Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Chicago Avenue Water Tower & Pumping Station
 by: chicago designslinger

 [Chicago Avenue Water Tower & Pumping Station (1869) W.W. Boyington, architect /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

There are landmark markers, landmark moments, landmark buildings, landmark structures and landmark monuments. In a city known for its epoch-defining architectural landmarks, one building stands out from the crowd because of where it sits, its ability to survive, its unusual design, and its physical manifestation of Chicago's "I Will" spirit.

  [Chicago Avenue Water Tower & Pumping Station, 806 & 811 N.Michigan Avenue, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

Back in 1850, no one could have believed that something as utilitarian as a water tower and pumping station would become one of the city's most beloved and recognized landmarks. One-hundred-and-sixty-years ago, the citizens of the close-to-water-level city had a love/hate relationship with their lake and their river. Water made Chicago - and almost killed Chicago. Most likely Mother Nature hadn't intended on 300,000 human beings living on a ground area located just few feet above the shoreline of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River, and then use those two bodies of water for transportation, sewage, and human consumption. Today it seems like a no-brainer.  But it took a devastating cholera outbreak in the early 1850s, culminating in the death of thousands of people, before government and business leaders decided it was time to take action.

  [Chicago Avenue Water Works Tower, National Register of Historic Places, Chicago /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1851 the city council decided to create a water board, and design a public water system. The Chicago City Hydraulic Company began laying pipe and a Board of Sewerage Commissioners was formed. The river and lake shore were floating cesspools. The Commissioners had to figure out how to get rid of human and industrial waste, and provide a source of clean drinking water. So in an attempt to keep the lake water as clean as possible, the Commissioners decided to funnel human and industrial waste into the river and build a reservoir at the edge of Lake Street, providing "cleaner" lake water to the citizenry through an extensive delivery pipe system. The sewers wouldn't drain however because they were so close to grade, so they had to be elevated 8 to 10 feet above street level. Then to fill-in the gaps, sludge could be dredged from the river bed, making it deeper, and forcing the water flow away from the lake and down into the new Mississippi River connecting canal. It was a good theory.

  [Chicago Water Tower, City of Chicago Landmark /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

But there were kinks in the works. Those who were connected to the pipes of the new reservoir system often found small minnows coming through the tap along with their cold water. The sewers removed effluence from streets, businesses and residences, but still dumped all the debris into the river, which in turn raised the river bed, which elevated the murky water, pushed it back into the lake again, and right into the nearby reservoir. Enter Ellis Chesbrough. He devised a system that would draw lake water from an intake crib located 2 miles from out beyond the messy, smelly shoreline, then deliver that far-out, fresh water into homes, businesses through massive hydraulic pumps housed in buildings constructed along the lake's edge. The simple frame and brick towered building of the North Side Chicago Avenue Water Works began pumping cool, fresh water to nearby consumers in the late 1850s. Just a few years later construction began on a new and improved water complex, and in 1867 a large public ceremony was held to lay a cornerstone into one of architect W.W. Boyington's crenelated castle-like structures.

  [Water Tower /Image & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

The original Water Works tower and pumping station had been located in one building. This time around the tower, whose 138-foot tall standpipe regulated water pressure, would stand separate from the pumping house, located 100 feet to the east. They were joined together by a park, and stood tall and proud where a street once called Pine came to an end. No one could have foreseen that just two years after the rough stone duo were completed in 1869, the entire surrounding area would be flattened and destroyed by a raging inferno. The fire, however, didn't level the water works buildings. And although they were left roofless, scarred and without many of their Joliet stone embellishments - they were still standing, and the tower became a symbol of survival and a future. As the city rose-up again around the survivors, and the historic, symbolic, and beloved Water Works complex began to stand in the way of progress. Pine Street was extended through the little park at the turn of the 20th century, and the decorative stone pair were forever separated. In 1913 city planners actually proposed tearing down the no-longer operational tower as plans were being formed to turn 66-foot-wide PineStreet/Lincoln Parkway into 141-foot-wide Michigan Boulevard. Mayor Carter Harrison put the kibosh on those arrangements and in turn called for the tower's restoration. Then in 1916 the planners, not ready to throw in the towel and with a new mayor in office, proposed going ahead and widening Michigan Avenue to 141 feet, and moving the old tower 100 feet to the west.
It wasn't until 1928 that Michigan Avenue grew to its current 85-foot-wide size between the Water Works buildings. The the old tower was saved, without being moved, but the new thoroughfare came within inches of the building's southwest corner. The two structures are now open to the public, and serve as a gallery, tourist information center, and theater performance space.

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