Owners of existing buildings that were in good repair and in no need of rebuilding, however, faced an altogether different prospect: how were they to modify their building in response to the eventual change in street height? This issue was compounded by the fact that by 1857, the city’s building inventory had grown to include a much greater number of larger, multistory buildings than just the few large hotels, like the Tremont House. With the improvement in the economy starting in 1848 and fueled by the population explosion made possible with the coming of the railroads, the types of businesses had begun to diversify and correspondingly increase in size. The demand for office space by professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and bankers, once sufficiently provided by a small room or two in one of the hotels, had so increased in Chicago by 1855 that a new typology of building, the four-story office block had started to make its appearance on the city’s streets.
These were quickly replacing the original two-story wood frame buildings that the city’s founders had erected and, correspondingly, were changing the scale of the city’s urban fabric. In order to be fireproof, these buildings were constructed with masonry bearing walls, either in stone, brick, or brick with a stone veneer. The ground or street floor would be designed to accommodate a number of rental stores that would benefit from large windows for display purposes. The building’s entrance to the upper floors needed to be celebrated, usually with a pediment or portico. An owner wanting to spend as little money as possible would encourage his architect/builder to simply design a four-story masonry box (a flat-roofed palazzo) and treat the windows as simple, repetitive openings with a arched-head, such as Theodore V. Wadskier employed in the Major Block at the southeast corner of Madison and La Salle. Wadskier had been born in St. Croix in the Danish West Indies and educated at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He came to the U.S. in 1850, first practicing in Philadelphia, before moving to Chicago in 1857.
If the client or the architect had any artistic pretensions, the architect could manipulate the windows in a number of different ways to achieve a visually richer effect. One such technique was to group two windows with a separating column, such as was done in the Marine Bank and Fire Insurance Building erected by Ogden and Scammon at the northeast corner of Lake and La Salle.
This building was also one of the first exterior uses of Chicago’s local Lemont limestone that would soon accrue the appellation of “Athenian Marble.” A different window detail involved treating the windows as if they were the openings within a continuous arcade. If the pier that supported each arch was extended down into the next story, unbroken by the floor below, such as in Speed’s Block on the east side of Dearborn, just north of Madison, the façade would be given a distinct vertical emphasis, making it look taller than it actually was. These were the typical design solutions one finds in Chicago’s early “business blocks.”
Later in 1857, the inherent solution to the problem of raising the elevation of the streets upon which these buildings fronted was to be seen occurring at the northeast corner of Dearborn and Randolph. J. D. Jennings had contracted James Brown from Boston to literally lift his store up to the new level. This was done with screw jacks that temporarily raised the building off its foundation. The requisite stone retaining wall was then built at the edge of the street, a new basement was excavated under the floating building, a new foundation wall was constructed up to the underside of the building, and the jacks slowly lowered until the store rested comfortably at its new grade. If a building could be lifted, there was also nothing stopping an owner from simply moving it to another site and then selling the old site for a tidy profit:
“I have seen even three-story buildings travel down the street… seldom drawn by more than one horse. Often the entire width of a street is blocked by a house that is out for a walk,,, Moving the house does not necessarily mean that those living in it must move out. I have seen houses on the move while the families living in them continued with their daily tasks, keeping fire in the stove, eating their meals as usual, and at night quietly going to bed to wake up the next morning on some other street. Once a house passed my window while a tavern business in it went on as usual.”
The Chicagoan whose name first comes to mind when the raising of the city’s buildings is mentioned is George Mortimer Pullman, one the city’s ablest businessmen, who is better known in American history as one of the developers of the railroad “sleeping car.” Pullman was born near Buffalo, NY, where his father had a building-moving business, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the construction of the Erie Canal. The elder Pullman had even patented a device for transporting buildings on wheels. Young George took to the business, gaining a reputation as a troubleshooter who would personally resolve problems as quickly as they arose, and upon the death of his father in 1853, took over the business just in time to take advantage of the state’s widening of the canal in 1853-4. In January 1859, the wife of the owner of Chicago’s Matteson House had visited Pullman’s hometown of Albion, NY, and through the course of polite conversation had mentioned Chicago’s “high grade” program and her husband’s problem in finding a contractor willing to attempt to raise such a large, heavy building.
Like everything else he ever attempted, the twenty-eight-year-old Pullman wasted no time in travelling to Chicago, where he was eventually successful in getting the contract to raise, what at that time would have been the largest building in the city ever attempted to be elevated. The five-story, all-brick Matteson House stood at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Randolph. It took Pullman’s crew 800 screw jacks and only ten days to raise it the necessary five feet to meet the planned elevation of the intersection. The quick and professional manner in which he executed the task established his reputation and launched his career as the city’s premiere building raising contractor.
In less than a year later, Pullman was one of three contractors employed to attempt another first: the raising of an entire block all at the same time: the buildings that were on the north side of Lake Street, that ran the entire 320’ distance between Clark and La Salle. Characteristically, Pullman took charge of the most complex of the three contracts, the raising of the five-story, all-masonry Marine Bank. Pullman’s biographer Liston Leyendecker succinctly recorded the entire process:
“After signing the contract to elevate a structure, workmen dug near the existing foundation and cut holes into it in order to place heavy timbers or blocks under the building. Next, they set screw jacks in place and adjusted them. The size of the jacks depended on the job; for instance, those used to raise the block that included the Marine bank ran three inches in diameter and had a three-eighth-inch thread. Once the screw jacks were set, Albert (Pullman’s older brother), equipped with a whistle, would join the roustabouts beneath the building, while George would stand in the street, whistle in mouth. When Albert whistled and George answered, each laborer followed a prearranged sequence (six hundred men turning six thousand screw jacks): He gave each of his screw jacks a quarter turn, returned to his original position, and repeated the procedure. New timbers replaced old each day as the buildings rode. Meanwhile, other employees built up the foundation to the floor sill or installed temporary supports until the masons installed permanent footings at completion… (they) lifted the block four feet and eight inches in five days.”
The month following the completion of this job, April 1860, saw the same three contractors hired to raise the row of eight, four-story brick buildings that were across the street on the south side of Lake Street. And then finally, in January 1861, it was time for the queen of all of Chicago’s hotels, the Tremont House, to be raised the six feet required for it to meet the new level planned for Dearborn. Although George was out-of-town on business, brother Albert was quite capable on his own to complete the job on March 17, 1861, less than four weeks from the firing on Fort Sumter.
The only real problem with this process was that if there was an existing building at either side of the new building, it and its accompanying sidewalk would be at the lower, existing street elevation. Stairs would have to be built between the old and new sidewalks to allow pedestrians to negotiate the city’s streets. As the years progressed, and more buildings were constructed to the new height:
“uncertainty over the height of the streets led to a notorious capriciousness among Chicago sidewalks. Builders with varying ideas about the height of the new grade constructed their walks at different levels. Frequently it was necessary to walk from one sidewalk level to another several times in a single block, a hazard not without problems for the hoopskirted women. It was with justification that periodic signs warned the pedestrian to “Use Your Intellect.” In a small visitor’s guide, aptly titled “Tricks and Traps of Chicago,” feminine tourists were cautioned about “sidewalk oglers” who loitered near these sidewalk stairs hoping to catch the sight of a lady’s limb. The author gave a hint of some keen scrutiny on his own part by saying that “it was the remark of observant travelers that in no American city do the ladies present more divine charms of limb than those of Chicago.” He attributed this on the basis of “strictly scientific principles,” to the fact that Chicago ladies had so much exercise in going up and down the steps in the sidewalks.”
Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Dedmon, Emmett. Fabulous Chicago: A Great City’s History and People. Canada: McClelland and Stewart, Ltd, 1981.
Harpster, Jack. A Biography of William B. Ogden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University, 2009.
Leyendecker, Liston Edgington, Palace Car Prince: A Biography of George Mortimer Pullman, Niwot, CO: Univ. of Colorado, 1992.
Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.
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