Medieval Chicago–In Gothic City: The Old Water Tower and Pumping Station, Part 2

Don’t forget to read Part 1 of this post first!
Full view of water tower. Photo by Karrie Fuller, copyright reserved.

The 19th-century preference for ornate, gothic structures indicates their admiration toward this formerly maligned medieval style, and it is within this context that William W. Boyington, his water tower, and many more of his buildings sit. However, architecturally speaking, Boyington’s tower has not always received great accolades for its artistry, tending to be revered as an engineering marvel instead. One guidebook, for instance, describes it as “stylistically naive,” stating that “Chicagoans are content to venerate it as a monument rather than criticize it as art” (Schultz 143). While emblematic of the neo-gothic style, this building might lack some of the aesthetic impact to which it aspires. His water tower and pumping station, therefore, represent his most famous, though perhaps not his most successful, attempt at integrating form and function in one building design. However lacking it might be in aesthetics, the tower’s medieval inspiration is impossible to miss. Although we tend to associate gothic architecture with cathedrals and religious buildings, this castle-like structure features a few of those classic gothic elements, particularly the pointed-arch windows and doors. Despite being dwarfed by its neighboring buildings, its central tower does imbue it with a sense of verticality, but without the heavy, looming presence of a cathedral or castle. The decorative gables and emphasis on geometric patterns also derive from the tower’s gothic influences, and its castle-like qualities are enhanced by turrets and battlements (for more information on gothic and neo-gothic architecture, see the bibliography below).

Boyington carried the gothic style he adopted over to other structures as well. The Rosehill Cemetery entrance, for instance, still stands, and had more of his buildings survived the Great Fire of 1871 as well as other ravages of time and human destruction, even more of his medieval-inspired buildings would continue to line the city streets. Luckily, records of some of these buildings do survive in drawings and photos archived and digitized as part of the Ryerson and Burnham Archives: Archival Image Collection by the Art Institute. A number of the buildings documented here also appear in the neo-gothic style.

Rosehill Cemetery maingate. Photo courtesy of Matt Hucke at Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at Boyington’s long list of architectural accomplishments, which extend beyond Chicago to places like Philadelphia and New York, one would be hard pressed to avoid the impression that this man built a great deal of Old Chicago and shaped its architectural character in ways that have persisted despite the domination of newer, taller structures over the city’s skyline (see Carbutt for a summary of his career). His wide-ranging work includes everything from the original trade building and the first University of Chicago to his many churches and even some residences. That his buildings appear in other major American cities also indicates a more widespread influence on the nation’s landscape. Although not the only player in the formation of Old Chicago’s appearance, perhaps one reason Boyington’s Water Tower maintains its status as a monument is that, despite its potential imperfections, it embodies so much of Chicago’s 19th-century values and priorities, both as a feat of architecture and engineering. It reflects, in other words, something essential to the original spirit of the city.

The Pumping Station. Photo by Karrie Fuller, copyright reserved.

Thus, while visually the water tower might stand out as an oddity in its current location, the building more than belongs here. It provides a snapshot of a once en vogue architectural style that imports elements of medieval European aesthetics and adapts them for new uses in a new world. It also serves as a reminder of how much effort Chicago, alongside many other major American cities, put into medievalizing the American landscape in order to establish a particular national identity. However, even though this movement drew upon the European heritage of citizens who themselves came from the families of European immigrants to the new world, it is worth acknowledging the global spread of the Revival as well as the Middle Eastern influences on the original medieval Gothic style. The “global Gothic,” as Jan Ziolkowski suggests, deserves attention because “for centuries, the style has been freighted wherever European culture and commodities have been carried” (148). Moreover, as scholars have long noted, Islamic architectural and artistic influences catalyzed the original shift from Romanesque (an early medieval architectural form based on classical forms) to what we have come to know as “Gothic” (Draper. See also Ziolkowski 108-9). The history of gothic building projects, then, derives from productive (though not easy) cross-cultural exchanges that altered the course of history and, literally, shaped how the world around us looks today. From Islam to Europe in the Middle ages, and from Europe to America in the 19th century, this chain of border-crossing artistic influence pinpoints an essential factor in understanding medieval Chicago’s reliance on forms imported, reimagined, and blended into new and original settings.

Today, this historic landmark and popular tourist destination houses the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower, showcasing the work of local artists, photographers, and filmmakers. The neighboring pumping station now contains a public library and theatre. Michigan Ave has no shortage of great shopping and entertainment, but the tower is worth a quick stop next time you visit the Mile, providing a moment of historical enrichment to break up the street’s commercialism.

As a medievalist, I feel rather drawn to the Gothic Revivalist sentiments embodied in the Water Tower, and learning about this building and its historical influences has opened up a new way of viewing the Middle Ages through a time period well outside of my own academic specialization. I will not be at all surprised should Boyington’s name pop up again while working on this series; in fact, I hope it does. But learning about the Gothic Revival has also sparked my interest in a subdivision of this movement found in the “Skyscraper Gothic” style that will more than likely lead me the Chicago Tribune Tower as we explore this gothic city.

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, http://digital-libraries.saic.edu/cdm/search/collection/mqc/searchterm/Boyington,%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, https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2016/12/chicago-water-tower-history.html.

“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, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/28892376.

Leroux, Charles. “The Chicago Water Tower,” Chicago Tribune, published on December 18, 2007, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-watertower-story-story.html.

“Throwback Thursday: Chicago Water Tower Edition,” Chicago Architecture, Artefaqs Corporation, published on March 5, 2015, https://www.chicagoarchitecture.org/2015/03/05/throwback-thursday-chicago-water-tower-edition/.

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, http://www.oed.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/view/Entry/80225?redirectedFrom=gothic#eid.

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0146.

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 chicagoarchitecture.org 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, http://digital-libraries.saic.edu/cdm/search/collection/mqc/searchterm/Boyington,%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, https://drloihjournal.blogspot.com/2016/12/chicago-water-tower-history.html.

“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, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/28892376.

Leroux, Charles. “The Chicago Water Tower,” Chicago Tribune, published on December 18, 2007, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/politics/chi-chicagodays-watertower-story-story.html.

“Throwback Thursday: Chicago Water Tower Edition,” Chicago Architecture, Artefaqs Corporation, published on March 5, 2015, https://www.chicagoarchitecture.org/2015/03/05/throwback-thursday-chicago-water-tower-edition/.

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, http://www.oed.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/view/Entry/80225?redirectedFrom=gothic#eid.

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. http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0146.

Medieval Chicago – An Introduction to the Series

Today’s post marks the first installment of our special series called “Medieval Chicago.” Here, we plan to explore medieval artifacts, influences, and echoes in and around Chicagoland. This journey will take us through some of the city’s architectural achievements, museums, libraries, events, and any other relics of the Middle Ages that we discover along the way.

As a major tourist destination and one of our country’s great cultural hubs, Chicago has a lot to offer everyone. From its skyrises, including the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) and 875 North Michigan Avenue (formerly the John Hancock Center); its museums, such as the Art Institute and the Field Museum; to its Cultural Center, Broadway productions, and endless festivals; Chicago is full of nonstop excitement. It is also chock full of one other key ingredient that makes this destination particularly special: history. Chicago has a complex and fascinating past that extends not only beyond the borders of early American history, but also further back in time to the homelands of its many settlers and steady flow of immigrants, who brought (and bring) their cultures and histories with them. In fact, vestiges of human lives that trace back all the way to the Middle Ages (and earlier) can be found scattered throughout this most modern of urban landscapes. Such traces show us how, even now in our age of technological advancement, twenty-first century American culture is steeped in connections with the past. Humanity has always craved these connections, as our many periods of historical revivals show, because they keep us grounded. They remind us of who we are and where we came from, and they inform us about where we are going. The unique convergence of cultures and histories in this locale also reflect humanity’s inability to remain still. This impulse, or instinct, to move through time and space, advancing, retreating, migrating, is the very same human impulsion towards movement that led to the creation of our nation.

As we uncover remnants of the Middle Ages in this quintessentially American cityscape, we hope to broaden our site’s readership, reaching out to curious academics and public intellectuals alike. The larger goal behind the project is to remind ourselves and our readers about the historical traces and legacies left behind, and, by extension, the legacies that we are always in the process of leaving behind. This series will help us to be more cognizant of the living history that surrounds us every day, even in this relatively young country on which the medieval world has made many indelible marks. We aim to showcase how the past and present have always been not only connected, but also, often, indistinguishable. At the same time, we plan to highlight the modern world’s disconnections with the past, those features that come across as quaint, or dated, as a result of several centuries of cultural evolution. This investigation of our contemporary relationship with the Middle Ages will allow us to simultaneously examine social, political, religious, intellectual, and artistic questions that we have long since left behind, and those we still see as important.

To reiterate, Chicago is a major city in a country imprinted throughout with a past only partially its own; an imported, shared, blended history with a global reach, formed by indigenous people and immigrants from around the world coming together to create this beautifully diverse melting pot. Simultaneously marred by periods of violence, oppression, and cultural appropriation, American history has many crosses to bear, and many of its monsters–racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, etc.–are rearing their ugly faces with a vengeance once again. Even, or maybe especially, as we struggle to overcome the darker moments of our past in order to find better ways to deal with the challenges that result from all this human movement, it is worth paying attention to the profound beauty that also springs from these constant migrations. This series, therefore, explores the cross-section of this imported, blended history that relates to the Middle Ages.

Furthermore, in part because of its proximity to Notre Dame, the university has established deep connections with the city. From its Michigan Ave campus and its local alumni group to its shared ownership of medieval manuscripts with the Newberry Library and courses taught in and about Chicago, Notre Dame has taken a vested interest in the locale. Students, as well, love to attend university-sponsored programs and extracurricular events here. One of the most popular weekend activities among Notre Dame’s graduate students looking for a study break are visits to Chicago’s many attractions and, perhaps most of all, the food.

In fact, it was not long ago that I was one of these graduate students, hungry for all that Chicago has to offer. Now, as a newly transplanted Chicago resident and the creator of this series, I plan to use this outlet to explore my new hometown while putting my academic training to public use. My goal is to build one more bridge between the campus and this great city. I’m still new to Chicago, but in my short time, I can’t help but notice a surprising pervasiveness of medieval architectural influence, from pointed arch windows, cathedral vaulted ceilings, sculptural ornamentation (even on modern skyscrapers). It’s part of Chicago’s character, a character that stands out as unique compared to other American cities. It also spills over into other areas of the city– from original artifacts sitting in museums and libraries to pop culture and local events (including classes on medieval sword fighting!). And, all this character will, I expect, lead to more discoveries for this series.

So, to all readers who happen to land on our site, whether affiliated with Notre Dame or not, this series is for you. As we encounter the medieval in today’s Chicago–from paintings and armor to manuscripts and buildings–we hope you’ll follow our journey. And, we welcome any leads you might have to offer to our series.

Welcome to Medieval Chicago!

Karrie Fuller, PhD
University of Notre Dame

 

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