It’s small beer compared to everything else going on in the world today, but I’m pleased to report that “Chicago’s Other Skyscrapers: Grain Elevators and the City, 1838-1957” will be in print in the next issue of the Journal of Urban History and is online now on SAGE Journal’s website (possibly requires registration and/or subscription…the raw version is here on ResearchGate and here on Academia.edu).
This has been a happy rabbit hole over the last five years or so–a chance discovery of a paper on concrete grain elevators from 1902 left me curious about what a non-fireproof elevator might have looked like, and the mention of Chicago engineers’ and contractors’ roles in perfecting both timber and concrete elevator construction led me to dig into the history of elevators in the city. I can’t claim to be the first one to be interested in these–agricultural historian Guy Lee and environmental historian William Cronon have both pointed out the importance of elevators to Chicago and the midwest. But neither of their histories looked at the construction of elevators themselves, and neither presented a comprehensive study of elevator construction and operation during the era.
So, while this has been something of a running joke among colleagues and friends (‘you’re studying what?’ has been a common refrain), the finished paper is one that I’m particularly happy about, because it demonstrates many of the same lessons that Chicago’s ‘real’ skyscrapers have done–that buildings can be thought of as the resultants of complicated networks of economics, finance, politics, and geography (among others), that the actual fabric of building can be interpreted to reveal broader narratives about who built them, where their material came from, and why they were built, and that zooming out and looking at building types over time inevitably suggests that they evolve in a process similar to what Steven Jay Gould called “punctuated equilibrium,” in which long periods of stasis are ‘punctuated’ by moments of rapid adaptation and change–speciation, in the world of paleobiology.
The change from tiber elevator construction to concrete is a clear example of this–nearly every grain elevator in the country before 1900 was built out of timber, and nearly every one after was made of concrete. There are good reasons for this at the macro-level (fire, e.g., meant that elevator builders were constantly looking for ways to build in anything but timber), but it also demonstrates the importance of innovation–three experiments in particular, in Chicago, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis, around the turn of the century provided proof-of-concept, and a patented system of construction (sort of an early version of slip-forming) meant that within ten years it was not only more effective to build out of concrete, it was also cheaper and faster. Instant speciation and the birth of a new, now-ubiquitous type, the concrete elevator.
While this all makes for a great case study in construction history, elevators also, like commercial skyscrapers, tracked the growth and development of Chicago and its infrastructure–but on a larger scale. Their reliance on rail and water connections meant that they sprung up wherever these two transport systems connected–first along the main branch of the River, and then farther south as better rail connections were built to the west. An elevator complex on Goose Island rose in response to rail connections to the particularly rich grain belt of the northwest–Minnesota and the Dakotas. And, finally, when new harbor facilities at Calumet replaced those of the congested main branch, the elevator industry moved, wholesale, to take advantage of better facilities there.
So, lots of resonance with familiar themes. And, fortunately, some really fascinating anecdotes that involve corruption, skullduggery, and construction as financial weaponry. Some of the city’s best known figures had unexpected–but, in hindsight, obvious–connections to the elevator industry, in particular meatpacking titan P.D. Armour, who entered the grain trade almost as a hobby and emerged as one of the city’s most feared commodities buccaneers. Elevators and the fortunes they represented also underlay some of the city’s great institutions and monuments, and names from the industry now appear on Chicago landmarks ranging from IIT to Buckingham Fountain and the Art Institute.
An enjoyable ride, in other words. I’m back more or less full time on those ‘other’ skyscrapers now, but this has been a fruitful interlude…
A small contribution to understanding the long history that this week’s events in Chicago, among other places, are a part of. This paper, presented at the CAA conference in Chicago earlier this spring, is part of my current project to show how the city’s (deservedly) heralded commercial and civic high rises of the postwar era didn’t happen in a vacuum–they occurred within the political, social, and economic contexts of the city’s violent reactions and resistance to change. How do terrible decisions like those that led to Cabrini-Green get made, and why do seemingly good intentions metastasize into such projects? This brief overview of the city’s skyscrapers that didn’t work, and that rarely get discussed in architectural histories, looks at the forces that made physical monuments out of Chicago’s horrifying history of segregated housing.Further reading, highly recommended: D. Bradford Hunt, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago’s Public Housing. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). 146-147.
Introduction: Low Rise Housing by the CHA, 1938-1941
Chicago’s first public efforts at social housing, designed and built between 1938 and 1941, were low-rise row houses and mid-rise garden apartment blocks.[i] The four-story Lathrop Homes on the north side and the Trumbull Homes rowhouses on the far south side re-housed Polish and Italian families living in slum conditions nearby, while the Ida B. Wells row houses and walkup apartment blocks in Bronzeville were intended exclusively for black families.
The Jane Addams Homes, constructed at the intersection of Italian, Jewish, and African-American neighborhoods on the west side, could have been a leading example of integration. Yet the CHA assigned just one of the project’s thirty-two buildings to black families, revealing what the Defender called the CHA’s “Jim Crow provisions.”[ii]
Begun just three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Cabrini Homes on the north side were recast as housing for wartime workers and were thus subject to government non-discrimination requirements.
They became more integrated than other CHA projects, though they lagged behind the surrounding neighborhood’s changing demographics. Despite attempts by a neighborhood church and ‘outside agitators’ to keep black residents out, the Homes developed a tenuous reputation for racial harmony in their early years.[iii]
The Cabrini Homes exemplified the Authority’s ability to provide well-built, inexpensive row houses; double-story apartments for families were located above single-story, ground-level apartments designed for childless couples and seniors. (Figure 03) This allowed for a dense development without resorting to elevators while opening up shared yard space that was accessible—and visible—from every unit.[iv] Architect Henry Holsman experimented with new, durable materials such as precast concrete, and at $6,500 per unit, the Homes stretched minimal federal funding to achieve a “decent, comfortable place in which to live.”[v]
As D. Bradford Hunt and others have showed, the CHA planned to scatter low-rise projects throughout the city, but their attempts to house returning black veterans in white neighborhoods met with a rock-throwing mobs. The Airport Homes riot in 1946 was just the first of many violent reactions that terrorized black residents and intimidated city agencies.[vi] That year, a Mayor’s committee determined that “the answer to housing shortages in Chicago is the construction of apartment buildings instead of individual houses,” handing white mobs a victory, and leaving the CHA to find sites only in politically safe, black neighborhoods.[vii]
The Authority was thus pressured into ‘slum clearance’ projects to ‘rebuild’ black belt neighborhoods from within.[viii] Initially, this involved harnessing private capital to eminent domain. Developers were given financial incentives to build middle-class housing on former slum sites and displaced residents would be housed in new, modern apartments built by the CHA.[ix] The first slum clearance projects involved sites adjacent to the Lake between 31st and 35th Streets, and at the Federal Street neighborhood’s north end, between 27th and 30th Streets. The lakefront site was cleared for New York Life’s Lake Meadows project, ten apartment towers designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill for middle-class, black residents and built between 1951 and 1957.
Displaced families were provided with flats on the Federal Street site in the Dearborn Homes, where architects Loebl, Schlossman and Bennett laid out one, two, and three bedroom units in six- to nine- story towers, providing a demographic mix that reflected community patterns.[x] As Chicago’s “entering wedge in the high-rise field,” the Dearborn Homes catered to family logistics, with shared play areas and pram storage on each floor.[xi]
CHA director Elizabeth Wood noted that elevator buildings like the Dearborn Homes opened up shared outdoor space on crowded sites.[xii] But she—and the CHA—knew that high-rises were problematic for families.[xiii] Writing for Architectural Forum, she urged row houses for tenants with children, and she was cited by Catherine Bauer in a 1952 essay arguing against “skyscrapomania” in public housing.[xiv] Bauer’s research showed that families craved the ground level access, individualized heat and water, and private outdoor space offered by row houses. The “elevator building” worked for “people with servants, cars, and summer homes.” But low-income families could not thrive in projects where they had no supervised place for children to play, opportunities for social exchange with their neighbors, or private outdoor space.[xv]
A Brief Flurry of Innovation: Gallery Apartments
Federal support for housing programs waned during the 1950s. In response, the CHA sought creative solutions to tightening constraints from Chicago’s “top-flight architects,” settling on linear schemes with outdoor, ‘gallery’ circulation that doubled as semi-supervised play space for children. Housing experts compared these to the Chicago’s traditional back stairs and porches and the CHA embraced galleries as “sidewalks in the air.”[xvi]
The first gallery plan project in Chicago was Loomis Courts, designed by Loewenberg & Loewenberg with Weese & Van der Meulen, Associate Architects (1950-52). (Figure 05) Designed for 126 families, the complex consisted of two seven-story structures adjacent to the Jane Addams rowhouses. CHA planners rejected an initial nine-story skip-stop scheme, and design architect Harry Weese responded with angled gallery plans centered on a central elevator core. The shared, eight-foot wide ‘sky sidewalks’ opened into each apartments’ kitchen, providing, effectively supplementing ground-level playgrounds in the wide space between the two buildings.
Ogden Courts (1951-52), designed by SOM, were planned around similar galleries, but they also borrowed exposed construction techniques used by Mies van der Rohe in Promontory Apartments (1949).[xvii] Promontory was developed by Herbert Greenwald, a mentee of Henry Holsman, whose expertise had been so critical to the Cabrini Row Houses. Holsman served as a consultant on Promontory and was influential in refining its budget-conscious palette, another economic achievement that convinced the CHA that materials frankly expressed–or, in other words, left bare–could serve as architectural finishes. Ogden Courts’s exposed frame used dense, water-resistant concrete, which also formed bare flat slabs to create durable architectural ceilings within. The “building straight” approach, inspired by Promontory but with its roots in Holsman’s work at Cabrini, required “neither veneer nor paint,” and at just $9400 per unit, Ogden Courts set a formidably low bar for future CHA buildings and budgets.[xviii] Prairie Courts (1950-52), designed by Keck and Keck, deployed galleries with elevator cores at their 1/3 points in two 14-story buildings, while several seven-story blocks were arranged around continuous galleries with a single elevator core in the center. Apartments in these buildings had just one or two bedrooms, while lower row house blocks accommodated three- to five-bedroom units that offered immediate outdoor access.[xix]
Finally, Archer Courts (1951-52), along Archer Avenue at Cermak Road, were designed by Everett F. Quinn & Associates with Alfred L. Mell. (Figure 07) The two thin, gallery-plan slabs included three-bedroom units on the bottom two stories, with single-level units above, all contained within just a 21’ depth. This allowed cross-ventilation, but it also required no intermediate girders, simplifying formwork and allowing for exposed concrete ceilings. Archer Courts won praise for their “clarity and orderliness” and angled solar orientation.[xx] At $10,270 per unit, they were expensive, but they proved more functional and successful than their contemporaries.[xxi]
The March Toward High Rises
The Authority’s experiments in mid-rise housing were, however, short-lived. Federal agencies tightened budgets and standards while steep inflation and pressure from white neighborhoods forced the CHA into ‘slum clearance’ sites that came with steep land costs. With smaller, more expensive sites and shrinking federal support, there was nowhere for the CHA to go but up. The Authority commissioned budget and site driven ‘extensions,’ high-rise expansions of existing projects. Extensions had two advantages: they were already in politically safe, black neighborhoods and they allowed the CHA to make use of existing services. The first extension, the 15-story Grace Abbott Homes (Shaw, Metz, & Dolio, 1955) was constructed adjacent to Loomis Courts. It was followed by the nine-story Harold Ickes Homes (Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill, 1955) north of Dearborn Homes. These adopted the gallery plans that had informed the Authority’s mid-rise construction, but at new scales, adding 1200 and 700 units to their respective neighborhoods in towers ranging from nine to fifteen stories. Shoddy workmanship at the Abbott Homes suggested that low budgets had bred negligence and corruption, however.[xxii] Stateway Gardens, built between 1955 and 1957 in the Federal Street neighborhood, packed 1650 apartments into ten and seventeen story blocks. Designed by Holabird, Root, and Burgee, these were built of reinforced concrete with brick facing, with apartments bare concrete walls and ceilings, laid out to avoid freestanding columns.[xxiii] Stateway, too, fell victim to corruption and corner-cutting; inspectors uncovered a kickback scheme during its construction that raised concerns about the CHA’s hiring policies.[xxiv]
Worse than this low-level corruption, however, poor construction, inadequate services, and indifferent maintenance marred these projects’ early years. In 1958, the Tribune reported that patronage and “featherbedding” meant the CHA’s maintenance costs were 80% higher than in other cities’.[xxv] A Wall Street Journal reporter found that the three-year-old Abbott Homes were already neglected, with broken elevators and windows as well as cockroach and rat infestations that routine maintenance should have addressed. CHA’s patronage jobs rewarded political connections over ability or attendance. With underqualified or idle maintenance staff, buildings decayed quickly and irrevocably.
Laissez-faire maintenance was exacerbated by an ill-conceived drive toward multi-bedroom units. In January, 1958 CHA Director Alvin Rose argued for more than 4,000 new units with three to five bedrooms to accommodate larger families emigrating from the south. The Authority developed designs for five-story walkup structures, with single units for elderly residents on the ground floor and two rows of double-height multi-bedroom apartments above these.[xxvi] Rose touted the “built-in babysitters” provided by the elderly housing, but the scheme failed to come in under a $17,000 per unit federal budget.
As D. Bradford Hunt has noted, the Authority faced an impossible choice; it could not meet federal budgets with midrise housing on expensive clearance sites, but it also could not overcome the racial inertia that prevented it from building on cheaper, outlying land. Meanwhile, a long waiting list for multi-bedroom housing grew. Rose was despondent. “We cannot build the type of low buildings that we need unless the federal government changes its regulations,” he told the Tribune.[xxvii] “We can only build tall apartment buildings in which there must be many small apartments….We hope to build these large apartments in low buildings which would be much better for children than high rise apartments.”[xxviii] The CHA abandoned the “row-on-row” idea and planned instead for 11,000 new units in gallery-plan high-rises despite grave doubts.[xxix] Howard D. Gould, columnist for the Defender, warned, presciently, “for a family with several children in a high-rise building, how much supervision can a mother give children—if she is on the 12th floor—and they are travelling back and forth to the street on elevators?”[xxx]
The Colossal Projects: Cabrini Extension and the Taylor Homes
The Authority proposed large high-rise extensions for the Cabrini row houses on the north side, and the Dearborn Homes and Stateway Gardens projects on the south. The Cabrini Extension site required condemnation proceedings and relocations before construction could begin; as those were resolved, cost pressures piled further expectations on the project.[xxxi] Originally planned for 2,000 units—already a huge undertaking—it was split into two phases that, between them, provided over 3,000 apartments, most with three, four, or five bedrooms.
Cabrini Extension’s first phase (1958) was designed by A. Epstein and Sons, an engineering firm known more for rebuilding the Stockyards than for its hotels and residential buildings. (Figure 08) They adopted the exposed concrete and brick used by SOM in the Ogden Homes, but at a larger scale, with fifteen buildings of seven to nineteen stories each. The William Green Homes north of Division (1962), were designed by Pace Associates, which had been formed to carry out working drawings for Mies’ Promontory Apartments and had evolved into an independent firm specializing in high-rise housing. These fifteen- and sixteen-story blocks repeated Promontory’s exposed concrete walls, columns, and girders. (Figure 09, Figure 10) The Green Homes were planned for large families, with five bedroom apartments on the lower floors, three- and four-bedroom units on the third through sixth floors, and one- and two-bedroom units above.[xxxii]
Named for former CHA executive Robert Taylor, who had died in 1957, the 4400 units of the Federal Street project project were arranged into twenty-eight sixteen story blocks designed by Shaw, Metz & Associates and stretching for two miles along Federal Street. Faced with the need to fit so many units onto a 95-acre site, the masterplan wrapped towers of gallery plans with central, exposed elevator cores into tight, repetitive clusters. 3500 units had three bedrooms while just 900 units had one or two, packing 27,000 tenants onto less than 100 acres—a population density four times Chicago’s average. To achieve this, apartments throughout had to be two rooms deep instead of one, reducing cross-ventilation and forcing kitchens into the center of each unit.[xxxiii] (Figure 12) With neither close proximity to galleries nor any view of the playgrounds below, these landlocked kitchens left each cluster with virtually no supervised outdoor play space.
The Taylor Homes proved ill-conceived soon after their opening in March, 1962. (Figure 13) As Hunt has shown, the high percentage of three bedroom units skewed their demographics, exacerbating their inherent visibility and supervision problems.[xxxiv] Within the towers, a late decision by the Authority to cut elevator numbers from three per tower to just two, despite warnings from the PHA, meant extraordinarily long wait times, while a lack of skilled maintenance staff meant constant breakdowns.[xxxv] A typical block in the Taylor Homes had an elevator-to-bedroom ratio of 225:1, almost three times that of contemporary residential towers on Lake Shore Drive. Even the CHA’s own mid-rise projects had ratios of around 70:1 to 80:1. Children found high rise elevators to be irresistible playgrounds, often disabling or damaging them, and whole towers frequently went without any service at all. In September, 1963 three children died when firefighters arrived at an apartment fire to find both elevators broken.[xxxvi] Poor elevator service was matched by inadequate heating, plumbing, and recreational facilities.
Worse than their functional problems, however, the large high rise projects concentrated social problems and exacerbated racial segregation.[xxxvii] (Figure 14) Initial requirements that established minimum incomes to ensure that tenants were employed were abandoned as the high-rises became housing of last resort. With no employment in the surrounding neighborhoods and inadequate social programs, some residents turned to an underground economy that coalesced into organized gangs that exploited the towers’ poor visibility and flawed design. By January, 1964, violent assaults in the Taylor Homes’ laundries and elevators led to threats of rent strikes.[xxxviii] Further deaths—including a teenager who fell through a faulty gallery railing in 1964—and a growing crime problem cemented the high rises’ reputations as dysfunctional, dangerous communities.
By 1970, the CHA’s original mission, to provide “bootstrap” housing to families as a first step toward finding their own accommodations devolved into ‘warehousing’ the most city’s most challenged residents. Gang activity increased throughout the 1960s; sniper fire became a terrifying hallmark of life in Cabrini-Green.[xxxix]Tribune reporter Cornelia Honchar argued that the projects’ “Hydra’s head of problems” were exemplified by the towers’ “slow, undependable, dirty” elevators, which were unsecured from the outside and invisible from both apartments and the complex’ public areas, leaving residents vulnerable to assault. The underground economy, lax security, skewed demographics, and poor visibility, she argued, allowed teenage mischief and minor vandalism to metastasize an uncontained, ongoing revolt.[xl]
Chicago built its last multi-story housing in 1963. It was prohibited from constructing large housing projects after the landmark civil rights case of Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority in 1969, which showed that the city’s housing policies had actually hardened segregation patterns.[xli] Chicago instituted a voucher system aimed at dispersing tenants. The CHA’s high-rises themselves lasted less than two generations. The Authority embarked on a “Plan for Transformation” in the 1990s, moving 25,000 tenants from high-rise “warehouses” to low-rise CHA units, or to subsidized private housing. Some CHA housing stock was reconceived. Loomis Courts were privatized and converted to subsidized housing.[xlii] Dearborn Homes were gutted and renovated in 2009-2010 and Archer Courts were renovated in 1999-2001 and expanded with new townhouses.[xliii] Cabrini-Green, the Taylor Homes, Stateway Gardens, and other high-rise projects, however, were all demolished between 1995 and 2015.
In 1985, the Tribune’s William Mullen interviewed architects, CHA personnel, and residents who been involved with Cabrini-Green and other high-rise projects. “The Road to Hell” outlined the desperate situation that the CHA had been placed in by aldermen representing their constituents’ virulently segregationist views and by punishingly tight federal budgets. But Mullen also noted planners’ and architects’ complicity in the high-rises’ planning and design, quoting Monsignor John Egan, the Catholic church’s most vocal public housing proponent in the 1950s:
“When it was being planned in the 1950s, it seemed like a good idea,” he said of the Cabrini Extension….The problem is, we didn’t learn from our mistakes. We should have stopped the massive high-rise developments as soon as we saw what was going wrong in Cabrini. But we didn’t. We kept doing it over and over again.”[xliv]
[i] Al Chase, “New Chicago Housing Authority May Take Over Four Government Projects Here.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 14, 1937, pp. 1-c14.
[ii]C Cecil Craigne “Disclose Jim Crow Unit At Jane Addams: 30-Apartment Building Is Set Aside.” The Chicago Defender, Feb. 5, 1938. 7.
[iii] Carl Wiegman, “Story of City’s Big Problem: Negro Housing.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec 30, 1949, pp. 3. “White Kids Rebuff Hate, Elect Negro Boy ‘Mayor’.” The Chicago Defender, Mar 20, 1943, pp. 6.
[iv] “Furnish Model Apartments for War Workers in New Project.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jul 12, 1942, pp. 16.
[v]Al Chase, “New Construction Methods Save Time and Materials in CHA Housing.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug 23, 1942. pg. B10; and Ralph W Cessna, “Housing Units in Chicago Add to Comfortable Living.” The Christian Science Monitor, Jan 07, 1942. 20.
[vi] “Airport Homes.” The Chicago Defender, Nov 30, 1946. 14 and “It Happens In Chicago.” The Chicago Defender, Dec 14, 1946. 14.
. See, too, John Bartlow Martin, “Incident at Fernwood.” Harper’s Magazine, Oct 01, 1949. 86.
[vii] “Key to Housing is Apartments, Planners Told.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr. 18, 1946. 9.
[viii] Howard Wood, “Chicago Points New Way to Slum Clearance.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Aug. 14, 1938. G4.
[xxv] “Waste In Public Housing.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Apr 14, 1958. 18.
[xxvi] Thomas Buck, “Plans OK’d for 7,396 New Housing Units Here.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 20, 1959. 15; and “Propose New Type Of Public Housing Here: Seek Federal Approval Of Novel Units.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Feb 01, 1958. 11.
[xxvii] Thomas Buck, “Mayor to Ask New Type of Public Housing.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan. 15, 1958. 23.
[xxviii] Thomas Buck, “Larger Flats Called Public Housing Need.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jan 10, 1958. 7.
[xxix] Ray Vicker, “Changing Housing: Public Housing Men Try Smaller Units, Dispersal to Cut Social Problems.” Wall Street Journal, May 02, 1958. 1.
[xxx]Howard D. Gould, “Population vs. High-Rise Housing.” Daily Defender, May 25, 1959. 8.
[xxxi] Thomas Buck. “Cha Will Add 97 Acres to Cabrini Homes: Project to Contain 1,950 t0 2,650 Units.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 22, 1950. 1-n2.
[xxxii] “Dedicate Housing Project Named for William Green.” Chicago Daily Defender, Nov 21, 1961. 6.
[xxxiii] “CHA To Start 4,415 Homes Project Soon: Center Will Be Named For Negro Leader.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Sep 11, 1960. 28.
[xxxiv] D. Bradford Hunt, Blueprint for Disaster: The Unraveling of Chicago’s Public Housing. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). 146-147.
[xxxv] “Dispute Over Elevators of CHA Settled.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Apr 14, 1960. 6.
[xxxvi] “CHA Tenants Get Warning on Elevators.” Chicago Tribune, Sep 19, 1963. D3.
[xxxvii] “The Robert R. Taylor Homes.” Daily Defender, Apr. 16, 1959. 13.
[xxxviii] “‘Accord’ Reached at Taylor Homes.” Chicago Daily Defender, Jan 15, 1964. 4.
[xxxix] Cornelia Honchar, “Cabrini-Green–Near North Hell.” Chicago Tribune, Aug 2, 1970. W3