Sunday, September 16, 2012

Irv Kupcinet Bridge at Wabash Street

The Irv Kupcinet Bridge at Wabash Avenue (JWB, 2009)
On this day back in 1929 work began on the Wabash Avenue bridge across the Chicago River.   The Ketler-Elliott company, the firm awarded the contract to complete the structure, was given 11 months to complete the project.  The $3,700,000 worth of bonds for the bridge had been approved on April 5, 1927.

The Wabash Avenue Bridge in 1933 (Historic American Buildings Survey)
The design was part of an ambitious plan to create a drive along the north bank of the river, joining the north end of Wabash Avenue at Wacker Drive with the south end of Cass Street on the opposite side of the river.  The plan was to construct a viaduct that would span the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad tracks and Kinzie Street on the north side of the bridge and a ramp that would descend from the bridge over the viaduct to grade level at Illinois Street.

Businessmen on Cass Street on the north side of the new bridge were elated at the prospect of the increased business that the new bridge would bring.  They proposed widening Cass Street, named after Brigadier Lewis Cass, United States Secretary of State under President James Buchanan, by at least eight feet and changing its name to North Wabash Avenue.

The 80-ton trunnion girders arrive
(Chicago Tribune photo)
On June 30 of 1930 four huge trunnion girders, each weighing 80 tons, arrived at the construction site by barge.  Fabricated in Gary, Indiana, they had been taken to south Chicago on flat cars where derricks hoisted them onto barges for the trip to Wabash Avenue and the river, where the substructure of the bridge had been completed.

Two months later the last piece of steel for the south span of the bridge was put into place, marking the completion of the steel work for the entire bridge.  On December 20 the bridge was formally opened.  After a parade south on LaSalle Street from Lincoln Park to Wacker Drive and then east to the new bridge, Mayor Thompson cut the ribbon to open the bridge at an “occasion for political speeches to the scores of city hall pay rollers who had ridden in the parade,” according to The Chicago Tribune.

Not all of the “pay rollers” were happy.  The Commissioner of Public Works, Richard W. Wolfe, was under investigation by an aldermanic committee over irregularities in the letting of contracts for the north side viaduct and approach to the new bridge.  Apparently Wolfe oversaw a process in which the contract for the north side infrastructure did not go to the low bidder.  The Ketler-Elliottt Company, which had been contracted for the project, charged the city $10 a cubic foot for caisson excavation below a depth of 75 feet while the low bidder, the E. J. Albrecht Company, offered a price of $2.

The dedication of the bridge on December 20, 1930
(Chicago Tribune photo)
Still, it was a big boost for the city, relieving traffic on busy Clark Street and helping to take up some slack while the old State Street bridge just to the east was being replaced.  And on June 15, 1931 the American Institute of Steel Construction selected the new bridge as the most beautiful span costing more than $1,000,000 in the United States and Canada.  City Bridge Engineer Thomas G. Pihfeldt drew the plans for the new bridge, which was fabricated by the American Bridge Company.  

On December 23 of 1985 the Chicago City Council renamed the Wabash Avenue bridge, and it is today the Irv Kupcinet Bridge.  “Kup” for nearly 50 years wrote a column for the Chicago Sun Times, also serving as host for a weekly television show fromn 1959 to 1986, also helping Jack Brickhouse call Chicago Bears games from 1953 to 1976 (“dat’s right, Jack”).

The south span of the Kupcinet Bridge (American Historic Buildings Survey)
Wabash Street, itself, reflects the changing nature of Chicago, perhaps more than any of the major downtown streets.  Its origins lie in an old Indian trail that began at the southwest corner of the reservation near present day State and Madison Streets and followed the present line of Wabash Street to Roosevelt Road, where it moved eastward to Vincennes on the Wabash River.

In the early years the only structure on the path was a barn that served Fort Dearborn just to the north.  It wasn’t until 1841 that St. Mary’s Catholic Church was built at Madison and Wabash, the first building of permanence on the street.  Things picked up during the 1840’s with various merchants putting up shops on the street.  In fact, it was in John V. Farwell’s store between Lake and Randolph on Wabash that Levi Leiter and Marshall Field first worked as clerks.

Bridge looking south toward Wacker Drive (

Just before the fire of 1871 nearly a dozen churches stood on Wabash between Van Buren and Washington, including the South Presbyterian Church, established by Cyrus McCormick in 1856, Kehilath Anshe Maariv, the oldest synagogue in the west, and the Second Presbyterian, which The Tribune called “the most magnificent church edifice in the west.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1929]

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 changed the street as it changed so much about the city..  The churches and most of the residences on the street moved south, and Wabash began its second life.  We still know the concentration of jewelers on the north end of the street.  Many of us also remember Music Row around Jackson and Adams and all of the book shops, printers and stationers that were south of that.  With the Loop elevated running down the middle of the street from Lake Street to Van Buren, Wabash is the one street in the central part of Chicago where you pretty easily imagine the city as it might have been a century ago.

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