2.2 THE SANTA FE RAILROAD COMES TO THE DEARBORN STREET STATION

Map of the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroad, 1891. (Online)

The event that finally brought confidence and investment back to downtown Chicago was the arrival of the Atkinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe Railroad. This was not an act of inconsequential significance, for the railroad would spend over $13 million on Chicago real estate and construction.  The Santa Fe was originally built to link Kansas City (Atchinson) to Santa Fe, NM, following the old Santa Fe Trail, that traders had used since 1821 to link Mexico’s northern territory to the Missouri River (and then onto St. Louis). This portion had been completed to the Colorado state line by 1872 and the road had continued to expand southwestward to connect with ports on the Pacific coast. In 1886, then company president William Barstow Strong, decided to expand the line eastward to make its own route into Chicago, that when completed had made the Santa Fe the longest road in the U.S. (and meant that the British, who had provided the bulk of the financing, had completed a route from the Pacific to the Atlantic, via the British funded Grand Trunk, that no longer relied on any American-controlled roads).

The company had been very successful in keeping its expansion plans secret as it assembled the land it needed for its new rail yards.  As property around 20th and State Street continued to be bought by a number of relatively unknown personalities during the spring of 1887, speculation mounted in the real estate and construction press as to identification of the ultimate buyer and their plans.  Finally, on June 9, 1887, the Inter-Ocean announced that it was, indeed, the Atkinson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe that was buying the property as part of its expansion into the Chicago market.  Chicago was to have a second direct transcontinental railroad route to the Pacific.  

LeRoy S. Buffington, 28-story Cloudscraper, Minneapolis, 1888. (Inland Architect, July 1888)

In fact, it wasn’t until the Santa Fe completed the construction of its tracks to Chicago in 1888 and daily passenger service had begun on April 29, that speculative office construction returned to Chicago. The buildings erected in Chicago during this second boom would be of unprecedented height, for during the two-year lull in Chicago office construction, the detailing needed to employ the iron skeleton frame in skyscraper construction had been ironed out in cities other than Chicago.  In March 1888, the building industry was shocked by Buffington’s proposal to build his twenty-eight-story “Cloudscraper,” employing his soon-to-be patented system of iron framing. 

Bradford Gilbert, Tower Building, 1888. Note the five-story continuous piers in the arcade at the middle of the façade; Right: Diagram of diagonal bracing. (Landau/Condit, New York)

And then the following month, Bradford Gilbert had received a building permit to use only iron framing to support his 11-story Tower Building in New York.  All Chicago architects needed to do from this point was to fully resolve all the problems that these pioneering structures had run into, in order to be able to actually construct what Buffington had been the first to propose, a twenty-plus story, iron framed skyscraper.

Buffington’s proposal had only poured salt into the wounds that Chicago’s collective ego had recently sustained with the completion of Minneapolis’ recent skyscrapers.  The announcement that followed almost immediately after the published report of Buffington’s project, that both Minneapolis and St. Paul would be constructing 13-story buildings was apparently the last straw that produced an intense rivalry that challenged Chicago to regain its momentum with the skyscraper.  But there first had to be a demand for such buildings in Chicago, which meant that someone or something would have to revive Chicago’s stagnant real estate market, and that spark would be the massive financial investment made by the Santa Fe.  

Map of the Grand Trunk Railroad’s new track to Chicago, 1879-80. (Online)

As the Santa Fe was heavily financed by British capital, as had been the Grand Trunk Railroad, (Baring Brothers: see v. 3, sec. 1.14) it logically joined forces with the Dearborn Street interests. Its arrival at the C. & W. I. Station marked the beginning of the resurrection of the development plans for Dearborn Street that had been shelved in late 1885.   

As the new Board of Trade and LaSalle Street had been the center of the earlier boom during 1881-1885, Dearborn Street, especially adjacent to the Post Office Square, where the post-fire U.S. Post Office and Custom House had finally been completed, would be the center for this second construction boom.  The Inter-Ocean quoted the Post Office Square as “the new office building quarter, and is particularly suited to the purpose because of the wide ground about the Government Building opposite, insuring plenty of light.” 

William A. Potter, U.S. Post Office and Customs House, 1874-1880. The only open space within a three block radius. (Gilbert, Chicago)

As William Potter’s design of the new Federal Building did not extend between lotlines but was a building whose width was less than the site so that it “looked” like an important, institutional building placed on a common green, the Post Office Square was now the only open space in the entire southern portion of downtown. This square, that already enjoyed the presence of Boyington’s grande dame Grand Pacific Hotel, Jenney’s Union League Club, and Burnham & Root’s Phoenix Building at its southwest corner, would see the erection of some of Chicago’s finest buildings in the coming three years.

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

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