12 pieces of Chicago history hidden in plain sight
Some of Chicago’s oldest buildings, museums and water towers allow visitors to travel back in time.
You can’t step inside a time machine and explore the past (not yet, at least), but you can experience bygone days by visiting the places where history transpired. There are elements of Chicago history scattered throughout the city that date back to its incorporation in 1837—you simply need to know where to look. One of the best museums in Chicago resides in a building that dates back to the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, while the site of a notorious gangster’s last stand can be visited across the street from a popular Chicago music venue. Want to learn more about Chicago history through present-day exploration? Check out these important pieces of Chicago history hidden in plain sight.
Photograph: J.B. Spector
The Museum of Science and Industry
The fabled White City sprung up in Jackson Park during the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893, hosting technological and cultural exhibitions for six months—but the majority of the neoclassical buildings were temporary and designed to be torn down at the event’s conclusion. One exception was the Palace of Fine Arts, built with bricks to protect the art displayed there during the Exposition. Eventually, the vacant building was transformed into the Museum of Science and Industry, which opened in 1933. Builders replicated the Beaux Arts design with Indiana limestone, retaining the columns and ornamentation of the original structure. Stand on the museum’s southern steps, look across the Columbia Basin and imagine the White City stretching out in front of you.
Union Stock Yards Gate
Chicago earned its nickname “hog butcher for the world” thanks to the acres of livestock pens and slaughterhouses that could be found beyond the Union Stock Yards gate from 1865 to 1971. Hundreds of thousands of pigs, cows and sheep were slaughtered and processed with industrialized precision each year—all taking place in a harsh environment that journalist Upton Sinclair immortalized in his 1906 novel The Jungle. Today, only the gates of the Union Stock Yard remain near the intersection of W Exchange Avenue and S Peoria Street, acting as the entrance to a memorial that commemorates Chicago firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
On July 22, 1934, notorious gangster John Dillinger attended a movie at the Biograph Theater—when he exited, he found the Lincoln Park movie house surrounded by federal agents who had acted on a tip from a madam at an Indiana brothel. When Dillinger attempted to escape into an alley down the street from the theater, agents opened fire, killing the prolific bank robber. While the alley where Dillinger purportedly died still exists (between restaurants Galit and Takito Street), many gangster afficionados make a pilgrimage to the Biograph, which now hosts stage productions as the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater.
Once billed as “Absolutely Fireproof,” the Iriquois Theatre burst into flames after a spark ignited a curtain during a sold out performance of the musical Mr. Blue Beard on December 30, 1903. More than 2,000 people rushed to escape the building, encountering unmarked exits and doors that opened inwards instead of outwards. More than 600 people died as a result of the fire, and many of their bodies were stacked in Couch Place, a narrow alley behind the theater. Today, the Iriquois has been replaced by the Nederlander Theatre and Couch Place (accessible from Dearborn and State Streets) is one of the nicest alleys in the Loop—but some still refer to it as “Death Alley.”
With graffiti-tagged walls and a looming, 15-story façade, the so-called Damen Silos—which sit on the banks of the Chicago River’s south branch in McKinley Park—look like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie. In reality, the abandoned grain silos were once operated by the Topeka & Sante Fe Railroad, storing up to 400,000 bushels of grain during Chicago’s industrial heyday until a 1977 explosion rendered them unusable. These days, the silos’ twisting network of tunnels and cavernous halls are like a decrepit museum for graffiti art and urban exploring (though as the abundant “No Trespassing” signs suggest, it’s illegal to enter the property)
Chicago Water Tower
Once used to pump and hold water from Lake Michigan, the Chicago Water Tower at Michigan Avenue and Chicago Avenue was one of the few buildings in the path of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 to survive the blaze intact. Built in 1869, the limestone building was rennovated and repaired a few decades after the fire and is sometimes mistaken for a small castle (according to WTTW host Geoffrey Baer, the design of early White Castle restaurants were based on the Chicago Water Tower). Today, the building houses an art gallery featuring the works of local creators called the City Gallery in the Historic Water Tower.
“Nuclear Energy” sculpture
In 1942, Enrico Fermi led a team that achieved the world’s first man-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction in an artificial nuclear reactor beneath the University of Chicago’s now-demolished Stagg Field. Known as Chicago Pile-1, the reactor was the first major achievement of the Manhattan Project, which went on to develop the atomic bombs used in World War II. Today, a bronze sculpture from British artist Henry Moore called “Nuclear Energy” stands atop the former site of the reactor, just north of the glass dome of the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library on the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park.
Pullman National Monument
Back when folks traveled the United States via rails rather than soaring through the sky, the Pullman Company built train cars on the far South Side of Chicago. George Pullman constructed a sprawling company town for his workers, including housing, factories and a giant clock tower. A strike for better pay and a boycott of Pullman cars in the late 1800s demonstrated the power of unions, but the company soldiered on until it shuttered in the 1960s. Today, the former industrial community is a National Monument (thanks to Barack Obama) complete with a visitor center and self-guided tours of the surviving buildings.
Photograph: Martha Williams
Fine Arts Building
Stately granite columns and gilded detailing offer a few obvious clues that the Fine Arts Building is a relic of Chicago history. But to get a sense of what makes the Michigan Avenue building particularly special, one only needs to take a trip upwards in one of its elevators—they’re the last publicly-accessible lifts in Chicago staffed by manual elevator operators, who sit on stools and use a lever to move the car from floor to floor. These employees are some of the last of their profession (which has largely been wiped out due to automation), so getting to see their work up close is an increasingly rare treat.
Walt Disney’s Birthplace
Before he created Mickey Mouse and founded one of the most powerful media conglomerates, Walt Disney was born inside a small house in Hermosa on December 5, 1901. Located at 2156 N Tripp Avenue, the modest two-story house was where Walt spent some of his formative years, until his family moved to Marceline, Missouri in 1906. The current owners of the Walt Disney Birthplace plan to restore the building to its original state (circa 1901) and open a small museum inside of the home.
Clarke House Museum
Built in 1836 for hardware merchant Henry Brown Clarke, this Greek Revival-style house once sat on Michigan Avenue between 16th and 17th Streets—at the time, you could look to the west and see nothing but prairie. The house was purchased and moved south to 45th Street and Wabash Avenue in 1871 (a more common practice in the 1800s), but the city bought the house and moved it to its current location in 1977. Today, it’s the home of the Clarke House Museum, which hosts a collection of artifacts from pre-Civil War Chicago. The city calls the Clarke House “Chicago’s oldest house,” but there’s a mansion in Norwood Park that was built a few years earlier.
Alta Vista Terrace District
Wander just north of Wrigley Field in Lakeview and you might feel as though you’ve stepped into early 20th-century London—if only for one block-long stretch. Wrigleyville’s Alta Vista Terrace District, which runs north on Alta Vista Terrace from Grace Street to Byron Street, features a dense network of 40 historic row houses developed in 1904 by Samuel Eberly Gross, who aimed to recreate the harmonious architecture he saw on a trip to Europe. Walk up and down Alta Vista Terrace to spot the design’s full effect: Each home in the district features a near-duplicate copy on the diagonal side of the street, lending an especially balanced feel to the block.