by: chicago designslinger
[Washington Block (1874) F. & E. Baumann, architects / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Imagine taking a brick out into a just watered garden and standing it up on end like a tall building. If it fell over you probably wouldn't be surprised. Or if you had distributed the weight fairly evenly it might have stood its ground, but eventually leaned a little like the tower in Pisa. Now grab another brick and place the long, flat side down on the ground and give it a push trying to keep it level, then put your brick on top of it. If the edge is smooth and flat, it will sit nicely on its pedestal without tipping over. This simple exercise forms a basic principle proposed by a Chicago architect as a solution to building taller and heavier buildings in city's unstable water-logged soil.
[Washington Block, 40 N. Wells Street, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
In 1873 Chicago architect Frederick Baumann published a 35-page pamphlet, "The Art of Preparing Foundations for All Kinds of Buildings with Particular Illustrations of the Method of Isolated Piers as Followed in Chicago." The ideas he put forth weren't revolutionary, he just took a well thought-out common sense approach to building large commercial blocks in Chicago's squishy soil and put it down on paper. The city's booming business district had once been the site of an ancient lake bed, and when the last glaciers receded the land mass that eventually became the Loop was a muddy mess. It wasn't unusual to walk around the remnants of the brick facade of a 4-story building that had collapsed into the street, or to roll a marble from one corner of a room to the other as the building sank into the mud. In the post-fire boom downtown developers built like crazy replacing what had been lost using the same construction methods builders had used before 1871. Baumann saw an opportunity to build a more structurally sound business district in the aftermath of the fire and hoped to encourage developers and their architects to change their pre-fire ways.
[Washington Block, City of Chicago Landmark / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
John Prosper Olinger came to Chicago in 1854, practiced law, became one of the charter members of the Chicago Board of Trade, and invested his money in real estate. His wife Catherine was the daughter of early Chicago pioneers Barbara and Pierre Cure who had once operated a grocery and provision store on Randolph Street in the late 1830s. In 1874 Olinger hired Baumann and his cousin Edward to design a standard, pre-fire, 5-story with basement commercial building on a lot the Cure estate owned on the southwest corner of Washington Street and Fifth Avenue - which had been known as Wells Street. With basement windows half above grade and half below surrounded by an open window well and a prominent corner stair leading up to the first floor offices, by all outward appearances the handsome Athens marble building looked like any number of the other towers rising around it - but it wasn't. Baumann used his recently published isolated pier theory to keep the building steady on its feet. Like a stepped pyramid, the isolated pier supported the weight of interior columns which meant that the building would settle more gently and evenly without causing walls to collapse or floors to tilt.
[Washington Block, Chicago Loop, Chicago / Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]
Olinger moved his real estate office into the Washington Block as soon as it was completed, and the estate held on to the building until 1905 when it was put up for sale with an asking price of $200,000. The open basement window well was enclosed by an expanded sidewalk that chopped the tall window openings in half, and the second story door opening was turned into a window and a new door was added where the elegant corner stair once stood. Baumann's isolated piers went out of favor as buildings grew taller and heavier and the pyramids ate up more and more of much needed basement space. Even so, he did go down in history as the person who got Chicago's architectural establishment to stop and think about how to build structurally sound structures in the city's uncooperative soil, and the Washington Block is the only remaining example of a Baumann pyramidal design that hasn't been demolished to make way for more profitable, and much taller buildings.