Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Chicago Building Height -- Up or Down? (January 21, 1902)

The Railway Exchange Building of 1904 (left) & The People's Gas Building (1910)
One hundred-twelve years ago on this day, January 21, the Judiciary Committee of the Chicago City Council made a recommendation to that body that all restrictions on the height of “full fire-proof construction” buildings be lifted. [Chicago Tribune, January 22, 1902]

There was a considerable amount of pressure placed upon aldermen to remove the height restrictions, and The Tribune observed, “Representatives of building firms asserted that in Chicago alone of all great cities in America were such limitations in effect and they declared that the competition with other cities would force the removal of restrictions here.”

Mayor Carter Harrison went on record as favoring the removal of restrictions on building height even though he was in favor of restriction four years earlier when a 130-foot height limit was imposed.  “The unfortunate thing in this city is the fact that Chicago is a sort of wheel, the loop district being the hub, with the spokes radiating into the outlying wards,” he said.  “With rentals being where they are and space so valuable in the district bounded by the loop, it is impossible to get enough out of property to make it a good investment unless the buildings are allowed to go up.”

There were a number of arguments put forth as to why the height limit should be kept in place.  Some felt that tall buildings were ugly, belching smoke and blocking the sky.  Others felt that tall buildings made for an unhealthy city, cutting off light and air from anyone at ground level.  Still others argued that with tall buildings holding as many people as a good-sized town, the congestion they caused was insufferable.  And, of course, the owners and developers of tall buildings erected before the 1898 set of restrictions were not especially joyful at the prospect of taller and more modern structures competing for leases.

Members of the city council were inclined to agree.

Chicago Building of 1905 (JWB Photo)
Sensing that council members were opposed to raising the height limit, the First National Bank applied the pressure, announcing that it was abandoning its proposed building projects, threatening to remove nearly $12,000,000 from the construction calendar and the tax rolls.

D. R. Forgan, the president of First National said, “Why the owners of the Masonic temple property should be permitted to erect a building of over twenty stories and many others of sixteen and seventeen and the same privilege denied to the First National Bank, which is at the center of the loop, I fail to understand.”

Owen Aldis, the agent behind such great buildings as the Marquette, the Rookery, and the Monadnock, said, “The attitude of the Council is short sighted and narrow in the extreme.  It may please the present owners of high buildings, but it is certain to check contemplated large improvements.  It is stated that building to cost $12,000,000 are involved.  The figures really are much larger, as I know of several other large plans which will be abandoned if the Council stands on Monday night’s action.”

In the end a majority of City Council members voted to end the restrictions – sort of.  The last section of the ordinance read, “No buildings shall be erected in the City of Chicago of greater height than 130 feet from the sidewalk level to the highest point of external bearing walls.  No restriction contained in this ordinance regarding the height of buildings shall apply to any building to be hereafter erected which shall be erected in full fire proof construction.”

A Tribune editorial on February 6, 1902 provided the final word on the subject – at least until 1920 when the height restrictions were once again changed.  “Without any reference to individual cases,” the piece read, “The Tribune is decidedly of the opinion that the high buildings—meaning thereby structures of more than ten stories – are a public advantage.  Arguments are advanced against them, but those arguments did not convince the Council, nor do they have influence with the general public.”

University Club of 1909 (JWB Photo)

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