goose island’s lost skyscrapers

The Vernacular Architecture Forum’s annual conference took place virtually this past weekend, and while San Antonio was sorely missed (along with the chance to stay, again, in the Gunter Hotel, where Robert Johnson recorded his seminal blues record in 1936…) the online conference was well-organized and my session, on Agriculture and the City, had a good match of topics–Travis Olson from Wisconsin on Estonian and German farm buildings in rural North Dakota and Paula Lupkin from North Texas on the (lost) Farmer’s Exchange Building in Dallas.

Their papers touched on the necessity of railroads and boards of exchange to agriculture in the Plains and throughout the midwest, which linked nicely with my paper, which was an excerpt from a forthcoming paper on Chicago’s grain elevators, a happy rabbit hole that’s been my go-to procrastination research for the last few years. Their history parallels those of the city’s commercial skyscrapers in that they can be seen as ‘fossils’ of the economic, political, and social forces that shaped the city–structures that by their location, scale, and configuration show evidence of the flows of capital and power that converged on Chicago in a particularly turbulent era.

Philip Armour waded into Chicago’s grain trade as a sideline to his spectacularly brutal and efficient meatpacking empire in the 1880s, seeing potential fortunes to be won off of the vast–and often over-enthusiastic–bets being made on grain prices on the city’s Board of Trade. Few structures in the city owed their existence so directly to the machinations of commodities trading and speculation as Armour’s elevator complex on Goose Island, and few buildings in the city have disappeared with so few traces. But the elevators he built there at the end of the century illustrate the ways in which the city’s geography echoed the developing economic geography of the Midwest and upper Plains, and they show the scale and savagery of the fiscal warfare that took place on the Board’s trading floor every day.

VAF asked us to record our lectures, but decided not to archive any of the conference, so in the interests of previewing the larger paper and getting a ripping good tale of corn, bankruptcy, and tall timber construction out there, here’s my bit…

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