08.23.12 / Christopher Angelakis, AIA, LEED AP
It was a crime really. I have been an architect for over twenty years, if you count the five years I was in school, and most people could not believe that I had never been to Chicago. It certainly was not that I did not want to go, it was just one of those things that I talked about over and over again but somehow some other priority kept me from making the trip. To my pleasure, my wife and I finally made it to Chicago earlier this summer. This could be a post about soaring architecture, incredible urban spaces, energetic neighborhoods, or about how the Cloud Gate might be the most engaging piece of public art I have ever experienced, but I have a feeling those topics have been written about repeatedly and by far better writers. Instead, I would like to tell a story about a lesser known Chicago feature that took a little digging to understand.
Making our way into the city by cab, our trip was typical of taxi rides from the airport to the hotel: curbside to highway to off-ramp to avenue. There was me craning my head around to watch the building faces slide by when suddenly we were in what felt like a subgrade parking garage. Wait, I did not remember going down a ramp! While looking out the front window I noticed that this was not a subgrade parking structure. It had traffic lights and intersecting streets and crosswalks. A normal street but the buildings were blank slabs of concrete, stone, or block and, of course, there was a roof deck over-head.
I do not remember how we emerged from this place but we finally got to the porte-cochere of our hotel and all thoughts of that strange underworld disappeared – for the moment.
Our first excursion out to the city street was exhilarating simply because we were excited to explore a new place. We headed right out into the heart of Chicago’s famous loop. Some interesting things caught my eye on our walk. I noticed subway entrance-like stairways periodically along Michigan Avenue that had no apparent signage as to what station name or train line it served. I noticed that almost all the buildings we walked past had what looked to be an expansion joint between the façade and the sidewalk. This was odd indeed. The clincher though, happened when we left our hotel on our next outing later that day.
When my wife and I explore a new place we have an unwritten rule to try to never walk the same way twice. Naturally, when we left the hotel this time, instead of taking a left, we took a right. We only got about three hundred feet down the road when it … stopped. When I say stopped, I mean, the sidewalks, the four lane road just came to an end with a 42 inch guardrail keeping us, or some road weary driver, from plummeting 12 feet down. This was literally where Shel Silverstein’s sidewalk ended. Walking up to this edge I looked down and there was … the road. The same road we were just on, continuing below us, cars zooming past. (Fig 2) This really got me thinking.
I started to put together some clues to what this all meant. It was clear that major parts of the downtown area of Chicago had a reconstituted ground plane. What this means is that the first floors of all the building where not placed on the ground, they were purposely built one story up. Not only that, but the entire urban ground plane was up one story. The streets, bus stops, newsstands, “no parking” signs … everything. And below, an exact copy of the street plan duplicated. My initial thoughts went to the Chicago River. I supposed that it may have been necessary to “lift” the buildings off the river’s level due to flooding. While this was not far off it still did not make perfect sense since there is rarely a city in the world that does not have a river or body of water adjacent, and in my travels I have never seen this kind of layering. It was not until I got home when I learned the true story.
In the decades around 1850 and 1860 Chicago had a terrible problem. There was major outbreak of cholera and dysentery because the city was built on land directly adjacent to Lake Michigan which had little or no grade changes. It was flat. There was no way to move water and sewage in and out of the city respectively. Pumps were not effective and beyond that, the roads were not even paved. There were many times when the city was literally stuck in the mud and muck when the level of Lake Michigan or the Chicago River was high. Something had to be done and an engineer from Massachusetts who had designed Boston’s water distribution system came forward with an idea. To solve Chicago's problem, Ellis S. Chesbrough designed the nation’s first comprehensive sewer system. To do this, he had to raise the city. Literally.
What follows still boggles the mind. Many buildings, which were mostly wood framed and modestly sized were simply rolled away to a more ideal location. Entire neighborhoods relocated. So many got moved that it was not an odd sight to see a building or two being rolled down the street. It was just another traffic nuisance to deal with. Not all of the built environment could be moved this way. There were many blocks that contained significant structures built of four and five story masonry. Blocks such as the Lake Street Row (Fig. 1) and the Briggs House needed another solution. Here is where the raising began. These entire blocks of buildings were jacked up, inch by inch, using hundreds of individually cranked jacks (Fig. 3). Huge teams of men, coordinated by bugle would slowly raise the building over time to its new grade. This happened so slowly that stores and hotels would be fully occupied while this happened. The only thing the patrons would notice is that there might be one more step down to the street than the day before.
Eventually the city sat roughly a story above grade. Over time the city continued to redefine its ground level, lifting the city above the river, allowing for pseudo-subways, providing services apart from the street, parking, drainage, and some wicked awesome chase scenes for the Batmobile. At the edges, where new development brushes up against older blocks we find streets becoming tunnels and roads abruptly ending, waiting for the next stretch of elevated road to be built by some eager developer.
This is just one of the reasons I love being an architect. It gives me the ability to hear a city speak its history. In this case, it took a little digging, but what I found under Chicago was pretty fascinating.