In With the New | Essay | Chicago Reader

In With the New 

How the clashing forces of energy and order made the 1900s Chicago's century of progress

John Van Osdel came to Chicago in June 1837 to build a mansion for William Ogden.

But a funny thing happened on his way from the Chicago River dock to Ogden's office on Kinzie Street. He saw a block of three-story buildings, "the fronts of which had fallen outward," he wrote later, "and laid prone upon the street." The sun that spring had melted the frozen clay under the south-facing front wall before its warmth reached the ground under the shaded north wall. As a result, the front wall pulled away from the floors and collapsed into the street. Van Osdel's first job in Chicago was to rebuild this "frontless block."

With the possible exception of Lake Michigan, there was nothing in Van Osdel's raw shantytown Chicago that you and I would recognize. "The town seemed more a real estate lottery than a permanent settlement," writes historian Donald Miller in City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America. "Although just built, it already appeared to be falling apart."

Why does Miller tell this little story? He doesn't really need a reason--his wide-ranging history of 19th-century Chicago is packed with stories and reads better than most fiction--but I think he had two. One, it helps to show how much Chicago changed from this dusty, unpromising starting point. Two, it shows us one unobvious way in which Chicago didn't change during that century--and hasn't changed in this one either. On the one hand we have the exuberant energy that built the frontless block in defiance of local terrain and climate (not to mention structural engineering). And on the other hand we have the sober principle of planning and order that rebuilt it and set it to rights. The same two conflicting forces--or principles, or sides of human nature--are still at work today. Without the energy nothing would get done. Without the order nothing would get done right.

"A city's greatness is the result of an uneasy balance," Miller concludes, "between order and energy, planning and privatism, diversity and conformity, vice and reform, art and enterprise, high culture and low culture, the smart and the shabby, the permanent and the temporary."

As Chicago grew--from a few thousand people in the 1830s to more than a million in 1890--the contest between freedom and order took place in the political arena as well as in wood and stone. In his newly published book, The Architects and the City: Holabird & Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918, Robert Bruegmann of the University of Illinois at Chicago describes the interplay of these forces over a long November weekend in 1891.

On Thursday morning word reached the architectural offices of Holabird & Roche that the City Council was going to pass an ordinance Monday night. It would limit new buildings to no more than 12 stories tall and would take effect as soon as the mayor signed it Tuesday morning.

The news didn't come as a surprise. Reformers had been complaining for years that the new skyscrapers, some as tall as 16 stories, were changing the city's character for the worse. According to Bruegmann's summary, they said that the giant buildings "proved how a powerful few could alter the center of the city virtually at will, destroying cherished landmarks, banishing civility from the streets, cutting off light and air to the sidewalks, and creating a streetscape whose abrupt changes of scale and texture were totally unfamiliar. The privately owned tall buildings loomed over the city's churches and government buildings, defying a visual hierarchy that had characterized Western cities for millennia."

William Holabird responded to the prospect of council action with characteristic energy. He and Edward Renwick set out at once to visit their business clients and returned with orders for five new buildings, each taller than the proposed 12-story limit. To complete the required designs before the council took action, they hired 32 draftsmen in addition to the office's usual 8, and everyone worked around the clock in 12-hour shifts all weekend. Even so, they just got the designs in and the permits approved by four o'clock Monday afternoon--"a successful coup by the architects and the development interests," writes Bruegmann. "By applying their much vaunted organizational efficiency, they had outmaneuvered the slower-moving reform efforts in the city government." Ironically, the council didn't pass the height limit that day, but public outcry over the 11th-hour wave of new permits helped get it through two years later.

In this case the forces of energy were represented by business and the forces of order by political reformers. From the distance of a century it's hard to say who was right and who was wrong, but no doubt the city would be much different if only one impulse had been in play.

The forces of freedom and order don't always duke it out over the physical shape of the city. On the morning of October 21, 1892, more than 140,000 people attended the ceremonies to dedicate the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, part of the run-up to the World's Columbian Exposition. "There was a five-thousand-member Hallelujah Chorus," writes Miller, "a five-hundred-piece orchestra under the direction of Theodore Thomas, and the usual barrage of holiday oratory. Bertha Palmer spoke for the Board of Lady Managers, saying it was fitting that she was part of the day's ceremonies, as it was a woman, Queen Isabella, who was largely responsible for Columbus's voyage. Then [architect and exposition director of works Daniel] Burnham presented the buildings to the official president of the exposition, Harlow Higinbotham. As he did, the white-gowned chorus--'rising with a flutter of handkerchiefs that looked like lilies in the wind'--broke into Mendelssohn's 'Sons of Art.' It was, said the Tribune, 'the day of days in the life of this city.' The paper failed to mention, however, the mad rush for the food after the ceremonies were ended, in which a number of people were almost crushed to death."

Like a belch at the symphony, the exuberant appetites of Chicagoans asserted themselves at this faintly boring spectacle intended to commemorate orderly progress. Yet without those appetites there would have been no progress to commemorate.

Once you start looking at a city this way, it's business, exuberantly grubbing away after the almighty dollar, that seems to represent the forces of freedom, and government, attempting to keep the fun in bounds, that represents order. But that's not always true.

We think of parks and mass transit, for instance, as the orderly products of farsighted public servants. Occasionally they are, as they were in 1836, when Illinois and Michigan Canal commissioners William Thornton, William Archer, and Gurdon Hubbard wrote over the lakefront on their official real estate map, "Public Ground--A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear, and Free of Any Buildings, or Other Obstruction Whatever." But this appears to have been an exception.

In the 1850s land speculator Paul Cornell constructed the sylvan retreat of Hyde Park and its huge parks out of unpromising sand hills and swamps south of town. "Chicago's park founders built these public pleasure grounds on the edge of the city, hoping to draw the rich and upper middle class to land they owned near them," writes Miller. "Like nearly everything else built in nineteenth-century Chicago"--including the "model suburb" of Riverside, brainchild of eastern investors--"parks were built mainly to make money."

Less reputable but equally beneficial to the city in the long run was Charles Tyson Yerkes, an ex-convict who arrived from Philadelphia in 1881 and who left under a cloud less than 20 years later. Yerkes is famous for the scale of his corruption--a nearsighted accomplice of his once offered $2,500 to a reporter who happened to be sitting in a legislator's chair--and for his contempt for the public. ("It is the people who hang to the straps [on streetcars] who pay you your big dividends.") He's less well remembered for what he accomplished. When Yerkes came to town, notes Miller, "it took more time to reach the city center from the city limits by horse power than it did to reach Milwaukee by steam power." Yerkes transformed a "miserably inadequate streetcar system" into an electrified system unified by the downtown Loop of tracks.

Sometimes raw energy creates order, but here the irony goes beyond that. Chicago's signature mass-transit system was conceived and built not by foresighted public servants, but by a rogue capitalist who enriched himself by shamelessly manipulating stocks and bonds and bribing everyone in sight. A century later public servants are presiding over its dissolution.

In 1872 the Illinois legislature sought to impose order on the chaos of urban redevelopment after the Great Fire by passing the General Corporations Act, which forbade limited-liability corporations from developing any real estate beyond what they needed for their own use. According to Bruegmann, the law was intended to protect small businesses and curb speculation.

Limited-liability corporations had blossomed because 125 years ago most downtown real estate development was beyond the reach of individual investors. If individual investors were to join in a partnership, each one could be held personally liable for all losses the partnership incurred. "Even a minor business investment could be disastrous, resulting in loss of all the investor's personal assets including the family home," writes Bruegmann. Being no crazier than anyone else, investors naturally preferred to join together in limited-liability corporations. That way if the corporation failed, investors would lose only their shares, not their shirts.

Exuberance, as usual, found a way around the new law. Existing limited-liability corporations simply built more space than they needed--"for expansion"--and then rented out the excess. Some single-minded developers took another audacious step, creating limited-liability "safety-deposit" companies. "The purpose of a safety-deposit company was ostensibly to create large safes," writes Bruegmann. "The company would, of course, need to build a structure to house them. What if they then built an entire office building around a few safes?" The Rookery, at LaSalle and Adams, was a speculative office complex Burnham and Root built for a limited-liability corporation on this flimsy legal pretext. "Amazing as it now seems," Bruegmann concludes, "many of the largest buildings in Chicago in the late nineteenth century, including virtually all of those best known in architectural history, were developed using financial methods of dubious legality."

Equally amazing is the fact that many of the buildings from that era were structural as well as legal adventures. Bruegmann writes, "When architects and engineers started using large amounts of metal encased in concrete or terra cotta blocks in foundations and walls, they did not know how long this metal would last. When the Montauk Building was demolished in 1902, for example, engineers were surprised that the steel was nearly intact, with no sign of major corrosion, because they had not expected it to last long. Well into the twentieth century engineers were still unsure how metal in walls and foundations deteriorated over time."

These days orderly minded people often espouse the "precautionary principle"--meaning, roughly, that we should never do anything until we're positive that it's safe. The Loop would look quite different if 19th-century Chicagoans had done that.

Unlike Van Osdel repairing the frontless block, the forces of order didn't always understand all the ramifications of what they were doing. In the travesty of justice following the Haymarket bombing, for instance, these forces hanged four men for holding unpopular opinions. In a less egregious but equally questionable enterprise, order-minded reformers also targeted the saloons frequented by the new immigrants of the 1890s. As Miller explains, "The working-class saloon was a neighborhood institution second in importance only to the family and the parish church," supplying not just food and drink, but news, discussion, advice, political connections, check-cashing and message services, word of jobs and lodging-house vacancies, even a cool place to sleep on oppressive summer nights.

"Protestant purifiers complained that there were too many bars in the city," Miller writes, "but [Mayor] Carter Harrison thought there were not enough of them." Their license fees supplied much of the money for services the middle-class reformers wanted.

Harrison actually used the police to protect saloon keepers from Protestant reformers. "This was the real source of Harrison's popularity," according to Miller. "He understood that Chicago was a city of neighborhoods, each with its own unique customs and folkways. Whereas cultural uplifters like Charles Hutchinson and Joseph Medill had a citywide orientation and a desire to see all of Chicago's people brought up to an Anglo-American standard of taste and behavior, Harrison was willing to let people in the precincts lead their own lives."

Miller contrasts Harrison's motley city with the perfectly ordered White City that Daniel Burnham created for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Burnham's layout fostered the notion of the city as a painting and the farsighted public servant as the painter, an idea that persists today in defiance of reality. Last year a professional urban planner wrote, "Just as the artist decides on every stroke and color that will make up a painting, planners' everyday decisions will determine the quality and character of the communities we live in."

Huh? Planning decisions may influence the community, but they don't determine it. Planners and politicians aren't artists, and even if they were, the rest of us wouldn't hold still long enough to be their canvas.

The grain of truth here is that everybody's everyday decisions help set the quality and character of the city--whether you're planning a highway, designing an ad, or considering how to hit up the next passerby for a quarter. We don't usually think about the big picture, and it probably wouldn't help a lot if we were so Olympian.

Bruegmann's rather specialized history of Holabird & Roche's first 38 years (a second volume is projected) tells of many such city-shaping decisions, with freedom and order in a constant tension that the architects must somehow resolve. But to make sense of the story at all he first has to rescue Holabird & Roche from the prison of the late-20th-century mind, which sees architects as celebrity auteurs, every aspect of whose buildings is thought to make an artistic statement.

That is almost certainly not how Holabird & Roche saw themselves, nor how their contemporaries saw them. In fact, it's rarely possible even to tell which individual designed which of the firm's numerous buildings. "The achievement of Holabird & Roche," Bruegmann argues, "was very different in kind from that of a Louis Sullivan or the other single creators whose work has traditionally dominated American architectural history, but it was every bit as impressive. It required striking a balance among a wide range of conflicting demands: how to decide between tradition and innovation, for example, or how to weigh the competing claims of business and art."

For instance, the much-heralded advent of steel-framed, minimally ornamented skyscrapers was not an artistic breakthrough--it was a business decision, made to allow builders to enlarge the rentable area by bringing sunlight deeper into each floor. If anything, "the less substantial appearance [the steel skeleton] created was considered a liability." In fact, says Bruegmann, "when the budget and program allowed, Holabird & Roche and its Chicago contemporaries were perfectly happy to provide elaborately ornamented Romanesque or classical structures....The problem was that there was little market for such buildings in late nineteenth-century Chicago."

In this case, business clients represented the forces of order, limiting the architects' exuberant impulses toward bulk and decoration. Bruegmann writes, "Perhaps the greatest success of [Holabird & Roche] lies in the fact that when we look at the work we hardly think about these often incompatible goals. The buildings look so reasonable, so devoid of conflict or strain, that we assume they are the entirely logical outcome of the various requirements placed on the architects rather than what we know was actually the case--that they were the result of hundreds of conscious, often difficult decisions."

This is true even of Holabird & Roche's many loft buildings, an unpromising arena for any expression of architectural energy, writes Bruegmann. "Because they provided inexpensive space for work that needed to be performed near the center of the city but that brought very little return per square foot, little money was wasted on landscaping, open spaces, civic amenities, architectural effects, or even cleaning once the buildings were erected. In fact, if there is a single building type that might satisfy the Marxist urge to find direct translations of laissez-faire economics into metal and brick, it would be the loft building." Almost every one "rose directly from the sidewalk to precisely the height allowed by law or determined by calculations to ensure maximum return on investment. Virtually every one consisted of almost uninterrupted interior spaces lit by numerous large windows arranged in a regular pattern in the enclosing brick or terra cotta walls." But even in this restrictive situation, freedom found its niche. Bruegmann documents that "within a very narrow range [Holabird & Roche's lofts] provide a staggering wealth of inventive design."

The 19th century was Chicago's century, in a way that the 20th has not been and the 21st probably won't be either. For one thing, that was when the city grew and burned and regrew during a single lifetime. In the summer of 1894 journalist George Ade could find the old Green Tree Inn, built in 1833 by James Kinzie, "a weather-beaten wooden building with 'square-paned little windows,'" still in use as a saloon, according to Miller. "One of its builders, Silas B. Cobb, was still living and had an office on Dearborn Street, a downtown artery becoming known for its skyscrapers."

The city that could be compassed by one lifetime has grown into something much bigger, more diverse, and harder to understand. But the tension--sometimes the struggle--between freedom and order remains. The proper balance between the two is something reasonable people disagree on, but a case can be made that these days the various forces of order hold the upper hand. They campaign against smoking everywhere. They outlaw street vendors in ward after ward. They schedule just one public hearing on their decision to amputate a significant portion of the city's transportation system. They discourage debate in the City Council (which is more quiescent now than it ever was under the rule of Richard J. Daley's vaunted Machine). If they could they would stop and reverse the metropolitan area's outward expansion ("sprawl"), much as their predecessors would have capped off downtown at 12 stories.

The forces of order are many. They aren't consistently liberal or conservative or radical. They're just orderly. They know there's one right way to do things, and they know which one it is. And they're not always wrong. But if they ever actually put a stop to the foolishness and exuberance that erected the frontless block, frequented the saloons, and processed five skyscraper designs in one long weekend, they will have bricked up the city's heart.

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America by Donald Miller, Simon & Schuster, $35 (hardcover), $17 (paper)

The Architects and the City: Holabird & Roche of Chicago, 1880-1918 by Robert Bruegmann, University of Chicago Press, $65.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Kurt Mitchell.

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