Chicago Historical Society I
Life Span: 1868-1871
Location: NW Corner of Ontario and Dearborn Streets
Architect: Edward Burling
Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1856
Organization of the Chicago Historical Society.
A number of gentlemen of this city for some weeks past have been engaged in the organization of a society baring for its object the preservation of the early history of the North-West. We are glad to be able to announce that the organization ie at last completed, and that the Chicago Historical Society has now a fair start, and, we hope, the promise of much usefulness and a permanent existence. The following officers were elected, after the adoption of the Constitution and By-Laws, at the last meeting:
- William H. Brown, President.
W. B. Ogden, 1st Vice President.
J. Young Scammon, 2d Vice President.
William Barry, Recording Secretary.
S. D. Ward, Treasurer.
C. H. Ray, Corresponding Secretary.
Wm. Barry, Librarian.
The necessity for some organization of this kind has long been felt by those who would not willingly suffer the pioneer history of the State to die out of the memory of men. The only Society of a kindred nature in Illinois is that of Shurtleff College, and that, it will not be unjust to say, though it has accomplished much, has failed to cover the field of inquiry in such a way as to leave no room for other laborers. Its locality at Alton, where the number of men who would naturally be interested in its prosperity and usefulness is so small, has crippled its management and circumscribed its researches, The stimulus and encouragement given to it by the advent of a co-laborer, will, we hope, be advantageous both to the old society and the new.
We take this occasion to say but the Chicago Historical Society will at once provide a suitable and safe depository for all manuscripts, letters, books and documents with which it may be entrusted, and that all historical material or specimens in natural history put in its keeping, either as donations or loans, will be securely guarded from destruction or waste. As contributions are solicited, it is of importance that this fact be generally known.
Chicago Tribune, July 23, 1858
Chicago Historical Society.—The Society held its late meeting, on the 20th inst., at their new rooms in Newberry’s block, on the corner of Wells and Kinzie streets (111 Kinzie), in the North Division, President, W. H. Brown, Esq., in the chair.
The Librarian reported 225 books, pamphlets and charts received during the month, including a complete set of the documents of the Thirty-Fourth Congress, uniformly bound, from the Department of the Interior, for which the Society passed its acknowledgements of the courtesy and attention of Hon. J. F. Farnsworth, our representative in Congress. Several interesting communications were read.
At this meeting were received two bound volumes of the Illinois Intelligencer, published at Vandalia; the first extending from December
23, 1820, to February 22, 1823, (vol. 5 to 7,) published by Brown & Berry; the second volume (vol. 11th) from April 14, 1827, to April 5, 1828, published by Robert Blackwell.
The volume first referred to also includes, (with the Intelligencer) a single copy of all the newspapers then published (in the opinion of Mr. Brown) in the States ot Illinois and Missouri.
Chicago Tribune, February 9, 1865
The Chicago Historical Society has long felt the urgent need of a larger and more secure repository for the rich and varied treasures which the energy of its friends has accumulated. The present rooms of the Society, on the corner of Wells and Kinzie streets, have for years been filled too full to admit pf proper arrangement. Even before the breaking out of the war was this the case, and the thoughts of its members were turned towards a new bulling. Since that epoch contributions have poured in more rapidly than ever. The progress of the rebellion has furnished innumerable incidents, and the progress of our armies into Southern fields has brought to light large stores of documents and relics, many of which have been carefully collected, and sent home to the care of the Society. Ever and anon a perfect avalanche of these treasures has been tumbled in upon the hands of the Secretary, whose great question has been “What will I do with them?” And still the flood has poured in; the friends of the cause in other lands, and those engaged in civic pursuits in this country have kept at work, every now and then, adding fresh items of no small magnitude to the already large burden.
A walk through the present rooms (which is scarcely possible) gives rise to positively painful emotions. There on the shelves, above, and under them, are books and pamphlets piled in profusion. The floor is covered to a height of several feet with accumulations, which have no other possible place than “on the big shelf.” The windows are blocked up with books, and even the Secretary’s table is piled high with books, papers, and relics, for which there is “no room in the inn.” The attempt to bring order out of this chaos, involves a Herculean labor, and although method in arrangement and grouping has been followed almost beyond the limits of the possible, it is entirely out of the question to get at all the books and papers which pertain to any given subject, or even to remember where they are located. For purposes of extensive references, the collection is almost useless. Of almost any required thing may be written the Sheriff’s return concerning a man who eluded his grasp by taking to a bog—”non est come-at-ibus in swampum.”
Another point, too, has given serious trouble—there is no security against fire. The carelessness of a neighbor, an attendant within or near the building, might occasion a loss which no subsequent effort could repair. One spark of fire touching the mass, and the whole would blaze like tinder, defying all attempts at extinction, for the material there gathered is old, dry and very combustible. The collection is at the misery of the elements, of a careless boy, or a drunken loafer, of a malicious incendiary, who might at any moment cause a loss which no insurance company could make good. The only effectual insurance is a fire-proof building. Without this, our wealth of history may be, at any time swallowed up by the devouring element, and the Smithsonian conflagration be repeated with ten-fold aggravation.
Yet though the necessity was great, it could scarcely be expected that a new building should be erected by the Society. The number of its active members is small, and their energies have been severely taxed in collections. With them it has been “pay,” “pay,” all the time. Although the greater portion of the collections have been donated, carriage has had to be paid by the cociety, and very many articles of value have been bought at full price. The office of the Treasurer has scarcely been a lucrative one. The gentleman filling that position nust have been chronically like Sir Bardett Coutis, who once refused to accommodate the “first gentleman in Europe” with a loan. Georgy felt hurt, and said, “Let me see, Sir Burdett. You have been my banker for about eighteen years, and—” “Pardon me your Grace,” replied the man of wealth, “it is you whon have been my banker for that period.”
Malgre all this, the Society set to work last year to build the a house, and having a will, they found a way. About twelve months ago a few large hearted members of the Society commenced a private subscription for the purpose of purchasing a lot, and building, The work was suspended for a time, but at the last annual meeting, about the middle of November, the project was resuscitated and adopted, and the work of raising subscriptions recommenced. In two weeks from that time the lot was secured, on the northwest corner of Ontario and Dearborn streets, 120 by 132 feet, at a cash cost of $13,000. The committee has still $13,000 on hand, with which to commence the erection of a new building. Encouraged by promises of additional aid from other parties, the committee decided to proceed forthwith. The work of preparing a design was entrusted to Edward Burling & Co. The above cut represents the front of the proposed building, of which the following is a description:
The architecture of the building will be in the Roman style, the two fronts being of Athens marble. The substructure, or first story, will consist of boldly wrought “Rustic work.” The superstructure, of smooth work with elaborate details peculiar to the style of architecture. The whole building to be fire-proof, having floors of iron beams, and brick arches, finished with marble tiling, and a metal roof with a framework of iron. The principal entrance to the building will be, in the center of the Ontario street street front, through a porch, or doorway, of elegant design and finish. Library rooms will be lighted by means of large and properly constructed sky-lights, the only windows of this story being on the Ontario street front. The alcoves, for shelves and books, will be aranged on the sides of the room, leaving a hall or passage around the center of the entire building.
The building will have a frontage of 120 feet on Ontario street and 132 feet on Dearborn street, and will be 55 feet high from the sidewalk to the top of the balustrades, consisting of two stories, exclusive of a basement under the whole building, and nine and a half feet high in the clear. The first story will be eighteen feet high in the clear, and will contain an entrance hall 36 vy 57 feet; a reading-room 33 by 43 feet; a lecture-room 39 by 54 feet; an office 21 by 39 feet; a museum 33 by 77 feet; and binding and store room 40 by 75 feet. There will be a court or open space in the center of the building, extending from the first floor to the top of the building, and be covered with a glass roof. This court will be 36 by 21 feet, and will be finished with smooth walls and marble floor, and is intended for the exhibition of statues or other works of art.
The basement will be arranged for the janitor’s family, furnace and fuel room, workshop, store room and other necessary convenience, and will be airy and well lighted.
The second story of the building—thirty-six feet high in the clear—will be used exclusively for a library, and will be arranged as shown by the following diagram, amd lighted by means of large and properly constructed skylight in the ceiling:
The total cost of the building will be, at present prices, not far from two hundred thousand dollars. When completed, it will be architecturally one of the principal ornaments of our city, while in its usefulness it will be an honor not only to the State but to the whole Northwest.
It is proposed at present to erect only the west forty-two feet front of the building by eighty-nine feet deep, which part will be complete in itself, and answer all the requirements of the Society for some years to come, at the same time needing no change to connect with the remaining portion when completed. The cost of this portion will be from thirty to thirty-five thousand dollars. The public owes it to the advancement of knowledge, that the sum required to fill the cost shall speedily be raised, and that before the increase of collections absolutely requires it. the needed funds shall be readily furnished for the completion of the entire building.
Value of the Collection.
Few other than members of the association have any idea of the value of the collection gathered by the Chicago Historical Society. To many it is merely an assemblage of old books and papers, scarcely worth preserving. For the information of those who entertain such an idea, we may say that the utmost vigilance and comprehensiveness of research have been displayed in the gathering of the matter, and that the collection is surpassed by none, if equalled ny any, in the United States. We cannot detail even the different depatyments of research; those will be supplied by a consideration of the aim of the Society; it is to catch the historic walls of the Northwest especially, as they float down stream of time towards the ocean of eternity, and put them together as the basis of future written history. It is for the want of these specimen bricks—so to speak—of the social fabric, that our histories of the past are so utterly unreliable. Not one line in a thousand of our present historical summaries is worth the paper on which it is written, and one-thousandth part is only of value for comparison as its statements are verified by the accidental unearthing of objects which had a useable existence in the period referred to. The romance of history has passed into a proverb, nor is it libelous one. It is only within the present century that we have learned to study and hence comprehend history. Before that time a professed narrative of events was only his-story, and that story was often a lie. If written by a man of the times it was inctured with all his prejudices, and marred by his ignorance, while if left to a subsequent period, the tale was only a collation of traditions, many of them of the wildest character, and none of them entitled to full credence. The truth of history was exotic to all former ages.
The Historical Society is then an indispensability to the study of history, gathering the precious items as they see fit by, and treasuring them up for future comparison. It is a well admitted truth, that our generalizations, our theories, are right in proportion to the comprehensiveness of the mass of facts from a consideration of which they are deduced—admitting, of course, the eliminative power to be the same. And similarly a truthful history of the past is an indispensable requisite to future progress, as it it is only that we gain wisdom. The analysis of motives, the view of consequences, the eduction of contingencies, is consequent to the comparison of circumstances, or of individuals under similar conditions. “As in water face answereth unto face, so doth the heart of man to man,” is true not only with differences of place, but of time. The present is but an effect, a consequence of the past, and from knowledge of the cause, the nature of its resultant is made manifest.
The members of the Chicago Historical Society have recognized these truths in all their entirety, and have labored unceasingly in amassing the facts of the present and past history primarily of the great Northwest, and secondarily of the whole continent, but not entirely neglecting those which pertain to other parts of the globe. They have succeeded wonderfully. Their rooms are stored full with the most precious mementoes, with books, pamphlets and manuscripts, embracing a vast number of pages from the early history of the Northwest, as found in the book of Nature. The Indian tribes, our early settlers, the different metamorphoses which American society has undergone from the period anterior to that in which the red man was lord of the soil, to the latest moment, the history of our settlement, of our railroad system, of the war—these are spread out there extenso, while a rich and varied collection of books, old and rare items, teems with the wisdom of centuries. The folowing list of contributions up to the close of January, 1865, will give a faint idea of the wealth of information stored:
Of such an institution the whole State ought to be proud, so proud that “to ask” and “to have” should be synonymous terms. The people of the Northwest owe it to themselves and to posterity that the Chicago Historical Society be not cramped in its usefulness, periled in existence even for lack of funds. Indeed, in view of the paramount importance of its claims, we can but attribute the difficulties under which it has labored to ignorance of its work, merits and needs by our moneyed men. The Society has labored unobtrusively with the genuine modesty which always accompanies real merit. But the day will come—it is not far distant—when the full measure of its value will be understood and appreciated, the immense influence ofits labors on society be fully recognized.
Chicago Historical Society I
Ontario and Dearborn
Chicago Tribune, October 12, 1871
THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY’S BUILDING.
The loss of the Historical Building is irreparable. The library embraced 17,500 bound volumes, 175,000 pamphlets, and complete sets of dies of the Chicago newspapers. This collection embraced a complete record of the history of Chicago from its earliest days to the present. In addition to the library, the society owned the original draft of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln, a complete set of the Chicago battle flags, the Healy Gallery of three hundred paintings, Diehl’s Hamlet, Conture’s Prodigal Son. and Volk’s bust of Mr. Lincoln—the only one for which Mr. Lincoln had a life-sitting. The loss of these treasures of art and literature will be felt more keenly in the future than at present. They are treasures which cannot be replaced, and in their loss the history of the city is lost also.
Chicago Historical Society Building
Corner of Ontario and Dearborn Streets
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map