While in its developmental stages, Medieval Chicago’s potential to grow into its own project became rapidly apparent. The initial posts were so much fun to write, and what could be better than the opportunity to go on local pilgrimages to medieval(ish) sites? So, in lieu of this special series, I happily announce the creation of an entirely new website: medievalchicago.com. Keep an eye out for new content coming soon!
That said, readers should find material here for a wide range of historical interests. Anyone—residents, visitors, the curious-minded—interested in Chicago, the Middle Ages, art, architecture, manuscripts, and even local events might discover something new. Like many digital projects, this currently solo, ongoing work-in-progress will see periodic posts, rather than weekly. Nevertheless, I hope you take a moment to look at the photos and blog posts already there as well as future additions to the site as it evolves. I hope you enjoy exploring Medieval Chicago as much as I enjoyed creating it!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 community. 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.