Chicago from the Great Fire to the Great War
Chicago from the Great Fire to the Great War
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on the architecture of Chicago in the nineteenth century. From little more than a village when it was founded in 1850, Chicago became one of the world’s major metropolises by 1900, with a population of over 1.5 million. The Rookery Building, completed in 1888, became the city’s most prestigious office block. Its architects maximized their clients’ profits by creating the greatest possible number of high-rent stores and well-lit office spaces. Chicago was also at the forefront of creating a new civic architecture. The buildings that housed civic institutions—public libraries, museums, theaters and orchestra halls, and government buildings—were intended not so much to provide places for display, as to edify a broader public.
Nineteenth-century Berlin, Paris, Calcutta, and Bombay were unlike any earlier cities. All boasted extensive civic infrastructure, which in Paris, in particular, was supplemented by unprecedented opportunities for shopping and entertainment. Although these cities were shaped by global capitalism, they were not simple diagrams of real estate values. Politics clearly mattered, particularly the need to acknowledge without granting the claims of middle-class men to participate in national and local government. From the brute political force occasionally displayed within the colonial city to the more idealistic new civic building types, such as museums, the architectural response to these demands softened the edges of profit seeking in ways that ultimately strengthened the money-driven economy. Contemporaries were not sure, however, that culture tempered the real estate market in the new American city of Chicago. Precisely because of the explicit relationship displayed there between capital and urban form, Chicago appeared in the 1880s and 1890s to thoughtful observers from throughout Europe and the United States to be the urban face of modernity. It was where visitors went to see the present and to get a glimpse of what the future might hold for them at home. They were often frightened by what they found. The city’s explosive growth fed the association of capitalism with chaos. Exactly what role its extraordinarily talented architects could play in taming these forces was not always clear.
The pace of European urbanization during the nineteenth century was unprecedented, and Asian colonial cities also expanded rapidly, but North American cities grew even faster and taller during the second half of the century and had an even greater ethnic mix of citizens. Dozens of languages were spoken in single neighborhoods such as New York’s Lower East Side. The greatest success story of all was Chicago. Founded by an African American fur trader named Jean Baptist Point du Sable, the city was little more than a village in 1850, but by 1900 it was one of the (p.324) world’s major metropolises, with a population of well over 1.5 million. Its spectacular growth was only temporarily interrupted by the Great Fire of 1871, which erased much of the downtown and led to the rebuilding of the city in less combustible materials. Chicago’s success was based on the city’s importance as a hub of railroad transportation connecting the grain, meat, and lumber of the midwestern hinterland to the major cities of the East Coast, especially to New York and, from there, the rest of the world. These spaces of production were organized around the Loop, as the downtown enclosed within the elevated railroad quickly came to be known. Chicago was also a regional center for the distribution of manufactured goods.
London and New York pioneered the development of districts devoted exclusively to banking and other financial services. In the United States, even more than in London, downtowns were filled with new building types that served the new industrial economy. The combination of the elevator and increasing quantities of iron made possible new kinds of environments in which companies were managed in close proximity to banks and lawyers, competitors and customers, rather than the places in which goods were manufactured. Furthermore, the stores in which these manufactured goods were then sold, whether wholesale or retail, were only blocks away from the offices where the companies that made them were run.
The earliest skyscrapers were built not in Chicago but in New York, where, until the completion of the Sears Tower in 1974, the tallest office towers in the world were for a century consistently located. From the beginning the Chicago office building was different in appearance from its early New York counterpart, which often featured repetitive tiers of floors grouped together under a mansard roof out of which rose a tall clock tower. Erected for the most part on speculation, the Chicago counterparts were not always conceived as individual urban landmarks. Because they were built on sandy soil rather than Manhattan’s bedrock, the importance of substituting relatively lightweight iron and steel for heavy masonry construction was greater. Tough fire codes soon ensured, however, that none of that metal was obviously displayed. The city’s first experiment with prefabricated construction, its cast-iron storefronts, had buckled in the heat of the Great Fire.
The Chicago office building was largely the product of four firms. William Le Baron Jenney had trained in Paris as an engineer. Young architects who met while working for him founded three more important offices: Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan formed Adler and Sullivan, Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root established Burnham and Root, and William Holabird and Martin Roche founded Holabird & Roche. These architects focused on the efficient production of office, sales, and loft environments within the Chicago Loop and districts like it throughout the Midwest and, in Burnham and Root’s case, eventually across the country. In each of these innovative partnerships, one member typically specialized in the business end, which encompassed everything from dealing with the client to organizing the interior, while the other concentrated on design details. Neither, however, could personally supervise the vast quantity of work that entered practices organized on (p.325) the scale of the businesses they specialized in serving. These firms hired armies of draftsmen, who often later worked for rival offices in turn, as well as more experienced architects to lead them. No one working in these vast new enterprises was explicitly interested in expressing the new foundations or skeletal framing they used with increasing confidence. Instead, as an examination of Burnham and Root’s Rookery Building demonstrates, real estate considerations drove many of their formal decisions (Figure 21.1).
Upon its completion in 1888, the Rookery Building became the most prestigious office block in the city. Its architects maximized their clients’ profits by creating the greatest possible number of high-rent stores and well-lit office spaces. The firm of Burnham and Root itself was among the most prominent tenants occupying the building’s six hundred separate offices. The Rookery was an early example of skeletal frame construction. The brick exterior walls no longer carried the entire weight of the building. This enabled the architects to open the facades, now only screen walls, to provide enough daylight to penetrate into deep offices. The design of these buildings was not without its artistic side, however; efficient construction did not preclude ornament. As the building’s beautifully carved stone ornament demonstrates, the Rookery’s architects struck a balance between monumentality and the permanence it implied on one hand and clarity and efficiency on the other.
The presence of the skeletal iron frame made the most noticeable impact at street level, where the projecting bays of two-story shop fronts became little but glass screens separating pedestrians from the goods displayed within at the same time that they maximized the illumination of the interior. From the street, the Rookery appeared to be a solid brick block, but in fact it was organized around a central light court that ensured that no part of any office was far from a window (gas lighting was also provided). White tile on the walls facing this court reflected the greatest possible amount of light into the interior. If efficiency alone had conditioned the design of street facades, they would have looked more like these tiled courtyard walls. Only the first two floors of the site were entirely covered. Shops lined the interior atrium as well as the street fronts. After twenty years Frank Lloyd Wright gave Burnham and Root’s original interior a cosmetic renovation, characterized mostly by new decorative ironwork.
Department stores, hotels, warehouses, light manufacturing, exclusive clubs, arts organizations, and government buildings were all also located in the Loop. At times they were almost indistinguishable from the office buildings designed by the same firms. Construction began on the Schlesinger and Mayer department store, later Carson Pirie Scott, in 1898 (Figure 21.2). Louis Sullivan, its architect, was the only Chicago architect of his generation to produce a significant body of theory. He had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris but also had been inspired by the writings of Ruskin and of the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. To the rational articulation of the steel frame, Sullivan added—with the collaboration of the office draftsman George Grant Elmslie—elaborate bronze-plated cast-iron (p.326)
Sullivan employed two distinct vocabularies on this facade. For the upper floors he chose “Chicago windows,” as this tripartite arrangement was known. Common throughout the city’s downtown, each consisted of a large sheet of plate glass separating two panels of operable glazing, essential in the city’s hot summers in the days before air-conditioning. Sullivan wrapped ornament around even the interior of the window surrounds. Decorum continued to operate as a check on an architecture of pure efficiency. The crescendo of this ornament is reached, however, at the building’s corner entrance (Figure 21.3). Department stores throughout Europe and the United States vied for corner sites, which they almost always accentuated with cylindrical elements. Here the full richness of Sullivan and Elmslie’s architecture is displayed in a riot of ornament introduced into an environment very different from the domestic and reform-minded institutional settings in which it usually flourished.
Few turn-of-the-century Chicagoans with the leisure to think about architecture were content with the atmosphere projected by the Loop’s commercial architecture, despite the decorum of the Rookery or the fancy dress of Carson Pirie Scott’s ground story. Chicago was in the forefront of sponsoring the creation of a new civic architecture, one that looked very different even as it was indisputably tied to progressive social goals, as the more aesthetically radical office buildings were not. The desire of Chicago’s leading citizens to build for culture as well as commerce culminated in the World’s Columbian Exposition, held on the city’s South Side in 1893, 401 years after Columbus first crossed the Atlantic (Figure 21.4). The most distinctive aspects of this fair included its scale, the coherent organization of that scale, and the uniformly classical vocabulary that tied together its major buildings. But there was also room for entertainment, such as the first Ferris wheel and exotic dancing in the Persian theater. The fair’s balance of edification and entertainment was part of what made it successful. This amusement area provided guidance for later
In the 1920s, well after the fact, Sullivan and Wright’s prominent condemnation of the fair’s classicism prepared the way for the hostility felt toward it by the historians of the modern movement. At the time, however, and for long afterward, both ordinary Americans as well as most architects were enormously enthusiastic. Contemporaries saw this as the moment American architecture came of age. What was its appeal? First, the exposition presented the possibility of comprehensive professional planning in place of speculative real estate development. Frederick Law Olmsted, the most prominent American landscape architect of the day, collaborated with Daniel Burnham on the plan. The integration of monumental civic, park, and amusement areas with good transportation and up-to-date electric lighting had enormous appeal. It stunned Chicago citizens of all classes, and also Europeans, well-to-do easterners, and small-town shopkeepers from throughout the Midwest. This laid the ground for the City Beautiful movement, which promoted classical civic architecture, and for the birth in the United States of urban planning as an independent profession. Indeed, Burnham’s 1909 plan for Chicago, which spurred the development of the city’s lakeshore parks, and his subsequent role in schemes for Manila and San Francisco were among the most notable consequences of the fair.
Second, the uniform architectural vocabulary of the Court of Honor presented an image of urban order in contrast to the cacophony of architectural styles found in the late nineteenth-century city. This part of the fair was designed by a consortium of the Midwest’s and East Coast’s most celebrated architects, supplemented by teams of sculptors. The buildings were temporary structures built largely of plaster on steel frames, but the gleaming white surfaces, uniform classical vocabulary, large scale, and rich decoration, complete with an unprecedented amount of public art, dazzled most visitors, who prized the extent to which the classical correctness created a sense of playing by the rules. The appearance of civic correctness masked the reality that most of the buildings surrounding the Court of Honor were vast shells for exhibits of American industry.
The reform-minded character of the fair included exhibits addressed specifically to women. These were housed in the Women’s Building designed by Sophia Hayden, a recent graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The competition that Hayden won to design the building was open only to women. The building was the idea of Bertha Honoré Palmer, the wife of one of Chicago’s wealthiest men. Despite the involvement of such extremely rich Chicagoans, one reason for the success of the fair was the degree to which it represented upper-middle-class rather than elite tastes and goals. Many of the organizations whose annual conventions met at the fair, such as the American Library Association and the National Household Economics Association, which was founded there, were critical of the unrestrained capitalism represented by the city’s and the country’s robber barons, preferring (p.331) instead a middle-class morality rooted in domestic culture. They applauded the creation of civic environments whose grandeur was public rather than private and whose scale might challenge the primacy of the new commercial architecture. Their taste could be conventional, but they were often also willing to consider new art and radical social reforms.
This is almost visible in the interior of the Women’s Building, which was decorated by Candace Wheeler (Figure 21.5). The exhibits there largely dwelled on the accomplishments of American women as craftswomen, social reformers, and professionals. (The limits of contemporary tolerance were exposed by the segregation of African American exhibitions from the rest.) Women’s activities were stressed as extensions rather than rejections of women’s domestic roles, yet there was nothing domestic about the architecture of the building, which instead harmonized with that of other major exhibit structures. The interior decoration included large murals, now lost, by Palmer’s friend Mary Cassatt, which were the most innovative works of art on display at the fair.
Two increasingly divergent views of the way that technology could be used to transform domestic life were presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition. One was the Rumford Kitchen, organized by Ellen Swallow Richards and Mary Hinman Abel (Figure 21.6). It prepared up to ten thousand inexpensive and nourishing meals a day for fairgoers. The building comfortingly resembled a homey cottage with
This contrast was emblematic of the two different directions in which domestic reformers moved in the years that followed. Richards and Abel’s experiment was inspired by the writings and lectures of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Gilman, the great-niece of Catharine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, advocated the establishment of public kitchens and communal dining to save women work and enable them to pursue charitable and professional careers. She described her ideal as
a commodious and well-served apartment house for professional women with families…. The apartments would be without kitchens; but there would be a kitchen belonging to the house from which meals could be served to the families in their rooms or in a common dining-room, as preferred. It would be a home where the cleaning was done by efficient workers, not hired separately by the families, but engaged by the manager of the establishment; and a roof-garden, day nursery, and kindergarten, under well trained professional nurses and teachers, would ensure proper care of the children…. This must be offered on a business basis to prove a substantial business success; and so it will prove, for it is a growing social need.
(p.334) These debates remained academic for many Chicagoans, as middle-class domesticity remained beyond their reach. The city’s slums were notorious. Inhabited largely by recent immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, they were characterized by poorly maintained and dimly lit dwellings into which families were packed often into single rooms. The diseases that festered in these conditions threatened the health of the middle-class neighbors as well. These were the blighted neighborhoods that after World War II, throughout the United States, were either turned over to black migrants from the rural South or demolished in favor of freeways and public housing. Where they survived the 1960s, as in New York’s Little Italy or Boston’s North End, they often improved dramatically as population densities decreased and the descendants of their late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrant inhabitants acquired the means necessary to maintain and repair them.
Many members of the middle class responded to the presence of city slums by fleeing to the suburbs. Others, however, particularly the first generations of college-educated women, attempted to inculcate middle-class American values in slum inhabitants, in order to ease their assimilation and reduce the danger to American values that the trade unionism and socialist politics that flourished in impoverished areas were assumed to represent. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House, the country’s most renowned settlement house, in Chicago in 1889. They moved into what had once been a genteel home in a decaying area in order to improve the lives of their new neighbors by befriending them and offering them useful assistance. Under Addams’s leadership, the complex eventually grew to occupy almost four square city blocks (Figure 21.8). It included places to eat inexpensive and healthy if bland meals (Addams purchased the equipment from the Rumford Kitchen), classrooms and meeting rooms for adults, and spaces for children, including a gymnasium and a nursery. An early example of American day care, its presence allowed neighborhood women to seek paid employment knowing that their children would be well cared for while they worked. All of these facilities were created through private charity at a time when local, state, and national governments did not view ameliorating poverty as their responsibility. This callousness encouraged many middle-class women like Addams to campaign for women’s right to vote.
Many of Hull House’s buildings appeared domestic rather than institutional. The homelike setting was important to the largely female inhabitants, as it justified their entrance into the new field of social work. The simply furnished spaces of the original house were intended in part as object lessons in good taste for both wealthy benefactors and impoverished neighbors. Today, many emphasize the degree to which participants in the settlement house movement attempted to coerce their slum neighbors into adopting their middle-class American values rather than encouraging revolutionary political solutions to the district’s social problems. Addams was an enormously courageous woman, however, who was not afraid to take radical positions. The first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, she campaigned to end child labor, sided with striking workers, and was a founding member of the (p.335)
Middle-class Chicagoans lived mostly in suburban neighborhoods, isolated from the problems Addams confronted daily. Here, many who could afford it built houses that demonstrated their confidence in experimentation within the parameters of a reassuring domesticity. Wright lived and practiced in suburban Oak Park and lectured at Hull House, which was also a center for artistic reform, about his practice. He led the way in developing the prairie style, a local offshoot of the Arts and Crafts movement that was, however, decidedly international in its sources and ambitions. Although several of his houses were built for more varied topography, Wright argued that their characteristic horizontality harmonized with the flatness of the surrounding landscapes.
Inspired by the buildings the Japanese government erected at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Wright quickly moved far beyond the reverence for the preindustrial vernacular that had inspired earlier Arts and Crafts architecture. The Ward Willits House in Highland Park, built 1902–3, is infused with his fascination with Japan (Figure 21.9). (Many of Wright’s firm’s renderings display the influence of Japanese prints, including those by Marion Mahony Griffin, the first woman (p.336)
Wright was enormously talented at fusing innovative form with reassuringly familiar social ideas. In the house’s pinwheel plan, he rejected the Beaux-Arts organization of the fair buildings in favor of spatial openness (Figure 21.10). The scale of the service areas delineated the limits of social reform. Only in the 1930s, when building for families that could no longer afford servants, would he relate the kitchen to the living room. Wright’s upper-middle-class clients implicitly criticized the aristocratic decor favored by very wealthy Chicagoans. Wright purged most ornament, but a great deal of comfort remained, expressed above all through the prominence of the hearths, the warmth of the finishes, the scale of the spaces, and the generous extent of the lots on which these houses sat.
Like McKim, Mead, and White at Kingscote, Wright attempted to retain complete control over the design of the interiors of his houses. Only his own artistry, he believed, could ensure that the proper nearly spiritual effect was achieved. In (p.337)
Across the course of a sixty-year career in which he designed hundreds of buildings and became America’s most celebrated architect, Wright received few opportunities to build downtown. Instead he domesticated and suburbanized the engineering of industrial and commercial architecture not just in houses but in even more radical buildings such as his own church, Unity Temple in Oak Park, built between from 1906 to 1909 (Figure 21.11). Churches followed their members in moving to new residential districts. Here a joint congregation of Unitarians and Universalists renounced conventional church architecture in favor of something more primeval and, most important to them, less expensive.
In the space for worship, Wright emphasized direct visual and aural access to the spoken word emanating from the speaker’s platform (Figure 21.12). This form of Protestantism emphasized the spoken word over the sacrament of the Mass and employed no altar. Good acoustics were essential at a time when electrically amplified sound systems did not yet exist. Wright also emphasized daylight, which in (p.339)
Later generations have taken for granted the new kind of urban organization that emerged in the English-speaking world in the middle of the nineteenth century. The high cost of real estate pushed most residential uses out from districts devoted to finance and commerce, but the emphasis these societies placed on domesticity as a haven from urban and commercial life also encouraged separation. Commerce itself was never enough, however. From the beginning, those inhabitants of Chicago (p.340) who enjoyed sufficient means to think about other things longed as well for culture. This led to the birth by the 1880s of civic institutions to complement the new commercial ones. The buildings that housed these institutions—public libraries, museums, theaters and orchestra halls, and government buildings—were intended in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States not so much to provide places for display, as in Paris, as to edify a broader public. In this, the City Beautiful movement united Beaux-Arts architecture and Arts and Crafts ideas. The latter appealed particularly to reform-minded women interested in extending their idealizing mission from the domestic into the civic sphere. Many members of the middle class yearned as well for the connections to nature, to family, and to God that they believed to have been enshrined in preindustrial life. These yearnings inspired the development of suburban neighborhoods (not always at this period separate towns, although they could be) and the churches that served them. In each of these arenas—commercial, civic, domestic, and religious—new construction materials generated new designs for the expanded and enriched middle class.
For Further Reading
On Chicago’s relationship to its hinterland, see William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991); on the impression it made on others, see Arnold Lewis, An Early Encounter with Tomorrow: Europeans, Chicago’s Loop, and the World’s Columbian Exposition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). On New York’s skyscrapers, see Sarah Bradford Landau and Carl Condit, The Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865–1913 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996). For discussion of the Rookery Building, see Daniel Bluestone, Constructing Chicago (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991); and Meredith L. Clausen, “Frank Lloyd Wright, Vertical Space, and the Chicago School’s Quest for Light,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 44, no. 1 (1985): 66–74. On the context of architectural production in Chicago at the time, see Robert Bruegmann, The Architects and the City: Holabird & Roche of Chicago, 1880–1918 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Joanna Merwood-Salisbury, Chicago 1890: The Skyscraper and the Modern City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). Joseph Siry, Carson Pirie Scott: Louis Sullivan and the Chicago Department Store (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), is the standard work on the subject. On the Women’s Building, see Sally Webster, Eve’s Daughter/Modern Woman: A Mural by Mary Cassatt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004); and Wanda Corn, Women Building History: Public Art at the 1893 Columbian Exposition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010). The Rumford and Electric Kitchens are described in Dolores Hayden, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982). On Christine Frederick, see Janice Williams Rutherford, Selling Mrs. Consumer: Christine Frederick and the Rise of Household Efficiency (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003). The tensions between the commercial and the civic in reform efforts, including Burnham’s plan and settlement houses, are recounted in Robin F. Bachin, Building the South Side: Urban Space and Civic Culture in Chicago, 1890–1919 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: (p.341) Random House, 1961), describes the revival of ethnic neighborhoods like the one that once surrounded Hull House. On Hull House itself, see Louise W. Knight, Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). On Frank Lloyd Wright, see Neil Levine, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996); Reyner Banham, The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986); and Joseph Siry, Unity Temple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).