Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men in Chicago, Photographically Illustrated by John Carbutt, 1868,Pages 91-95
In dwelling upon the peculiar experiences of our pioneers, we are but tracing the early history of Chicago through new and more interesting channels than Mould be possible if the facts were divested of personal interest. In older cities, tomb-stones of the early settlers are overgrown with moss, but with us, who live in a city which is still the child of an hour, our remotest past is freighted with remembrances of the deeds of men still active among us. Prominent in this list of those who have witnessed the growth of Chicago and contributed largely towards its greatness, is the name of John M. Van Osdel, which will ever be closely linked with that of the Garden City. Coming here when it was little more than “the village of Mudfog,” he was the first to introduce a style of building worthy of the metropolis then in chrysalis; and the high order of architecture which characterizes this city is largely due to his influence.
Mr. Van Osdel was born in Baltimore, July 31st, 1811. In his childhood there was nothing worthy of special note. His father, James H. Van Osdel, was a carpenter; not a mere “Snug, the joiner,” but a master builder, and as he
- Groined his arches and matched his beams,
the son early became his almost constant companion. From his course, we can readily imagine that the boy was no listless looker on. To him, the workshop was a school-room, and the click of the hammer, the hum of the saw, and even the very sight and touch of tools, Mere textbooks and tutors. It was, however, adverse yet favorable circumstances which gave young Van Osdel a start in life, and to which he is eminently indebted for the high position to which he has attained in his profession.
In the spring of 1825, when he was only in his fourteenth year, his father moved to New York city, leaving his family in Baltimore. At first, all went smoothly at home, the father’s remittances being ample for the family needs, but soon there came a change. Meeting with a severe accident, he was so badly injured that he was entirely disabled for labor. The brave, true mother struggled against poverty, exhausting the resources of her fertile ingenuity in attempts to eke out a support for her family of eight children. For some time her labors and privations were not specially noticed by John, who was her eldest son, but, after a while the lad realized the situation, and at once set about relieving his overtasked mother.
With the fertility of invention and skill in handicraft which, in after years, enabled him to make some of our public buildings and private residences models of architecture, he undertook the support of the family. His first move was to buy a pine board on credit. This board he made up into benches, or stools, which he peddled off among his neighbors. Trebling his money, he was able to buy two more boards, besides paying for the first one. From this small beginning he went on, making not only benches but clothes-horses and similar specimens of handicraft, until he soon entirely relieved his mother from the burden of supporting the family. This first lesson in self-dependence was, doubtless, of inestimable benefit to him. It may well be doubted if any course of mere mental training could have been of as much service to him as were those few months of his father’s illness. The mechanical skill which he acquired was of no special value to him, but he learned self-reliance, which is one of the prime conditions of success in any department of effort. If as a lad, just entering his teens, and with no capital whatever, he could support the family of nine, as he did for more than four months, what had he to fear in the future? The prophet but gave the lesson of experience when he said, “it is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.”
Upon the recovery of the father, the family moved to New York. The son had shown himself so eminently useful while alone, that he began now to work regularly with his father at his trade. Nothing of special interest occurred until he was about sixteen years of age, when a new world was opened before him. Learning, by chance, of the existence and rules of “The Apprentice Library,” he took the necessary steps to enjoy its benefits. For two years he spent all his spare moments in the company of books. Following the bent of his genius, he confined himself almost exclusively to works on architecture, becoming a thorough master of the art. Not content with the careful reading of these works, he patiently copied all their designs. In this way he came to be a proficient in the art of drawing, which he turned to account, not only in the practice of his daily labor as an architect, but at the age of nineteen he opened an evening school of instruction in drawing, which proved to be quite profitable. It is to that library that Mr. Van Osdel regards himself mainly indebted for his success in life.
When he reached the age of seventeen, his mother died and the family was broken up. At eighteen he became his own master, paying his father three dollars per week for his time. Besides doing this, he supported his sister. After the first year, his father released him from his obligations, giving him his time. He soon after returned to Baltimore, and engaged in business as an architect and builder. In 1832, he married Caroline Gailer, of Hudson, New York. During the following year he commenced the publication of a work on practical house carpentry and stair building, known as the ” Carpenter’s Own Book.” Owing to the dishonesty of his principal agent, however, its publication was soon discontinued.
In the autumn of 1836, Mr. Van Osdel, having returned to New York, formed the acquaintance of Hon. William B. Ogden, of this city, which resulted in his removal to Chicago. Mr. Ogden at first engaged his services simply as a master builder, but soon found that he was every way competent for the responsibilities of an architect, and engaged him to design, as well as construct, a residence for him in this city. The house which he built on Ontario street, the following season, was for several years the best in the city, and is still occupied by Mr. Ogden.
Mr. Van Osdel also turned his attention to ship joinery, and to him belongs the honor of having done the finishing of the first vessels that were built in Chicago, being the two steamboats “James Allen” and “George W. Dole.” Our lake commerce was a mere trifle at that time, but it had begun to give promise of its gigantic future. In 1838, he constructed several large pumps on the Archimedean screw principle, for the purpose of lifting water out of the excavations then in progress for the Illinois and Michigan Canal. During the following winter, Mr. Van Osdel invented a horizontal wind-wheel, which was extensively used in working these canal pumps.
Although, he had the best class of business which the Chicago of that day afforded in his line, he decided, in the autumn of 1840, on account of the declining health of his wife, to return to New York. The publication to which we have already alluded, (“The Carpenter’s Own Book”), had given him an enviable reputation, which now turned to his account. The “American Mechanic” (now the “Scientific American”) offered him an inviting field as associate editor. We notice, in examining the files of the “American Mechanic,” that an editorial, published some time after his connection with that journal had ceased, says, in a historical sketch, that “Mr. Van Osdel performed with marked ability his part of the editorial labors.”
Confinement in the sanctum proving detrimental to his health, his star of fortune again took its way westward, never resting until it stood over the metropolis of the West, where it has ever since remained.
The first important work in which he engaged on his return to Chicago, which was in the spring of 1841, was the erection of grain elevators. Here, too, he was the pioneer.
In 1843, he entered into partnership with Elihu Granger, in the iron foundry and machine business. This partnership continued until February, 1845. His wife dying at that time, and his own health being impaired by overwork, lie was advised by the leading builders to devote his time to architecture, they pledging him their support. He therefore opened an office on Clark street, over Mrs. Bostwick’s millinery store, precisely where is now the main entrance to the Sherman House. His receipts during the first year were only five hundred dollars, although he did all the business of the kind which there was to be done in the city. As the city grew, and his skill as an architect became more widely known, his business increased, until his net profits for the three years ending in 1859 were thirty-two thousand dollars.1
To enumerate all the public buildings, private residences, and extensive mercantile blocks, which were designed by Mr. Van Osdel, and built under his superintendence, would be to give a long list, including many of the best edifices, not only of Chicago, but of Illinois. We will only mention, as specimens, the Cook County Court House, the Chicago City Hall, the Tremont House, all the five-story iron-front buildings in the city, being over eleven hundred lineal feet of such frontage; the residence of Peter Schuttler, corner of Adams and Aberdeen streets, Chicago; the residences of ex-Governors Matteson, of Springfield, and Wood, of Quincy—the three finest residences in the State.
Mr. Van Osdel has accumulated an ample fortune; he has not suffered himself, however, to be placed upon the retired list, but is to-day one of the most active men in the city. He is at present architect for the completion of the State Penitentiary. His report on the progress of the work, with estimates of work done, and to be done, received the unanimous approval of the last General Assembly of Illinois, which pointed him out as the architect best deserving a place among the Trustees of the Illinois Industrial College, located at Champaign. He was elected by the Board as a member of the Finance and Executive Committees, also of the Committee on Buildings and Grounds, three of the most important committees of the Board. Mr. Van Osdel was mainly instrumental in having a Polytechnic School established at Chicago, as a branch of the Industrial University, of which he is Treasurer.
Politically, Mr. Van Osdel, true to his pioneer instincts, was a Garrisonian Abolitionist. For many years his vote was called “scattering,” but in 1860 he ranged himself with the Republican party. He took a very active part in that campaign, preparing and publishing, at his own cost, ten thousand copies of a short but comprehensive address, combating with signal ability the issue presented by both wings of the Democracy. He also wrote several poems suitable to the times, which possessed much merit. He has never held any political office, although he has had several important nominations tendered him, all of which he refused.
Mr. Van Osdel married for his second wife Martha, the daughter of James McClellan, Esq., of Kendall county, of this State, who is still the sharer of his prosperity. He has no children except by adoption. His present residence, at No. 107 South Morgan street, built at a cost of eighteen thousand dollars, is a model of neatness and convenience.
As it is always of interest to climb a family tree, we will add that Mr. Van Osdel traces his ancestry back to 1653 in this country, and in Holland to the year 1211. The family derive their origin from Jan Van Arsdale, knight of Holland, who in 1211 erected the castle, now county house, Arsdale, from which he took his name. His armorial bearings now constitute the public arms of the bailiwick of Arsdale. From him descended Lyman Jansen Van Arsdalen, as his signature is, who emigrated to New Amsterdam in 1653, and located at Flat Land, Long Island. This founder of all the American Van Arsdales and Van Osdels died in 1710, leaving two sons, Cornelius and John. From the latter the subject of this sketch is descended.
1 “In the winter of 1844 when builders were their own architects, some leading builders proposed to me that I open an architect’s office, pledging themselves not to make any drawings or construct any building of importance without a plan. With this promise, I undertook to do so, and opened an office on Clark Street between the City Hall and the Post Office, occupying the site of the present Sherman House. No one had ever used an architect and it was difficult to convince the owners of the necessity of such a branch of the building business.”—John M. Van Osdel.