On Documentation

The first step of my design process is always to look for historic documentation on any building or site that I am working on. I believe that it is essential to understand a building’s evolution from its initial design to its present state before deciding on the best way to move forward. This means spending time doing archival research, working as detective to uncover a building’s past.

 Chicago in Flames; Union Publishing Company, Lithograph, 1872

Chicago in Flames; Union Publishing Company, Lithograph, 1872

In looking for documentation for this particular project, I’ve come up frustratingly short. Archival information on historic Chicago buildings is sparse. Yet after speaking with local Chicago architects, preservationists, and researchers, I’ve come to a working hypothesis to explain this phenomenon. The lack of documentation for Chicago’s buildings is a remnant of thought leftover from the rebuilding frenzy after the Great Chicago Fire when Chicagoans were left with nothing of the past and were forced to collectively design the future.

When I began researching the townhouse, I first reached out to Terry Tatum, formerly of Chicago City Landmarks, and asked him for advice. He pointed me in the direction of a document he had prepared for the city on historic buildings research. His advice led me to the building permit card, but no other information. Matt Crawford, a City Planner working for Landmarks in Chicago, then related to me that a series of floods, fires, and other natural disasters within the halls of the city’s archives destroyed any documentation pre-1955. While this explains physically what happened to the city’s archive of building documents, it does not explain why they were so disregarded.  To understand Chicagoans attitude to history, we have to study a well-known event in Chicago’s past.

On Sunday, Oct. 8th, 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed an area four miles long and ¾ of a mile wide in an event so horrific that it could only be understood at a biblical scale, as an “American Apocalypse.” The fire burned the length of the city, leaving thousands homeless – their every possession reduced to ash. As argued by Ross Miller in his essay Chicago’s Secular Apocalypse, the unimaginable loss experienced collectively by the people forever changed their future attitudes towards one another. The fire universally destroyed the belongings of both the rich and the poor, the immigrants and the more settled families, leaving all survivors on an equal footing from which to rebuild. Therefore, the fire did more to democratize the city than any bureaucratic endeavor could have.

The fire became the key to understanding the city…The fire implied to Chicagoans that their history would not evolve in millennia…but in explosive burst that liberated and inspired individuals to do their best, for they could see the outcome. Divisions that might paralyze other places provided the very condition for Chicago’s existence. Change, as demonstrated by the fire on the largest scale, was to be permanent in modern Chicago[1]

 Good as Gold; Illustration from the Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1896

Good as Gold; Illustration from the Chicago Daily Tribune, October 9, 1896

After three days of burning, so little was left of the city that it would have to begin anew. Collectively, Chicagoans were forced to think only of the future, not of the past. Families who had been wealthy before the inferno were left with as little as those who began with nothing. Therefore, it was only by looking towards the future, rebuilding not just buildings, but lives, that Chicago would survive. This is the first trait that one must understand of Chicagoans, a willingness to work together to imagine a collective future.

As a result of the fire, the mindset of city’s inhabitants was concentrated on moving forward. However, those who did muse on the past were told that the fire was punishment for “fast lapsing into luxury ­­– not yet to any degree as the people of New York – but still more than was for their good.”[2] Both before and after the fire, Chicago’s neighborhoods were organized around the local church. Generally worshipping according to ethnicity, the church was the center of the community. After the fire, these churches banded together to promote one universal message, that the “American Apocalypse” was a result of lavish behavior that should never be repeated.  Moving forward, it was better for Chicagoans to adhere to strict Christian values of hard-work and “industrious, self-denying habits.”[3] In the past, Chicagoans had been prodigal, but now with the unique opportunity to rebuild a city of their own making, it would have to reflect the temporal nature of man’s construction. Buildings could quickly become victim to fire, meaning that future building stock should have a puritan approach to both design and construction that reflects the temporal nature of man’s creations.

 Undaunted--We Build; Image for Fire Semi-Centennial Poster, 1921

Undaunted--We Build; Image for Fire Semi-Centennial Poster, 1921

Here we are presented with a second trait of Chicagoans, which is that the buildings erected after the fire reflect the soberer attitude of the people. While Chicago quickly began to rebuild, the new buildings were much more restrained than those which came before: “The buildings which line these streets he will find to be chiefly of brick, and of soberer appearance than the gay, cream-colored stone (treacherous beauty!) which so delighted his eye in [previous times]”[4] These new buildings were built of brick and stone rather than wood, ultimately leading the way for innovative uses of non-combustible materials, such as the skyscraper. Rather than expensive marbles, cheaper terra-cotta was used to emulate the look of stone while being conscience of lavish costs. Chicago common brick was also invented during this time. It was cheap and easy to produce using local clay, but was deemed not dignified enough for building facades. Masons used it as filler, creating party walls, side walls, and rear facades from it. The use of these more restrained materials changed the fabric of Chicago from what it had been before the fire.

The building boom to rebuild after the fire resulted in land values rising significantly. Every parcel of land was valued for the development opportunity it afforded. Land was even being created, as debris and rubble from the fire was thrown into Lake Michigan to expand the boundaries of the city. Developers were so eager in their efforts to obtain more vacant land that “elaborate buildings constructed just a few years before the fire turned out to be more valuable as rubble when the growing city converted debris from the fire into landfill to extend its boundaries”[5] Chicagoans, so determined to rebuild for their future, determined that the highest and best use of “elaborate” buildings was to destroy them for their material values. Additionally, the speed at which new buildings were constructed left little time for documentation. Developers like Potter Palmer purchased acres at a time, then worked as quickly as possible to produce income generating buildings onto the property. In essence, the entire city was a construction zone, leaving little time for architects or planners to record the work.

 The Wedding Amid The Ruins--A Romantic Incident Following the Destruction Of Chicago; Engraving, 1871 

The Wedding Amid The Ruins--A Romantic Incident Following the Destruction Of Chicago; Engraving, 1871 

Through an understanding of the mentality of the people post the Great Chicago Fire - a need to focus on the future, cleanse themselves of a lavish past, and develop property as quickly as possible - it becomes clear why little documentation of buildings exists. Not only were people more concentrated on the future, but new work proceeded at a break-neck pace that did not allow for thorough documentation. Whatever documentation was left was destroyed during the flooding of the Loop in 1992. Therefore, because both buildings and documentation are merely man-made constructs, susceptible to fire and flood, Chicagoans believe that they can never be held as sacred. This results in an attitude held by the people of Chicago that concentrates more on the future than dwelling in the past.

This inquire of thought carries over to the attitude towards landmarking buildings in Chicago: there are 111 designed historic districts in NYC to Chicago’s 59. New York City has over 1200 individual landmarks, whereas Chicago has merely 317. While the process to landmark a building is cumbersome in both cities, it is currently the best way to ensure that our cities have a varied building stock. A diversely built and aged city is what preservationists, architects, and city planners all currently agree leads to the most successful cities.

Finally, as modern technology has made buildings less susceptible to natural disasters, in the future, all city planners will have to decide what buildings to demolish versus maintain for the next generation. We will have to invent strategies to evaluate our existing building stock, using both documentation and judgment. This is why it is important that we keep documentation of our past, and why moving forward I intend to provide ample documentation on this townhouse.




[1] Miller, Ross. "Chicago's Secular Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Emergence of the Democratic Hero." Chicago Architecture, 1872-1922: Birth of a Metropolis. Ed. John Zukowsky. München, Federal Republic of Germany: Prestel-Verlag, 1987. pp. 29-30

[2] Colbert, Elias, and Everett Chamberlin. Chicago and the Great Conflagration. Cincinnati and New York: C.F. Vent, 1871. p.450

[3] ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 460

[5] Miller, p. 32

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