9.14. THE FIRST RESIDENTIAL FLIGHT: THE RELOCATION OF CHURCH ROW TO WABASH

Despite the two cholera outbreaks, Chicago’s population, now being fed by the direct railroad links from the East, continued to grow at its breakneck pace.  When the first Michigan Southern train pulled into town in 1852, the city’s population had been 38,733.  With both the Michigan Southern and Michigan Central bringing people directly to Chicago, 1853 saw an additional 22,000 newcomers swell the ranks of the city to 60,662 (one of every three persons on the streets that year had just moved into town).  By 1857, the population had swelled to 93,000 and as the city’s population continued to grow, construction of new housing had moved farther and farther away from the noise, dirt, and hustle and bustle of the river’s commercial district. The population explosion fueled by the railroads had wrought both a massive reconfiguration of Chicago’s residential pattern and a parallel increase in commercial activity to the center of town, that also vied for new space upon which to locate.  Property values in the business district soared.  The increased hustle and bustle of business, with its accompanying noise, filth, and crime, had a considerably negative impact on the residential atmosphere of Chicago’s original residential neighborhoods in the South District, especially those adjacent to “Church Row.”  

S. Water Street, looking west from Dearborn. The area was the center of the wholesale trade in sugar, spice, groceries, tobacco, and hardware. (Gilbert, p. 177)

As the polluted river was often viewed by many to be one of the major sources of the city’s health problems, the recent cholera outbreaks only provided extra incentive to move out, away from the river as far as possible. A favorite location was farther south on Michigan Avenue, facing the lake for the obvious immediate view, and possibly, the healthier breeze off the lake.  Those who either were not quick enough to snap up a lakefront property, or could not afford the price of one, settled for being close to the lake and its elite residents by moving to Wabash Street.

Michigan Avenue, looking south from Jackson Street, ca 1861-71. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)
Wabash Avenue, looking south from Eldridge Court, ca 1870. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

As mentioned earlier, the First Presbyterian Church was the last congregation in Church Row to have replaced their original building, having started construction in the fall of 1848.  The Second Presbyterian Church had responded in kind with the construction of an even larger edifice outside the confines of Church Row in the following year.  Although this congregation had split from the First in 1842 because they did not share Rev. Bascom’s strident abolitionism, they still had at least one thing in common with the mother congregation: they were both “New School” Presbyterians.  The Presbyterian Church in the U. S. in 1837 had split over doctrinal issues into two branches:  the “New School” (NS) that disagreed with those who stood firm for a more orthodox doctrine, who continued as the “Old School” (OS) Presbyterians. One of the major differences was on the issue of slavery, to wit: in 1845 the Old School reaffirmed its position of non-interference in the issue of the day, beating back a proposal by abolitionists within the church to return to the church’s earlier anti-slavery stance of 1818.

It had been New School Presbyterians who had been at the forefront of Chicago’s settlement, and it wasn’t until May 1848, that the number of Old School believers had reached the critical mass needed to call a pastor.  This group found the Rev. R. H. Richardson willing to serve, and gathered in the Rush Medical building on May 28, to hear his first sermon.  Three days later, Cyrus McCormick, a pious soul and staunch Old School Presbyterian, had returned to Chicago for his first view of the new factory that Gray had erected during his absence.  On August 26, in the thick of the first harvest season as the primary manufacturer of his machine and embroiled in the legal battle with Gray and Ogden, McCormick characteristically still made time to participate as one of the twenty-six charter members who organized the North Presbyterian (OS) Church of Chicago.  They immediately commenced building a one-story wood frame church with Gothic trappings (including a “pepper box” steeple) at the northeast corner of N. Clark and Michigan (now Hubbard) Streets. The North Presbyterian Church was finished in November 1848 and Richardson was formally installed as its pastor on November 19.

The fortunes of the new church so closely paralleled those of the McCormick clan that by 1852, the congregation began construction of a larger building at the southwest corner of Illinois and Wolcott (State) Streets.  McCormick, meanwhile, having won international distinction with his reaper at the 1851 World’s Exposition in London, ascended so quickly to the top echelon of Chicago’s power elite that he began to quietly formulate his “Great Church Enterprise.”  McCormick firmly believed that the Presbyterian Church (OS) and the Democratic Party, with members in both northern and southern states, were primarily responsible for holding the Union together in the face of the slavery issue.  Believing that the emerging NorthWest would cast the deciding voice over the issue, McCormick devised a plan to strengthen, with his own money if need be, the teaching of orthodox Old School Presbyterianism throughout the NorthWest, and thereby, had hoped to preserve the status quo in the country.

In response to the success enjoyed by the Old School congregation in the North Division, the two New School congregations in the South District purchased a lot in 1853 on the north side of Ohio, between State and Dearborn, with an eye towards the eventual formation of a NS congregation in the midst of the OS stronghold.  McCormick’s reaction was characteristically combative: he purchased a lot on the south side intending to donate it for the start of an OS congregation in the South Division where the New School had reigned since 1833, when Jeremiah Porter had first set foot in Chicago.  McCormick had an ulterior motive, however, in the purchase of the south side lot.  By 1854, he had become dissatisfied with Rev. Richardson’s preaching and quietly organized a movement to form a second Old School congregation in which he could have more direct influence on its doctrinal direction. Understandably, McCormick did not wish to publicly embarrass the pastor and thereby split the congregation, nor did he care to burn his own bridges. With apparent altruism, therefore, McCormick, along with brother Leander, sister Mary, and other North Church members, presented a petition to the church’s Session on November 12, 1854, to organize an Old School church in the South Division for which he offered to donate a lot as the site of the new church if the petition was approved.

The Session approved the plan on November 24, and the congregation was formally organized as the South Presbyterian Church on December 19.  McCormick supplied liberal financial support in getting the new congregation started, including the donation of the lot and half of the money needed to construct the church building, a one-story frame edifice that could seat 400 people.  The lot that McCormick supplied for the South Presbyterian Church was nowhere near the existing Church Row, however, but rather a full six blocks farther south at the southwest corner of Tyler (Congress) and Wabash.  Rather than directly confronting the two NS Presbyterian churches on their home turf along the Washington Street corridor, McCormick’s real estate savvy had recognized the changing residential pattern of Chicago’s upper class, and he simply leapfrogged over the existing churches and planted his new church in the midst of the city’s emerging elite residential section along Michigan and Wabash, that up to then did not have a Presbyterian church within walking distance.

FURTHER READING:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago- vols. 1&2. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Hutchinson, William T. Cyrus Hall McCormick- Harvest: 1856-1884, New York: The Century Co., 1930.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– v.I, II. New York: Knopf.  1940.

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

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