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Building Big in the Windy City

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A gleaming beacon to the Midwest, Chicago has long been known for its unmistakable skyline. Building on a truly monumental scale, there are few cityscapes on Earth that capture the public's imagination in the way that Chicago's does. A mixture of the pragmatic and the sublime, the story of Chicago's architecture is one of unprecedented creativity, expansion and transformation. From the humblest beginnings rose an enormous city. The architecture of Chicago is an account of American determination and ingenuity. However, the city's built environment is not simply a window into the past. Not only are the city's early architectural styles and techniques representative of Chicago's changing fortunes, but also had a direct impact on Chicago's development.

The earliest permanent residence dates back to the 1780's with the construction of a well furnished log cabin by Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Later, with the founding of Fort Dearborn in 1803, came the earliest settlement at Wolf Point. The Fort was rather small, with a simple double ring of palisade walls and a log-hewn barracks inside. However, more importantly, the presence of the fort allowed for the growth of Wolf Point located at the fork in the Chicago River. Wolf Point, inhabited primarily by French and Indian traders, was the site of the first tavern, the Eagle Exchange, built by Mark Beaubien in 1826. Though similar in construction to the surrounding log cabin houses, the Eagle Exchange stood out as the first public building and an important gathering place for the community. In 1831 Beaubien would turn the Eagle Exchange into the two-story wooden framed Sauganash Hotel, the first such building in the Chicago area. Built in the popular Greek Revival Style, the Sauganash was by far the most opulent edifice in Chicago at the time of its construction. It is also worth noting that the Sauganash can be seen as representing a shift in Chicago's purpose. Only a year before had the town been incorporated as an Illinois municipality, a fact which is signified by the shift from log cabin dwellings to more permanent wood frame construction, from frontier life at an obscure trading post to the first true town.

Soon after the Sauganash's completion came another milestone in Chicago's architectural history. In 1832 entrepreneur George Snow built a warehouse at the mouth of the Chicago River. Not only was this warehouse one the earliest commercial buildings in Chicago but it also used a revolutionary technique in its assembly. Known as balloon framing, it would be the preeminent method of construction until the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Unlike previous methods, balloon framing uses long standardized timbers and nails to produce thin yet sturdy walls. The fact that it used pre-cut timbers and mass produced nails instead of more complicated mortice-and-tennon or dovetail wooden joints meant that balloon framed buildings required far less skill and labor in their construction. Another early example of this can be seen in the building of Saint Mary of the Assumption in 1833, the first Catholic Church in Chicago. According to Donald Miller, author of City of the Century, "it took three months and three men to build St. Mary's at a cost of four hundred dollars, roughly half the expenditure of time and money required to put up a conventional building of [its] kind". Another testament to the versatility of this technique is that the building was dismantled and moved three times in its history before burning down in the Great Chicago Fire. Balloon



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