History and the Arts: Chicago Rising
The elevator made possible the nineteenth and twentieth century city, of which Chicago is a prime examplar. The growth of Chicago, capital of the prairie west, was propelled by its status as the center of meatpacking and the grain trade in the post-Civil War decades. Providing lake, river, and rail transportation, Chicago quickly outstripped older cities in population, size, and importance.
Grain elevators along the Chicago River were landmarks for hundreds of thousands of Central and Eastern European immigrants who provided labor and a burgeoning market for shelter, goods and culture. The warehouses and lofts which serviced the city’s production required heavy-duty freight elevators.
Commercial buildings, in the ever more expensive city center, grew in height, as audacious developers sought to attract new tenants by offering modern conveniences in attractive buildings. The Borden Block (1881-1916) was one of the most advanced (left). By 1890, Chicago had become “the second city.” Always eager to compete with New York, architects and engineers built ever-taller structures, which incorporated the most modern passenger elevators, among other amenities.
At the turn of the last century, Chicago was known for its technologically sophisticated and handsome skyscrapers, which remain a magnet for contemporary visitors. The skyscrapers’ elevators, and those of their twentieth-century counterparts, recapitulate the history of American innovation and development in architecture and engineering.
This history underscores the prime importance of the elevator in the evolution of this city.