Medieval Chicago–In Gothic City: The Old Water Tower and Pumping Station, Part 1

Chicago’s Old Water Tower, completed in 1869. This remnant of Old Chicago survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 unlike the majority of its neighbors. It is the second oldest water tower in the US. Photo by Karrie Fuller, copyright reserved.

When I walked by this building on my way to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art this past July, one of my five-year-old twins asked, “Mama, is that a castle?” Could there be clearer evidence that this building looks medieval?

But, why? It seems odd for such an ornate, crenellated structure to sit amidst a conglomeration of Chicago skyrises and modern store fronts along the Magnificent Mile. It almost doesn’t fit this urban landscape. Almost.

It might seem even weirder to learn that this miniature, limestone “castle” is a 19th-century water tower, a building intended for practical, mechanical use in an industrial age, rather than for fortification and housing for the aristocracy. The tower contains a water pump originally constructed to draw water out of Lake Michigan and provide some much-needed clean water to the city. Its function is decidedly not medieval. So, then, why does it look like a castle? Because it is part of the Gothic Revival movement, which many of the period’s great thinkers, writers, and artists imported to the States from across the Atlantic. The tower’s architect, William W. Boyington, designed this building and its neighboring pumping station, built in a matching style, with medieval architecture in mind. He might even have drawn inspiration from a specific medieval building: the Cloth Merchant’s Hall of Bruges in Belgium (known as the Belfry), illustrated, as suggests, in nineteenth-century architectural writings. If true, then a perhaps unexpected turn of events brought the medieval cloth trade, with its rich and complex history, face to face with 19th-century industrial innovation several thousand miles away and many centuries in the future. Such are the vagaries of history.

Cloth Merchant’s Hall of Bruges in BelgiumThe Belfry attached to the cloth hall was built in 1240 and rebuilt in 1280 after a huge fire. It has been variously expanded, destroyed, and rebuilt over the centuries since its original construction.This medieval building served many functions, including housing the cloth merchants during the heyday of the Flemish cloth trade—using local and imported wool that was often imported from England. Photo: Wolfgang Staudt via Wikimedia Commons.
From the Statement of Significance on the Nomination form in the National Register of Historic Places Inventory: “The Water Tower and Pumping Station serve as an architectural link with Chicago’s pre-fire history in the central area of the city. [...] Although not an architectural tour de force, the buildings are typical of the aesthetic of the 19th century, that a building should be both utilitarian and architecturally pleasing...

But, what does it mean for this building to be part of the Gothic Revival movement, and what exactly is medieval about this 19th-century period of architecture? The term “gothic” is itself a problematic, but fascinating one. Used by art historians and in pop culture, the word, capacious in its ever-shifting connotations, receives no less than six definitions, most of which break down into multiple sub-definitions, in the Oxford English Dictionary. Its range of positive and negative meanings include everything from references to the Goths (the original people and their language, not the modern teenager), an adjectival denotation for the “barbarous” or “uncouth,” and a style of medieval architecture from the 12th to 16th centuries, all the way to the resurgence of this medieval style during the Revival. Its meanings diverge even further when considering the word’s use in various disciplines: paleographers, for instance, study gothic manuscripts and bookhands, while literary critics will more likely associate the gothic with particular settings and horror genres. In America, variations of gothic buildings became so engrained in the culture that some features even made their mark on humble houses and farm buildings, spreading through rural territories and becoming iconically embraced in the famous Grant Wood painting, “American Gothic,” a mainstay and personal favorite of mine on display at Chicago’s Art Institute (notice the pointed-arch window in the “Carpenter Gothic” house behind them). The term’s ties to the Middle Ages, therefore, can be either strictly or loosely construed as genuinely medieval, or a form of medievalism.

Grant Wood, American Gothic. Photo courtesy of Google Art Project.

As an architectural style, the gothic building has been variously understood as barbaric and ugly, or beautiful and natural at different points in the word’s history. And, as Matthew Reeve reminds us, the word gothic was coined after the Middle Ages “to articulate a perceived aesthetic, intellectual, and artistic chasm between the period in which the word is employed and the medieval past. In this sense Gothic is less suggestive of the nature of the Middle Ages itself than it is of the culture’s perceived temporal and ideological distance from it” (233). Perceptions of this style have therefore shifted periodically according to the changing political, social, and cultural climates of successive generations. However, the 19th century played a major role in the formation of this word’s current and generally more positive definition, and Boyington’s work represents a part of Chicago’s efforts to participate in this widespread architectural tradition. Whereas the 18th-century Romantic era solidified Gothic architecture’s reputation as evoking “mysticism and sublimity,” 19th-century perceptions of this style introduce further associations with “national identity” and “a structurally rational approach to design” (Murphy 92). In this case, Boyington’s position so late in the Gothic Revival might indicate that for him, the Gothic style was as much about beauty and emotion as it was about rationality and functionality, a feat of scientific engineering in which appearance and use value both become valued players.

The Water Tower with Pumping Station across the street. Photo by Karrie Fuller, copyright reserved.

Still, as an artifact of 19th-century medievalism, the water tower makes no attempt at genuine authenticity. Its miniature size, pristine facade, and local building materials distinguish it less as an inadequate imitation than as something altogether new. It draws on the medieval past in a way that enables the architect to preserve a carefully chosen European heritage as part of the young nation’s own identity, while at the same time speaking to a new place in a new historical moment. The very nature of this form of creativity, transforming the past into a reinvented present, makes this “Gothic City” the perfect backdrop for countless other creative projects, including the inspiration Chicago often provides for the look and feel of none other than “Gotham City” itself.

Stay tuned for Part 2, forthcoming during the 
spring 2019 semester...

Karrie Fuller, PhD
University of Notre Dame

Online Resources:

“Boyington, William W.,” Ryerson and Burnham Archives: Archival Image Collection, TheArt Institute of Chicago, accessed on November 1, 2018,,%20William%20W./mode/exact.

Gale, Neil. “The History of the Chicago Water Tower,” The Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal, published on December 3, 2016,

“Illinois SP Chicago Avenue Water Tower and Pumping Station,” National Register of Historic Places, National Archives Catalog, National Park Service, accessed on October 19, 2018,

Leroux, Charles. “The Chicago Water Tower,” Chicago Tribune, published on December 18, 2007,

“Throwback Thursday: Chicago Water Tower Edition,” Chicago Architecture, Artefaqs Corporation, published on March 5, 2015,

Works Cited & Further Reading

Blackman, Joni Hirsch. This Used to Be Chicago. St. Louis, MO: Reedy Press, 2017.

Carbutt, John. Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men of Chicago, 215-22 . Chicago: Wilson & St. Clair, 1868. [Written in a dated style, this book is florid, grandiose, and male-centric, but contains some useful information about Boyington nevertheless.]

Draper, Peter. “Islam and the West: The Early Use of the Pointed Arch Revisited.” Architectural History48 (2005): 1-20.

Frankl, Paul. Gothic Architecture. Revised by Paul Crossley. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962, 2000.

Grodecki, Louis. Gothic Architecture. New York: Electa/Rizzoli, 1978.

Murphy, Kevin D. and Lisa Reilly. “Gothic.” In Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, 87-96. New York: Boydell and Brewer, 2014.

Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Gothic,” accessed September 20, 2018,

Reeve, Matthew M. “Gothic.” Studies in Iconography33 (2012): 233-246.

Schulz, Frank, and Kevin Harrington. Chicago’s Famous Buildings. 5thed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity. Vol.3: The Making of the American Middle Ages. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2018.

Whose Runes are These? I (Don’t) Think I Know

In the mid-twelfth century, a stoneworker in the far northwest of England at Bridekirk, Cumbria cut a lavishly-decorated baptismal font with reliefs of dragons, mysterious figures, and, curiously, a line of runic writing. By the early modern period, the characters on the Bridekirk font were nothing but strange. Early English historian and chronographer William Camden, who included a sketch of the runic inscription in the 1607 edition of his Britannia, declared himself perplexed: “Quid autem illae velint, et cuius gentis characteribus, ego minime video, statuant eruditi.”[1]

The east face of the Bridekirk font, by permission of Lionel Wall. 

First published in 1586, Camden’s massive historico-chronographical Britannia went through six editions in the author’s lifetime, and Camden continually updated and expanded the text, augmenting it with maps and diagrams, such as the rendition of the Bridekirk runes seen below. The last Britannia edition on which Camden collaborated was a 1610 English translation by Philemon Holland, who translates: “But what they signifie, or what nations characters they should be, I know not, let the learned determine thereof.” Camden’s uncertainties cut straight to the heart of the matter: whose runes are these? and what do they mean?

The Bridekirk runes as pictured in the 1607 edition of Britannia. Courtesy of Dana Sutton.

In the more than 400 years that have passed since the publication of Camden’s Britannia and despite the best efforts of the eruditi, no simple answer has been found to either of Camden’s questions, the first of which I’ll consider in today’s post. Whose runes are these?

Danish antiquarian Ole Worm learned of the inscription from the Britannia and included his own version of the runes in a 1634 letter to one Henry Spelman:

But if a well-printed text of the monuments inscribed with our characters that exist [in England] is sent to me, they would make up the much-desired appendix to those from our country. As far as the one Camden shows us in his book Britannia, I hardly know whether it can be read: [RUNES] That is, as I interpret it according to the laws of our language: “Harald made [this] mound and set up stones in the memory of [his] mother and Mabrok.” But I claim nothing as certain until someone can supply us with a more accurate description.[2]
Leaving aside Worm’s wildly inaccurate translation, which he based off of the second-hand evidence of Camden’s printed transcription, I’d like to note that Worm seems to claim the Bridekirk runes among the monumentorum nostris notis consignatorum (monuments signed with our script): he counts these as Scandinavian runes.

At other times the inscription has been claimed as English. The description of the Bridekirk font in Charles Macfarlane’s Comprehensive History of England, first published in 1856, praises the “ingenuity of design and execution” of the font and notes its “Saxon inscription.”[3] 

The font as pictured in Macfarlane’s History. 

Modern scholars agree with Worm that the incised characters are, in the main, Scandinavian. But the inscription is not wholly so: the text employs a few non-runic, decidedly English characters, including ⁊, Ȝ, and a bookhand Ƿ. Moreover, the language is not the Norse one might expect from Scandinavian runes but rather English:

Ricard he me iwrokte to þis merð ʒer ** me brokte.[4]
Richard crafted me and brought me (eagerly?) to this splendor.

So if the runic inscription is neither fully Norse nor fully English, whose runes (cuius gentis) are they? While Charles Macfarlane claimed them as “Saxon” and Worm counted them as Scandinavian, the runes are actually neither but rather the product of a mixed society continuing to encode both English and Norse cultural practices on stone. Most literally the runes represent phonological values and a particular message, but for most of the font’s history the place of these symbols in cultural memory – whose runes they have become – has been just as important as what they originally meant. The cultural equivocality of the Bridekirk inscription is emblematic of larger ambiguities involving Anglo-Scandinavian ethnicity and culture as imagined by the post-Hastings medieval English. These ambiguous cultural signs, later re-imagined in the early modern period, raise the question of what it meant to be Anglo-Norse in an Anglo-Norman world.

Rebecca West, PhD Candidate
University of Notre Dame

[1] William Camden, “William Camden, Britannia (1607) with an English Translation by Philemon Holland: A Hypertext Critical Edition,” ed. Dana F. Sutton (The Philological Museum, 2004), Descriptio Angliae et Walliae: Cumberland, 7.

[2] Ole Worm, Olai Wormii et ad eum doctorum virorum epistolæ, vol. 1 (Copenhagen, 1751), Letter 431. This translation is my own.

[3] Charles MacFarlane, The Comprehensive History of England :Civil and Military, Religious, Intellectual, and Social : From the Earliest Period to the Suppression of the Sepoy Revolt, Rev. ed. (London, 1861), 164.

[4] The transliteration above is based on that of Page, who reads “+Ricarþ he me iwrocte / and to þis merð (?) me brocte.” R. I. Page, Runes (University of California Press, 1987), 54.

Medieval Wanderlust and Virtual Wayfinding

Google “wanderlust” and you’ll be greeted by a barrage of images of stunning landscapes, wrinkled maps, and relatively-unoriginal tattoos. The word, now tagged over fifty million times on Instagram, denotes “an eager desire or fondness for wandering or travelling” and has clearly captured the popular imagination, earning articles on BuzzFeed and finding itself titling disappointing movies.  Though the word itself only entered the English language around the beginning of the twentieth century, the concept — according to cognitive theorists — is likely as old as humanity itself. Nancy Easterlin, in her chapter, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” argues that humans have innate needs to “travel in time and through space without getting lost” as a means for gathering resources, seeking refuge, and obtaining knowledge.1 Wayfinding, this human drive to explore and attach meaning to the world around us, establishes an important cognitive basis for our contemporary obsession with wanderlust. But what happens when our ability to navigate our environments is limited? And is this sudden cultural obsession with travel, with all of its racist and classist baggage, really a new phenomenon?

Religious pilgrimage — a journey “made to a sacred place as an act of religious devotion” — may at first glance have little in common with the contemporary wanderlust fever, but in the late medieval period, faithful pilgrims often went to great lengths to traverse the known world in order to visit many of the same landmarks populating Instagram pages today. Pilgrimages were typically undertaken by groups of travelers, and these journeys could be as short as Chaucer’s famous trip from London to Canterbury or as long as medieval mystic Margery Kempe’s voyage from Lynn to Jerusalem. Records of these pilgrimages prefigure many of the critiques of present-day travel — namely, that “the experience of travel [was] exotic” and “the purview of the privileged.”2 Despite this, I wish to read pilgrimage — one of the most common types of medieval travel — as motivated not just by religious devotion, but by a human cognitive need to wander.

This reading is facilitated by accounts of medieval religious devotees who found themselves confined, enclosed, or otherwise unable to undertake the physical pilgrimages, yet nevertheless invented means to satisfy this cognitive urge. In his work with the itinerary maps of thirteenth-century Benedictine monk Matthew Paris, Daniel K. Connolly demonstrates that “cloistered monks, though discouraged from going on pilgrimages to the earthly city [of Jerusalem], could nonetheless use Matthew’s maps for an imaginative journey to the Heavenly Jerusalem.”These imagined journeys, I believe, were abetted by the map’s engagement with the same cognitive processes that human beings experience when wayfinding, or moving through physical space. This map (pictured below), depicts the Holy Land from a bird’s-eye perspective — cognitive scientists call this a “survey” perspective, in contrast to the horizontal “route” perspective experienced when actually traveling through a location.4 At first glance, this seems odd — how does this survey perspective aid imagined travel experiences, when human beings generally experience travel through a horizontal route-based perspective? The answer, in all too-human fashion, has to do with time.

Matthew Paris’ itinerary map. The physical action of unfolding the tabs on this map may have helped monks immerse themselves in the imaginative travel experience. British Library Royal MS 14 C VII, f.4r.

Spatial cognitive researchers theorize that human beings initially conceive of new environments horizontally, using route-based perception; in recall, first-time travelers imagine themselves at the center of their memories, with the environment situated around them. Over time, however, we restructure this mental image, creating survey knowledge of a location — in other words, the more time we spend in a location, the more we’re able to imagine from a bird’s-eye view. The map of Matthew Paris, as a tool for imaginative travel, reflects this cognitive restructuring. If the point of a pilgrimage is to allow a traveler to truly immerse themselves in the historical life of Christ in the world that he knew, then an imaginative traveler needed to experience the world as Christ did: through a complex, survey perspective.

Logan Quigley
Ph.D. Student
University of Notre Dame

1. Nancy Easterlin, “Cognitive Ecocriticism: Human Wayfinding, Sociality, and Literary Interpretation,” Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies, ed. Lisa Zunshine (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

2. Kathryn M. Rudy, Virtual Pilgrimages in the Convent: Imagining Jerusalem in the Late Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2011).

3. Daniel K. Connolly, “Imagined Pilgrimage in the Itinerary Maps of Matthew Paris,” Art Bulletin (81:4), 598.
Ehrenschwendtner, Marie-Luise. “Virtual Pilgrimages? Enclosure and the Practice of Piety at St. Katherine’s Convent, Augsburg.”…

4. Montello, et. al. “Real Environments, Virtual Environments, maps.” Human Spatial Memory, 261.