- Historic Sites
Where They Went To See The Future
The story of Chicago in the nineteenth century is the story of the making of America, Donald L. Miller says. A new PBS documentary based on a book he wrote shows why.
March 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 1
Two Chicagos emerged after the fire. The second one was the skyscraper city, built inside a city that was itself new. It was remarkable. You didn’t have the gigantic firms you had in New York, like Woolworth or Singer, that were creating architecture as advertisements for themselves. Instead most of the buildings were put together by consortiums of business speculators. When Owen Aldis, one of these speculators, went to New York, he said, “Those are very impressive buildings, but they’re not designed to do what they’re supposed to do.” He said, “In Chicago we’re trying to draw life into the building, create flexibility so you can move partitions and walls as companies change.”
Aldis and the other speculators told the architects, “Keep it simple. The showplaces and the lobbies and the elevators have to be beautiful, but you can’t have a lot of artistic figure work on the thing. You’ve got to make it pay, or we can’t build it.” Pretty soon the architect John Wellborn Root, who resisted this at first, was writing that there’s beauty in simplicity. And Root himself admits that this idea, which led to a fresh new American architecture, came from business.
An awful lot in Chicago came from business.
An awful lot in America came from business. In graduate school, I never got an appreciation of the role businesspeople had in building the country. Even if you don’t like what they did—and much of what they did was sordid and selfishly excessive—you have to understand it. Otherwise it’s like saying we’re not going to study Stalin because he was wicked.
My book and Austin’s film show that Chicago’s not just a celebration of business energy. It’s very much a cautionary tale. If you put too much paternalism into your company town and really try to squeeze your workers—the way George Pullman did—they’ll revolt and you won’t have a town anymore. If you build a city in a shoddy way, it will burn down. If you go overboard, you’ll get caught and thrown out, the way Charles Yerkes, the street-car king, did. Yet as I say, a city like Chicago is self-correcting. It draws in the people—like Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow—who will change it.
“Chicago’s not just a celebration of business energy. It’s very much a cautionary tale.”
Why did you end your book—and the film—around the turn of the century?
I thought I’d write about Chicago till it reached the point where almost everything that it became could be seen. Everything, that is, except for the arrival of a large African-American population later on.
I started out thinking I’d do three books: Chicago, New York, in the period between the two world wars, and Los Angeles, from the 1950s on. And maybe go back to Franklin’s Philadelphia. That would be a life’s work, but I’d still like to do it. I’ve kept playing with Mumford’s idea that certain cities represent the character and spirit of their age, that civilizations write their biographies in the great cities they create. The people at WGBH feel the same way. They’re doing a film on Las Vegas and are talking about doing one on L.A., and of course they were involved in Ric Burns’s wonderful film New York .
I’m fascinated by cities because they’re rarely just one thing or the other: corrupt or clean, beautiful or ugly, dynamic or static, free-floating or planned. Great cities are the result of an uneasy balance between order and energy, restraint and opportunity, conflict and consensus. I think historians sometimes don’t appreciate the messy vitality of cities and that self-healing aspect. There’s tension all the time, and out of that tension—even out of the violence—can come astonishing creativity.