Homage to the Barons Who
Great buildings need great developers
In which I make the point that—Daniel Burnham's reputation notwithstanding—the most important land-use planners, architects, and social engineers in Chicago for 150 years have been property developers.
Reviewed: They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City's Architecture by Miles L. Berger, Bonus Books, 1992
All the hallmarks of the physical city of Chicago—the high-rise lakefront, the tall commercial buildings, even its park and mass transit systems—were planned not by government agencies but by individual property developers. The developer has been Chicago's land-use planner, architect, and social engineer for 150 years. The progenitor of the breed is probably Peter Brooks, the Bostonian who seldom even visited Chicago but who, through his Rookery, Monadnock, Marquette, and Pontiac buildings, helped define the Chicago School of architecture.
No aspect of this story is more remarkable than the fact that no one has ever bothered to tell it. In They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City's Architecture, Miles L. Berger seeks to set the record straight. In 44 profiles, Berger demolishes the stereotype of the developer as money-hungry swine. We meet authors, art collectors, intellectuals, do-gooders, diplomats, rascals. Many were and are artistically inclined; most are romantics, risk-takers, loners.
No doubt it was inadvertent, but Berger's collective portrait reveals that developers are motivated by greed of a non-pecuniary kind. As the author puts it, each was willing to risk all for a monument, a legacy, or a "uniquely individual vision." The payback, in short, is in vanity.
The deals have gotten bigger and more complex, but otherwise development is the same game it was in the 1850s. Palmer, Field and Pullman differ from Weissbourd, Klutznick, and Rubloff only in fame. Most of these men are all but unknown outside business circles; the older ones—Ferd Peck (Auditorium, Stock Exchange), Waller (Rookery, Home Insurance) and Hale (Reliance), to name just a few—already are forgotten within them.
A younger generation is moving to the fore. The Bucks and Steins and Shaws are educated well above the average for Chicago; of the 20 men profiled who were busy after 1945, 17 have college educations from places like the University of Chicago, Cornell, Harvard, and the Wharton School. Nonetheless, there is no school that teaches the game; today's developers have learned by doing, just like their predecessors.
Developers survive by staying one-half step ahead of everyone else—competitors, creditors, the market, the next recession. All claim to be servants of the market, but they also shaped demand by anticipating it. Owen Aldis and Charles Heisen did that when they invested in the wilds of the South Loop, just as Al Robin did with Sandburg Village 50 years later. The big boys created their own development trends; when Potter Palmer bought outlying land cheap and built heavily, his projects provided the gravitational mass that attracted other, less adventuresome imitators to State Street and the Gold Coast.
Berger—an investor, consultant and developer for more than 40 years in Chicago—also served on the Chicago Plan Commission. They Built Chicago is about history but it is not a history. While engaging and well-written, Berger's view of the process is too sanguine, his verdicts about the men too guarded and sometimes lacking essential candor. The result is yet another booster's version in which Chicago was "born to greatness" and shaped by "men of vision."
The author is an unrepentant champion of the free market and minimal government regulation. He argues that the city is powerless against market trends, that it lacks the legal power to dictate the scale of streets and neighborhoods, that government exists to help developers and not vice versa.
In a series of "author's commentaries" that close the later chapters, Berger pleads his own case and that of the city in his version of a dozen controversies that he was involved with. These apologies probably will leave building preservationists, environmentalists, and egalitarians of all types chewing the cover in rage. Berger's accounts glide happily over some of the city's bumpier development deals, from the demolition of the Stock Exchange Building to Illinois Center and Presidential Towers.
Nothing is here about how the razing of SRO hotels to put up tax-subsidized housing for yuppies contributes to homelessness, or how the quest for height—really a quest for profits—gave Chicago a reputation for tall building at the cost of livability. Berger credits what many Chicagoans see as the Manhattanization of North Michigan Avenue to "an innovative spirit that from the beginning has been conducive to creativity and versatility in high-rise architecture"—especially developers' skill at cramming the maximum rentable space onto the minimum of land.
One of the lessons (perhaps unintended) of They Built Chicago is that there is neither money nor fame in building for the working class. Of the nearly four dozen men profiled, only one—Samuel Gross, whom Berger calls the most prolific housebuilder in Chicago history—catered to people of modest means. Gross sold 44,000 lots, 7,500 houses and founded 18 suburban villages by 1896. Berger recounts a few modern projects built west of Halsted but they were all housing for the middle class, usually subsidized, safely near enclaves such as hospitals or universities.
Berger's plea that developers get more credit for Chicago's fame as an architectural center is well-founded. However, he does not acknowledge the harm done to the city when development outpaces the market. Chronic overbuilding means that new projects forever suck tenants out of other, usually older buildings that often have more architectural, historical, or urbanistic merit, speeding their decline. Most of the interesting skyscrapers of this generation have been built in cities other than Chicago, which suggests that Chicago's heritage has become self-conscious, leaving its "men of vision" looking backward rather than forward.
Berger does not ask such questions, but he inadvertently suggests some answers. Chicago's recent innovations have been in marketing and engineering rather than design; Chicago buildings are getting bigger, in other words, but with rare exceptions they are not getting better. Cost-efficiency in the 1880s gave us the Monadnock Building; the same impulse in the 1960s gave us the glass box. Quality made a comeback in the 1980s, but at the price of dullness.
For all its faults, They Built Chicago adds a fascinating chapter to Chicago's commercial history. Until someone tells it better, this is an indispensable account, crammed with detail and lively anecdote. You may not like Chicago any more for having read this book but you will understand it better. ●