Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Thomas Chalmers House at 315 South Ashland Boulevard

The aftermath, 1871 (Google Image)

A year after the Great Chicago Fire destroyed 17,500 buildings and left 90,000 Chicagoans without a roof over their heads, the city had committed itself to building a second city, one greater in every way than the one they had lost a year before.  The Sherman House was finished that year, the Palmer House was begun, and Michigan Avenue was once again lined with modest structures.  Manufacturing concerns in the burnt district were erecting new plants by the scores. 

Chicago had begun its amazing trajectory, from ashes to the fastest growing city in the history of mankind.  Think about this . . . a local census in 1872 pegged the city’s population at 367,396.  By 1880 it had passed the half-million mark; by 1890 there were close to three times as many people living in the city as there had been less than two decades earlier.    

It was in that year of 1872 that William James Chalmers, just 20-years-old, went to work with his pop at the small Chicago firm of Fraser & Chalmers. The young man's father, Thomas, was born in Dundee, Scotland in 1816 and at the age of 27 headed to Glasgow with his wife, Jeanette, where the couple picked up a steamer for a 56-day voyage to New Orleans.  By 1844 they had found their way to Chicago, a hamlet with 4,000 citizens.

Thomas Chalmers found work with P. W. Gates in a foundry at the foot of Randolph Street, working for a dollar a day in a concern that manufactured plows, wagons and machinery for flour mills. 

Well-played, Thomas . . . a clear case of being in the right place at the right time.  It wasn’t long before Gates got the contract to forge the ironwork for the locks on the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which was finished in 1848.  It was also the Gates firm that built the first steam-operated sawmill in the country at a time when Chicago was the leading producer of milled lumber in the country.  

By the time of the Chicago fire, the gentleman from Dundee was a partner in the huge Eagle Works Manufacturing Company, where his son came to work with him.  This company did not survive the fire, but the elder Chalmers organized the Fraser & Chalmers firm in short order.

Google Image
Starting with 50 employees, the company had within a few years added more than a thousand more workers, ultimately becoming the largest manufacturer of mining machinery in the world.  By 1891 the company actually did become an international firm when it built a manufacturing plant in Erith, England.  At the same time the firm was expanding across the seas, it was spending $1,000,000 on a brand new 550,800 square foot works covering a dozen acres between Twelfth Street and Rockwell just a few blocks east of Douglas Park.

315 S. Ashland (JWB, 2012)
About the same time William James Chalmers, old man Chalmers’s son, a man not yet 40-years-old who had been born in Chicago and educated in its public schools, became president of the company. 

Nine years later Fraser & Chalmers merged with three other manufacturers of heavy engines, mining and other machinery to form the Allis-Chalmers Company, capitalized at 25 million dollars of preferred and 25 million dollars of common stock.  Cornelius Vanderbilt sat on the board of the new company along with the man whose father had begun his work in the United States at a forge not far from the Chicago River.

(JWB, 2012)
Before he moved north of the river to the tonier section of the city by Lincoln Park, William Chalmers lived in a house on Ashland Avenue across the street from the home Carter H. Harrison.  His father, Thomas, lived in a house just down the street.  Fritz Foltz and Samuel Atwater Treat designed Williams Chalmers' home at 315 Ashland Avenue.

Mr. Foltz was born in 1843 in Darmstadt, Germany and educated at the Polytechnic School in that city, finishing his training at the Royal Academy in Munich.  He began the practice of architecture at Frankfort-on-the-Main.  By 1868 he was in Chicago, where he joined Samuel Atwater Treat in a partnership that lasted until 1898.  Mr. Treat was born in Hew Haven, Connecticut on December 29, 1839 and began his architectural career at the age of 17.  

315 S. Ashland (JWB, 2012)
The two partners designed high-end homes for some of the most noted personages in Chicago, including the Martin A. Ryerson mansion on Drexel Boulevard and the Charles B. Farwell residence at 120 East Pearson.

It is interesting to note how much the Chalmers manse on Ashland Avenue has changed since it was constructed in 1885.  I’m not sure that it has been changed for the better.  Especially notable is the original porch that extended north from the rounded tower.  Ditching the porch probably allowed for more window space and a greater amount of light inside the home, but it seems to have diminished the elegance of the original design. 

The building is now divided into rental apartments.
The original design by Treat & Foltz and 315 S. Ashland as it stand today (JWB, 2012)


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