9.16. THE CHURCHES MOVE TO WABASH-PART 1

Meanwhile, McCormick’s attack from the rear had forced the First Presbyterian Church to take stock of its predicament.  Even though their new building designed by Van Osdel was only six years old (having been dedicated in September 1849), the surrounding neighborhood had significantly changed during this relatively short period.  While its membership had already far exceeded the seating capacity of their new building, many of its members had joined the residential flight from the encroachments of the city’s growing business district and had moved precisely to the vicinity of McCormick’s South Church.  Why would those who had Presbyterian leanings that had moved into the new neighborhood make the long trek north on Sunday mornings when the South Church was right around the corner?

In addition, the recently completed Courthouse across the street had not improved, but actually aggravated the congregation’s deteriorating neighborhood situation.  Although Van Osdel’s design had unquestionably enhanced the visual quality of the church’s surrounding environment, the newly enlarged visage of the Courthouse on the Courthouse Square became a lightning rod for civil protest and violence during the turbulent times that preceded the start of the Civil War.  For instance, on the morning of Sunday, April 22, 1855, the congregation found loaded cannons, of all things, across the street from their building, aimed at the two northern approaches to the Courthouse Square.  Mayor Boone, a member of the Know-Nothing Party who had won the last election on an anti-immigrant platform, had instigated a fight with the city’s growing German community.  Intended as a direct reproach to the Germans who had arrived with their traditional Sunday beer-centered social customs, Boone ordered the selective enforcement of a long-ignored city ordinance that prohibited the operations of saloons on Sundays.  The mayor made it perfectly clear that this was to apply only to those establishments that dispensed the foreign beverage, but not to saloons that sold “American” whiskey.  The first Sunday that the ordinance was enforced saw the arrest of over two hundred Germans in violation, with the case set to be heard on the morning of Saturday, April 21 by Justice of the Peace Henry L. Rucker, whose office was located across from the Courthouse.

In defense of their comrades, a column of some three hundred Germans marched into the Square to the rhythm of a fife and drum prior to the hearing.  Having proceeded to vent their anger at the judge and the mayor, the crowd withdrew to the northeast corner of the Square and blocked the intersection of Clark and Randolph (which was directly opposite the steps of the First Presbyterian Church).  The situation worsened during the afternoon as people, many of whom were now armed and were either sympathetic to the plight of the Germans or simply looking for adventure, added to the ranks of the mob that had in the meantime retreated across the Clark Street bridge to the North side to regroup,  By 3:00 P.M. the rabble had once again worked up the nerve to make an attack, and proceeded once again to the Courthouse.

Meanwhile, the mayor had been informed of the throng’s intent and began marshaling his forces.  As the mob started across the bridge, the mayor had the bridge’s tender swing it open, thereby helplessly isolating more than half of the horde above the river’s waters.  The time gained by this maneuver permitted the police to position themselves in the best strategic locations before the Mayor ordered the tender to close the bridge.  In the ensuing melee, people on both sides were wounded, and the crowd was once again forced back off the bridge.  Taking no chances, the mayor had brought in cannons during the evening that were positioned to cover the approaches to the square, should the Germans try to break through police lines in the coming light.  Hence, the First Presbyterian Church, like all of the churches in Church Row, found itself in the midst of the “lager beer riots,” that it must be admitted, was not the ideal setting in which to conduct a Bible study.

John M. Van Odsel, Courthouse Square bounded by Clark, Washington, La Salle, and Randolph (looking north). Note the circular retaining wall erected to protect the basement windows when the street grade was raised. The additional floor and a larger cupola had been added in 1858. Photograph taken on May 2, 1865, with the Courthouse decorated in mourning following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The line of mourners to view Lincoln’s casket flows down the stairs. (Lewis, Remembering Chicago)

The effects of Chesbrough’s proposal, then under discussion, to raise the grade of the city’s streets also had to be taken into account by the Presbyterians.  The raising of the streets around the Courthouse Square by an additional five feet had also negatively impacted the Courthouse.  In addition to reducing the available daylight to the basement, it also had the overall effect of shortening the courthouse’s silhouette.  These issues, in addition to the continued increase in the city’s population, brought to Van Osdel the commission in 1858 to add a 25’ high fourth floor and a grand cupola over the center of the building that housed an observation balcony accessed by an iron staircase.  Washington and Clark Streets were slated to be raised at least between eight to ten feet in the near future.  Not only would this block out the sun and air to the important spaces in the basement of the First Presbyterian’s church, but even more devastating would be the shortening effect this would have on the all-important steeple.  A ten-foot increase in the grade meant a ten-foot shortening on the church’s tower. 

Raising the Presbyterian’s building to the new grade was apparently not an option at the time, for while raising a five-story brick hotel was one thing, keeping a heavy, 163’ tall masonry and wood tower plumb while being jacked ten feet in the air was a feat no one was ready to attempt, or at least pay for.  The biggest incentive to relocate, however, was undoubtedly provided by the huge increase in commercial activity throughout the business district at this time.  As business and industry supplanted the church’s surrounding residential neighborhood, the quality of the everyday environment about the church had deteriorated.  A local observer commented that it simply was not conducive to developing the appropriate frame of mind for worship when one had to “wind one’s way to the sanctuary through barricades of petroleum, molasses, salt, tea, and fish barrels, empty soap boxes, stacks of heavy hardware and such.”  This may have been the case, but the increase in business activity had also caused a corresponding increase in the value of the congregation’s property.

As construction of the South Church finally started during the summer of 1855 on McCormick’s lot with the help of McCormick’s money, the New Schoolers apparently felt pressured to respond in kind and in July, the Westminster Presbyterian Church (NS) was formally organized with the intent to construct a church on the lot in the North Division that had been purchased two years earlier.  Not having the resources of a McCormick, however, had put the New Schoolers at a distinct disadvantage.  Worse still, the First Presbyterian congregation had overextended itself six years earlier when it finally succumbed to the building fever in Church Row: an extravagance for which the congregation was still paying.  The church’s Session took a calculated look at the converging forces on the congregation, and in the fall decided to sell their relatively new edifice and use the windfall from their lot’s recently-inflated value to help finance a major building campaign in direct response to McCormick’s challenge.  The large profit gained from the sale of the church’s lot at the southwest corner of Clark and Washington would be used for four items: first, to pay off the remaining debt the congregation still owed on the building it was about to sell; second, to build a much larger building closer to the S. Michigan/Wabash residential district; third, to finance a building for the new Westminster congregation on the north side; and lastly, to help fund the purchase of a lot and construction of a church for the Third Presbyterian (NS) Church that had been sputtering in the West Division since its organization in 1847.

W. W. Boyington, First Presbyterian Church, Wabash between Van Buren and Tyler (Congress), 1856. The two towers were added in 1859. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

The congregation had little trouble in finding a buyer for such a piece of prime real estate and in November 1855 purchased a lot on Wabash between Van Buren and Tyler, immediately to the north of McCormick’s South Church, to offer as clear a choice as possible to the area’s Presbyterians.  Following the lead of Terrace Row, the congregation hired Boyington, and not Van Osdel, to design their new church.  Boyington’s prior design experience enabled him to respond to the stylistic desires of his diverse clientele, as was evident in his early Chicago projects.  Rather than repeating the “Italianate” language of Michigan Terrace, he produced what was referred to as a “Norman Style” design in Athens marble that utilized a vertical accent with round-headed windows.  The design included two magnificent towers that faced the lake.  The south tower was planned to be much taller than the north one, an asymmetrical composition undoubtedly inspired by the new building of the church’s cousin congregation: Renwick’s trendsetting Second Presbyterian Church, that also fronted Wabash Street, just six blocks farther north.  Once again, however, the congregation’s ambition far exceeded their resources, so that the towers would have to wait for better times, since the cost of the project sans towers was $115,000.  The new First Presbyterian Church was dedicated on October 15, 1857, concluding the congregation’s retreat from the city’s business district.

from Peck Court, ca. 1866-71. From left to right: First Baptist Church, Boyington, 1866 (note that the 225’ high spire was not constructed); Wabash Avenue Methodist Episcopal, Boyington, First Presbyterian, Boyington, and St. Paul’s Universalist, Boyington. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

With the precedent of a protestant congregation abandoning the Courthouse Square for the quiet confines of Wabash thus established, it didn’t take long for the remaining churches to follow suit.  In contrast to the Roman Catholic tradition of “the parish,” the Protestant churches were not necessarily tied to a geographic area, therefore, they were relatively free to pick up and move with their members. In October 1855, the First Universalist Church had welcomed a new pastor, the Rev. Samuel B. Mason.  He was so popular that the congregation quickly outgrew its small building on Washington, only a half block east of the former First Presbyterian Church.  The Universalists followed to the letter the pattern set by their former neighbors.  In 1856, they sold their property and used the profit to purchase the northwest corner of Wabash and Van Buren, just a half block north of where the new First Presbyterian Church was under construction and used the remaining money to build their own Boyington-designed building.  The congregation who had started Chicago’s steeple chase in 1844, used this opportunity to regain its short-lived prestige by erecting a 175′ high tower of stone and timber, five feet higher than the Baptists’ three-year old steeple.  Boyington’s stylistic abilities were apparently put to the test by the congregation who, while wanting the more traditional single, central tower characteristic of Chicago’s churches, also liked the Gothic imagery of Renwick’s Second Presbyterian Church.  Hence, Boyington incorporated pointed arched-windows in the rock-faced exterior of Lemont limestone. As the Universalist’s building was to be smaller than the new First Presbyterian Church, not only did it cost half as much ($60,000) and was dedicated five months earlier on May 7, 1857, but the Universalists did not have to wait more than two years for their tower.  The newcomer, Boyington, had quickly surpassed Van Osdel’s long-held reputation of having designed Chicago’s tallest buildings, a reputation he would maintain for the next thirty-five years of his career.

W. W. Boyington, First Universalist Society’s St. Paul’s Church, Northwest corner of Wabash and Van Buren, 1856. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

The deleterious effects of the rapid increase in business activity were not limited solely to the Courthouse Square, however, but were spread along the entire main branch of the river.  Another church that moved in response to these changes was St. James Episcopal, that had remained at the corner of Wabash between Illinois and Michigan (now Hubbard) Streets on the north side of the Main Branch since it had been erected in 1835.  The congregation voted in 1856 to relocate five blocks farther north to the corner of Wabash and Huron, rather conveniently to the block immediately across Erie from William Ogden’s estate.  Edward Burling was commissioned to design a more accurate Gothic Revival design than had been the original building.

Edward Burling, St. James Episcopal Church, Wabash and Huron, 1856. (Bluestone, Constructing Chicago)

FURTHER READING:

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

Bluestone, Daniel. Constructing Chicago. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

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

Jevni and Almini. Chicago Illustrated. Chicago, 1966.

Sloan, Tom L. B., The Architecture of W.W. Boyington, Northwestern University, M.Arts, 1962.

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

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