How elevators made the modern city possible

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From the Boston Globe:

Elevators first arrived in America during the 1860s, in the lobbies of luxurious hotels, where they served as a plush conveyance that saved the well-heeled traveler the annoyance of climbing stairs. Initially these steam-powered “moveable rooms” were extravagantly furnished with chandeliers, benches, and carpeting, says Lee Gray, a columnist for Elevator World and an associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Passengers were expected to sit down and get comfortable before the operator fired up the new contrivance. “It was all about luxury,” said Gray.

It wasn’t until the 1870s, when elevators showed up in office buildings, that the technology really started to leave a mark on urban culture. Business owners stymied by the lack of available space could look up and see room for growth where there was previously nothing but air—a development that was particularly welcome in New York, where a real estate crunch in Manhattan’s business district had, for a time, forced city leaders to consider moving the entire financial sector uptown. That plan came to be seen as unnecessary thanks to the initiative of one Henry Hyde, the founder of a large insurance firm, who realized that by installing a pair of elevators in his headquarters, he could make it the tallest building in the city: seven stories and 130 feet. In so doing, Hyde ushered in a new era. As a writer for Scribner’s Magazine put it almost 30 years later, the passenger elevator turned out to be “a revolutionary agent” that did for modern building what the steam engine had done for transportation.

Advances in elevator technology combined with new steel frame construction methods to push the height limits of buildings higher and higher. In the 1890s, as Bernard recounts in his book, the tallest building in the world was the 20-story Masonic Temple in Chicago; by 1913, when hydraulic elevators had been replaced with much speedier and more efficient electrical ones, it was the 55-story Woolworth Building in New York. Quickly, the modern city assumed its present shape. As Patrick Carrajat, the founder of the Elevator Museum in New York, put it, “If we didn’t have elevators…we would have a megalopolis, one continuous city, stretching from Philadelphia to Boston, because everything would be five or six stories tall.”

The arrival of the elevator upended more than urban planning: It changed the hierarchy of buildings on the inside as well. Higher floors had once been distant, scrubby spaces occupied by maids and the kind of low-rent tenants who could be expected to climb six flights of stairs. The more important people climbed at most one or two flights, which gave brownstone-style homes, for instance, their high-ceilinged parlor floors. While the arrival of elevators didn’t change this right away—the top floor of Henry Hyde’s building was occupied by the in-house janitor—the upper reaches of buildings eventually became desirable. The elevator ushered in the end of the garret and the beginning of the penthouse, as lawyers and businessmen came to appreciate the advantages of having beautiful, bird’s-eye views and respite from the loud noises of the street. Hotel owners, meanwhile, started turning their top floor rooms into their nicest ones. They could even rent out their roofs for garden parties where guests could survey the glittering new city, all without doing a bit of work to get there.

Read the full article here.

How elevators made the modern city possible

The short-lived life of the world’s tallest building

From Chicago Reader:

Thus the Land was stirring and quivering in impulses, wave upon wave. . . . [Chicago] was pushing its structures higher and higher, until the Masonic Temple by John Root had raised its head far into the air, and the word “skyscraper” came into use. –Louis Sullivan, from The Autobiography of an Idea

On a warm evening in the summer of 1892, Edgar Lee Masters boards the night train for Chicago. He is 22 and one year a member of the Illinois bar, but he’d rather be a poet than an attorney. The train carries him northward, away from his home in Lewistown, and Masters sits awake by the window watching for the exact spot where prairie gives way to city. He comes upon Chicago at dawn, and though he does not know it, the first thing he sees of the city is its red-light district.

When he steps off the train, Masters is hungry and tired. His starched collar has wilted, and his white vest is covered in cinders. His enthusiasm for urban life, however, is unabated, and after breakfast at his uncle’s rooming house at 2128 S. Michigan Ave., he asks to be shown the sights. He is shown them.

Forty-four years pass. Masters spends eight of them as a law partner of Clarence Darrow. He publishes one remarkable book of poetry. Of his first day in Chicago he remembers that he especially wanted to visit “the tallest building in the world, from the top of which, according to an old Polonius in Lewistown, one could see Council Bluffs, Iowa. . . . I had to try that out, and Uncle Henry took me to the Masonic Temple.”

From the mosaic floor of its marble lobby to gabled roofs and glass-domed gardens, the Masonic Temple at the northeast corner of State and Randolph stood 302 feet tall. It was, according to Henry Justin Smith, a managing editor for the old Chicago Daily News, “a wonder of wonders. . . . Everything about the building made the city burst with pride, and gave country visitors kinks in their necks.” In fact, the building achieved a notoriety generally reserved for the Brooklyn Bridge and other “marketable” real estate. Vaudeville comics told the story–and Smith went so far as to claim it was an actual “colloquy” frequently overheard in Chicago’s turn-of-the-century courtrooms–of a cop approaching the bench with several con men in tow. “What’s the charges against these men?” asked the judge, to which the arresting officer would reply, “They took money off a rube, your honor, told him they were selling him the Masonic Temple. And when the rube said he liked the building but not the direction it faced, they said for five dollars more they’d turn it around.”

By 1939, however, the luster had worn off and the Masonic Temple was regarded as just another obsolescent and costly giant. Brick by brick, it was demolished from the top down, relegated to Chicago’s sizable scrap heap of architectural gems.

The short-lived life of the world’s tallest building

Photographs from 1920s Chicago

From The Atlantic:

Chicago was not at its finest at the turn of the 20th century. Heading into the roaring ’20s, the city played host to some of the most infamous criminals. Crime was abundant—which gave photographers from the Chicago Tribune plenty of chances to take striking shots.

The Tribune‘s new collection, titled Gangsters & Grifters, features a collection of photos of Chicago’s most colorful characters in said time period. The book goes far beyond the Capones and the Dillingers; even two of its editors, Marianne Mather and Erin Mystkowski of the Tribune‘s current photo department, were surprised at how much they learned in the compilation process.

“For me, I grew up in Chicago,” Mather said. “Seeing the history come to life of the city I grew up in has been a lot of fun. And I also think it broadened my perspective on what was happening in that time period.”

Photographs from 1920s Chicago

Finding Vivien Maier

I can’t wait to watch Finding Vivien Maier. From the New York Times:

An exciting electric current of discovery runs through “Finding Vivian Maier,” a documentary about a street photographer who never exhibited her work. She scarcely shared it even with those who knew her. Then again, many of her acquaintances when she was taking some of her remarkable images, particularly in and around Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s, were the children she cared for while working as a nanny. Later in her life, some of those children took care of her in turn, first by moving her into an apartment and then the nursing home where she died in 2009. What rotten timing: She was on the verge of being discovered, first as a curiosity and then as a social-media sensation and a mystery.

It’s no surprise that Maier is now the subject of a documentary, given the quality of her work, the nominal exoticism of her life and the secrets that still drift around her. She’s a terrific story — part Mary Poppins, part Weegee — who was at once emancipated and in service. She was introduced to the world, as it were, by John Maloof, one of this movie’s directors, who bought a box of her negatives at a Chicago auction in 2007 for about $400. The auction house, he explains, told him the work was by Maier, but he found nothing about her on Google. He had purchased the negatives for a book he was working on, but after deciding that they were of no use, he stashed the box away.

And then he took it out again, scanned some images and put them up on Flickr.

Finding Vivien Maier

$40 found footage of Chicago in the 40s

From The Atlantic Cities:

At a recent estate sale on the south side of Chicago, Jeff Altman spotted a canister of film simply labeled “Chicago” and “Print 1.” That tidbit of information was intriguing enough for Altman to drop $40 on the print.

Altman, who works in film post-production, took two weeks to inspect and fix minor issues before scanning and turning it into a digital video.

The result is this short film, a marvelous and thorough overview of 1940s Chicago, when the Wrigley and Tribune Towers were still considered modern landmarks.

$40 found footage of Chicago in the 40s

Chicago is…

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From the Atlantic Cities:

Created by Luke Seeman, a designer and developer at Chicago magazine, @whatschicago retweets tweets that begin with the phrase “Chicago is.” It works better than it sounds like it might: @whatschicago creates a live monitor of popular opinion of the city, an ongoing index of how people define the midwestern metropolis.

Seeman says he was inspired by the Google autocomplete maps that showed what what the site suggests when you type “Why is [state] so…?” (For Chicago’s home, the search engine suggests “Why is Illinois so corrupt?”)

Chicago is…

Ken Isaacs’ knowledge box

In 1962 a young designer in Chicago created a device that he called a “knowledge box.” From Life magazine in September of that year:

As the imagination of many men creates a fantastic new world, the danger is that individual man may soon find himself lost in it. He may be expert in his own special field — microbiology, perhaps — but otherwise remains an ignoramus. New teaching techniques and devices are therefore much required in order to cram as much knowledge as possible, as fast as possible, into his swimming brain.

Out of the imagination of one specialist, 32-year-old designer Ken Isaacs of the Illinois Institute of Technology, has come a machine called a “knowledge box” that he hopes will help fill this need. Isaacs, peering from inside his weird cellular contrivance, believes that the traditional classroom environment is as ill-suited for learning as a ball park. Inside the knowledge box, alone and quiet, the student would see a rapid procession of thoughts and ideas projected on walls, ceilings and floor in a panoply of pictures, words and light patterns, leaving the mid to conclude for itself. It is a machine of visual impact that could depict, for example, a history of the Civil War in a single session, or just as easily give a waiting astronaut a lesson in celestial navigation.

Ken Isaacs’ knowledge box