ONE YEAR AFTER—THE RESTORATION OF CHICAGO
The Lakeside Monthly, October, 1872
Part I Reconstruction.
Part II Public Works and Buildings
Part III Churches and Schools
Part IV Private Buildings
Part V Business Blocks
Part VI Amusements, Arts, and Science
Part VII Chicago and Its Railways
Part VIII The Year as Seen From the Board of Trade
Lakeside Monthly, October, 1872
No statistics, no details of any kind, could give any just idea of what has been done in the Restoration of Chicago. Other and greater cities have been more completely destroyed; but in her rebuilding she stands absolutely unmatched. If a star set on the ninth of October, 1871, another, and one of larger magnitude, is rapidly rising. The fabled marvels of Aladdin’s lamp have been eclipsed by the creative genius which has built upon the ruins of that appalling disaster a vast city in one short year, and that, too, despite peculiarly discouraging obstacles.
A fire does not simply destroy what is valuable: it leaves behind, and to be cleared away, much that is worthless. The first work in reconstruction was the carting off of rubbish. For weeks the streets were crowded with teams, busy in removing debris. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were expended in this preliminary labor. Bricks, scrap iron and lead, etc., were sifted out, and the useless stuff dumped into the lake basin. Several acres of ground were thus made in the fall and winter. There are at this writing probably no less than two hundred teams still employed in clearing the burnt district, although this feature of restoration ceased to be distinctive long ago. The wagons once employed in hauling away refuse are now busy in furnishing material for masons, carpenters, and plasterers.
The second obstacle in order of time to be overcome resulted from the destruction of the records of the county. In the Court House, supposed to be absolutely fire-proof, were stored the legal evidences of ownership to all the real ty in Cook County, including, of course, the city of Chicago. It was difficult to raise money on real estate security, and no one would be willing to put up a building if he ran any risk of inability to make good his title to the site. The General Assembly was importuned to afford speedy relief. No bill on the subject was passed until late in the winter, and the statute finally adopted met the case only partially. Each owner has been obliged, to a very considerable extent, to make good his title by such means as would satisfy a court of equity. The actual delay in building from this cause was, however, so much less than the public anticipated that one can now hardly realize how great it originally was.
The third obstacle was the exceeding length and severity of the winter. The ashes were still hot when the frost came, and that to stay until far into the spring. Many supposed that all permanent building would have to be put off until spring; but it was not. At once massive structures began to rise here and there, especially on the streets near the river. Steadily the work went on. Hannibal crossing the Alps, and Napoleon retreating from Moscow, were mere skirmishes in comparison with the battle with snow and ice waged all winter long by Chicago builders. They all, from the hod-carriers to the contractors, deserve great credit for their pluck. Truer heroism in the endurance of hardship was never shown. This tribute of praise must, however, be tempered with censure.
The fourth obstacle to be overcome was the strikes. Early in the winter campaign the various trade unions engaged in restoring the waste places, began to threaten suspension of work unless they were paid higher wages; and that, notwithstanding the price of labor, had materially increased. For some weeks the public was greatly exercised on this subject, and very serious consequences were feared. As a matter of fact, but little harm came of these threats. The reason was that fresh recruits from the country could have been brought in any day to take the places of the strikers. The work men then in the city had no monopoly of available muscle and skill—thanks to the railroads and telegraphs, with their annihilation of time and space. It was the appreciation finally of this phase of the case which averted the apprehended danger, preventing it from causing serious disaster.
The fifth and last obstacle to be mentioned was the high price of building material. Brick and lumber at once took a leap upward. The lumbermen, of their own accord, fixed a maximum for their stocks at a reasonably low figure; but the brick men were either unable or unwilling to follow that example. Yet the winter building was not materially checked by this difficulty, and before spring opened prices had come down somewhat, although the cost of building material has all along been too high. Remembering the rebate policy of the General Government, adopted in the case of Portland, Maine, a few years before, Chicago asked Congress to pass a law authorizing the Treasury Department to refund all the duties paid on imported material used in rebuilding the burnt district within a specified length of time. At first there was no opposition of any account. The request was so reasonable that no ohe seemed disposed to resist its being granted. But be fore the bill was reached, the first enthusiasm of sympathy had cooled off, and the lumber interest arrayed itself against the measure. A long and bit ter fight was waged, resulting in the passage of the bill with the rebate on lumber stricken out. The Treasury Department was very slow in adopting rules for carrying the law into effect, disposition to defeat the object of the act. New regulations may yet be adopted, rendering the relief, which has so far been theoretical, practical. Such modifications could be made without opening the door to fraud.
We have spoken of Reconstruction from the negative point of view, showing the peculiar difficulties which had to be surmounted. We come now to speak of the positive work accomplished.
It should be premised right here that information sufficiently full and exact to warrant a tabular statement cannot be secured. After the fire, everything was in such confusion, and the pressure upon all sides so great, that systematic records were not kept. The Board of Public Works, which would ordinarily have ample data for a statistical report, did not resume the regular recording of building permits with sufficient detail to give any idea of the structure to be put up, until near the close of February. We do not find fault with this, for it was doubtless unavoidable; but as defective tables are misleading, we attempt no tabulation, contenting ourselves with giving only such statistics as are absolutely reliable.
The first work was the erection of temporary structures, mere sheds or shanties. A few sprung up among the ruins, but the greater part of the business houses were strung along Michigan avenue on the lake front. The city permitted the ground to be used for that purpose, with the express stipulation that the occupancy should not extend over one year. From Park row on the south to Randolph street on the north, a distance of one mile, nearly the entire east frontage was lined with and if the city authorities do their duty (and they seem disposed to), there is not, at this reading, a single lake front shell left tenanted. It is expected that before winter sets in once more, the ground will have been cleared off. Another year, the park will resume its old aspect. During the summer of 1871, the city had expended about $40,000 in beautifying the lake front. Much of what was then done has since been destroyed, and the cost of replacing those improvements will ultimately have to be set down to the account of repairing fire damages.
Temporary Buildings on Michigan Avenue.
The celerity with which structures for the accommodation of commerce were erected, was hardly greater than that with which shanties were put up for the housing of our homeless people in the North Division. That feature of rebuilding belongs, largely, in the list of relief work; for an important part of the aid afforded fire victims last winter was the assistance rendered poor men in getting some sort of shelter for their families. In speaking hereafter of the building permits issued by the Board of Public Works, and in the details based thereon, no temporary structure, whetliei for business or residence, is taken into the account. Neither is any note taken of the thousands of cot tages in the North Division, between the North Branch and Clark street; for they were, almost all of them, erected either before the fire limits were estab lished, or in defiance of that ordinance. Such general facts as can be got at in regard to them will be given in taking a final survey of rebuilding.
It is estimated, by the most reliable authority, that $200,000,000 worth of property was destroyed by the fire, covering a territory of about four miles in length by an average of two-thirds of a mile in width, comprising about erection, or under definite contract, will more than make good the store and office room destroyed. The hotel accommodations will be about the same as before, counting simply those structures now under contract, and not counting the Grand Palmer House and the Pacific Hotel, both of which had been started before the fire. As many new blocks and stores are being projected, and some more hotel projects are on the tapis, the city will soon be better off in these respects than it ever was. The amount of residence building so far done is relatively small, except in the German portion of the North Side; while the permanent public buildings, except schools, churches, and jail, are entirely in the future. What has been expended by the Governments, National, County, and City, have been mostly for repairs, temporary accommodations, or preliminaries.
From the time of the fire to December 1st, two hundred and fifty building permits were issued; but no information in regard to the character of the buildings can be arrived at accurately. From December 1st to September 22d, there were 1250 permits issued, 65 for frame buildings (not including the temporary frame structures erected on the lake front and elsewhere immediately after the fire); 965 for brick buildings; 20 for iron fronts, and 200 for stone fronts. Of these buildings, 234 were one-story; 378 two-story; 226 three-story; 263 four-story; 88 five-story; 10 six-story; and 1 seven-story. It has been impossible to ascertain the number of feet frontage occupied by the new buildings erected previous to February 22d; but since that date, and up to September 22d, the total number of feet front for the buildings permitted to be erected foots up 43,413 feet, or over eight miles. In the case of build—takes time to quarry and cut stone to fit any particular structure, while all bricks, being of the same pattern, the adapting of material to plan is the work of the masons. Not a few of the earlier brick buildings would doubtless have had stone fronts had it not been for this question of time.
On the 23d of November, the Common Council established the fire limits, as follows:
- From the water-line of the shore of Lake Michigan at Thirty-first street west to State street; thence north to Twenty-sixth street; thence west to Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne & Chicago Railway tracks; thence north to Twenty-second street; thence west to South Jefferson street; thence north to Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Rail way, and Chicago & North-Western Railway tracks; thence west to Throop street; thence north to Twelfth street; thence west to Ashland avenue; thence north to Van Buren street; thence west to Western avenue; thence north to West Lake street; thence east to Ashland avenue; thence north to West Indiana street; thence east to North Carpenter street; thence north to Chicago avenue; thence east to North Wells; thence north to a point 125 feet southwest of the intersection of North Wells with Lincoln avenue; thence northwest to Fullerton avenue; thence east to Lake Michigan; thence south along the water line to Thirty-first street.
Within these boundaries no wooden building is allowed to be erected, and the ordinance gives elaborate details for the interior construction of large buildings, so as to render them as safe as possible. The authorities have been criminally negligent in some cases, especially in regard to the interior of “fire-proof” buildings. It is not uncommon to see a Mansard roof, with its ample supply of kindling wood, perched on the top of a building which would otherwise be proof against fire. Still, as a whole, the business portion of Chicago promises to be as secure from the ravages of fire as any city in the country.
The brick used in Chicago is for the most part poor, having too much lime in it. What is brought from Milwaukee is good; what comes from Philadelphia is best of all, but quite too expensive for general use. Iron fronts are not as well liked as they formerly were. Fire twists and destroys them easier than it does either brick or stone. Iron pillars extending up one story are, however, very common. Before the fire we had one immense structure of Connecticut marble, pure white. It soon discolored, and had no advan tage over the cheaper stone. New Chicago has no building which may, properly speaking, be called a marble palace. Granite cuts no figure in Restoration. Limestone and sandstone are used entirely—or, to be a shade more accurate, those two and free stone, the latter being really a member of the sandstone family. Much prejudice was at an early stage of rebuilding felt against limestone, because it crum bled in the great conflagration. The fact is, nothing could stand that heat, if fairly exposed to it ; and the differ ence in fire-proof properties between the different stones used here, is slight. All could stand an ordinary fire; none could hold their own against a city in flames. The Custom House, the Court House, and the First National Bank, were the least injured of any buildings fairly exposed to the fire; and they were all limestone structures. There are seven quarries now shipping stone to Chicago. Three of them are in Ohio, all sandstone; one in Michigan, also sandstone; and three in Illinois, one sandstone, the other two lime stone. Their prices per foot range from 65 cents to $1.10, varying in color from white, gray, bluish brown, reddish brown, and cream. All are taxed to their utmost capacity to supply the demand.
Map of the Rebuilt Downtown; from New Chicago, 1872
The lake front, or any portion of the South Division’s burnt district, are given. Wherever a building of brick, stone or iron has been completed, or even commenced, the area which it covers is shown in black, the white portion representing that portion of the South side’s burnt section upon which no rebuilding has yet begun. As the great interest in the work of reconstruction centers in the South division, or great business heart of Chicago, the diagram presents only that portion of the city.
Those newspaper utterances were so singularly appreciative and emphatic that extracts from a few of them may be taken in some sort as texts verifying the views presented in this article:
The New York World
Chicago was, without doubt, the most thoroughly American city on the continent. Few towns have risen, as did this, against all natural obstacles, and planted itself with American assurance and magnificence in the very pathway of continental travel it had helped to make.
New York Tribune
The city which has been laid waste was not alone that of the 300,000 people who inhabited it; it was the city of many mighty States. The ruins of Chicago are still red-hot, when we hear of five or six daily newspapers preparing to resume publication, in the midst of the smoke and fire. It is a bold, quick spirit like this which has made Chicago one of the wonders of the world—which raised a metropolis out of the marsh and sand in forty years, and will raise a finer one out of the ashes in ten.
St. Louis Democrat.
The speed and magnificence of the recupera tion of Chicago will, in not many months, be cited as the most astonishing feal in bur wonderful history. Great capitalists everywhere will discover that the quickest multiplication of their treasures will be in rebuilding Chicago.
Chicago was the factor change and mart of the whole country in certain lines of business, to a remarkable extent. It was also the representative of all sections, both in capital and population.
The country cannot afford to let such a city and such a people be destroyed. Chicago was a new city, but one whose growth was not too rapid to be healthy.
Her history teaches us to believe that there is more ‘come-out’ in her than in any other city in the world.
New Orleans Times
Chicago was the typical city of the nation. .More than any other, it had become identified with all the great centres of capital. . . Through the agency of their great elevators, their canals, and iheir twenty-four lines of railroads, a prodigious activity was communicated to all employed capital.
Chicago will derive great ultimate advantages from the calamity. The ground on which the houses stood, and the value of Chicago as a business centre, are in some respects enhanced. Chicago will one day count this terrible misfortune is a part of the discipline which has made her truly great.
San Francisco Bulletin.
One of the laws of a modern city’s growth is the concentration within easy distances of the starting and terminal points of great avenues of communication and transportation. The three water frontages (of Chicago ) were touched by rail way lines concentrating the traffic of sixteen to twenty thousand miles of track directly leading to the city, in the very neighborhood of a great ware house system. Chicago has owed its growth to enterprise in the construction of railways, and has been chiefly built with reference to making the best use of them.