Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Chicago's original skyscraper

Photo by Afries52, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
As Chicago's skyscrapers rose from the ashes of its Great Fire of 1871, its castle-like Water Tower stood firm and erect as a symbolic survivor of the fire-breathing dragon it subdued.  

Yet while visiting the morphing metropolis in 1882, British playwright Oscar Wilde dismissed this fairytale fortress as a “castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it” but praised its internal water-pumping machinery as “simple, grand and natural,” as if alluding to the structural simplicity and sincerity of Chicago’s latest crop of towers.

The Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station in 1886.
Nevertheless, this pepperbox palace of rustic walls and buttresses, crenellated parapets and pillars, Gothic windows and dome-crowned minaret captivates the eye today as a medieval-style monument to fortitude in the face of fire. As America’s second-oldest water tower, this 154-foot limestone edifice was built in 1869 — just in time to turn on the hose when Chicago went aflame — as the principal building of the city’s second Water Works, most of which the Great Fire destroyed. 

From the 1869 Annual Report of the Board of Public Works.
Designed by William W. Boyington and built in fireproof Lemont limestone quarried in Joliet, Illinois, the Water Tower was intended to house a 138-foot standpipe measuring 3 feet in diameter to equalize the pressure of the water that went through the pumping station, for efficient firefighting throughout the city. 

A two-mile tunnel system, hailed worldwide as an engineering marvel when completed in 1867, supplied the tower’s water from Lake Michigan.

Photo by Zol87, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Built on a cement-laid stone foundation on 168 concrete-filled piles capped with oak timbers, the tower rises in stages as a succession of battlement pillar clusters, culminating in the octagonal standpipe enclosure. At the top, a circle of crenellated columns uphold a domed cupola crowned with a "skyscraping" finial.

Pillars defensively anchor each corner of the square base and the two-tier shaft, and torch-like finials crown the lower shaft’s crenellated gables as symbols of the fire the tower set out to stifle. 

Each of the base’s 40-foot-wide sides boasts a Gothic-arched door flanked by mini-pillars and peak-hooded windows. Quartets of battlements crown the pumping station’s octagonal corner towers as additional regalia of fire-resistance.

These distinctive details not only inspired the design of many of the White Castle restaurants years later, but they also made the tower an effective landmark guidepost by which people could find the ruins of their homes after the Great Fire, based on how close to the tower they had lived.

Photo by Behnazkhazai, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Despite its long-gone status as Chicago's tallest building, not to mention its relative dwarf stature in the shadows of the skyscrapers it helped to inspire, the Water Tower remains a landmark — not merely because it was named an American Water Landmark by the American Water Works Association in 1969 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.  

Photo by Victor Grigas, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
For the Chicago Water Tower has had influence as far-reaching as its water system, and certainly farther-reaching than Oscar Wilde could have ever imagined.

Centrally located at 806 North Michigan Avenue along Chicago's famed Magnificent Mile shopping district, the Water Tower is now City Gallery, the official art and photography exhibition center of the Chicago Office of Tourism. 

The Pumping Station has become the city’s Visitor Welcome Center, where people can receive information and literature about Chicago’s numerous tourist attractions, cultural events, sightseeing opportunities and other exciting happenings, as well as observe the inner workings of the Water Works. 

Photo by TonyTheTiger, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
In 1975, the Water Tower gave rise — so to speak — to Water Tower Place, a mixed-use development consisting of a 758,000-square-foot shopping mall and a 78-story, 859-foot  condo/hotel/office skyscraper. Built by Urban Retail Properties from a design by Edward D. Dart of Loebl Schlossman Bennett and Dart, Water Tower Place was the world’s tallest reinforced concrete building at the time of its construction, and today it is Chicago’s eighth tallest building. (Its residents have included Oprah Winfrey, who purchased a $6 million condo there on November 28, 2006.)

Photo by Joi Ito from Inbamura, Japan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Although the Water Tower’s standpipe was removed in 1911 when it became obsolete, its encircling spiral staircase remains intact. 

The staircase winds up to the cupola, where a breathtaking panorama of the city’s panoply of skyscrapers can be viewed from the summit of Chicago’s original skyscraper.

Thank you for visiting. I welcome your comments!

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