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Chicago: The Giants’ Footprints

May 2024
5min read

Visitors to Chicago have tended either to love the city or to despise it, but its bursting vitality has awed everyone. Perhaps Mark Twain expressed it best. “That astonishing Chicago,” he wrote in Life on the Mississippi in 1883, “a city where they are always rubbing the lamp, and fetching up the genii, and contriving and achieving new impossibilities.”

Some of those who rubbed the lamp and fetched up the genii are the subject of an article in this issue of American Heritage, and on a recent trip to Chicago I tried to discover what footprints left by the millionaires of Chicago’s golden age are still visible.

I started my visit at the John Hancock Center observatory—on the ninety-fourth of its hundred stories. From almost a thousand feet up, Chicago looks spacious and agreeable, with no sign of its nineteenth-century smoky ugliness. It has wide streets, generously spaced buildings, many parks, and a feast of skyscrapers, new and old. It is easy to see why the city is considered the architectural capital of the United States.

Chicago stretches along the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan, and from the vast height of the Hancock building it seems intimately connected with the water. In some areas beaches are only a block or two from office buildings. In other places the space between the city and water is filled with parklands. Credit goes to the department store magnate A. Montgomery Ward for keeping parts of this green space free from development. In his day they called him “Watchdog of the Lake Front.”

Chicago’s watery setting created dreadful health problems in the nineteenth century. The Chicago River, which bisects the city, became polluted and poured sewage into Lake Michigan, then and now the source of Chicago’s drinking water. The city’s engineers accomplished the astounding feat of reversing the flow of the river in 1871. The job had to be done again in 1900, but the river continues today to run out of Lake Michigan instead of into it.


Back on the ground I explored the streets at closer range. Chicago was late in starting to preserve its old buildings, but the destruction of the Stock Exchange in 1972 seems finally to have galvanized the city into saving what remained of its architectural treasures. That building was the work of Louis Sullivan and his partner, Dankmar Adler, in 1894, and it was a prime example of Sullivan’s brilliance as a designer and Adler’s engineering genius. The Art Institute of Chicago rescued both the building’s entry arch, which stands in the institute’s Grant Park Garden, and its trading room, which is set up exactly as it was in the museum’s new wing.

The old public buildings, however, have proved more resistant to demolition than the private ones. The Prairie Avenue Historic District, operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation, has been set up to preserve what is left of Chicago’s nineteenth-century residential life. Though Prairie Avenue was the fashionable center of the city in 1890, it had become a slum by 1930. There are only two houses for regular visits in this modest historical district, but I found the peaceful, grassy block.

The newer of the historic district’s two museum houses, the Glessner House, is the more interesting. Like other Chicago millionaires, John J. Glessner, a founder of the International Harvester Company, could afford the best, and he hired Henry Hobson Richardson in 1886 to design his house. It is the only Richardson building that still exists in Chicago and, in fact, the only Richardson house in the whole United States open to the public.

By the 1880s Prairie Avenue had become, as one booster said, “the sunny street of the sifted few.” The houses of Chicago’s wealthiest families—Armours, Swifts, Fields, McCormicks, Pullmans, and Palmers—lined the street for several blocks. As expected of the city’s first citizens, their houses were tall, fashionable Victorian structures. What Richardson built for the Glessners was nothing like them. It is a low, solid building, and its heavy masonry and small windows give it a fortresslike appearance on the street side. The house faces more intimately on its interior garden, which is cut off from public view by a solid masonry wall, sealing in the family’s privacy.

The Glessners’ neighbors found the house shockingly ugly. Potter Palmer, the owner of the fashionable Palmer House, was particularly outraged. He is said to have become so angry at the thought of seeing the offending building every day that he determined to move away from Prairie Avenue. Shortly afterward he had his house razed to the ground and built a new one on Lake Shore Drive, thus starting the movement of the rich into that northern section of the city, now known as the Gold Coast.

This domestic drama may be apocryphal, for there were other reasons for the Prairie Avenue district to lose its aura. The captains of industry who lived there were so successful that Chicago was exploding with factories, railroads, and stockyards, and the peace of Prairie Avenue was being invaded by the noise and stench of their own successes.

Nevertheless, the Glessner family remained in its unique house until 1930 and apparently delighted in it. There is an unforgettable photograph of Mrs. Glessner’s reading club posing for a portrait on the stairway leading to the garden—a group of about fifteen ladies, who must have represented a substantial part of Chicago’s wealth. The club met every Monday morning for three hours—the first for serious reading, the second for light reading, and the last hour for coffee and socializing.

A total shift of mood from the old residential district is Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, the name of a stretch of Michigan Avenue running due north from the Chicago River. It is Chicago’s fashionable shopping and business section and includes much of the city’s most modern architecture. It also includes the Water Tower, the only public building in Chicago to survive the Great Fire. Built in 1869, two years before the disaster, this warty, Gothic structure, surrounded by turrets, was intended to disguise a 150-foot-tall water-storage standpipe. Today it seems a delightfully incongruous structure in the midst of sleek, modern Michigan Avenue.

A history-minded visitor to the city comes to realize that the most astonishing thing about the Great Fire was how fast the city recovered from it. The fire started on October 8, 1871, somewhere near the barn in which Mrs. O’Leary was supposed to have been milking her cow, and it burned for several days, gutting the heart of the city, killing hundreds of people, and leaving one-third of the inhabitants homeless (though the O’Leary house was untouched). The fire jumped the river and burned through the roof of the central pumping station, effectively ending the city’s ability to fight the flames. Rain finally put the fire out.

But as I learned from a movie at Chicago’s historical society, the fire acted as adrenaline for the young entrepreneurial city. Twenty-eight banks were destroyed by the fire, but two days later twelve of them were again ready to extend credit to the city’s businessmen. Within a year three thousand buildings had been erected. The city’s architectural eminence dates from this time.

By today’s standards, Chicago’s millionaires were hardly beneficent employers, but they lavished money unstintingly on their city’s cultural institutions as well as on their houses and commercial buildings. For instance, in addition to the Art Institute, to which every prominent Chicago family seems to have contributed, there is the Museum of Science and Industry, into which Julius Rosenwald (of Sears, Roebuck) poured $7,500,000 (which would be approximately $150,000,000 today), and the Field Museum of Natural History, which was started and later maintained with more than $9,000,000 of Marshall Field’s department store money. In 1886, when the city needed a proper concert hall, the civic leaders hired Adler & Sullivan to build the Auditorium, still one of the acoustical marvels of the country (the singer Nellie Melba once said, “I wish I could fold it up and take it with me everywhere”). And perhaps most amazing of all is the University of Chicago, which was created practically overnight in 1891 on ten acres of land provided by Marshall Field, with $35,000,000 of Standard Oil money given by John D. Rockefeller and another $4,500,000 of Rosenwald contributions.

The great Chicago fire of 1871 acted as adrenaline for the young entrepreneurial city.

Just as nineteenth-century Chicagoans selected the most famous architects to build their city, twentieth-century civic leaders have chosen the best-known artists to decorate their public spaces. Included within the Loop are a gorgeous red Calder stabile, Flamingo; a seventy-foot-long Chagall mosaic; a graceful Miró figure of a woman; a large Dubuffet; and my favorite, a soaring Picasso statue. There is disagreement about what this huge sculpture represents—but its russet brown blends perfectly with the Daley Center behind it, and when I was there, small children were happily sliding down one of its interior surfaces.

These public sculptures are not, to be sure, direct footprints from Chicago’s golden age of millionaires, but they are a statement of the city’s power and opulence that the Fields, the Palmers, and the McCormicks would surely have applauded.

—Barbara Klaw TO PLAN A TRIP

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