Even if you don’t own a cocktail table, you might want to own the cocktail table book titled Lost Chicago by David Lowe. It’s a masterful collection of photographs and prose on Chicago architecture that has seen the wrecking ball.
To quote from the dust jacket: “Chicago was the birthplace of American architecture. The balloon-frame house, the iron-and-steel framed building, and the skyscraper were all born there. A partial list of the city’s architects reads like a roll call of genius: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Dankmar Adler, William LeBaron Jenney.”
However, Chicagoans have little sense of history when it comes to razing the buildings in their midst. Perhaps they believe newer edifices promise a better view of tomorrow. Still, one only has to read Lost Chicago to realize that some of the city’s great architectural treasures have fallen prey to this philosophy. Indeed, one of the city’s great architectural photographers has been lost too.
Lost Chicago covers the city’s architectural development from its first settlements prior to 1800 to 1975, when the book was published. It includes many rare photographs and illustrations, all in black and white; and this approach enhances both the sense of history and the beauty of the buildings under study.
Many of them were magnificent, particularly those built after the Great Fire of 1871. By then, the city’s reputation for innovation and excess had grown, and those who could afford it rebuilt their homes from the ashes with this in mind.
For instance, after the fire, Richard Morris Hunt, who was also architect to the Vanderbilts, designed a new home in the near South Side on Prairie Avenue for Marshall Field. Completed in 1876, it cost $250,000 and later was the first residence in Chicago to be outfitted with electric lights. George M. Pullman of railroad fame and John B. Sherman of Chicago Stock Yards fame also had opulent residences on the same avenue.
Today Prairie Avenue is a ghost of its former self, as all three homes and most of the others on the street were systematically demolished over the years.
North Siders fared little better. Cyrus McCormick commissioned a grandiose home on Rush Street, which was completed in 1879. It was demolished in 1955. William Borden’s mansion on Lake Shore Drive was built in 1884 and torn down in the early 1960s in favor of an architecturally uninteresting apartment building. Potter Palmer’s house, also on Lake Shore Drive, lived from 1882 to 1950.
It isn’t only the homes of the rich that have vanished. If it were, one could possibly excuse the trend toward demolition, as homes from what might be called a “Castle Complex” era are less in line with today’s lifestyles.
Train stations, parks, places of worship, hotels, monuments, auditoriums, theaters, restaurants, and movie palaces have all disappeared too. The list is long and no building was safe if someone wanted the land it stood on for something else. In recent years, this included Maxwell Street, the Illinois Central Railroad Station, and The Oriental Theater.
Try to imagine what the city would be like if Grant Park or Lincoln Park suddenly disappeared and a giant mall combined with automobile dealerships and boxy buildings took its place. Worse yet, what if someone tore down the famous Water Tower to build a Dollar Store? If these thoughts make you shudder, then you have a sense of the loss author David Lowe conveys so well about other local landmarks.
Finally, the cover of Lost Chicago serves as a memorial to Richard Nickel, the photographer whose passion was photographing buildings slated for the wrecking ball. Ironically, he was hard at work inside the Chicago Stock Exchange when the demolition crew showed up and razed the building not knowing Nickel was there. The photographer did not survive.
The cover photo of the Chicago Stock Exchange was taken by Nickel that fateful day in 1972.
For fascinating facts about a Chicago that no longer exists, written in an academic style that isn’t the least bit boring, and for the amazing photos author David Lowe amassed, Lost Chicago receives 5 stars.