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Appreciating history as a source of innovation

Appreciating history as a source of innovation

by ROB McMANAMY | Nov 12, 2014

If necessity truly is the mother of invention, then Chicago has played midwife more than most U.S. cities, especially in birthing innovations that have benefitted the built environment. "When you think about it, the history of Chicago really is one continuous construction project," said public television producer Geoffrey Baer, speaking last week to the Chicago Building Congress at its monthly luncheon.

Baer educated and entertained at the Union League Club. (Photo by Barb Krause)

Baer educated and entertained at the Union League Club. (Photo by Barb Krause)

Host of the 2013 PBS series "10 Buildings That Changed America", Baer whimsically chronicled some of the Windy City's more notable and influential contributions to construction history over the last 175 years. "We're a relatively young city, so I think that accounts for a lot of the braggadocio that Chicagoans are famous for," he noted. "We're like the younger brother who feels the need to puff up his chest in front of everyone else."

But more times than not, the braggadocio can be backed up, at least in the design and construction arena. After all, the fact that Chicago even exists today is testament to its civic resolve in facing down daunting natural obstacles. Geographically, it is a logical road, rail and water transportation hub, but its geological makeup also had to be accommodated and, in some cases, changed to make it all work. In the mid-19th century, for instance, the growing city faced a public health crisis because its elevation sat level with Lake Michigan and provided no naturally occurring drainage. As a result, disease easily bred and spread, and the ground, itself, gave way under foot. The streets were a soupy mess. 


"One popular story of the day told of concerned citizens who came upon a man actually stuck in the street, up to his chest in mud," said Baer. "The people said, 'Are you okay, sir? Do you need help?' To which the man replied, 'No, thank you. I have a fine horse underneath me."

In the 1860s, Chicago's Briggs House was raised by men turning jackscrews even as guests remained inside. 

In the 1860s, Chicago's Briggs House was raised by men turning jackscrews even as guests remained inside. 


To fix the problem, the city and its engineers, led by Ellis Chesbrough, devised an ingenious plan to raise the downtown streets, sidewalks, and buildings to a new grade over several years, using hydraulic jacks and jackscrews. Hundreds of buildings and sometimes entire city blocks were lifted heights ranging from 2 ft to 6 ft, powered by teams of several dozen to several hundred workmen, turning thousands of jackscrews in unison. The effort created room for the installation of a downtown sewerage system, which was then covered with soil, sidewalks and paved roadways. "They would raise the buildings, like the hotel in this picture on the corner of Randolph and Wells, even as the guests and staff still went about their business inside," said Baer. 

Less than a quarter century later, however, the city realized that dumping sewerage into Lake Michigan, its main source of drinking water, was exacting its own toll on public health. So the city fathers again turned to its brightest engineering minds to save them. What they came up with was a massive and ambitious public works plan to reverse the flow of the Chicago River away from the lake. Between 1892 and 1922, a system of three canals was built to draw the Chicago River west to the Des Plaines River, which connects with the Mississippi River. In downtown Chicago, locks were built at the mouth of the lake, creating elevations that used gravity to send the water westward.

Joked Baer, "I tell my kids when they're brushing their teeth that if they spit in the sink here, it will end up at Grandma and Grandpa's house in St. Louis!" 

The improbable feat of reversing the river was one of The Top 10 Public Works Projects of the 20th Century, according to the American Public Works Association. 

After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, as the city rallied to rebuild, it found itself on the cusp of a steel-framed vertical revolution, embodied by the first 'Chicago School' of architecture. But not far down the road, that movement took a detour when Chicago was selected to host the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. With America making its debut on the global stage and architect Daniel Burnham directing construction, a spectacular but traditional "White City" quickly took shape south of downtown. The many structures' monumental grandeur and the emphasis on urban planning, civic virtue and open spaces embodied the "City Beautiful" movement, which came to dominate urban design at the turn of the century.

"For better or worse, it did set architecture on a different course here for a generation," noted Baer. "During that time, New York took the lead on tall buildings."

Less is more, (except when it comes to height)

Fast forward to 1937 and the arrival of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the new dean of the architecture school at the Armour Institute of Technology, since renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology. There, Mies' Bauhaus design roots found a receptive audience for the "less is more" philosophy that would come to define the Second Chicago School.

That school and its Miesian influence soared to new heights in the late 1960s when Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (a trio whom Frank Lloyd Wright famously dismissed as "the three blind Mies") teamed architect Bruce Graham with structural engineer Fazlur Khan (both pictured below, ) to

design the two, 100-story buildings that would help redefine the skyscraper. The muscular John Hancock Center (at left) and the multilevel Sears Tower (now the Willis Tower) each employed variations of Khan's tubular systems to achieve record heights and withstand mighty winds.  

"Legend has it that Graham once was asked to explain the Sears Tower's structural system over lunch at a downtown club," recounted Baer. "At the time, such clubs had glass jars full of free cigarettes on all the tables for their members. Graham famously grabbed a handful of cigarettes and used them to illustrate how the tower's 'bundled tubes' worked together. It was a brilliant engineering solution, and a brilliant example."

With a nod to the braggadocio he referenced earlier, the luncheon speaker added, "We may not be the place where the skyscraper was born, technically, but we are where it was perfected."

And that quest for perfection continues today, not just with tall buildings, but throughout all of the built environment. To be sure, technology is aiding and accelerating that pursuit, but necessity is still very much in the driver's seat.

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