Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Monadnock Wins! -- February 4, 1944

The Monadnock (JWB Photo)
On this evening, February 4, 71 years ago a jury awarded the owners of the Monadnock Block on Dearborn Street the sum of $104,278, settling the first suit of many filed against the city for damages resulting from the construction of the Dearborn street subway.  In the Circuit Court of Judge Cornelius J. Harrington the jury deliberated for ten hours before arriving at its decision.

According to The Tribune, the owners of the building received somewhat less than the $235,000 that they sought as a result of the work required to strengthen the east wall of the massive building.  The city’s contention was that the Monadnock had no right to any compensation since the original building had encroached 12 feet upon the public street when it was completed between 1891 and 1893.

I’ve been in the basement of the Monadnock, which is one of the geeky things you find yourself doing when you start to nose around a city and its buildings.  Even to an untrained eye, it is pretty clear that part of the building originally burrowed space beneath the public right-of-way, so the city probably had a valid point.

The Monadnock basement  -- Oh the Places You Will Go
(JWB Photo)
This controversy, by the way, about streets and sidewalks and the legal relationship between property owner and a municipality regarding these public thoroughfares began in Champaign, Illinois and unraveled over a decade in the early 1900’s.  In Faulkner vs. Harris the Illinois Supreme Court observed in 1903, among other things, that “. . . the city could have no authority to accept public streets upon any other conditions than that they should be for public use, and what is meant by public use is that the public shall have the uninterrupted, unimpeded, and unobstructed use of every portion and part of each public highway – not only that they may use the ground or foundation to travel upon (which right is co-extensive with every inch or foot of it), but that they may enjoy the air, light, and rainfall as well upon every portion of it.”  [People ex rel. Faulkner v. Harris et al.  Supreme Court of Illinois, June 16 1903]

It took some time, but by early 1908 the Chicago city council passed an ordinance banning any kind of street or sidewalk obstruction.  According to the city’s corporation council the Harris case meant that “the title to the streets, including the sidewalks, was in the state, that the city was merely a trustee, and it could not give permission to any one to do anything which would in the least interfere with the free and untrammeled use of the thoroughfares or shut off the light and air from anybody.” [Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1908]

Two years earlier the city had passed legislation requiring property owners to pay between $200 and $300 for each building that used space beneath the public way.  Attorney N. G. Moore, arguing for property owners, said in a hearing on the matter in July, 1908, “The offer by the city to permit use of the space shows on its face that the municipality has no public use for it and that the ordinance is merely for the purpose of compelling payment of compensation.”  [Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1908]

Well, heck, yeah.

The property owners, of course, lost.  Appellate Court Judge Julian Mack decreed in effect that the city had the right to charge rent for sub-sidewalk space in all that territory from Twelfth street to Kinzie street and from State street to Michigan avenue.  It was estimated that the ruling would add $300,000 to $400,000 to the city’s revenue.

It’s interesting to note that the legal proceedings over sidewalks had a significant effect on the design of buildings in the city.  Take, for example, the Reliance building on State Street and Washington Boulevard.  It was completed in 1895 and, along with the Fisher Building on Dearborn Street, is almost as open and glassy as any modern skyscraper.  Then look at the People’s Gas Building on Michigan Avenue, completed in 1910, two years after the city's ordinance on sidewalk obstructions went into effect, and you will find a far different look.

The Reliance Building (JWB Photo)
People's Gas, 122 South Michigan Avenue (Library of Congress)
There are, of course, many reasons for the change from transparency to density.  But a big reason had to do with the results of the Harris finding in 1903.  A bay window was specifically found to be a sidewalk obstruction; in fact, the original suit against the city of Champaign involved the construction of a bay window. When designers lost the right to design a building with those bays, they lost the best chance of creating a more transparent structure, at least through the technology that existed at the time.

The Marquette Building in 1895
Another great example of the effect that the 1908 ordinance had on design in Chicago can be seen in the appearance of the Marquette building, just a block north of the Monadnock on Dearborn.  If you look closely at the front of the building as it existed in 1895 you will find an entrance far different than the one you see today.  You will also notice that the entrance definitely uses part of the sidewalk.  It’s not there today, obviously, and it’s pretty clear why it was taken down.

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