Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chicago Post Office . . . and Airport

Eliel Saarinen (Google Image)

In 1923 the great Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen came to Chicago after his design in the competition for Tribune Tower placed second.  Settling in Evanston and working on a scheme to develop the Chicago lakefront,  he was clearly taken with the potential that Chicago possessed.

He said as much that year, observing, “Someday day you shall be the most beautiful city in the world.  You shall outdo Paris.  She has her Seine; you have the lake.  No other city possesses such possibilities, such space for beauty, next the heart of her business section.”

From that moment on Chicago got to work.

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately about Chicago in the late 1920’s, and it must have been an amazing time.  Hundreds of miles of roads were being widened, hundreds more paved for the first time.  The Chicago River was straightened south of Polk Street.  Lake Shore Drive was extended all the way to Hollywood.  South Water Street was reborn as the double-decked Wacker Drive.  Michigan Avenue was widened, and the Michigan Avenue bridge turned the little country lane that was Pine Street into the Magnificent Mile.

Straightening the Chicago River (Forgotten Chicago)
Between 1926 and 1930, in less than four years, 168 buildings taller than ten stories were built, including the Daily News Building and the Civic Opera Building, facing off against one another across the river, finished within three months of one another.

It must have been an incredible time with new schemes announced every couple of weeks, plans that would transform the city, providing the foundation for the great modern city that we know today.

But not every plan was practical, and many ideas were tabled.  The city debated the possibility of a subway system for nearly three decades.  The link bridge across the river at Lake Shore Drive took nearly 15 years of negotiating before it was finally built.

I came across one scheme, though, that really made me chuckle.

The Main Post Office in Better Days (Google Image)
An article that ran in The Chicago Tribune on July 21, 1927 began with this headline:  PLAN AIRPORT ON TOP OF CHICAGO’S NEW POST OFFICE.

The proposed main post office was to be 320 feet wide and 600 feet long, but the article reported, “Government officials believe that within a few years it will be possible for planes to land and take off in a limited area and in anticipation they are making provision for a six acre landing field on the building . . .”

In some ways the scheme made perfect sense.   The new post office was to back up to the brand new Union Station, a plan that allowed the direct handling of mail to and from trains entering the station.  Combine air mail and mail car connections at the same facility, and you have got yourself a doozy of a new post office.

The article conceded “Aviators generally do not believe the roof to be of sufficient area for landing in flying’s present state . . .” 

It went on to state, though, “Inasmuch as congress has not yet appropriated for the new post office building, the thought back of the roof plan is that by the time the building is erected the airmen will be able to make it serve their purposes . . . numerous plane manufacturers are experimenting with devices intended to stop a plane soon after it comes down.”

Clearly, an awesome site for an airport (Google Image)
Of course, the post office was completed in 1932.  It had 2,485,000 square feet of space and room for 5,500 postal employees.

The rooftop aerodrome was scrapped early on in the process.  Instead, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White provided space for an eight-lane highway to run right through the middle of the building.  The highway wasn't finished for another 23 years, but if everything had been done according to the original plan it would have been great fun to watch the planes landing and taking off on the roof while driving toward the tunnel beneath the largest post office in the world. 


Jill said...

Loved this one, they sure had unique ideas!

hermes kelly 32 said...

I definitely agree with making lists for blog ideas.