally surpassing the span of his Cincinnati Bridge.
Meanwhile, the French were shipping the 151’ tall Statue of Liberty in crates to New York that arrived on June 17, 1885. Embarrassingly, once they had survived their transatlantic crossing, the statue’s pieces would stay in their crates for the next ten months as its pedestal was still under construction. Nobody in the U.S. wanted to give the money needed to build the pedestal, so a fundraising campaign was eventually mounted by Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World. The pedestal designed by Richard Morris Hunt, when completed with statue, would increase the statue’s final height to 305,’ coincidentally (?) just two feet taller than the Board of Trade’s tower, leaving the two cities to argue over whether it was taller than the Board of Trade. (It would also be Pulitzer who would finally end the argument by building his New York World Building, designed by none other than the skyscraper’s grandfather, George B. Post, with a height of 309’ (its spire topped off at 350’) that was completed in December 1890. And just to repeat a fact, the World Building was constructed with bearing walls that at some locations were 88″ thick, that means the Monadnock Block was not the tallest skyscraper built with bearing walls. However, it can stated that it is the tallest surviving bearing wall building.)
4. there was a covey of skyscrapers under construction in the immediate area surrounding the Board of Trade, especially marching up La Salle Street, to be finished by the traditional date of lease signing: May 1 (1885): in addition to the existing Royal Insurance Building (Boyington), the Counselman and Calumet Buildings (Burnham & Root), the new towers included the twelve-story Maller Building (Flanders), the Insurance Exchange (Burnham & Root), and the Home Insurance Building (Jenney). Meanwhile, Marshall Field was still in court fighting Levi Leiter’s injunction against any further construction of his planned 13-story building designed by S.S. Beman. Farther north the Chicago Opera House Block was completed across the street from the new County/City Building, to where the City had moved its offices from the post-fire “Rookery,” leaving the southeast corner of La Salle and Adams ripe for investment.
I will now synthesize these threads through the lens of May 1, 1885…
Wilson, Richard Guy. McKim, Mead & White: Architects. New York: Rizzoli, 1983.
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