Monday, September 16, 2013

Chicago's Santa Maria Replica

The Santa Maria at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (

On this date in 1951 The Chicago Tribune ran an article that lamented the slow demise of the replica of the Santa Maria, a replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship during his voyage to America that was built in Spanish shipyards for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, along with its sister ships, the Niña and the Pinta.  The United State Congress had appropriated the $50,000 necessary for the construction of the three caravels, and on July 7 of 1893 the Santa Maria’s captain, Victor M. Concas, wrote in his log book, “147 days out of Cadiz, dropped anchor in front of the Worlds’ Columbian Exposition.”

The ship was the centerpiece of the last day of the fair, Columbus Day.  Scrubbed clean and fully crewed, the Santa Maria and her sister ships left their mooring space near what is now La Rabida hospital and moved to a point off the fair’s music hall where they dropped anchor about 500 yards off the beach and lowered small boats.  In the first boat stood an actor portraying Christopher Columbus, sword in one hand and a flag in the other.  The pageant had everything:  monks kneeling in prayer at the base of a cross, natives of San Salvador ducking behind palm trees for cover, native chiefs summoned, and friendly greetings exchanged between native and foreigner.

The three caravels in New York harbor on their way to the 1893 fair in Chicago (wikimedia photo)
The glory didn’t last long, and the ship rapidly faded along with the memory of the great white city of 1893.  The Knights of Columbus hatched a plan to save the ship in 1900, but nothing came of it.  By 1903 The Tribune in an editorial called the ships “useless, deserted, forgotten hulks, victims of wind and storm and the prey of vandals, stripped of their furnishings and appliances, stripped even of all sentiment and associations, melancholy reminders of the festal days of the white city.”

The ship did not go without a fight, though.  In fact, on Columbus Day of 1911 the ships set sail again, reaching Grant Park at 8:30 in the morning as 100,000 “natives” lined the shore from Jackson to Grant Park.  Even as the celebration went on, the Santa Maria struggled.  At one point in the pageant, all of the crew as well as the actors aboard were summoned to the pumps as the ship’s hold began to take on water.

Onlookers at the fair watch the three ships sail into Jackson Park (
In 1913 the ships left Chicago, headed for San Francisco.  One observer remarked, “Their decks are absolutely rotted and their hulls are not much better.  They will go down surely.” The vessels made it as far as Detroit, where a fickle wind damaged both the Santa Maria and the Pinta as they were being towed to a dock.  By 1914 the Niña and the Pinta had made it to Buffalo when the promoter in charge of the move to San Francisco ran out of money and they were returned to Chicago during that summer.  The Santa Maria, ever intrepid sailed on to Westerly, Rhode Island where it was determined she could not make it through the rest of the trip.

Then came the ultimate insult when a New York city lawyer bought the Santa Maria for $940 at an Admiralty Court sale.  A fundraising campaign allowed the ship to return to Chicago, but her arrival was not the same glorious entrance that she made in 1893.  The Tribune wrote in an editorial, “The protection of the caravels entails no more expense than the repair of an occasional golf green or the adjustment of a water plug . . . In spite of the almost sacred character of the relics the park board already has suffered them to be dragged half way over the continent by irresponsible adventurers, to be shown as dime museums and hawked about in the port of strange lands, libeled fro debt and no hand raised to protect them save that of distant folk whose regard for rare sentiment overrode the quibble for the dollars it required to save the Columbian replicas from destruction.”

By the end of 1919 the Santa Maria floated alone at the Jackson Park lagoon.  In 1918 the Pinta, her seams open after 25 years of neglect, sank.  The following year the Niña burned to the water line.  $90,000 was spent at that point to restore the remaining ship, but by July of 1938 The Tribune reported, “[The Santa Maria] has been allowed to rot for lack of paint and the replacement of a timber here and there . . . Her once smartly tarred shrouds of imported hemp are black with age . . . She reeks of bilgewater that slushes about her tons and tons of rock ballast.  She’s a nobody.  But she doesn’t complain.  Only when the wind is in a certain quarter in the east and the swells drive into the lagoon form the lake does she teeter a bit at her moorings.”

The three Spanish ships in Jackson Park harbor (chuckman's collection)
There was another flurry of activity in 1946 aimed at restoring the caravel, but the news was not encouraging.  James A. Regan, Sr., head of the Calumet ship yards, the place where the 1920 restoration of the Santa Maria was carried out, said, “The ship is much worse off now than in 1920.  For the first rebuilding we salvaged only the keel and the metal work.  It is doubtful that even the keel is usable now.”  Many began to ask the question, “What do you do with the replica of a ship when almost none of the materials that make up the replica are usable?”  And the folks at the Jackson Park Yacht Club were beginning to complain about the hulk that was making navigation in the harbor difficult.

By 1951  the Santa Maria was broken at the keel and would not last another year.  In 1952 a crane with a clam shell attachment was brought in on a barge, and it didn’t take long for the Santa Maria to end up as rotten kindling to be carted away and dumped.

The great fair of 1893 was an event so important that it sits as one of the four stars on the Chicago flag; it was an event, after all, that was named in honor of the captain who commanded the three ships that sailed into the unknown seas in 1492.  60 years after the triumphant entrance of the three replica ships into Chicago waters, the memory of the last one sailed over the horizon and into the limitless seas of time.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Goethe Statue Hit by Lightning -- September 14, 1951

The 1914 statue of Goethe at the north end of Lincoln Park (JWB Photo)

On this date in 1951 the Goethe monument just south of Diversey Boulevard was found cracked and twisted, the victim of an apparent lightning strike.  The Chicago Tribune in its report observed that “several cracks were found in the bronze statue and stone base and the entire structure appeared to have been twisted.”

Hundreds of residents had been awakened during the night by a “mysterious blast,” which may have been the bolt that struck the 1914 statue (look here for the story of the monument).  George T. Donoghue, the general superintendent of parks, ordered that the statue be barricaded and that the police department conduct an investigation to ascertain the cause of the damage.

The damage to the statue as shown in
The Tribune on September 15, 1951

Iron Worker at River Point

Over five years ago I went through the incredible six-month training program that led to my certification as a docent for the Chicago Architecture Foundation.  The program was filled with fascinating speakers, challenging assignments, and awesome folks from all walks of life who helped me to earn my docent’s name tag. 

One of the speakers I remember most vividly was a construction manager who ran through the process of constructing one of the biggest projects that he had overseen, Prudential Two, a project complicated by the narrowness of the site, the seamless connection to the original Prudential building, and the transition from concrete to steel as the 1992 tower reached its distinctive height.

At some point he got sidetracked and began to talk about iron workers, and from his stories it became pretty obvious that iron workers are different from most of us, just as house cats are different from pumas.  For that difference they are paid extremely well.

My friend Cathy, listening to the stories, finally raised her hand and asked a question, “My son graduated from college a while ago and hasn’t found a job.   How does a person go about getting a job as an iron worker?”

The presenter paused for quite a while.  It was pretty clear that he had a lot to say and was struggling with how to say it.  Finally, he said evenly, “Lady, you don’t want your son to be an iron worker.”

I got just one small glimpse of the reason a while ago when I was taking pictures of the work at the River Point site just across from Wolf Point. (For a look at the project, click here.) Look at the photos below, and you will see an iron worker, 30 feet in the air, safety harness securely fastened, standing with the sole of one work boot balanced on the end of a length of #10 rebar, the other foot in thin air, while the hook of a crane dangles just behind him. 

All in a day’s work.  House cat and pumas . . . me and them.

JWB Photo

JWB Photo

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

River Point Progress

I’ve been watching with interest as the new River Point tower slowly emerges from among the knot of railroad tracks between Canal Street and the Chicago River, just north of Lake Street.  The Pickard-Chilton design will be a 45-story commercial building with about 850,000 square feet of space.  It should be a stunning addition to the one place on the main stem of the river that one can’t help but see since it is at dead center of the channel as it turns north and south.  It is a place for over a century that has been a no man’s land of railroad tracks and switching facilities.  You can read about the new project here.

You have to admire the speed with which the project is unfolding as the first phase, the creation of a riverfront plaza on the east side of the new tower, moves toward completion.  This riverfront park will be 1.5 acres that is open to the public with seating areas and extensive landscaping.  To create it the half-dozen railroad tracks that run through the area must be decked over, and that is what is taking place now.

I took pictures of the site on the eighteenth of June and the twenty-eighth of August.  From comparing different views taken nearly two months apart, it’s pretty clear how the quickly the project is speeding along.  I love watching this place rise.  It should be a real stunner.  Check back here in a month or so, and I'll have another update.

June 23, 2013 -- River Point Bank Stabilization and infill (JWB Photo)
August 28, 2013 -- Concrete walls being erected to support decking over railroad tracks (JWB Photo)
June 23, 2013 -- Excavation of infill site; note railroad tracks and equipment trailer to the west (JWB Photo)
August 28, 2013 -- There's that equipment trailer . . . quite a difference! (JWB Photo)
June 23, 2013 -- Excavation with the Residence at River Bend
in the background (JWB Photo)

You have to admire the speed with which the project is unfolding as the first phase, the creation of a riverfront plaza on the east side of the new tower, moves toward completion.  This riverfront park will be 1.5 acres that is open to the public with seating areas and extensive landscaping.  To create it the half-dozen railroad tracks that run through the area must be decked over, and that is what is taking place now.

August 28, 2013 -- The Residences at River Bend, Metra train,
and River Point walls to support decking over the tracks (JWB Photo)