Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Chicago Fire Stories Part III: Catherine O'Leary

The 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire this month focused attention on many aspects of the “great conflagration” that consumed a significant portion of Chicago between October 8 and 10, 1871. The story of Mrs. Catherine O’Leary and her cow kicking over a lantern (as depicted by Norman Rockwell above) first surfaced before the flames were extinguished, and although she was cleared of any involvement in the fire just two months later, the legend has endured to this day. During her lifetime, the burden of blame had a profound effect on Mrs. O’Leary, forcing her to largely withdraw from public life, and dying with a heavy heart in 1895. In this third and final installment of Chicago Fire Stories, we share the facts of her life before, during, and after the Fire.

Early Years

Catherine Donnigan (other sources spell it Dunagan or Dunnigan) was born in County Kerry in southwest Ireland in 1827. Nothing is known of her childhood, but Kerry was known for its dairy cows, so she would have no doubt been introduced to that business at a young age. She married Patrick O’Leary, nine years her senior and also from Kerry, and endured the Great Hunger (known as the Irish Potato Famine outside of Ireland) which hit the south and west portions of Ireland especially hard from 1845 into the early 1850s.

The O’Learys were part of a huge influx of residents emigrating from Ireland, escaping the Great Hunger for the promise of a better life in the United States. By the mid-1850s, they had settled in Chicago where their eldest child, a daughter Mary, was born in 1857. Two sons, Cornelius (known as “Puggy”) and James Patrick, followed in 1860 and 1863 respectively. Both sons were baptized at Church of the Holy Family, founded in 1857 on 12th Street (now Roosevelt Road) at May Street. The boys later attended school there, the parents paying 50 cents a month each for their tuition.

In 1864, the O’Learys purchased the property at 137 DeKoven Street for $500, an indication they had found some modest success while living in Chicago. Two more children followed – a daughter Catherine in 1866 and a son Patrick in March 1871. The property comprised two separate houses which abutted each other, the O’Learys occupying the smaller rear structure, while renting out the larger front house with two rooms to a family named McLaughlin. The back of the property was occupied by a small barn measuring 16 by 20 feet, where Catherine O’Leary maintained her dairy business, consisting of six cows, along with a horse and wagon for making deliveries.

The Fire

Just before the fire, the O’Learys had two tons of hay and two tons of coal delivered to the barn to prepare them for winter. On October 8, 1871, the day of the fire, Mrs. O’Leary tended to her cows late in the afternoon and then fed her horse about 7:00pm before retiring for the evening. The entire family was in bed by about 8:00pm, well before the fire commenced shortly after 9:00pm. They were alerted by a neighbor banging on their door that the barn was ablaze; by the time they arose and went outside, it was too late to save the animals and the contents of the barn. A neighbor saved a calf, and one cow that had been tied up outside got away, never to be seen again. Patrick successfully saved the house by dousing it with water, but as Catherine later noted, she lost her entire dairy business when the barn went up in flames.

The first mention of the fire starting when a cow kicked over a lantern while a woman was milking appeared in the Chicago Evening Journal on October 9, before the fire had burnt itself out. Other newspapers soon picked up the story and immediately identified Catherine O’Leary, the owner of the barn, as the culprit.

In late November, the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners launched an official inquiry to determine two things – the exact cause of the fire and the appropriateness of the response of the Chicago Fire Department. Fifty witnesses were interviewed over the next two weeks, including both Catherine and Patrick O’Leary and several of their neighbors. The story was consistent – the fire did begin in the O’Leary barn, but all members of the family were in bed asleep at the time the fire commenced. Various theories were introduced but no one could conclusively state the cause of the fire.

On December 12, 1871, just two months after the fire, the Board of Police and Fire Commissioners issued their findings. The report noted, in part:

“There is no proof that anybody had been in the barn after nightfall that evening. Whether it originated from a spark blown from a chimney on that windy night, or was set on fire by human agency, we are unable to determine. Mr. Leary, the owner, and all his family, prove to have been in bed and asleep at the time.”

(Note regarding “Leary”: Irish names at the time were often shown without the leading O or Mc).

After the Fire

With the official report clearing Mrs. O’Leary of any involvement in the start of the fire, it is rather surprising that the story didn’t simply die away and disappear with the fire rubble being cleared from the streets. But it didn’t, and that caused immediate problems for the O’Leary family. Numerous photos taken shortly after the fire confirm that people flocked to DeKoven Street to see the site of the barn and the surviving O’Leary house. The image shown below, is particularly interesting as it shows the only west-facing window in the O’Leary portion of the house boarded up, perhaps to maintain some level of privacy and keep the curious from peeking in.

The McLauglins, who rented the front house, moved out within two days of the fire. The O’Learys moved in early 1874, relocating to Dashiel Street (now Union Avenue) near 41
st Street, close to the Chicago Stockyards. They sold the DeKoven Street property in 1879 for $1,150. The new owners tore down the original house and replaced it with a more substantial masonry building, that soon sported a plaque noting the site as the place of origin of the fire.

Newspapers published articles every year on the anniversary of the fire, and Mrs. O’Leary was almost always mentioned as though the official inquiry clearing her had never taken place. In articles where the cow story was discounted, it was still discussed, keeping the O’Leary name alive, and making it impossible for Mrs. O’Leary to return to any form of the normal life she had known prior to the fire. She largely became a recluse and understandably denied requests for interviews; she was even offered opportunities to appear as what amounted to a carnival side show. Books and songs kept the story alive as well, including the book shown below, published for the tenth anniversary of the fire in 1881.

Her life took yet another tragic turn in August 1885. Puggy, her eldest son, had a violent altercation with a former love interest, Mary Snyder (or Campbell), who some said had given birth to a child that died soon after, naming Puggy as the father. During the incident, he pulled a gun and shot Mary dead. She was accompanied by Puggy’s older sister, Mary Scully, who was also shot and died the next day at the age of just 28. Puggy fled town but was soon captured in Kansas City. After a speedy trial, he was sentenced to 40 years, and was sent to Joliet Prison. In December 1889, he was transferred to an insane asylum.

The O’Learys’ second son James was far more successful in life. After a few years working in the Stockyards, where he earned the nickname “Big Jim,” he opened a saloon at 4183 S. Halsted Street, that featured Turkish baths, a restaurant, a billiard room, and a bowling alley. He opened a gambling operation in the rear of the building, and in time established himself as a gambling boss in Chicago.

He became a multi-millionaire and built a mansion (shown below) for his family, which still stands at 726 W. Garfield Boulevard. (He closed the operation in 1921 and died in 1925, but in an ironic twist of fate, the saloon building was destroyed in the 1934 Union Stockyards Fire – the largest fire in Chicago since the Great Fire of 1871.)

Patrick and Catherine O’Leary later purchased a house at 5133 S. Halsted Street. In September 1894, Patrick O’Leary was returning home, exiting the Halsted streetcar near his residence when he started to feel unwell. He made it to the front stoop of his house where he collapsed. His children carried him inside, but he was dead before they could get him to the couch. A large Irish wake with many “Kerry men” present took place, and he was interred in the family plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery.

Catherine O’Leary, who had been “feeble” for a few years, died in July 1895, still unable to separate herself from the story of her cow. Her obituary in the Chicago Tribune bore the headline:

That Milk-Producing Animal Caused the Fire That Devastated the City in 1871”

Later Years

Catherine O’Leary was laid to rest, but not the story of her cow. Just three years after she died, a Vaudeville star wrote a set of words to the popular song of the time, A Hot Time in the Old Town, perpetuating the O’Leary myth:

“One dark night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary left a lantern in the shed.
And when the cow kicked it over,
She winked her eye and said,
There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”

In 1911, on the fortieth anniversary of the fire, Michael Ahern, the last surviving reporter who had covered the Chicago Fire, recanted his story. He claimed that he was one of several reporters who simply made up the story, when the actual cause of the fire could not be quickly determined. Despite his confession, it did little to stop the story that was now a part of Chicago legend.

The O’Learys’ last surviving child, Catherine O’Leary Ledwell, continued to defend her mother until her own death on Christmas Day 1936. On the sixty-second anniversary of the fire, just a few years before she passed away, Ledwell was interviewed by a reporter from the
New York Times. She discounted the story once again, noting her mother didn’t milk cows after 5:00pm, and recalling the horror of the scene, “I can see the burning yet, and the rushing about, and the weeping, and the rest.” The article went on to explain, “The fire has been taboo in the Ledwell home. A son explained that he was recently ordered out of the house for singing, ‘There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight’.”

An additional 60 years would have to pass before the matter was put to rest once and for all. In October 1997, Alderman Ed Burke introduced a resolution before the City Council officially exonerating Mrs. O’Leary of any involvement in the fire. The resolution concludes:

“WHEREAS, Although contemporary research appears to vindicate Mrs. O’Leary, she has unfairly remained vilified and maligned by history; now, therefore

“BE IT RESOLVED, That we, the Mayor and members of the Chicago City Council assembled this twenty-eighth day of October 1997, do hereby forever exonerate Mrs. O’Leary and her cow from all blame in regard to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.”

NOTE: Special thanks to Helen (O’Leary) Bozic – a great-granddaughter of Mrs. O’Leary, and historians Richard F. Bales, Ellie Carlson, and Ellen Skerrett for their assistance with this article. For the most detailed account of Mrs. O’Leary, including a transcript of her interview from the November 1871 inquiry, see The Great Chicago Fire and the Myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow by Richard F. Bales (McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, NC, 2002).

Monday, September 13, 2021

Chicago Fire Stories Part II: The Glessners

John and Frances Glessner arrived in Chicago in December 1870, just ten months before much of the city was destroyed in the "great conflagration." In this article, we will briefly review their life in Chicago prior to that event, and then share a first-hand account of the fire and its aftermath as recorded by John Glessner.

John Glessner and Frances Macbeth were married on December 7, 1870, in the parlor of the Macbeth house in Springfield, Ohio. On December 15, after a week visiting family, they arrived in Chicago, which they would call home for the remainder of their lives. For their first week in Chicago, the Glessners stayed at the Sherman House, advertised at the time as the “finest hotel in the northwest.” The hotel stood at the northwest corner of Randolph and Clark, directly across from Courthouse Square. (Today, it forms part of the site of the James R. Thompson Center).

The Sherman House as it appeared before and after the fire

They came to Chicago so that John Glessner could take charge of the local office of Warder, Mitchell & Co. of which he had recently been made junior partner. The office and warehouse were located at the northwest corner of Madison and Canal streets. (The firm later became Warder, Bushnell & Glessner, and ultimately merged with four others in 1902 to become International Harvester).

Blue arrow - 69 Park Avenue; Red arrow - office at Madison and Canal

On December 28, exactly three weeks after their wedding, the Glessners moved into their first home, located on the west side, which they rented for $45 per month. Of the house, John Glessner wrote, “We rented the house at 69 Park Avenue, corner of Page Street, two blocks west of Union Park – a nice, comfortable two-story frame house that had been built by Judge McAllister and never lived in by anyone except his family. Here we were quite happy, Frances was an excellent housekeeper, our furnishings were all new and selected by her, and the house under her ministration was very charming.” (The house is long gone. Park Avenue later became Maypole Avenue and is one block south of Lake Street. Page Street, which was two blocks west of Ashland Avenue, became Hermitage Avenue).

The Glessners’ first child, a son whom they named George Macbeth Glessner, was born at home on October 2, 1871, just six days before the start of the Great Chicago Fire. His mother was confined to bed for nearly two weeks following childbirth.

Frances Glessner with George at 3-1/2 months, January 1872

On Saturday, October 7, the night before the Great Fire, another serious fire destroyed nearly four blocks bounded by Adams Street on the north, the Chicago River on the east, Van Buren Street on the south, and Clinton Street on the west. The northern edge of this fire was just two blocks from Glessner’s office and warehouse, a deeply concerning fact for John Glessner until it was finally brought under control in the early hours of October 8. In an ironic twist of fate, that fire ensured the survival of Glessner’s office during the Chicago Fire, as the leveled blocks served as a firebreak and prevented the fire from spreading north on the west side of the Chicago River.

Map showing area burned in the October 7 fire; the red star marks the site of John Glessner's office (North is at right)

Pink area shows area burned in the Great Chicago Fire; the area burned on October 7 is bordered in blue; the location of John Glessner's office is shown with the red arrow

The Great Chicago Fire began on Sunday, October 8 at about 8:30pm in the O’Leary barn on De Koven Street. It quickly spread north toward the business district, fanned by strong winds which became superheated and blew debris long distances. Lumber yards, warehouses, coal yards, and wooden bridges were quickly consumed until the fire had come close to Glessner’s office. He wrote:

“The watchman from my office and warehouse, faithful Dick Cunningham, came that Sunday evening to say I ought to go down to look after things, as the fire was but half a block away. Of course, I went, and staid there or nearby until morning. I crossed the river and stood at the corner of Madison and Market Streets – that very wide street (now Wacker Drive) – and saw the blaze blown across the river, strike the west wall of a large brick building on opposite corner, suck down that wall and back along the roadway to my feet, so that I had to get away.

“It is impossible to express the grandeur of the scene, and the horror. Had there been plenty, no amount of water could have extinguished that blaze. Fanned by a strong southwest wind, it swept over the whole business section, crossed the main branch of the river, and burned the North Side, factories, residences, water works, and everything. Fortunately, the fire did not come nearer than the half block to my building, and my home was a mile and a half away. When I got home in the morning, I found Frances had been sleeping quietly and had not missed me.”

Looking northeast across the Randolph Street bridge; this was two blocks north of John Glessner's office

Looking north on 5th Avenue (now Wells Street) at Madison Street; this was three blocks east of John Glessner's office

Even before the fire burnt itself out on October 10, plans were already underway to provide relief for the nearly 90,000 people left homeless (28% of the population). John Glessner continues:

“I was too new in Chicago to have much part in the relief measures but did what I could. Christie Holloway came, conveying a carload of provisions from Springfield (Ohio), and he stopped at my house; and other friends and acquaintances came, bringing supplies of various kinds, and stopped with me, for there were no hotels standing.

“My friends in Ohio and elsewhere sent contributions to me to turn over to proper authorities and showed great confidence in me. One man whom I never had seen sent me $500.00 to distribute where I thought best, without any restrictions. I went to five different preachers and offered each one hundred dollars to help members of their congregations who might be in need and too proud to ask aid. And only one of these responded generously. The others each wanted two hundred or three hundred dollars, and so on, but Rev. Dr. Parkhurst, Methodist, said, ‘Mr. Glessner, there are members of my church who are in need, but they don’t need help as badly as some others, and I would recommend you to see . . .” – so and so of other churches.”

Rev. Matthew Parkhurst; Grace Methodist Church, Chicago Avenue and LaSalle Street, as it appeared before the fire

The ministers to whom the donations were made were Rev. Arthur Mitchell (First Presbyterian), Rev. Abbott E. Kittredge (Third Presbyterian – where Frances Glessner was a member), Rev. Matthew Parkhurst (Grace Methodist), and Revs. Hartman and Anderson (churches unknown). Regarding the clergy, John Glessner also noted that “Our Presbyterians preached that the Chicago fire was punishment by the Lord for our wickedness, but when the Boston fire came soon after, it was ‘Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.’”

An immediate concern for everyone was the lack of water, due to the destruction of the water works. Residents could have water hauled from the lake at a cost of $2 to $5 per barrel, but the Glessners were luckier than most:

“Of course, everybody was without water and when the maid came to me to say she could get none from the tap and it was washday morning, she not knowing the extent of the fire, I went to the kitchen, and upon examination found a large cistern full of beautiful clear water that we used for everything except drinking.”

Glessner’s business would be quiet until spring. He was in the process of having a new warehouse built at the southeast corner of Lake and Clinton streets, so moved his stock of machinery into the stable behind his house and gave his warehouse at Madison and Canal to his friends Albert and Otho Sprague, partners in the firm of Sprague, Warner & Company. From that site, the firm was able to restart their wholesale grocery business, which at the time was the largest of its kind in Chicago.

Surprisingly, Frances Glessner remained totally unaware of the fire and the comings and goings of visitors in her home, due to her confinement following the birth of George. John Glessner noted that “We kept from Frances all knowledge of these visitors and of the fearful tragedy of the fire for ten days or two weeks. The first time I could take her out, we drove down through the burned district. It was a dismal sight.”

The burnt district looking southeast across Randolph toward the courthouse ruins. The Sherman House, where the Glessners spent their first week in Chicago, would have stood at extreme left across from Courthouse Square.

In the end, the Glessners fared the tragedy far better than many others in the city. Home and business were spared, and they were able to focus on their new role of parents, while aiding the sufferers as they could. John Glessner closed his account of the fire with these words:

“The fire came close to but had not damaged any of my property. Our business was entirely out of the city, so that no sufferer owed us anything, and aside from our bank balance being tied up for thirty days we lost not a dollar, and I felt almost mortified because of our good fortune in the general distress.”

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Chicago Fire Stories Part I: Second Presbyterian Church

Second Presbyterian Church, Jevne & Almini, 1866

The stately Gothic Revival structure completed for Second Presbyterian Church at the northeast corner of Wabash and Washington in 1851 was among the most prominent and celebrated buildings in pre-Fire Chicago. The survival of its walls and 164-foot bell tower made it a frequently photographed site in the months after the Fire. In this article, we will examine many aspects of the building – an important work of architect James Renwick Jr.; a theory as to why the exterior walls survived largely intact; and what became of the site in the months and years following the great conflagration that leveled much of Chicago.

Second Presbyterian Church was organized in 1842 with 26 charter members, including Benjamin Raymond, at the time serving his second of two terms as mayor of Chicago. The congregation’s first building was a modest one-story frame structure located at the southeast corner of Randolph and Clark (now part of the site of the Richard J. Daley Center). Within five years, the growth of the congregation and the encroachment of business in this part of downtown resulted in the trustees purchasing a new lot for $5,000 at the northeast corner of Wabash and Washington, in what was then a quiet residential neighborhood. The property backed up to Dearborn Place (now Garland Court) and Dearborn Park, which extended east to Michigan Avenue (and is now the site of the Chicago Cultural Center).

A $100 premium was offered for the best building plan, but only a few were submitted, and none of those proved satisfactory. A church trustee traveling to New York was introduced to architect James Renwick Jr., who was then completing the Church of the Pilgrims on Union Square. Renwick was quickly gaining a reputation for his buildings in the Gothic Revival style, including Grace Church in New York City, and his recently accepted plan for the Smithsonian Institution “Castle” in Washington, D.C. (His best-known work, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, would follow later, and was constructed between 1858 and 1879).

Renwick accepted the Second Presbyterian commission and the approved budget of $25,000. Soon after, he submitted his sketch for the building, which was to be constructed of “tar rock,” a local limestone quarried about four miles northwest of downtown, noted for its bituminous tar deposits which gave it a spotted appearance (shown below). The stone was quarried, brought to the building lot, and then cut during the fall and winter of 1848. Work on the foundations began in the spring of 1849. This early work was superintended by George Washington Snow, a church trustee and Chicago-based architect remembered today as the inventor of the balloon frame method of constructing wooden buildings.

During the summer of 1849, architect and builder Asher Carter of Morristown, New Jersey, was engaged to oversee the completion of the building. He was the second professional architect to practice in Chicago, and later formed a partnership with Augustus Bauer, designing such well-known buildings as Old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church.

Earliest known photograph of the church. Note the elegant residence at 21 Washington Street shown at far left.

The cornerstone of the church was laid in August 1849 and work was substantially completed by the end of 1850. A service of dedication took place on the evening of Friday, January 24, 1851. The building came in just over the original budget, although the addition of a bell and clock in the bell tower brought the cost to about $35,000. A 50th anniversary history of the church, published in 1892, noted the following about the bell and clock:

“The bell and clock were popular features in the equipment of the church. The bell, key of E flat, large, heavy and rich in tone, was a very important factor in securing the prompt attendance of the congregation at the regular services.

“The clock gave its warning strike when it was time for the pastor to say, ‘In conclusion.’ Occasionally a stranger in the pulpit would prolong his discourse until he saw unmistakable evidence that some of the congregation wanted him to conclude, after the clock had finished striking twelve.”

A newspaper article published in December 1850 noted that “it is perhaps the most magnificent Church edifice in the West.” It is believed to have been one of the first structures in Chicago constructed of stone, predating other buildings erected during the 1850s with “Athens marble,” a limestone quarried in the region of Joliet and Lemont. More importantly, it appears to have been the first building west of New York to have been built in the Gothic Revival style, setting a trend in Chicago (and elsewhere) that continued through the time of the fire.

Photo looking east from the cupola of the Court House taken in 1858 by Alexander Hesler. Second Presbyterian Church can be seen in the upper right hand corner of the top photo; the detail shot below shows the church and, to the left, the Dearborn Seminary for Young Ladies.

The distinctive limestone with its “antique appearance” quickly earned the building the name of the “Spotted Church.” Other more lighthearted sources referred to it as the “Church of the Holy Zebra.” (For an interesting discussion of the stone and its later uses in Chicago, click here.)

1857 Braunhold & Sonne map showing the back (east) facade of the church, which faced into Dearborn Park. Note that the church is completely surrounded by residences.

By the mid-1860s, the church found itself facing the same predicament it had encountered twenty years earlier – namely the encroachment of business into a residential neighborhood. The two maps shown below, dated 1862 and 1869, show this rapid transformation. In the 1862 map, produced by E. Whitefield for Rufus Blanchard, all the lots surrounding the church were occupied by dwellings, except for the Dearborn Seminary - a private school for girls on the west side of Wabash, and an Episcopal church – the Church of the Holy Communion – a few doors north of Second Presbyterian. (That church, visible at far left in the top image of this article, was built in 1859, and abandoned just nine years later when the congregation relocated three miles south).

1862 Blanchard map

As seen in the 1869 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, the entire block north of the church had been rebuilt with large commercial blocks. One of the largest was the five-story building for the wholesale druggists Lord & Smith immediately north of the church, which would have blocked all light through the north facing stained glass windows. J. V. Farwell & Co. offered the church $192,000 for its prime corner location – a lot which had cost just $5,000 twenty years earlier.

1869 Sanborn map, the church is shown in blue at center.

Church members were divided on what to do. William Bross, then serving as Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, recommended razing the church building and erecting a large business block with stores and offices on the first two floors, and a large auditorium for church purposes on the top floor. (The Methodists did adopt this type of plan and remain to this day in the Chicago Temple on the site of their original church building at Washington and Clark).

The chief objection to remaining at the downtown location was the fact that many of the church members were moving out of the area and relocating to an area two to three miles to the south. It was feared that these members would opt to build a new church convenient to their homes, thus abandoning the old Second Church downtown.

The church as it appeared about 1870. Note the large Lord & Smith building immediately to the north.

Finally, during the summer of 1871, the congregation voted to sell the downtown property for $161,000 to Timothy Wright while retaining ownership of the building itself. A new site was purchased at the corner of Wabash and Twentieth, later exchanged for the present lot at the northwest corner of Michigan and Twentieth (now Cullerton). At the same time, the congregation formally merged with the Olivet Presbyterian Church, at the time located at Wabash and 14th Street, the combined congregation to take possession of the new building upon its completion.

The final service was held at the old church building at Wabash and Washington on Sunday, October 1, 1871. The next day, the
Chicago Tribune reported:

“The rapidity of the growth of this city would seem to be an exhausted theme did not some new occurrence almost daily impress it upon us. The disappearance of one building of note after another, in the more central part of the city, to make room for the raising of one more suitable to commercial needs, is one of the indications . . . Now the obituary of the Second Presbyterian Church, situated on the corner of Washington street and Wabash avenue, must be written. The last gasp was taken by the old church yesterday morning; the old building is dead; decomposition will soon set in.”

A reunion of current and former church members took place on the evening of Tuesday, October 3, after which the building was closed. In the meantime, the trustees continued their efforts to sell the building to someone who would dismantle it and reuse the stone for a new structure.

On Sunday, October 8, 1871, exactly one week after the last service was held in the building, the Great Chicago Fire ignited in the barn behind Mrs. O’Leary’s home at 137 De Koven Street. On Monday, the fire consumed the entire downtown district, including the church building. When the smoke cleared the next day, almost all of the downtown buildings were totally destroyed. It was quickly noted, however, that the walls and bell tower of Second Presbyterian Church had survived virtually intact, a fact made even more remarkable when noted that the Lord & Smith building immediately to the north was partially blown up as part of an unsuccessful attempt to create a firebreak.

The church looking west from Michigan Avenue

Use of the bituminous limestone may have been a factor in the survival of the building. An article from the October 26 edition of the Chicago Tribune, however, noted that confusion over the use of the stone and its ability to withstand fire was widespread:

“A writer in the American edition of Chambers Edinburgh Journal, published before the fire, stated that in the neighborhood of Chicago are enormous deposits of ‘oil-bearing limestone,’ of which many houses are built. Inspired by this suggestion, numerous papers are discussing in the East whether the uncontrollable fury of the fire, and the rapid demolition of all our stone structures, were not owing to the use of this bituminous stone. Various buildings are cited, and their speedy destruction looked upon as proof that the intense heat under which they yielded, was due to the presence of the oil in the stone.

“To all of which it is only necessary to state that the supposed oil-bearing stone was not used in this city, except in some cases for foundations, which are all intact, and that the only structure of any size built of that material, was the Second Presbyterian Church, the walls of which are all standing and did not crumble or melt under the heat. The stone mainly used was the Athens marble, a limestone formation, handsome, easily worked, which had become a favorite with builders. Until this fire it had exhibited no special incapacity to resist heat.”

The church looking north from Madison Street across the ruins of the Drake Block.

The church looking east from State Street across the ruins of Field, Leiter & Co.

(It is interesting to note that the walls of the present Second Presbyterian Church, constructed of the same bituminous limestone, also survived a devastating fire in March 1900 that completely destroyed the sanctuary and roof).

The church building was quickly put into use. Church member Charles P. Kellogg was the owner of a large clothing manufacturing business which had been burned out in the fire. By the end of October, Kellogg advertised:

“To those of our customers who have been obliged to buy Clothing for the past three weeks in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Paul, Dubuque, St. Joseph, and other inferior markets, we desire to state that we have rented the old Second Presbyterian Church, corner Wabash-av. and Washington-st., which we are now roofing over, making of it as good a store as circumstances will permit. We shall take immediate steps to fill this store with a more desirable stock than ever before exhibited by us, and shall do our whole duty in re-establishing the reputation that this market has always sustained of being the best clothing market in the country.”

Church building showing temporary roof installed over the sanctuary by Charles Kellogg.

The side walls of the church building were 31 feet high, so Kellogg was able to divide the former sanctuary into two floors containing nearly 20,000 square feet of usable space. His company moved into its new building on Madison Street near Market by May 1872, at which time he advertised the former church space for rent.

After the fire, the church collected the insurance proceeds on the building, and the stone became the property of Timothy Wright, who had purchased the land in August 1871. He apparently entered into an agreement with the congregation, as it was noted in August 1872 that “a portion of the stone of the old is being used in the new Second Presbyterian Church, now being rapidly rebuilt, at the corner of Michigan avenue and Twentieth street.”

The building stood largely intact for nearly two years. An article from June 1873 stated that “in the way of ruins our visitors are considerably more than a year too late to see much.” Mention was made of a portion of the Court House which still stood, along with partial walls of the post office and the Grand Central Depot, but the “most picturesque of all the ruins is that of the Second Presbyterian Church.”

By September 1873, demolition of the building was finally underway and by the next month excavation began for a hotel planned by Timothy Wright. During demolition, the cornerstone of the church was located, its tin box containing water-soaked copies of various newspapers and periodicals from 1849, and a Morocco leatherbound pocket Bible.

Wright salvaged much of the stone and transported it to Winnetka, where he intended to build a church in memory of his mother, who had been one of the charter members of Second Presbyterian. The church plan never materialized, and the stone was eventually sold to J. Hall McCormick, who hauled it to Lake Forest with the intention of building a house. His plans changed, and he sold the stone to the trustees of the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest, which used it in the construction of its new building, designed by architect Henry Ives Cobb, and dedicated on June 10, 1887. The use was most appropriate as the Lake Forest church had close ties with Second Presbyterian. The Lake Forest Association was begun in the lecture room of the old church in 1856, and three years later the church was organized in the same space.

First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest showing the spotted stone.
(Photo by Steve Sabourin)

For unknown reasons, Wright never moved forward with his plans to build a hotel on the former site of the church. In December 1876, he sold the land to John Taylor of New York for $97,500, just 60% of what he had paid for it five years earlier. Taylor quickly proceeded with the construction of a four-story business block which cost about $100,000. By October 1877, the building was leased to a large clothing firm, H. A. Kohn & Bros. (That building was replaced in 1915 by the Garland Building, a 21-story structure designed by Christian Eckstorm which still stands).

The Garland Building looking west from Michigan Avenue.

The stone was not the only part of the building which survived. After the church held its final service on October 1, 1871, two ornate Gothic Revival pulpit chairs, part of the design by James Renwick Jr., were removed and sent off for reupholstering. That location was outside the burnt district and the chairs survived. They can still be seen on display in the narthex of the current church.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the building to survive was its wondrous bell, or at least parts of it. During the fire, the bell came crashing down from its perch high up in the tower. It was rescued and found its way to the jewelry firm of I. & C. W. Speer & Co. In February 1872, the firm began advertising that a variety of souvenirs of the fire were being made from the bell. (Souvenirs were also made from the bells salvaged from the Court House and St. Mary’s Church).

“The oldest bells from the great fire are made into charms by the oldest manufacturers, I. & C. W. Speer & Co., established 1843. They are now making twenty-five different kinds of charms, including the beautiful paper weight, the cow kicking over the lamp; beautiful Bibles, with date of fire on the cover; bells, book-marks, tea-bells, and all other charms from the famous old Second Presbyterian Church bell, which was the first that rang the fire alarms, by authority of the city of Chicago.”

The story of the second building occupied by Second Presbyterian Church is significant. The “Spotted Church” was an important early design of architect James Renwick Jr. which introduced Gothic Revival to the West and ushered in the age of stone buildings in Chicago. The reuse of the stone from the walls that miraculously survived the fire, along with the existence of the pulpit chairs and souvenirs from the church bell are all tangible links to the Great Chicago Fire that forever changed the destiny of Chicago.


The First National Bank, seen through the front entrance of the church, was one of the few buildings in downtown Chicago to survive largely intact.

Monday, July 19, 2021

A landmarked White Castle and the development of East Cermak Road

Cermak Road looking west at Calumet Avenue, 1933

The neighborhood around Glessner House possesses many landmark buildings, ranging from Gilded Age mansions to large manufacturing plants. Perhaps the most unusual, and definitely the smallest, is White Castle #16 at 43 E. Cermak Road, designated a Chicago landmark in 2011. In this article, we will look at the development of East Cermak Road (originally Twenty-second Street); the founding of White Castle, which is celebrating its centennial in 2021; and the history of White Castle #16, constructed in 1930.

The Development of Twenty-second Street

Twenty-second Street, which formed the southern boundary of the exclusive Prairie Avenue residential district, always functioned as a commercial strip to support the residents living to the north. The street was lined with dry goods stores, bakeries, butchers, and grocers, along with tailors, dressmakers, shoemakers, milliners, and jewelers. Sullivan’s Dancing Academy (later Metcalf’s South Side Academy) was located on the south side of Twenty-second east of Michigan.

George A. Seaverns completed a series of 28 stores with flats (apartments) above in 1882. The buildings, which cost $250,000 to construct, occupied the entire block between Wabash and State on the south side of Twenty-second. The flats featured cherry wood trim, fine gas fixtures, private bathrooms, hot water boilers, and floors lined with two layers of felting to deaden the noise between units. The stores were considered the finest on the street and featured large plate glass display windows. 

Southern Hotel

The largest building for years was the stone-clad Southern Hotel at the northwest corner of Wabash and Twenty-second. In 1892, the much-larger 10-story Lexington Hotel was constructed at the northeast corner of Michigan and Twenty-second, in preparation for the large influx of visitors to the city during the World’s Columbian Exposition. That same year also saw the construction of Chicago’s first “L” – the South Side Rapid Transit (now the Green Line) – built on elevated tracks that ran above the alley between Wabash and State. The Twenty-second Street station, located on the south side of the street, opened in June 1892.

The Neighborhood Begins to Change

Wabash and State, along with the streets to the west, always had a very different character than the prime residential streets to the east – Michigan, Indiana, Prairie, and Calumet. In the 1880s, Chicago’s infamous red-light district, known as the Levee, established itself along State, Dearborn, and Clark, between Nineteenth and Twenty-second streets. Although the Levee was shut down in 1912, gambling continued to thrive in the area, which also became replete with speakeasies during Prohibition. The Southern Hotel became the “notorious” Cadillac Hotel, and Al Capone established his headquarters in the nearby Lexington Hotel in 1928. (Remember when Geraldo Rivera opened Capone’s vault in the building on live TV in 1986?)

Looking north on Michigan Avenue toward the Lexington Hotel, circa 1910

The two-story frame building that stood on the present site of White Castle #16 originally bore the address of 165 Twenty-second Street. Prior to the 1909 renumbering of Chicago streets, address numbers began with 1 closest to Lake Michigan and then increased going west. In 1909, the building was renumbered 43 E. Twenty-second Street. A meat market occupied the building in the late 19th century, but by the early 1900s, slightly more questionable businesses could be found there.

A 1905 advertisement shows the building occupied by the Eagle Medicinal Wine Company, which bottled and distributed its “Dr. Young’s Elixir of Life” that appears to have been little more than port wine being sold for medicinal purposes. The product promised to serve as “a body builder, strength creator, and blood maker for old people, puny children, and weak, run down persons.” Just a year later, Newhouse, promoted as “America’s greatest palmist and psychic reader” was offering $5.00 readings at the location for just 50 cents.

The Modern Street Takes Shape

By the early 1920s, the growing number of automobiles in Chicago required a major reevaluation of arterial streets to relieve increasing amounts of traffic. Several streets were widened during the decade including both Indiana and Michigan avenues. Twenty-second Street was seen as essential to the redevelopment of the near South Side, and the City Council adopted an ordinance to increase its width from 66 to 120 feet. With large buildings like the Lexington Hotel standing on the north side of Twenty-second street, the decision was made to demolish the smaller buildings on the south side of the street and then redevelop it with large office buildings, hotels, and apartment houses.

Demolition work was underway by 1923 when the photograph above was taken. It shows Twenty-second Street looking west at Prairie Avenue; buildings in the foreground have been reduced to rubble. The work proceeded at a slow pace and by 1926 the city had run out of funds to complete the demolitions and proceed with the street widening. By the time the work was completed, the country was just entering the Great Depression and the anticipated large-scale redevelopment never materialized. (Twenty-second street was renamed Cermak Road on March 6, 1933, just nine days after Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak died of gunshot wounds sustained three weeks earlier in Florida while meeting with President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. The street was selected as it ran through the neighborhoods of Pilsen and Lawndale, both of which were home to large numbers of Czech Americans).

The street widening created another issue. The lots on the south side of Twenty-second Street were originally 85 feet deep. After the widening, the lots were only 31 feet deep, making reuse possibilities limited, especially since the lots backed up to an alley running parallel to Twenty-second. However, the shallow lot at the southeast corner of Twenty-second Street and Wabash Avenue proved ideal for the construction of a White Castle with its small building footprint.

White Castle

White Castle System of Eating Houses, Inc., the first fast-food chain in America, was founded in Wichita, Kansas in 1921 by J. Walter Anderson and Edgar Waldo “Billy” Ingram. The name was selected to convey a very specific message – White denoted cleanliness, while Castle conveyed a sense of strength and permanence. Ingram was said to have been inspired by Chicago’s Water Tower for the basic design of the buildings.

Although seen today as just one of many fast-food chains in America, the founding of White Castle had a profound impact on American’s eating habits. Prior to White Castle, the hamburger had a lowly reputation and was seen mostly as “carnival” food. The experimentation by White Castle with innovations including how to cook the meat for maximum flavor and serving it on warm buns instead of between slices of bread elevated the hamburger into the most ubiquitous sandwich in the United States.

The company promised speed in filling orders and also popularized the concept of “take out” food, offering only a few stools in their stands and encouraging customers to “buy ‘em by the sack.” Equally important, White Castle standardized everything it did, assuring the customer the same experience regardless of which location they went to. This included the menu, appearance of its employees, and the programmatic architecture, first utilizing white painted concrete block, then white glazed brick, and finally white porcelain steel panels, for the exterior. 

A focus on cleanliness was a relatively new and novel concept in the industry, especially since the kitchens were open and visible to customers. White tile and stainless steel were used on the interiors. The standard extended to the employees as well. An employee checklist from 1931 entitled “Before Going on Duty” noted 24 items from head to foot that were to be checked before being seen by customers. These included everything from “cap should cover hair” and “correct bad breath” to “no patches in trousers seat” and “clean fingernails.”

Extensive marketing was another part of White Castle’s success. Ingram believed the company had “performed an important public service by legitimizing the hamburger as a quick, inexpensive, tasty food fit for all income classes, not just the working class” and this was reflected in the extensive newspaper advertising. Coupons and special offers were regularly featured such as the advertisement below from 1934 promoting five hamburgers for ten cents.

During 1921, several stands were opened in Wichita. By 1930 additional stands had opened in Omaha, Kansas City, St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Louisville, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Columbus Ohio, Detroit, and New York City. The year 1929 saw the opening of nine White Castles in Chicago. 

White Castle #16

There were fifteen White Castle stands in Chicago by July of 1930, when the building permit for #16 was issued. (The company numbered each stand within a city based on the order in which they were constructed). Chicago stands were all located in working-class neighborhoods on the West and South sides and were situated on prominent corners near streetcar transfer points or elevated train stations. Lloyd W. Ray, construction superintendent for White Castle, was responsible for the design of the stand, although Lewis E. Russell, a Chicago architect, was listed as the architect of record. The nearly identical design of all the stands allowed them to be built cheaply and efficiently. Stand #16 opened on September 1, 1930, just six weeks after the permit had been issued; the cost was $4,500.  

White Castle #16, circa 1930

The design for #16 called for the use of porcelain-steel panels, which were first introduced on the stands in 1928. Delays in obtaining the panels resulted in a switch to the white glazed brick that had been used since 1925. A small amount of green and beige glazed brick was used to highlight window and door openings, copings, buttresses, and the base of the building. Leaded glass filled the upper portion of several windows. The ubiquitous tower anchored the building to its corner site, and gooseneck light fixtures ensured the building would be well lit at night. 

Cermak Road looking west in 1933; red arrow shows location of White Castle #16

White Castle prospered throughout the Great Depression, but World War II brought both supply and manpower shortages. Fish sandwiches and baked beans were offered in place of the hard-to-obtain beef, and Postum replaced coffee. For the first time, the company hired female counter attendants. The number of stands nationwide dropped from 130 in 1941 to just 87 in 1945. Chicago #16 closed its door in October 1944, and the building was sold the next month to two women who continued to operate it as a food stand. It housed various businesses through the years, including a locksmith and key shop. 

White Castle #16 prior to restoration, 2010

In 1982, Rocky Gupta purchased the structure and opened his Chef Luciano Kitchen & Chicken restaurant in the building and the adjacent storefront to the east. In 2010, he undertook an extensive restoration of the White Castle building, replacing missing elements such as the crenellated tower, repairing the white glazed brick, and installing reproduction exterior light fixtures. The building was designated a Chicago landmark the next year.

White Castle #16 as it appears today

Today, the building survives as the oldest intact White Castle stand in Chicago and one of the oldest stands in the United States. Only used for its original purpose for 14 years, the building endured decades of reuse and poor maintenance before being rescued by the current owner who brought it back to life. And, by coincidence, the company (still owned and operated by the Ingram family) has maintained a presence at the intersection for decades, the current White Castle occupying a location catty-corner to the original.

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