The loss of the Methodist commission suffered by both architects, even though the final design incorporated ideas provided by both of them, was not unusual at this time, for the profession of “architect” was only a little over a year old in Chicago when the competition was held.  It had not been until the winter of 1844 that the thirty-three year-old Van Osdel renewed his vocation as an architect, after having been asked to do so by the city’s leading builders.  In return for his opening of an architectural office in Chicago, (located on Clark between Sherman’s City Hotel and the original post office), the builders pledged “not to make any drawings, or construct any important building, without a plan [by an architect].”  As the design of the First Methodist Episcopal Church revealed, however, the agreement was not very effective, for “no one had ever used an architect and it was difficult to convince proprietors of the necessity for such a branch of the builders’ business.”

John M. Van Osdel, Rush Medical College, southwest corner of Dearborn and Indiana, 1844. (Andreas, History of Chicago-I)

            The motivation for the 1844 agreement is not known for sure, but one can surmise that it may have been partially influenced by the upturn in the economy that resulted in the construction of over 600 buildings in Chicago that year.  Van Osdel’s first important design completed under this agreement was for the newly-organized Rush Medical College at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Indiana Streets.  Dr. Daniel Brainard, a newly-trained physician from Philadelphia, had arrived on horseback either in late 1835 or early 1836, set up his practice in the city, and had obtained from the state legislature on March 25, 1837, a charter for a new medical school, that he had named in honor Philadelphia’s foremost physician, Benjamin Rush, who had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as the Surgeon General of Washington’s Continental Army.  Unfortunately, the economic downturn of the era had postponed his plans for the better part of five years, until the economy rebounded that finally allowed Ogden to donate the land and the money needed to build the school in 1844.  (Ogden would be the College’s first President, a position he retained “for many years.) Along with Ogden’s money came Ogden’s architect, Van Osdel to design the project. For the first medical school to open west of Cincinnati, Van Osdel appropriated the image of a Roman dome from the library at the University of Virginia designed by Thomas Jefferson.  The dome surmounted a symmetrical plan that comprised two large lecture halls and a series of smaller rooms for scientific demonstrations.  Van Osdel replaced Jefferson’s entrance of a pedimented colonnade, however, with another Roman element, a monumental brick triumphal arch with a large, recessed portal, establishing a precedent for many of Chicago’s important buildings designed in the nineteenth century.

The Sherman House, northwest corner of Clark and Randolph, 1845. Note the look-out cupola placed on the Clark Street face, as well as the number of chimneys needed for the fireplaces in each room. (Kogan and Wendt, Chicago: A Pictorial History)

            Also in 1844, Francis Sherman added two stories to the City Hotel, that stood directly opposite the courthouse at the northwest corner of Randolph and Clark, and changed the name of the enlarged five-story hotel to the Sherman House. He did this so that it would be larger than the Tremont House so that he could tout it as the “largest and most splendid Hotel in Illinois.”  As if even Sherman had been infected with the steeplemania that was rampant just a block away on the southside of the Public Square, he added a cupola at the front of the hotel, from the heights of which an observer commanded a magnificent view of the surrounding prairie.  More immediate to Sherman’s commercial interests, however, was the view of the lake from the cupola.  From here a man stationed by Sherman could watch for incoming steamers with potential patrons.  Hence, Sherman could send a “runner” to the docks to solicit the patronage of the newcomers, before they could even set foot in Chicago.  A commercial advantage could now be obtained in having a tall structure in town.  In the city’s highly competitive hostelry business, Sherman’s cupola set a standard that the larger hotels quickly emulated.  As the city’s churches were growing steeples, Chicago’s hotels began to sprout miniature Greek cylindrical temples (Athens’ Temple of Lysicrates) from their roofs.


Although Chicago’s exports of grain, lumber, and meat had exploded from a mere $33,000 in 1839 to over $650,000 in 1842 (which figure finally surpassed the value of the city’s imports), this was by no means sufficient to overcome the effects of the worldwide depression of 1839-1842.  At the start of 1841, Illinois was so deep in debt that it was hard pressed to pay even the interest on its debt.  This situation was further complicated when the state’s citizens demanded a reduction in taxes in the face of the depression.  The finances of the state initially faltered in February 1842 when the interest on its $14 million debt amounted to an unpayable $830,000.  The state government briefly bought some breathing space in the spring, only to have its finances completely collapse in June 1842.  Even the work on the canal, that was the only real hope for increased state revenue, was finally suspended in March 1843 after the state had expended over $5 million of borrowed funding on the endeavor, but could not honor the debt interest for 1842.

On the surface, the apparent failure of the canal at this moment would seem to have threatened the real estate holdings of the Bronson/Butler/Ogden group, as well as the investments of the holders of canal bonds, but these same bondholders by this time had perfected a business model that actually relied upon the failure of government-backed internal improvement projects, such as canals and railroads, in order to be able to swoop in and demand a low-ball price of their being granted complete control over the project in exchange for their financial investment that would save the project.  The Chicago canal’s bond holders were represented by three prominent Boston businessmen, Abbott Lawrence, the head of A. & A. Lawrence, the country’s leading textile manufacturer, who would soon be the leading force in the founding of the textile company town of Lawrence, MA, William F. Sturgis, a nephew of Thomas H. Perkins who had grown up in the China trade and eventually became a partner in the firm Bryant & Sturgis, and Thomas Wren Ward, the agent in the U.S. for the London investment banking firm of Baring Brothers & Co.  Boston’s financial investment in Chicago would play a dominant role in the city’s economic development, its architecture, and its overall urban landscape, and therefore, must be appreciated in order to have a broader understanding of Chicago’s history.


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

Ericsson, Henry L. Sixty Years a Builder: The Autobiography of Henry Ericsson. Chicago: A. Kroch, 1942.

Harpster, Jack. A Biography of William B. Ogden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2009.

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

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago- I. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Putnam, James William. The Illinois and Michigan Canal.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1918.

Tallmadge, Thomas Eddy. Architecture in Old Chicago, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941.

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

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