Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Barney the Elephant & a Gallon of Whiskey

Barney was here (JWB Photo)
Okay, here’s one that my unbelievably cute granddaughters, Maddie and Faye, would love.

It happened on this date, December 18, all the way back in 1900. 

I’m not making any of it up. 

Someone thought it would be a fine idea to hold a circus on the fourth floor of the Chicago Athletic club’s headquarters on Michigan Avenue.  In order to have a first-rate circus, one needs circus sorts of things.  Some circus things you can live without.  Chimps on horseback, for example . . . never a big favorite of mine.  Dogs in tutus . . . also not high on my things-to-see-at-the-circus list.

But one circus thing you can’t do without?  An elephant. 

So back in 1900 in order to have for the Chicago Athletic Club to have its circus an elephant in the charge of keeper C. McCurren was walked down Michigan Avenue from Lincoln Park, where the circus to which it was attached was spending the winter.  When the entourage reached the Chicago Athletic Club it found that “. . . a large number of the club members, who doubted the beast’s disposition to climb to its station on the fourth floor” had assembled. [Chicago Tribune.  December 19, 1900]

The question might be asked, “Why the stairs and not the elevator?”

The answer is a simple one.  Back in those days elevators weren’t made for 2,500 pound elephants.  So Barney faced a four-flight hike up the Athletic Club’s formal staircase.

Preparations had been made.  Barney had been “prepared for the ordeal by a gallon of whiskey and an equal amount of molasses.”  The whiskey I get.  The molasses . . . maybe someone out there has the answer to that one.

The Tribune’s coverage continued.

The front doors were opened and the elephant moved through as if it were in the habit of entering great clubhouses.  The beast, which is only 8 years of age, evidently was apprehensive of the sharp hook carried by Tom Powers, the keeper, who led it.  While a dozen employees about the club placed two-inch boards over each step Barney stood at the bottom lazily swinging its trunk.

Once the stairs were in readiness Powers gave the iron hook a tug and the elephant began the ascent of the first flight of stairs.  Three steps at a time were taken.  The boards moved on the stairs, but did not slip, and the elephant soon was waiting the shifting of the boards to the second flight.  As it stood in the center of the main reception-room of the clubhouse the great beast looked strangely out of place, but not so much so as when waiting for another transfer of the boards it half filled the woman’s reception-room on the third floor.

From the women’s reception-room it was a cakewalk up the last flight of stairs to the club’s gymnasium, where Barney was “chained to a heavy post until after the circus.”

For me the most amazing part of the whole adventure was this:  fortified by a gallon of whiskey, which probably was not single malt and which probably had been aged for significantly less than 14 years, good old Barney took those stairs, three at a time.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

State Street Subway Is Begun -- December 17, 1938

Work on the State Street Subway
On this day, December 17, in 1938 at 3:00 in the afternoon Mayor Edward Kelly, accompanied by Harold L. Ickes, Public Works administrator for the federal government, and leaders of civic organizations from across the city, left city hall and paraded up La Salle Street to Chicago Avenue, at which point they headed east to a speakers’ rostrum set up on State Street.  Once assembled just south of Chicago Avenue, Alderman James R. Quinn, chairman of the city council’s local transportation committee, introduced the mayor and Mr. Ickes and the ceremonies that marked the beginning of construction on the State Street subway kicked off.

Chicago was a little late in getting the party started.  The first subways in the world had been constructed in London by 1863.  Boston was the first city in the United States to dig tunnels for transportation, inaugurating its first line in 1898.  Paris Joined the trend, followed by Berlin.  By 1904 New York had the beginning of what today is the greatest subway system in the world.  By 1908 that system was carrying 800,000 riders a day.  Then Philadelphia joined in, finishing its subway that same year.  Next came Madrid, Barcelona, Tokyo,  followed by Buenos Aires, Sydney, Osaka, even, in 1935, Moscow. [Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1938]

Most work was done using the "deep bore" method with minimal disruption above ground.
The vision for a downtown subway had been shared as early as 1902 when Bion J. Arnold, who helped design New York City’s subway system and who was known as the “father of the third rail,” recommended a coherent system of underground railways for Chicago.  The Chicago Plan of 1909, which began a remarkable two decades of grand municipal projects within the city, recommended burying the streetcar lines in its chapter on transportation.

“There should be an underground street car system [along the side and south of the Twelfth Street passenger system; thence over to the Alley L as at present, around by Lake Street and across to the West Side passenger station],” Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett wrote in the 1909 plan.

From 1907 until the State Street subway was begun in 1938, money accumulated in a special traction fund, into which the city’s privately  managed surfaced lines paid.  [Borzo, Greg.  The Chicago “L”]  In 1913 Mayor Carter Harrison put forth a plan to bury the surface lines in the Loop in a proposal that would have cost well over a million dollars, but nothing came of the idea.

In the interim, things just kept getting worse as State Street and its surrounding commercial district grew into an increasingly alarming bedlam of pedestrians, horse drawn express wagons, automobiles, and trolley cars.

State Street in the 1920's
The writers of the 1909 plan gave a huge reason for doing something, appealing for a better city, couching that appeal in the dollars and cents vocabulary that the city’s business leaders might take to heart.  Burnham wrote,

. . . the noises of surface and elevated road cars is excruciating. It is not desired that this evil can be largely mitigated.  These conditions actually cause misery to a large majority of people who are subject to the constant strain, and in addition they undoubtedly cause a heavy aggregate loss of money to the business community.  For the sake of the state, the citizen should be at his best, and is the business of the state to maintain conditions conducive to his bodily welfare.  Noises, ugly sights, ill smells, as well as dirty streets and workshops or offices, tend to lower average efficiency.  It does not pay the state to allow them to continue.  Moreover, citizens have pride in and loyalty to a city that is quiet, clean and generally beautiful.  It is not believed that ‘business’ demands that our present annoying conditions be continued.  In a state of good order all business must be done better and more profitably.  With things as they should be, every business man in Chicago would make more money than he does now.

Things dragged on for decades, but once construction began, things moved quickly.  The project was exempted from the prohibition against construction during World War II because it was determined that the new subway, carrying soldiers and sailors from place to place within the largest railroad center in the world, was integral to the war effort.

Less than five years after the ceremony in December of 1938 Mayor Kelly cut a ceremonial red, white and blue ribbon strung across the northbound track of the new subway at 10:47 a.m., and the new line officially opened for revenue service after midnight on October 17, 1943. 

Existing trolley tracks, soon to be replaced -- note Chicago Theater at back of photo
(Flikr:  CTA Web)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Congress Expressway Opening -- December 15, 1955

The Congress Expressway under construction,
looking west from the Post Office (Chicag Tribune photo by Gary Quinn)
On this date in 1955 a significant four-and-a-half mile section of the Congress Expressway, between Ashland Avenue (1600 West) and Laramie Avenue (5200 West) was opened in a ceremony at which the governor of Illinois, William Stratton, the new mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley and the Cook County president, Dan Ryan, officiated.

The Congress Expressway, or west side superhighway, was first proposed in 1940, but the war and a shortage of steel and other crucial supplies immediately after the war delayed construction by over two decades.  It was one of the greatest infrastructure projects in the city’s history, involving the massive use of the powers of eminent domain to level a huge swath of railroads, industrial buildings, homes, churches, even a cemetery, for a distance of seven miles.  Between 1948 and 1956 over 6,000 Chicago families lost their homes to superhighway construction, primarily on the west and southwest sides of the city.  [“America on the Move.”]

The Eisenhower, as it is known today (Mike Royko famously called this Chicago’s only Republican expressway), is the only expressway in the country to run underneath a United State Post Office and was the first expressway in the country to include rapid transit lines in the median.  It is the only expressway in Chicago to cross the river by way of a moveable bridge.

The scope of the project was monumental, impressive from an engineering
perspective . . . not so much from a sociological one (Tribune photo)
“This is a milestone, a first milestone in the modernization of Chicago metropolitan area traffic facilities,” said Governor Stratton.  “In the next four years 700 million dollars will be spent in this program.”

The Tribune’s reportage of the event seems to indicate that government officials may have been a little too quick with their early Christmas present to the city’s motorists.  Entrances and exits at Ashland, Damen and Western avenues were only temporary one-lane ramps, and “Traffic was jammed at these bottlenecks and on the streets leading to and from the ramps.”  [Chicago Tribune, December 16, 1955]

A year earlier a two-and-a-half mile section of the expressway was opened, heading west from First Avenue in Maywood, and was already carrying 20,000 cars a day.  It was estimated that when the entire project was finished (which it was in 1956), the road would be carrying 120,000 cars a day Chicago’s lakefront to the DuPage County line.

By 1959 the highway was at full capacity (CTA photo)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Kate Sturges Buckingham Passes -- December 14, 1937

Kate Sturges Buckingham's most well-known contribution--
Buckingham Fountain (JWB Photo)
On this date in 1937 one of the great women in the history of Chicago passed away as Kate Sturges Buckingham died at the age of 79 in her home at 2450 North Lakeview Avenue.  She was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Zanesville, Ohio alongside her parents, brother and sister.

In announcing Miss Buckingham’s passing The Chicago Tribune noted, “She was godmother to the Art institute; the collections for which it is most famous were her gifts.  She was godmother to the opera; at the time of her death she was a guarantor.  She was godmother to some 200 or more music and art students.  She was a heavy donor to the Field museum, to innumerable Chicago charities, to many, many nameless Chicagoans.” [Chicago Tribune, December 15, 1937]

Despite being one of the wealthiest women in the United States and one of the most generous individuals in a city blessed with a long procession of altruistic citizens, Miss Buckingham preferred that no credit come to her for the many contributions she made.  Later in life she ordered that her name be removed from the Social Register and severely limited her circle of friends.

Miss Buckingham was born on August 3, 1858, the eldest daughter of Ebenezer and Lucy Buckingham, in Zanesville, Ohio.  Her mother’s father, Solomon Sturges, was responsible for bringing the family to Chicago in the 1850’s.  At that time the Sturges and Buckingham families controlled a string of grain elevators in Ohio, Pennsylvania and along the Erie Canal.  It was sound business sense  to move to Chicago and in 1850 Miss Buckingham’s great uncle, Alvah Buckingham, constructed the first grain elevator in the city. [Schultz, Rima Lunin & Hast, Adele. Women Building Chicago 1790-1990.]

Everything that the Buckingham and Sturges families owned was obliterated in the Great Fire of 1871, their homes on the north side of the city, their grain elevators along the river, the first of many tragedies that would become a motif that ran through Miss Buckingham’s life. 

A second fire in 1873 gave rise to one of the earliest examples of Miss Buckingham’s generosity.  After that second conflagration, the 15-year-old Kate launched a drive to raise funds for a Christmas party to bring some measure of joy to children in the Cook County hospital. 

The Tribune describes the effort . . . “On Christmas eve the Christmas tree, heavily laden with gifts, was set up in the children’s ward and its many candles were lighted.  Tragedy swiftly followed.  Through some mishap the burning candles started a fire.  The tree and all its Christmas largesse burned down. Bur young Miss Buckingham, nothing deterred, set forth to raise anew money enough for gifts for each child.  And did.”

The family relocated their home to Prairie Avenue, the city’s most select street, and the family business, J & E Buckingham, prospered beyond measure. In 1882 Miss Buckingham’s father also built a grand home in Lake Forest, but despite its location on a bluff above Lake Michigan, the family continued to make its principal home in Chicago.

It was in the Prairie Avenue home that Kate and her sister, Lucy Maud, were educated.  It was in this home that Lucy Buckingham died in 1889, and it was there that Kate’s sister became increasingly incapacitated.  From the house Clarence Buckingham, Kate’s brother, and their father expanded the family’s enterprises to include banking, insurance, steel manufacture, and real estate.

Clarence Buckingham's prints were included in a exhibit
curated by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1908 (
The family’s affiliation with the Art Institute began in the 1890’s when Clarence, impressed by the Japanese art that was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, began to collect Japanese prints.  Ebenezer died in 1911, Clarence died just over a year later, and Lucy Maud lingered on in increasingly poorer health until 1920.  All the losses must have further isolated Kate, a woman left alone in a house that mother, father, sister and brother had shared for her whole adult life.

She continued to collect art, though, following her brother’s lead.  Clarence had been a governing member of the Art Institute of Chicago for three decades and a member of the Board of Trustees for a dozen.  [Scultz & Hast]  After the death of her sister, Kate Buckingham gave her entire collection of Japanese prints, etchings and engravings, Chinese pottery and porcelain, Persian miniatures, Chinese ritual bronzes, Italian silver and English lusterware to the institute. [The Frick Collection.  Archives Directory for the History of Collecting in America]

She also furnished the Art Institute’s Gothic room in the memory of her sister and finished the Jacobean Room at the museum in the name of her parents.  In 1925 she gave her brother’s entire collection of fourteen hundred sheets of Japanese prints to the museum as well.

The "one-million dollar memorial," another legacy
of Kate Buckingham (JWB Photo)
Miss Buckingham also wrote a check to the Art Institute that was to be used for a great monument to Alexander Hamilton, about which more information can be found here and here.  Of course, her most memorable contribution was the donation that allowed construction of the great fountain in Grant Park, dedicated to her brother, along with a $300,000 endowment to provide for its maintenance. 

But here is something else that resulted from her generosity about which most people are unaware.  On February 12, 1912 Kate Buckingham bought a property of 81 acres in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts.  It was not far from where a 55-room “cottage,” which her father had built near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, stood until it burned to the ground in 1899.

On the new piece of land Kate Buckingham built Bald Hill Farm.  After her death the farm, to which another 80 acres had been added, was sold to Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky.  Mr. Koussevitzky was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a man with a dream of one day creating a summer musical festival for the symphony.  In 1978 after the death of the Koussevitzky’s, the organization purchased the property, and it now lies at the heart of the Tanglewood Music Festival.

When she died, Kate Buckingham left a half million dollars to friends and relatives.  She left another $126,000 to her maid, chauffeur, children of her caretaker, her nurses, doormen and elevator men at the Lakeview cooperative building.  In today’s dollars those gifts would total over nine million dollars.  She left another $3.1 million for art and cultural organizations, including two million to the Art Institute of Chicago.  [Owens, Carole.  Pittsfield: Gem City in the Gilded Age]

The Tribune article that conveyed the news of Kate Buckingham’s death ended with “a well authenticated anecdote,” dealing with “one of her rare visits to the Continental Illinois National bank and Trust company, in which she was an important stockholder.”

“On this occasion,” the story went, “she stopped at the cashier’s cage to get money.  She had no identification papers with her and the teller asked if any one in the bank could identify her.  She cast a brief, flashing glance around the nearby desks. ‘They’re all dead,’ she snapped.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Medinah Athletic Club Begins -- December 10, 1927

Today, the InterContinental Chicago, just north of Tribune Tower
began life as the Medinah Athletic Club (JWB Photo)
On this date back in 1927 the Mayor of Chicago, William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, turned up the first shovel full of dirt at the site of what would become the Medinah Athletic Club’s 42-story headquarters.  A little over 18 months later the $8,000,000 masterpiece, today the home of the Hotel InterContinental, would be complete.  They built ‘em fast back in those days.

Unfortunately, the days of skyscraper glory that were the 1920’s were just about over when the building opened.  The architect, Walter W. Ahlschlager, was a big name.  As the Medinah Athletic Club was being built, the Beacon Theatre and Hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where the Allman Brothers have plugged in for over 200 shows, was being finished as well as Mr. Ahlschlager’s 5,920 seat Roxy Theatre, now gone. The designer’s 49-story Carew Tower in Cincinnati, still the second-tallest building in that city, would follow Chicago’s tower.

Built toward the end of Chicago’s frenzied love affair with the Art-Deco style the Medinah Athletic Club fronts Michigan Avenue with an eclectic design style that draws its share of attention.  If Tribune Tower, just to the south, seems a little disconcerting with its Art Deco shaft and Gothic top knot of flying buttresses, then Medinah is a screaming wild child, a mash-up of decorative styles from Turkey, Persia, France, Egypt, Italy, the Nordic countries and Assyria with just enough Art Deco thrown in to make it a 1920’s building.

"Consecration" on the west wall . . . a wild take on the Art Deco fascination
with all things Egyptian (JWB Photo)
At the eighth floor there are those unmistakable relief carvings, each of the three friezes depicting a different scene.  There is Wisdom on the north wall, Consecration of the west, and Contribution to the south [The History of the Medinah Athletic Club and the Intercontinental Chicago, InterContinental Chicago].

Most noteworthy is that wacky gold Moorish dome at the top of the building.  Referencing the eastern mysteries of the Ancient Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, the dome, so the story goes, was originally designed for use as a dirigible dock until 35 people perished in the Hindenburg disaster at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and the plan was abandoned.  But, of course, the great German airship’s demise in 1937 occurred eight years after the Medinah Athletic Club opened, and no record of any dirigible making an attempt to dock at the building exists.

Would any rational being step out of a dirigible onto a slender parapet 45 stories high
in the middle of a major city?  I would have made the decision to stay on board.  
Note the "mooring mast," by the way . . .
(Photo from The History of the Medinah Athletic Club and the Intercontinental Chicago)
Pass by a tall building on a reasonably windy day, and common sense will tell you that no rational human being, not even the most fearless of aviators, would want to maneuver an unwieldy behemoth near a 42-story building, smack-dab in the middle of a major city, much less try to disembark from it.  But it makes for a good story.

Medinah would not be the first time a chimney
was made to look like something else . . .
this is the chimney at KAM Isaiah Israel in
Hyde Park designed by Alfred Alschuler and
completed in 1924 (JWB Photo)
More likely is this explanation . . .

Perhaps architect Ahlschlager’s most idiosyncratic addition to the building’s exterior occurs at the top.  The Moorish=style dome and nearby chimney disguised as a minaret.  The 40-foot-wide dome was constructed of concrete and then gilded.  A spiral staircase leads from the forty-second floor up and into the dome’s center where there is a glass cupola.  The dome is punctuated by eight openings form which all of Chicago could be viewed.  This was never open to the public but as an observatory it must have been sensational.  The original “minaret,” adjacent to the dome, was truncated years ago, the top half removed probably due to age and subsequent weakening; unfortunately it now appears more like a chimney – the magic has gone. [The American Skyscraper, 1950-1940: A Celebration of Height.  Joseph J. Korom.]

There were many other lavish touches within the tower.  A miniature golf course on the twenty-third floor, complete with water hazards and a babbling brook.  A shooting range, a billiards hall, running track, gym, archery range, bowling alley, a two-story boxing arena – all these and more filled the pleasure palace.  The fourteenth-floor pool was an aquatic extravaganza with exquisite tile and a fountain of Neptune.  The Grand Ballroom contained a six-ton Baccarat crystal chandelier, the largest on the continent at the time.

The Medinah Athletic Club on a still developing
Michigan Avenue (Google Image)
All of this, plus 440 guest rooms, for the club’s 3,500 members.  Occupancy on opening day in 1929 was just over 30 percent, and by 1934 the Shriners had lost their masterpiece in the financial meltdown of the Depression.  Since then the strange tower with its surprising ornament, its idiosyncratic setbacks, and its “mooring mast” and gold dome has led an equally eccentric life, serving in a range of roles from apartment building to the site of a Kon Tiki Ports restaurant.  It has been, at various times, a Radisson Hotel, a Sheraton Hotel, and since 1990 the InterContinental Chicago.

Back in the heady days of 1929 one of the advertising blurbs for the club read:

Look me up at the Medinah Club.  It is no wonder that men and women of discrimination, not in Chicago alone, but throughout the country, and even abroad, say these words with a pardonable touch of pride.  For Medinah is the finest and richest expression of modern city club luxury and fine social life.  Here is found every convenience, every necessity one could look for in a club, hotel, or even a home. [Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue: Planning and Development, 1900-1930. John W. Stamper.]

The glory.  And the fall.  And the glory once more.  A continuing theme in a city in which that cycle plays out again and again and again.