How Chicago's Gentry Shaped the City
“How culture made itself manifest” in Chicago
Too many books purporting to interpret the meaning of buildings descend into gibberish. Prof. Bluestone’s did not. It taught me things about the city that I needed to know.
Reviewed: Constructing Chicago by Daniel Bluestone. Yale University Press (New Haven, Conn.), 1991
“Apart from glorying in their status on the frontier or celebrating a rough-hewn Americanism." writes Daniel Bluestone, "elite Chicagoans continually worried about the impression their city made on visitors from more cosmopolitan places [and] projected that cultural problem markedly into the work of city building."
In a richly illustrated and richly illustrative new book, Columbia University professor Daniel Bluestone describes "how culture made itself manifest" in the Chicago cityscape of the 19th century. Constructing Chicago examines—indeed rethinks—the development of the lakefront devoted to high-minded culture with a capital "C," the admirable park system and the concentrated Loop business district in terms of what they meant to their builders as well as their form.
While the physical city is Bluestone's object, his subject is that class of businessmen who in the generation after the Great Fire built the Chicago that we know today. Constructing Chicago is in its way a social history as much as a history of architecture and planning.
We know the myth by heart: Chicago was created by the forces of Mammon untempered by culture. Cities in other places grew up as ceremonial centers or as centers of teaming or the arts; Chicago grew up as a place to make money. Businessmen were and remain its dukes, its archbishops, its generals. True, businessmen made Venice and Florence and Amsterdam and London, but they were men formed by those places; Chicago was invented by the men who made it, who in the process invented themselves as well.
Bluestone sees this version as overly simple. Chicago's stereotypical strivers, no less than its awe-struck visitors fresh off the farm, were unsettled by the speed, the violence, the impermanence of what was being wrought here. Its street grid distinguished lots only by their size. The new town was not centered around a church square or even a New England town square, a reflection of the domination of the commercial over the religious and civic realms. Chicago's physical arrangements from the beginning reflected a hierarchy of value but not one of values.
You could sell your soul in old Chicago, in other words, but even the rich couldn't buy one. The downtown churches were quickly driven from what became the Loop as commercial structures overshadowed them symbolically as well as physically. The new commercial class associated church and its civilizing influence not with this corrupt public realm but with the newly enlarged private life devoted (as Blue-stone describes it) "to refined sentiment and lofty ideals." They rebuilt their churches (usually after selling their original downtown sites for a nice profit) in residential neighborhoods safe from the unholy influence of commerce—leaving commerce permanently safe from the improving influence of religion as well.
Those residential districts were only one of the refuges where Chicago's burgeoning bourgeoisie might entertain values inimical to those of the commercial downtown. For example, Bluestone insists that the parks movement was not motivated by nostalgia for the rural life that was being destroyed; most of Chicago's big shots were city men by background. Instead, these master-works of park design reflected distinctly urban values, expressed in landscape.
It was in their new parks that the city's elites built what they failed to build in the larger world. The landmark Olmsted-designed parks like Jackson and Washington offered terraces and promenades, formal gardens, fountains and concert places meant for organized social contact in a calculatedly picturesque slitting. Writes Bluestone, "Here, after all, was the 'urbs in horto,' an idealized commerce-free city located in artificial, tamed, refined nature." (Artificial, tamed, refined nature is also a perfect description of the upper middle-class suburbs to which they repaired when it became clear that Chicago itself would remain untamed, raw and uncomfortably real.)
The symbol of this Chicago, of course, is the skyscraper. Bluestone makes clear that the skyscraper was a much more complex phenomenon than more recent historians have perceived. The spareness of certain of Chicago's tall buildings was taken to embody the city's pragmatism, its freedom from received notions of taste. But Bluestone explains what so many of the surviving buildings of that generation exclaim, which is that for practical men, their owners spent an awful lot of money on display, ornamentation and other varieties of symbolic expression. What Bluestone reads in the entrances and lobbies—even the elevators of buildings like the Rookery—is an attempt to transcend commercialism via architecture, not to embody it.
By borrowing liberally, if unconventionally from the symbolic kit bag, these buildings sought to dignify (if not ennoble) what went on inside them. It was not only the skyscraper but a new white-collar culture that Chicago helped invent. More than a means to organize work, the buildings were meant to glorify, even purify, it—to cultivate as well as celebrate this new economic race. The language chosen to preach this message was the familiar vocabulary of civic architecture, applied to a new kind of monument.
It has been asked why, in an era when its business buildings showed such great verve, Chicago should turn to retrograde neoclassicism for the 1893 World Columbian Exposition and the city's new main library, its Art Institute, its City Hall and federal buildings. Bluestone explains that the city's leaders thought it crucial to distinguish Chicago's civic and cultural realm from its commercial one. at least in its architecture, whose classical forms were to inspire and raise Chicago. There was as much apology as boast in the message Chicago shouted to the world.
This hope for an ennobling civic presence proved to be in vain, of course, as Chicago sunk into political corruption and incompetence. That generation of heroes built fortunes but failed to build a city. While no Chicago patriot is slow to sing the praises of what Bluestone's burghers built, their success doomed the generations that followed them.
To the extent that they were able to build idealized versions of the city in their gardens, parks and (later) suburbs, they were free to turn their backs on the real one. Bluestone's book is pertinent because the issues raised by the building of Chicago in the 19th century remain relevant to the job of rebuilding it in the 20th. ●