Wednesday, February 18, 2015

LaSalle Street Bridge
 by: chicago designslinger

 [LaSalle Street Bridge (1928) Donald Becker, Edward Bennett architects; Thomas Pihlfeldt, engineer /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In case you didn't know it, Chicago became the city that it is today because of water. Two bodies of water to be exact, Lake Michigan and the river named for the city that it slices through. In the early years of the city's history, say the 1830s, city dwellers primarily confined themselves to an area south of the main branch of the afore mentioned river and east of the southern branch, which split off from the main line not far from the lake shore. A kind of cozy dry-spot between all that liquid.

  [LaSalle Street Bridge /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

As the population pushed out across the landscape beyond its original fluvial boundaries, bridges were built across the main, north and southern branches of the lake fed tributary. But bridging the waterway proved troublesome. The water flowing from the lake into the Chicago, onward to the Mississippi and down to New Orleans, was as busy with boat traffic as today's expressways are with automobiles. So stacking up a series of bridges spanning the river was an impediment to boat travel. Then there was the horse and carriage traffic which would be blocked every time a bridge opened, causing major traffic jams on downtown surface streets. One solution was to burrow under the river floor by providing tunnels connecting one section of street to the other and not hinder the flow of traffic. That's what happened in 1869 when the City Council authorized the digging of the LaSalle Street tunnel, joining the downtown segment to its north side leg and creating one, unbroken roadway, completely bypassing the river.

  [LaSalle Street Bridge /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

And that's the way things remained for the next 59 years until the seed of a new plan for Chicago was planted in 1909. A portion of Burnham & Bennett's groundbreaking plan included a complete reworking of the riverbank in the downtown business district. One of the first pieces of the puzzle was to create a grand boulevard from south Michigan Avenue north to the old Water Tower. The only problem was the river needed to be bridged. When the Michigan Avenue bridge opened in 1919 no one foresaw how heavily trafficked the new boulevard would become, nor how quickly. By the mid-1920s, as the adjacent Wacker Drive was nearing completion, the Michigan Avenue Bridge became the most heavily trafficked span in the country. What to do? Well, LaSalle Street could be used as a relief valve to Michigan's clogged artery, but the old tunnel was so narrow that by the 1920s only one northbound and one southbound streetcar lane could be squeezed into the opening. Solution: build a bridge.

  [LaSalle Street Bridge, Chicago /Images & Artwork: chicago designslinger]

In 1928, La Salle Street was reconnected from north to south by a riveted steel span decorated with four, towering Beaux Arts bridge houses at each corner. The Burnham and Bennett concept of 1909 heavily favored the decorative style of the Beaux Arts genre, and even though Burnham had been dead since 1912, the influence of their stylistic choice impacted the city, and the country, for decades. Of course the majesty of the bridges built in Chicago during this time may have also had something to do with the fact that Mr. Bennett was still alive and kicking. Plus he just happened to be the architect of record for the Chicago Planning Commission, which oversaw all things bridge buildery.

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