Monday, January 14, 2013

Wacker Drive -- Getting Started

Wacker Drive, on the right of the photo, running along the south side of the Chicago River, was formally
begun on January after a meeting at City Hall (JWB Photo)

“Full speed ahead on the widening and double decking of South Water street at a cost of $20,000,000, a project which it is contended will ultimately mean as much to Chicago as the $16,000,00 boulevard link improvement has meant,” was what The Chicago Tribune offered as its lead story on this date in 1922.  The day before Mayor “Big Bill” Thompson ordered that the plan, initially presented to the public in 1917 by the Chicago Plan commission at an official luncheon at the Hotel Sherman, be started.

Just a few days ago I mentioned that in the first week of 1910 the Chicago Plan was officially introduced at a gala event at the Congress Hotel.  Find that discussion here.  The massive transformation of South Water Street from bedlam to the smooth and sleek double decks of today’s Wacker Drive, the beginning of which was outlined in The Tribune article on this day in 1922, was a direct result of that Chicago Plan.

Wacker Drive and its slowly expanding river
walk are today attractions that delight visitors to the
city as well as Chicagoans themselves.  (JWB Photo)
Excitement abounded and the city was raring to get started when the new plans were approved in 1917.  Charles H. Wacker, chairman of the Chicago Plan commission, reckoned that when the plan was finished the new street would be “second only to Michigan boulevard as a show place in Chicago and at the same time will reduce the traffic complications of the city in the rush hours by at least 16 per cent.”

The report of the Plan commission gave three recommendations that would “change the street into a fine highway of tremendous economic value in Chicago.”

First, “To convert into street space all of the property between the river and South Water street from State street to Market street (today's South Wacker Drive).”

Second, “To double deck the street at the height of the bridges, using the upper level for light and the lower for heavy traffic; connecting the Illinois Central freight and the lake front warehouse and manufacturing districts with the west side railway and industrial zone.”

Finally, “To utilize the lower level for water and rail freight transfer and team track facilities, made possible by river lighterage or as a public parking space for automobiles.”

The plans for the project were prepared by Edward H. Bennett, a principal contributor to the original Plan of 1909 and the designer of the Michigan Avenue bridge, finished in 1920.  The transportation and traffic plans were assembled by Henry A. Goetz.  Both men worked under the direction of Mr. Wacker and the project’s managing director, Walter D. Moody.  The plans were reviewed and endorsed by John F. Wallace, chairman of the railway terminal commission and the city’s engineers, John Ericson and C. D. Hill.

So everyone was on board.  A Tribune editorial on November 25, 1917 praised the ambitious plan, saying that it would “not only be a long step forward in the great work which the commission has mapped out for both the beautification and material betterment of the city, but also as a concrete real estate proposition it would be a boon to the entire north end of the downtown district.”

Depiction of what the plan for the new drive might look like, as
depicted in the November 25, 1917 Chicago Tribune
That editorial, though, contained a good portion of pessimism about the chances of the project being completed in a timely fashion.  The worth of the project, the paper wrote, “is tempered by the well grounded belief that many years are likely to elapse before the produce business takes its departure from that street, and that many more are likely to pass before there is any possibility of a realization of such a fine public work . . .”

In a separate editorial on that same date the paper provided another cause for pessimism – inaction on the part of those who governed the city.  “We do not ask of a city government even that it ‘set and think.’  We know it will merely ‘set.’  We would not recognize as a local administrative body anything which had a mental process or a movement of physical activity.  We recognize municipal authority is a spongelike substance which gets into the city hall, swells out, and fills it.”

It turned out that The Tribune had the situation pretty well analyzed.  Finally, as 1922 began a delegation called on Mayor Thompson.  It was composed of Charles H. Wacker, the chairman of the Plan commission; D. F. Kelly, general manager of Mandel Brothers; James Simpson, vice-president of Marshall Field & Co.; Frank L. Bennett, former commissioner of public parks; and former City Controller Walter Wilson.

At the conclusion of the meeting Michael J. Faherty, president of the board of local improvements, the body that had overseen the construction of the link bridge across the river at Michigan Avenue two years earlier, announced that the assessment request for the improvement would be filed in the County court within 30 days.  Over 16 million dollars was needed for the project in addition to th $3,800,000 that had been approved by voters in November of 1919.

The plan commission estimated that in one area alone, the waste of food caused by long hauls through crowded streets, along with the cost of handling and rehandling the produce, as well as the delays caused by the South Water market’s chaos, $6,000,000 was lost every year.

South Water Street nears an end on August 27, 1925 (Google Image)
The recent improvements to Michigan Avenue had blatantly pointed out what a mess the archaic market of South Water Street was.  We can’t imagine it today as we glide along the river on a tour boat or zip through the rebuilt lower Wacker Drive from the lake to the Eisenhower.  But 90 years ago the area we know today as Illinois Center and Lakeshore East was a vast freight yard for the Illinois Central, and South Water Street was a smelly, noisy collection of produce, horse carts, trucks, and shouting vendors from Michigan Avenue all the way to the Rush Street bridge that connected to the Chicago and Northwestern terminal north of the river.

As Charles Wacker stated, “South Water street is a burdensome charge on the people of Chicago.  It an economic waste, a drawback to progress, and obstruction to the city’s development, insanitary, a cause of congestion, and a constant conflagration danger to the loop.”

Four years after Wacker made that assessment, the double-deck, riverside highway named after him was completed from Michigan Avenue to Lake Street, finished in less time than the initial delay between its original approval in 1917 and the start of the project in 1922.  Can you imagine what the city on the river would look like without it?

Wabash Plaza, designed by Carol Ross Barney & Jankowski, with Harry Weese's Seventeenth Church of Christ
Scientist in the background -- one of the many places of interest along the Wacker Drive river walk (JWB Photo)


Unknown said...
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Derek Daniels said...

I really like these photos.
Driveways Essex

hermes birkin said...

Nice view.

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