Harper’s Magazine, February, 1892
The Main Event
CHICAGO will be the main exhibit at the Columbian Exposition of 1893. No matter what the aggregation of wonders there, no matter what the Eiffel-Tower-like chief exhibit may be, the city itself will make the most surprising presentation. Those who go to study the world’s progress will find no other result of human force so wonderful, extravagant, or peculiar. Those who carry with them the prejudices begotten of political rivalry or commercial envy will discover that, however well-founded some of the criticism has been especially as to the spirit of the Chicagoans the development of the place has not followed the logical deductions. Those who go clear-minded, expecting to see a great city, will find one different from that which any precedent has led them to look for.
While investigating the management and prospects of the Columbian Exposition, I was a resident of Chicago for more than a fortnight (summer of 1891). A born New-Yorker, the energy, roar, and bustle of the place were yet sufficient to first astonish and then to fatigue me. I was led to examine the city, and to cross-examine some of its leading men. I came away compelled to acknowledge its possession of certain forceful qualities which I never saw exhibited in the same degree anywhere else. I got a satisfactory explanation of its growth and achievements, as well as proof that it must continue to expand in population and commercial influence. Moreover, without losing a particle of pride or faith in New York without perceiving that New York was affected by the consideration I acquired a respect for Chicago such as it is most likely that any American who makes a similar investigation must share with me.
The city has been thought intolerant of criticism. The amount of truth there is in this is found in its supervoluminous civicism. The bravado and bunkum of the Chicago newspapers reflect this quality but do it clumsily, because it proceeds from a sense of business policy with the editors, who laugh at it themselves. But underlying the behavior of the most able and enterprising men in the city is this motto, which they constantly quoted to me, all using the same words,
We are for Chicago first, last, and all the time.
To define that sentence is, in a great measure, to account for Chicago. It explains the possession of a million inhabitants by a city that practically dates its beginning after the war of the rebellion. Its adoption by half a million men as their watchword means the forcing of trade and manufactures and wealth ; the getting of the World’s Fair, if you please. In order to comprehend Chicago, it is best never to lose sight of the motto of its citizens.
I have spoken of the roar and bustle and energy of Chicago. This is most noticeable in the business part of the town, where the greater number of the men are crowded together. It seems there as if the men would run over the horses if the drivers were not careful. Everybody is in such a hurry and going at such a pace that if a stranger asks his way, he is apt to have to trot along with his neighbor to gain the information, for the average Chicagoan cannot stop to talk. The whole business of life is carried on at high pressure, and the pithy part of Chicago is like three hundred acres of New York Stock Exchange when trading is active. European visitors have written that there are no such crowds anywhere as gather on Broadway, and this is true most of the time ; but there is one hour on every week-day when certain streets in Chicago are so packed with people as to make Broadway look desolate and solitudinous by comparison. That is the hour between half-past five and half past six o’clock, when the famous tall buildings of the city vomit their inhabitants upon the pavements. Photographs of the principal corners and crossings, taken at the height of the human torrent, suggest the thought that the camera must have been turned on some little-known painting by Dore. Nobody but Doré ever conceived such pictures. To those who
are in the crowds, even Chicago seems small and cramped; even her street -cars, running in breakneck trains, prove far too few ; even her streets that connect horizon with horizon seem each night to roar at the city officials for further annexation in the morning.
We shall see these crowds simply and satisfactorily accounted for presently ; but they exhibit only one phase of the high-pressure existence; they form only one feature among the many that distinguish the town. In the tall buildings are the most modern and rapid elevators, machines that fly up through the towers like glass balls from a trap at a shooting contest. The slow going stranger, who is conscious of having been “kneaded” along the streets, like a lump of dough among a million bakers, feels himself loaded into one of those frail-looking baskets of steel netting, and the next instant the elevator-boy touches the trigger, and up goes the whole load as a feather is caught up by a gale. The descent is more simple. Something lets go, and you fall from ten to twenty stories as it happens. There is sometimes a jolt, which makes the passenger seem to feel his stomach pass into his shoes, but, as a rule, the mechanism and management both work marvelously towards ease and gentleness. These elevators are too slow for Chicago, and the managers of certain tall buildings now arrange them so that some run “express” to the seventh story without stopping, while what may be called accommodation cars halt at the lower floors, pursuing a course that may be likened to the emptying of the chambers of a revolver in the hands of a person who is “quick on the trigger.” It is the same everywhere in the business district. Along Clark Street are some gorgeous underground restaurants, all marble and plated metal. Whoever is eating at one of the tables in them will see the ushers standing about like statues until a customer enters the door, when they dart forward as if the building were falling. It is only done in order to seat the visitor promptly. Being of a sympathetic and impressionable nature, I bolted along the streets all the time I was there as if some one on the next block had picked my pocket.
In the Auditorium Hotel the guests communicate with the clerk by electricity, and may flash word of their thirst to the bar-tender as lightning dances from the top to the bottom of a steeple. A sort of annunciator is used, and by turning an arrow and pressing a button, a man may in half a minute order a cocktail, towels, ice-water, stationery, dinner, a bootblack, and the evening newspapers. Our horse-cars in New York move at the rate of about six miles an hour. The cable-cars
of Chicago make more than nine miles an hour in town, and more than thirteen miles an hour where the population is less dense. They go in trains of from two to four cars each, and with such a racket of gong-ringing and such a grinding and whir of grip-wheels as to make a modern vestibuled train seem to slight its opportunities for noise. But these street-cars distribute the people
grandly, and while they occasionally run over a stray citizen, they far more frequently clear their way by lifting wagons and trucks bodily to one side as they whirl along. It is a rapid and a business-like city. The speed with which cattle are killed and pigs are turned into slabs of salt pork has amazed the world, but it is only the ignorant portion thereof that does not know that
the celerity at the stock-yards is merely an effort of the butchers to keep up with the rest of the town. The only slow things in Chicago are the steam railway trains. Further on we will discover why they are so.
I do not know how many very tall buildings Chicago contains, but they must number nearly two dozen. Some of them are artistically designed, and hide their height in well-balanced proportions. A few are mere boxes punctured with window -holes, and stand above their neighbors like great hitching -posts. The best of them are very elegantly and completely appointed, and the communities of men inside them might almost live their lives within their walls, so multifarious are the occupations and services of the tenants. The best New York office buildings are not injured by comparison with these towering structures, except that they are not so tall as the Chicago buildings, but there is not in New York any office structure that can be compared with Chicago’s so-called Chamber of Commerce office building, so far as are concerned the advantages of light and air and openness and roominess which its tenants enjoy. In these respects there is only one finer building in America, and that is in Minneapolis. It is a great mistake to think that we in New York possess all the elegant, rich, and ornamental outgrowths of taste, or that we know better than the West what are the luxuries and comforts of the age. With their floors of deftly laid mosaic-work, their walls of marble and onyx, their balustrades of copper worked into arabesquerie, their artistic lanterns, elegant electric fixtures, their costly and luxurious public rooms, these Chicago office buildings force an exclamation of praise, however unwillingly it comes.
They have adopted what they call “the Chicago method” in putting up these steepling hives. This
plan is to construct the actual edifice of steel framework, to which are added thin outer walls of brick or stone masonry, and the necessary partitions of firebrick, and plaster laid on iron lathing. The buildings are therefore like enclosed bird-cages, and it is said that, like birdcages, they cannot shake or tumble down. The exterior walls are mere envelopes. They are so
treated that the buildings look like heaps of masonry, but that is homage paid to custom more than it is a material element of strength. These walls are to a building what an envelope is to a letter, or a cover is to a book. The Chicago method is expeditious, economical, and in many ways advantageous. The manner in which the great weight of houses so tall as to include between sixteen and twenty-four stories is distributed upon the ground beneath them is ingenious. Wherever one of the principal upright pillars is to be set up, the builders lay a pad of steel and cement of such extent that the pads for all the pillars cover all the site. These pads are slightly pyramidal in shape, and are made by laying alternate courses of steel beams crosswise, one upon another. Each pair of courses of steel is filled in and solidified with cement, and then the next two courses are added and similarly treated. At last each pad is eighteen inches thick, and perhaps eighteen feet square; but the size is governed by the desire to distribute the weight of the building at about the average of a ton to the square foot.
This peculiar process is necessitated by the character of the land underneath Chicago. Speaking widely, the rule is to find from seven to fourteen feet of sand superimposed upon a layer of clay between ten and forty feet in depth. It has not paid to puncture this clay with piling. The piles sink into a soft and yielding substance, and the clay is not tenacious enough to hold them. Thus the Chicago Post-office was built, and it not only settles continuously, but it settles unevenly.
On the other hand, the famous Rookery Building, set up on these steel and cement pads, did not sink quite an inch, though the architect’s calculation was that, by squeezing the water out of the clay underneath, it would settle seven inches. Very queer and differing results have followed the construction of Chicago’s biggest buildings, and without going too deep into details, it has been noticed that while some have pulled neighboring houses down a few inches, others have lifted adjoining houses, and still others have raised buildings that were at a distance from themselves. The bed of clay underneath Chicago acts when under pressure like a pan of dough, or like a blanket tautened at the edges and held clear of underneath support. Chicago’s great office buildings have basements, but no cellars.
I have referred to the number of these stupendous structures. Let it be known next that they are all in a very small district, that narrow area which composes Chicago’s office region, which lies between Lake Michigan and all the principal railroad districts, and at the edges of which one-twenty-fifth of all the railroad mileage of the world is said to terminate, though the district is but little more than half a mile square or 300 acres in extent. One of these buildings and not the
largest -has a population of 4000 persons. It was visited and its elevators were used on three days, when a count was kept, by 19,000, 18,000, and 20,000 persons. Last October there were 7000 offices in the tall buildings of Chicago, and 7000 more were under way in buildings then undergoing construction. The reader now understands why in the heart of Chicago every workday
evening the crowds convey the idea that our Broadway is a deserted thoroughfare as compared with, say, the corner of Clark and Jackson streets.
These tall buildings are mainly built on land obtained on ninety-nine year leasehold. Long leases rather than outright purchases of land have long been a favorite preliminary to building in Chicago, where, for one thing, the men who owned the land have not been those with the money for building. Where very great and costly buildings are concerned, the long leases often go to corporations or syndicates, who put up the houses. It seems to many strangers who visit Chicago that it is reasonable to prophesy a speedy end to the feverish impulse to swell the number of these giant piles, either through legislative ordinance or by the fever running its course. Many prophesy that it must soon end. This idea is bred of several reasons. In the first place, the
tall buildings darken the streets, and transform the lower stories of opposite houses into so many cellars or damp and dark basements. In the next place, the great number of tall and splendid office houses is depreciating the value of the humbler property in their neighborhoods. Four-story and five-story houses that once were attractive are no longer so, because their owners cannot
afford the conveniences which distinguish the greater edifices, wherein light and heat are often provided free, fire-proof safes are at the service of every tenant, janitors officer a host of servants, and there are barber shops, restaurants, cigar and news stands, elevators, and a half dozen other conveniences not found in smaller houses. It would seem, also, that since not all the people of Chicago spend their time in offices, there must soon come an end of the demand for these chambers. So it seems, but not to a thorough-bred Chicagoan. One of the foremost business men in the city asserts that he can perceive no reason why the entire business heart of the town that square half-mile of which I have spoken should not soon be all builded up of cloud-capped
towers. There will be a need for them, he says, and the