Category Archives: Exploring Chicago

The magnificent bridge to the Magnificent Mile

Michigan Avenue Bridge, Chicago

Michigan Avenue Bridge, Chicago

If any one structure can depict the entire history of Chicago it’s the Michigan Avenue Bridge, formally named since 2010 the DuSable Bridge after Chicago’s first non-Native inhabitant, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable (before 1750-1818)

Constructed between 1918 and 1920, it opened up the area north of the Chicago River and extended the city’s retail quarter into the area that is now known as the Magnificent Mile.

It was designed for the Chicago Department of Public Works, Bureau of Engineering, led by the engineer William A. Mulcahy in consultation with the planner Edward H Bennett (1874-1954), who had co-authored the Chicago Plan of 1909 with the better-known Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912).

There’s more to this bridge than meets the eye as you walk or drive across it.

It’s significant as the first bascule bridge across the Chicago River.  All previous bridges over this busy waterway were swing bridges, which were frequently closed to road traffic through the day.

It’s actually two parallel bridges which can be raised separately.  If either bascule needs repair it can be fixed in the raised position while traffic continues uninterrupted over the other.

And, though it’s not apparent from street level, it has two decks, the lower deck leading directly to the docks and riverside.

Furthermore, its northern abutment stands on the site of Du Sable’s original residence and the southern abutment occupies the location of Fort Dearborn (1803-4), the US Army base which encouraged the growth of the settlement that became the city of Chicago.

For these reasons the bridge is lavishly decorated with reliefs depicting scenes from the first discovery of the site by Louis Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette in 1673 to the rebuilding after the Chicago Fire of 1871.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

The Rookery

The Rookery, Chicago

The Rookery, Chicago

One of the most magnificent examples of the nineteenth-century revolution in construction is the Rookery Building in Chicago’s Loop, built by Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912) and John Wellborn Root (1850-1891) during the explosion of innovation that followed the great fire of 1871.

Under pressure to rebuild the city quickly, the group of architects we now call the “Chicago School” mastered the techniques of building high buildings on a swampy site, and in doing so virtually invented the skyscraper.

The Rookery is externally conventional:  above the second storey its outside walls are entirely load-bearing masonry.  On the inside, however, the central light-court is framed by cast-iron columns, wrought-iron spandrels and steel beams.

Its spectacular atrium, lit by a glazed skylight roof and embellished by dramatic staircases to and above the mezzanine balcony, is one of the architectural wonders of Chicago.

It was modernised in 1905 by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), who encased Root’s elaborately ornamental wrought iron and terracotta with gilded, incised white marble panels that picked up the carved ornament of Burnham & Root’s exterior.

Burnham & Root – before Root’s untimely death – and, later on, Frank Lloyd Wright each based their practices in the building.

A further, clumsy refurbishment in 1931 obscured much of the quality of the original designs, and in 1992 a careful restoration by McClier Architects brought back the full impact of its 1905 appearance.

Indeed, McClier left exposed one of Root’s cast-iron columns to show the contrast between the original design and Frank Lloyd Wright’s radical make-over.

The lobby of the Rookery Building is freely accessible to visitors, on regular tours, but the light court is less often seen:

The Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust offers tours of the Rookery Building on a regular basis – – and the Chicago Architectural Foundation includes the Rookery in their rich programme of architectural experiences:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Right idea, wrong moment

Oriel Chambers, Water Street, Liverpool

Oriel Chambers, Water Street, Liverpool

When I take groups around Liverpool city-centre, I pause in front of Oriel Chambers on Water Street, and invite people to guess the date of the building.  Most people get it wildly wrong, as I originally did, unless they’re sharp-eyed enough to spot the date high in the central gable.

Oriel Chambers is a tall, elegant office-block, its framework picked out in nail-headed stone mullions which frame the delicate cast-iron windows which give it its name.

It would do credit to an architect of the present generation:  in fact it was completed in 1864 by a virtually unknown architect, Peter Ellis Jnr (1804-1884), who for his pains was virtually laughed out of the profession.

Its inner courtyard (inaccessible to the public), faced with cantilevered iron cladding, even more uncompromisingly anticipates the Modern Movement.   Except for one other framed building a couple of streets away, 16 Cook Street (1866), Ellis built hardly anywhere else.

Oriel Chambers is also significant in engineering history because Peter Ellis installed the first ever example of a paternoster lift:

The Builder pompously dismissed Oriel Chambers out of hand:

The plainest brick warehouse in town is infinitely superior as a building to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Water Street termed Oriel Chambers.   Did we not see this vast abortion – which would be depressing were it not ludicrous – with our own eyes, we should have doubted the possibility of its existence.  Where and in what are their beauties [sic] supposed to lie?

Ellis’ obituary in the Liverpool Daily Post (October 24th 1884) describes him as an architect and surveyor “held in high esteem by the members of his own profession” without mentioning a single building or design.

It’s possible, however, that Ellis’ genius had a distant flowering.

After the fall of Atlanta in 1864, an American planter with Liverpool business connections, Simon Root, sent his son to Liverpool for the duration of the American Civil War.  The son was John Wellborn Root (1850-1891), who returned to the USA and became one of the leaders of the Chicago School of architects, responsible for the development of iron- and steel-framed buildings and the birth of the skyscraper in New York and Chicago .

1860s Liverpool wasn’t a big place by modern expectations.  It’s unlikely that the young Root didn’t notice Ellis’ buildings and the fireproof warehouses that Jesse Hartley and George Fosbery Lyster had built along the river front.

There’s no proof, but there’s a strong likelihood that the magnificent achievement of the Chicago School of architects may have a root in the Liverpool buildings that contemporary architects didn’t give the time of day.

The first monograph on the life and work of Peter Ellis is Robert Ainsworth & Graham Jones, In the Footsteps of Peter Ellis (Liverpool History Society 2013).

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

The 68-page, A4 handbook for the 2011 Liverpool’s Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

In the Loop

The Loop, Chicago

The Loop, Chicago

If ever you fly into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, don’t – as I have done repeatedly – take a cab into town.  It’ll cost you something like forty dollars that you could put to better use.  Catch the Blue Line for $2.25 or less:

The Blue Line is one of the newer (1984) sections of Chicago’s celebrated elevated railway, pronounced “El” and formally written as ‘L’.  All of Chicago’s urban railways were elevated above street-level, either on embankments or viaducts, until the construction of two subways which were intended to double as air-raid shelters, the State Street subway (1943) and the Dearborn subway (completed 1951).

The ‘L’ was the creation of a dynamic, unscrupulous, unlikeable tycoon, Charles Tyson Yerkes (1837-1905), who followed up his attempts to gain a monopoly of the city’s streetcars by linking together the elevated railways which until 1897 stopped short of the central area, disgorging thousands of passengers into the congested streets of the financial and retail zones.

Yerkes provided the links, creating a four-sided loop round which all but one of Chicago’s ‘L’ lines gyrate.  Without him, there would be no meaning to the phrases “in the loop” and “out of the loop”.

Everybody knew Yerkes was not an honest man.  He’d been thrown into jail in Philadelphia for misappropriating public funds in 1871:  he served seven months of his 33-month sentence.

He moved to Chicago, with a new wife and a newly minted credibility, and quickly established himself as a financier and investor in streetcars and urban railways.  (Whenever he gained authority to build a line out of town, the out-of-town section generally didn’t get built.)

His methods were unorthodox:  syndicates, honeytraps, blackmail and bribery were his stock in trade.  When they failed he used more subtle deceit, hiding his identity behind proxies.  His self-proclaimed method was to “buy up old junk, fix it up a little, and unload it upon other fellows.”

By fair means and foul, Yerkes imposed on the streets of Chicago the characteristic steel viaducts that to this day blot out the sun and fill the air with the rumbling of electric trains grinding round right-angle bends.

Only once does it seem he was beaten at his own game.  The newly-appointed University of Chicago professor of astronomy, George Ellery Hale, aged twenty-four at the time, manipulated – and embarrassed – him into funding not only the largest telescope in the world up to that time, but also the observatory to contain it, which to this day is known as the Yerkes Observatory [].

Eventually, city government and the city’s press combined to defeat his chicanery, and he sold up and left town in 1900.

He eventually ended up in London, where the practical and financial uncertainties that had dogged the planned deep-level tube system looked a fertile area for his type of enterprise.  He bought up existing companies and combined them into the London Underground Electric Railway Company.

He died before the Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly railways were fully operational, and the London Underground was directed to success by others.

This disreputable man gave London one of its greatest public assets, and an unmistakable icon. His estate was proved at $4 million – under a million pounds at the time.

There is an account of his career at

This cab-ride footage gives an idea of the compact scale of the Loop as a Brown Line train proceeds south, east, north and west, before turning north to cross the Chicago River into the Merchandise Mart station:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City: the architecture of Chicago please click here.

Carriage building turned to a fine art

Fine Art Building, Chicago

Fine Art Building, Chicago

Just as Chester’s central library incorporates a fine example of early automobile architecture, so Chicago’s Fine Art Building is based on the Studebaker Carriage Works of 1884-5.

The five Studebaker brothers started out in the 1850s building wagons for the military, for the California gold rush and for those pioneers’ covered wagon-trains that figured in a landmark 1960s television series.

Gradually they extended their repertoire to more genteel passenger carriages.  Their works was at South Bend, Indiana, and in 1884 they opened their showroom, designed by Solon Spencer Beman, at 410 South Michigan Avenue in central Chicago.  It was designed to receive carriages in kit-form, which were lifted to the upper storeys in small pieces and then assembled floor by floor until they reached the ground-floor showroom where they could be sold and immediately trundled out on to the street.

Chicago’s birth as a cultural centre grew from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, celebrating the quatercentenary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World.  In the afterglow of the World’s Fair, as it’s more commonly known, the Studebaker building, which stands in the same block as the Auditorium Building of 1889-90, was adapted in 1898 as a centre for artists of all kinds, and it continues today as a venue for painters, musicians, dancers and designers –

The adaption included two auditoria, the Studebaker Theater and the smaller Playhouse Theater, both of which were earmarked for restoration some years ago:

During the 1898 renovation a series of murals by Martha Baker, Charles Francis Browne, Frederic Clay-Bartlett, Oliver Dennett Grover, Frank X Leyendecker and Bertha Menzler-Peyton were installed on the tenth floor.  Take the ancient lift, and enjoy the sounds of the resident musicians going about their daily work.

The Fine Art Building provides regular events for the public:  see

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago’ please click here.


The Auditorium

The Auditorium Building, Chicago

The Auditorium Building, Chicago

It’s easy to walk straight past Chicago’s Auditorium Building (1889) on South Michigan Avenue.  Once the tallest building in the city, it’s now one of the magnificent group of structures that form the “streetwall” overlooking Grant Park.

The philanthropist Ferdinand Wythe Peck (1848-1924), supported by such luminaries as Marshall Field (1834-1906) and George Mortimer Pullman (1831-1897), intended it as a major cultural centre and with a strongly egalitarian emphasis, following the bitter and tragic Haymarket Riot of 1886, which first provoked the celebration of May Day as a workers’ festival.

Peck wanted a civic auditorium that would provide equally good sight-lines and acoustics for every seat and, as originally conceived, no private boxes.  Built at a cost of $3,200,000, it was one of the earliest American buildings to be air-conditioned and lit by incandescent electric lights.

The Chicago architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler combined in one structure a 4,300-seat auditorium, a speculative office block and a 400-room hotel.  Adler designed a foundation raft of railroad ties (railway sleepers, in British terminology) and steel rails to support the ten-storey structure, with its seventeen-storey tower, on the deep bed of clay beneath.

Unfortunately, the weight of the load-bearing exterior walls led to spectacular settlement, in places over 2½ feet, so that to this day the lobby floor slopes perceptibly.  Nevertheless, Sullivan & Adler’s practice moved into an office suite on the top floor of the tower, where the young Frank Lloyd Wright served his apprenticeship as a draughtsman.

The auditorium is magical:  the ceiling arches are embellished with 24-carat gold leaf and the walls are elaborated stencilled to Sullivan’s designs.  Albert Francis Fleury painted murals of Spring and Autumn on the side walls and Charles Holloway decorated the proscenium with forty-five life-size classical figures, all inspired by Louis Sullivan’s poetry.

The building has provided the venue for many milestones in Chicago’s cultural life:  it hosted the Republican National Convention in 1888, the year before the building was completed;  it was the venue for the debut of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1891.

However, the Symphony Orchestra moved out in 1904 and the opera company followed in 1929.  The office space proved difficult to sell because of the noise of the elevated railway on South Wabash Avenue, and the hotel failed to thrive because newer competitors featured en-suite bathrooms.

The only reason the building survived the 1930s was because it was too expensive to demolish.  In 1941 the theatre company went bankrupt.  During the war it was used as a servicemen’s entertainment centre, with a bowling alley on the stage and front stalls.

In 1947 the Auditorium Building was sold for $1 to the then Roosevelt College, now Roosevelt University.  The hotel rooms became classrooms and the former dining room became the college library.  A group led by Mrs Beatrice T Spachner campaigned for the restoration and reopening of the derelict auditorium, which took place in 1967.  The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1975, and a further, thorough restoration took place in 2001.

The Auditorium has a regular programme of performances – – and Roosevelt University offers public tours of the building:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here


Before Bloomingdales

Former Medinah Temple, Chicago (detail)

Former Medinah Temple, Chicago (detail)

My Isle of Man friend John, whose antennae can detect a pipe organ over astonishing distances, has pointed me to footage of the interior of the Medinah Temple, Chicago, dating from 2000, when the Austin Opus 558 organ was intact and playable:

Perhaps Bloomingdales missed an opportunity when they stripped out this instrument to convert the building into a department store.

Macy’s in Philadelphia, the current owners of what was once Wanamaker’s, have retained and restored the gigantic pipe organ which John Wanamaker purchased from the St Louis World’s Fair of 1904.  Designed by the great organ designer George Ashdown Audsley, this exhibition instrument – the largest in the world with over 10,000 pipes – proved insufficient to fill the volume of the store’s seven-storey atrium.  Enlargements took place in 1910-1917 and again in 1924-1930, so that there are now 28,500 pipes, controlled by six manuals.

The Wanamaker Organ, as it is still named, is a much-loved part of Philadelphia life.  It figured in one of the Knight Foundation‘s Random Acts of Culture in which 600 choral singers, disguised as shoppers, led by the chorus of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, burst into an impromptu performance of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ to the astonishment and delight of ladies trying on shoes and having their make-up done:

A video history of the Wanamaker Organ is at


For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.


Shrine for shoppers


Former Medinah Temple, Chicago

Former Medinah Temple, Chicago

The first couple of times I visited Chicago I stayed at the Cass Hotel on North Wabash Avenue – at that time an inexpensive, serviceable place to stay with a fluorescent-lit coffee-shop on the ground floor and a dark bar by the entrance.  Now it’s transformed into a boutique Holiday Inn Express:

On my first visit, in 2001, I was intrigued by the building on the next block, an exceptionally rich essay in Moorish Revival style, bristling with Islamic motifs, which I was told was the Medinah Temple – not in any sense a place of worship, but a Shriners’ temple.

The Shriners – properly entitled the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine – are virtually inexplicable to the British.  It’s akin to explaining Oddfellows to an American (though there is an American connection, the Odd Fellows).

The Shriners is a philanthropic organisation, responsible among much else for operating children’s hospitals.  The founders sought to combine Freemasonry with fun and fellowship, and their temples provided enormous auditoria in which huge fundraising entertainments could take place.

The Chicago Medinah Temple was a much-loved venue for circuses and graduations.  Built in 1912, it could seat 4,200, and because of its excellent acoustics and its huge five-manual organ it was regularly used as a recording studio by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Noël Coward, obliged to undergo an uncomfortable medical procedure in the nearby Passavant Hospital (now part of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital), was at first irritated by the noise of the massed bands of the Shriners marching to their temple, but later admitted that their rhythmic rendition of ‘Darktown Strutters’ Ball’ “helped a little, spasmodically”.

In 2000-3 the Medinah Temple’s exterior was restored, but the interior was stripped out, apart from the proscenium, the dome and some stained glass, to create a spectacular branch of Bloomingdale’s

To find out more about the Shriners, visit and

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Windy City:  the architecture of Chicago please click here.