3.6. THE BALLOON FRAME

South Water Street, ca.1832. This print was made in 1902, as a recreation of the area as it was in 1834. The area was much more built up in 1834 than pictured here, therefore, the scene is more accurate for a few years earlier. The Dearborn Street drawbridge at the far right should, therefore, not be included as it was not completed until August 1834. (Mayer and Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis)

Prior to the land craze that had started in the fall of 1832, all buildings in Chicago, with a few notable exceptions, had been constructed employing log construction.  Chicago historian Alfred Andreas stated that the first timber-framed building (employing columns, beams, and diagonal bracing connected with mortise-and-tenon joints) in Chicago was erected in 1828 by the Federal government for the town’s favorite Pottawatomi chief, Sauganash (also known as Billy Caldwell), at the southeast corner of Chicago Avenue and North State Street.  It was not until 1831 that another framed building was erected: a two-story addition to the Eagle Inn operated by local raconteur Mark Beaubien, the younger brother of fur trapper Jean Baptiste Beaubien, that he had originally built on the southeast corner of Lake and Market, at the fork of the river’s two branches.  

The Sauganash Hotel (formerly the Eagle Inn), southeast corner of Lake and Market. Named in honor of Chicago’s favorite Native American, also known as Billy Caldwell, the building consisted of a log house built in the 1820s by Mark Beaubien, with the two-story timber-framed addition being erected in 1831. (Andreas, History of Chicago-1)

With the completion of the addition, he changed its name to the Sauganash Inn in honor of the local Native chief.  Beaubien ran a ferry to transport folks across the South Branch to connect the town with the prairie to the west of the river, until the town’s first permanent bridge, a log bridge over the South Branch was erected by soldiers from Fort Dearborn under the direction of Anson Taylor, just north of Randolph.  This was wide enough for farmers from the west to drive their wagons over directly into the town’s business district.  There was also a footbridge across the north branch just above Wolf Point that was also constructed in 1832.

Chicago, 1830. Mark Beaubien’s original building at lake and Market. (Andreas, History of Chicago-1).

In 1832, Robert Kinzie had built his store on the West side incorporating a timber frame.  During the summer of 1832, George W. Dole built a framed building for business purposes located at the southeast corner of S. Water and Dearborn Streets, in the emerging business district paralleling the south bank of the Main Branch.  In the fall of 1832, Philip F.W. Peck, a recent arrival who hailed from Providence, RI, and had stopped in Chicago simply to sell the small inventory of goods he had originally planned to sell somewhere farther south, soon followed Dole’s lead and erected a framed building at the southeast corner of S.Water and La Salle into which he moved his growing business.  

As long as sufficient wood and time were available, the heavy timber frame had met Chicago’s needs more than adequately.  However, once settlers and, more importantly, land speculators began to descend upon Chicago in the latter half of 1832, the stunning growth in population in such a short time required a corresponding boom in the construction of suitable shelter for the newcomers, as well as appropriate commercial structures to service the increasing number of settlers moving through Chicago.  The situation was not unlike that of the preceding spring when makeshift shelters seemed to appear from nowhere due to the evacuation of the fort during the Black Hawk war in response Gen. Scott’s troops arrival with cholera.   The ensuing panic had sent the refugees once again desperately in search of shelter:

“The next morning in vain did we seek for a house.  A rail fence was, however, in sight.  Into one corner I moved.  A few boards made the floor.  Carpet kept off the wind from our heads and backs.  Other boards formed a far from water-proof roof.  Here we remained three days and nights, cooking on the ground… After three days Captain Johnson and my husband secured a lot of green lumber.  In sight of our fence stood the frame of a house.  To this the green boards were soon nailed and a temporary partition put in.  Here our two families moved.”

Reacting to a similar frantic need for temporary shelter in 1833, approximately 150 wooden buildings were erected in a manner best described by the recently arrived Charles Butler:

“But what was the condition of this objective point, this Chicago of which I was in pursuit, to which I had come?  A small settlement, a few hundred people all told, who had come together mostly within the last year or two.  The houses, with one or two exceptions, were of the cheapest and most primitive character for human habitation, suggestive of the haste with which they had been put up… Emigrants were coming in almost every day in wagons of various forms, and, in many instances, families were living in their covered wagons while arrangements were made for putting up shelter for them.  It was no uncommon thing for a house, such as would answer the purpose for the time being, to be put up in a few days… In the tavern at which we stayed, the partitions were chiefly upright studs, with sheets attached to them.”

Necessity, indeed, had been the mother of invention.  Butler had described, in essence, a technique not unlike that employed in the wigwam or teepee of the prairie Natives, who had been forced into a parallel nomadic existence by the recurrent waves of white settlement and displaced Natives.

Various buildings and people have been credited by historians as having been the first to utilize the new technique of balloon framing. Architect John Van Osdel recorded that George Snow was the inventor of the “balloon frame.”  Architectural historian Paul Sprague’s research uncovered that: 

“The first ‘balloon frame’ built in Chicago… was erected in the fall of 1832 by George W. Snow, and stood near the Lake Shore.  It was but a slight affair, yet served for the while, as his place of business and to protect his goods or freight received by vessel.”  

Snow had only just arrived in Chicago that fall, and the first recorded experiment with the balloon frame in his warehouse appropriately reflected the urgency of his business to hastily take advantage of the burgeoning influx of settlers at that moment.

Balloon Framing. This is different from contemporary “platform framing” in that the wall studs are continuous for two stories, not one, and the floor joists are nailed to the sides of the studs. (Sprague, JSAH, December 1981)

In essence, the balloon frame was a compromise between the solid bearing wall of logs used in a log cabin and the skeletal frame of widely spaced heavy timbers in a braced-frame building.  While the balloon frame’s smaller studs were still arranged in a frame-like construction, the spacing between the studs was relatively small, meaning that the wall, braced with its sheathing boards, structurally acted more like a bearing wall than a true skeletal frame.

I do not agree with the analogy drawn by many historians between Chicago’s development of the balloon frame and that of the iron skeleton frame.  The balloon frame moved away from the truly skeletal nature of the heavy timber frame to the more planar nature of the bearing wall, while the iron skeleton frame achieved a system of linear elements spaced far apart, similar to the heavy timber frame.  Although they both developed in Chicago, the structural concepts are not similar.

In addition to the speed of balloon framing, less skilled labor was needed to hammer its nailed connections than that needed to erect a braced frame that required a carpenter’s ability to craft a mortise-and-tenon joint.  Skilled carpenters during the initiation of the land boom must have been in great demand.  In even greater demand would have been timber, especially in the sizes needed for log or frame construction.  The smaller pieces used in balloon framing would have been easier to procure than mature timbers in the surrounding, lightly forested prairies. Unhindered by any legal building ordinances, the overwhelming success of the balloon frame would eventually allow Chicago one day to boast of being the largest wooden city in the world, while citizens of more substantially constructed cities would derisively refer to Chicago as the “Slab City.”

FURTHER READING:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Dedmon, Emmett, Fabulous Chicago: A Great City’s History and People, McClelland and Stewart Ltd., Canada, 1981.

Industrial Chicago-vol. 1: The Building Interests. Chicago: Goodspeed, 1891.

Mayer, Harold  M., and Richard C. Wade. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis. Chicago: University   of Chicago Press, 1969.

Sprague, Paul E., “The Origin of Balloon Framing,” JSAH, December 1981, p. 314.  

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

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

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