So it was the route of the first transcontinental railroad that finally allowed Chicago to pull to the forefront of Western cities shortly after the 1871 fire. But what was Chicago’s architecture like just prior to the Great Fire? Books abound that document the Chicago that arose out of the ashes of the fire. Some make assumptions of what the pre-fire city looked like or how the fire affected the reconstruction of the post-fire city, but there is no comprehensive study of the Chicago that was actually destroyed or of how the fire subsequently affected construction practices immediately after. This blog is an attempt not only to do just that, to document the Chicago that burned on October 8, 1871, but to better appreciate how the city’s urban structure had developed by that date: to also record how the city evolved in just 41 years from a virgin marsh within the Illinois prairie when Thompson surveyed it in 1830 into a city of 325,000 inhabitants by 1871.
When one mentions “Chicago architecture,” one cannot avoid the associations it has with three somewhat independent yet interdependent topics: modern architecture, the skyscraper, and the iron skeleton frame. While these internationally studied topics did not enjoy their first period of maturation until the 1880s, that is obviously beyond the scope of this study’s timeframe (see my other blog documenting the Chicago School – click icon at right), the foundations for the development of all three had been laid prior to October 1871, albeit not, by any means, solely in Chicago. I will document many of the events, issues, and personalities involved with the development of each of these three topics that occurred throughout the U.S. and Western Europe during the timeframe of this blog, to present a broader picture of how they developed, and ultimately manifested themselves in Chicago’s post-fire architecture.
While the work of Chicago’s first architect, John Mills Van Osdel, has been well documented and he has been celebrated as having been the city’s leading architect prior to the 1871 fire, there are three other major figures in the history of Chicago’s architecture during this era whose seminal importance have not been fully documented. William Warren Boyington, an experienced professional from Massachusetts who moved to Chicago in 1853, is one of these whose impact on the city’s fabric and skyline has been grossly marginalized simply because he produced the great majority of his many and monumental buildings during the period prior to 1885 when eclecticism was not only the fashionable style of architecture, but also the style so despised by the historians of early modern architecture, so that his creative output was simply ignored due to ideological indifference. I argue that Boyington had drawn equal to, if not surpassed Van Osdel’s practice and reputation by the time of the fire, a position he held for the next fifteen years, until Burnham & Root simply snatched the baton from Boyington’s slowing, but still steady hands in 1885. Over the course of more than forty years of practice in Chicago, Boyington was responsible for such record buildings as the city’s two tallest structures, the Chicago Water Tower and the post-fire 303’ Board of Trade at the foot of La Salle and Jackson Streets (that at the time was the tallest building in the U.S.), as well as Chicago’s two longest spanned spaces, the La Salle Street Station with its trainshed (then the longest span in the U.S.) and the post-fire Interstate Exposition Building.
While Van Osdel’s and Boyington’s work represented the prevailing eclectic tendencies of antebellum American architects, two architects settled in Chicago after the end of the war who brought with them detailed knowledge of and were proponents of those European theorists who were arguing for a new, modern style of architecture, one that was derived not from the past but of the present nineteenth century. William Le Baron Jenney, who arrived in 1867, was the second American-born architect, (after Richard Morris Hunt had graduated from Paris’ École des beaux-arts in 1855), to have graduated from an architecture program in France (H.H. Richardson did not attend the École des beaux-arts until 1861). Jenney, after completing his studies (today one would say that his major was engineering with a minor in architecture) in 1856 at Paris’ École Centrale des arts et manufactures, had spent his “coming into manhood” years in Paris during the start of France’s Second Empire. He had fallen in with a small group of bohemian Americans that included the twenty-five-year-old painter James McNeil Whistler, who traveled in a circle that was unofficially led by the avant-garde painter Gustave Courbet.
This experience obviously had expanded Jenney’s insights into art, as well as life itself, and Jenney himself attributed this period as the influence for his expansion beyond engineering to include architecture. But before he could find employment in the profession back in the U.S., he joined the Union Army at the start of the Civil War, serving on the engineering staffs of first Grant, and then Sherman. His skill set, therefore, included both ends of the spectrum of the profession of architecture: art and science. Being fluent in French, Jenney was also current with such theorists as Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, in addition to the British writers Owen Jones, Augustus Welby Pugin, John Ruskin, James Fergusson, and Edward Lacy Garbett. His most important contribution during the period of this study was his 1869 book, Principles and Practices of Architecture, that appears to have been an attempt by him to introduce his fellow Chicago architects to the history of western architecture as well as the principles and nuances of European modern architectural theory.
The second, and maybe most important architect to move to post-war Chicago was New York architect Peter Bonnett Wight, who had been captivated with architecture as a student at New York’s Free Academy (from which he graduated in 1856) with his first exposure to Jacob Wrey Mould’s (a former draftsman for Owen Jones) All Soul’s Church in New York. Wight had been at the forefront of the American followers in New York of the British Design Reform movement since his competition entry was chosen in early 1861 as the winner for the new National Academy of Art, the building in America that best represented the ideas of Ruskin at this time.
In 1864, while Jenney was still marching with Sherman in Georgia, Wight was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art in New York, a group modeled after the English “anti-academic” Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but in reality was dedicated more to the teachings of Ruskin. (As Jenney was connected with French “modern” painters, so Wight was following English “modern” artists.)
Wight had then joined the American Institute of Architects in 1866 and during this period had expanded his expertise into the area of fire-resistant construction in buildings. Similar to Jenney, Wight was also well versed in art as well as in science. Following the 1871 fire, Wight would be invited by Asher Carter and William Drake to join their Chicago firm to assist in the rebuilding of the city. He did so, and even more importantly for the future of Chicago’s architecture, also brought a young architect, John Wellborn Root with him to supervise the firm’s drafting room. Wight will be the first to bring the theoretical ideas of Jones to Chicago that complemented his own writings during the 1870s. Most importantly, however, Wight will also be responsible for inventing and developing the technical means of fireproofing structural iron with porous terra cotta casings that was to be the basis of what was to be known at the time as “Chicago construction.”
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