By Mark Jacob and Stephan Benzkofer
Chicago Tribune reporters
11:45 AM EDT, March 31, 2013
Ever since the Great Fire of 1871, a cycle of destruction and rebuilding has been central to the Chicago story. This month, Northwestern University secured a permit to tear down Prentice Hospital so that it can build a biomedical research facility. Also this month, speculation arose (and was quickly squelched) about tearing down Wrigley Field's iconic scoreboard. And today is the 10th anniversary of one of the most unusual acts of demolition in city history — Mayor Richard M. Daley's middle-of-the-night destruction of Meigs Field.
1 On the Civic Opera House's opening night in November 1929, crowds gathered to watch the city's rich and famous in all their finery. One of the best seats for that show was from the elevated tracks that ran down Wacker Drive. The Lake Street elevated railroad's Market Street spur was built in 1893 and was the first downtown stop for the line before the Loop "L" was completed in 1897. The spur, which ran just the three blocks to Madison Street, was demolished in 1948.
2 Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens, a dining and concert facility at Cottage Grove Avenue and 60th Street where ballerina Anna Pavlova and jazz great Benny Goodman performed, was only 15 years old when it was knocked down in 1929, replaced with a gas station and carwash.
3 Chicago's Gold Coast began its gilding in 1885 when merchant Potter Palmer and his socialite wife, Bertha, opened their "castle" at 1350 N. Lake Shore Drive. The turreted brownstone mansion had 42 rooms, a great hall with a stained-glass dome and a gallery full of impressionist masterpieces that would later be donated to the Art Institute of Chicago. The Palmer castle was lacking one thing, however: outside doorknobs that worked. The only way to get into the house was to ring and wait for a servant. The castle was demolished in 1950 to make way for apartment buildings.
4 Back when taking a bath was neither a regular habit for many Chicagoans nor very easy to accomplish, the city opened a series of public bathhouses to promote cleanliness and public health. At their most popular around 1910, more than a million baths were taken annually in the 11 bathhouses then running. But the effort didn't get off to such a clean start. The very first bathhouse, a converted boathouse at Chicago Avenue and the lake, was a huge success its first full summer in 1893, with 1,000 boys a day enjoying a bath. But over the winter, the Tribune reported, the structure was torn down "until not a vestige of it remains" — apparently by residents needing firewood. While few signs of the bathhouses remain today, keep an eye out for "Joseph Medill Public Bath" engraved in stone along the 2100 block of West Grand Avenue.
5 Chicago hasn't been eager to preserve its gangland past. The SMC Cartage Co. at 2122 N. Clark St., scene of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, is gone. No building stands there now — just a few parking places. The site of Schofield's, the North State Street flower shop where mobster Dean O'Banion was murdered across from Holy Name Cathedral, is a parking lot. The Lexington Hotel, Al Capone's headquarters at Michigan and 22nd (now Cermak), was razed in 1995. The new apartment tower on the site is appropriately called The Lex. (There's an exception to the gangster-erasing trend: the Biograph Theater, where John Dillinger saw his last movie. It's preserved as the home of Victory Gardens theater company.)
6 One of the first structures ever built in Chicago had a spectacular demolition. That's the original Fort Dearborn, which was torched by Indians after their bloody battle with U.S. troops in 1812.
7 One of Chicago's grandest theaters, McVicker's, was built on Madison Street in 1857, consumed by the Great Fire and then rebuilt, only to be knocked down and rebuilt in the 1920s, then demolished for good in the mid-'80s. It took its name from James McVicker, who ran the resident acting company. Abraham Lincoln enjoyed plays there, and his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, starred on the McVicker's stage, including as Shakespeare's political murderer, Macbeth. Another actor at McVicker's was Booth's brother Edwin, who married the boss' daughter, Mary McVicker.
8 The original Ferris wheel, which helped turn the 1893 Columbian Exposition into such a success, was unceremoniously dismantled and left by the side of railroad tracks not far from the South Side site of its former glory. Writing a story in December 1894 about the famous attraction's whereabouts — had it been moved to New York City? — a Tribune reporter found the "monstrous mass of scrap iron" at 61st Street and Woodlawn Avenue. Later the wheel was resurrected for a few years around 1900 at an amusement park at North Clark Street and Wrightwood Avenue. It made one final appearance at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, after which two 100-pound charges of dynamite left it a "mass of tangled wreckage."
9 Chicago's Federal Building (1905-65) had a 300-foot-tall rotunda and a dome that was 100 feet in diameter — bigger than America's most famous dome, the one on the U.S. Capitol.
10 A great Chicagoan met his end in the razing of a building. Richard Nickel, a photographer who energized the city's preservationist movement, died trying to save parts of a Louis Sullivan treasure, the Stock Exchange Building, during its demolition in 1972. A floor collapsed, and Nickel's body was found in the rubble a month later.
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the newspaper's weekend editor.
SOURCES: "Lost Chicago" by David Lowe; "State Street: One Brick at a Time" by Robert P. Ledermann; "Frank Lloyd Wright and Midway Gardens" by Paul Kruty; "They All Fall Down: Richard Nickel's Struggle to Save America's Architecture" by Richard Cahan; "Right Or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth" edited by John Rhodehamel and Louise Taper; "Washing 'The Great Unwashed': Public Baths in Urban America, 1840-1920" by Marilyn T. Williams; Chicago Tribune archives; cinematreasures.org; gsa.gov
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