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. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.