Compare And Contrast

That’s the “Suicide Curve” from a different angle, looking north and east from the northwest corner of Central Park. The billboards are across the street from the park, presumably at the site of a new building under construction. But that’s not what I want to talk about…

New York, 1900, Sixth Avenue looking north from 14th Street:

Chicago, 1900, Wabash Avenue looking north from Adams Street:

It’s probably worth mentioning that, at that time, Sixth and Wabash Avenues shared a certain tone: both are parallel to (and one block from) streets that were more socially important and that never had els overhead. Their fates diverged after 1939, when the Sixth Avenue el was demolished, superseded by the Sixth Avenue subway.

The els in both cities look very much the same, which is not a big surprise. We tend to think of heavy rail as static, because it is today so expensive and time consuming to building in a city center, but the els in New York and Chicago were modified multiple times in their early decades as travel patterns changed, traffic grew exponentially, and technology changed. In both cities, steam engines were replaced by electric motors. You’d expect the technology to converge on best practice for the era.

The biggest difference visible in these photos has a very simple explanation. Sixth Avenue has a wide variety of building sizes and ages, from the four small mid-1800s rowhouses converted to commercial use at the first corner on the right (below the “Dewar’s” wall sign and above the “Imported Wines” canopy sign) to the tower of the 1897 Siegel-Cooper store up at 19th Street on the right. Wabash Avenue has a pretty consistent roof line at five stories, with the biggest exception being the 1897 Silversmith Building on the left, a D. H. Burnham building big enough to have made it into my early-skyscraper research. The buildings on Wabash, while not uniform in lot size, are much closer to uniform than those in New York.

The simple explanation, of course, is that everything single structure in the Chicago photo was built in the preceding 29 years, because this area was thoroughly burned in the 1871 fire. I don’t know exactly what was here before, but if there were any old leftovers like the rowhouses in New York, they were replaced by big commercial buildings because this was, by 1871, a throughly commercial district. And when a dense urban area is built up rapidly, as Wabash Avenue obviously was after the fire, there tends to be a certain uniformity to the architecture. You can get sense of low-rise commercial architecture in the US in the 1880s and 90s by looking at the similarity of the bigger buildings on Sixth Avenue (such as Baumann’s on the left) to the average building on Wabash (like the blocks on the far right).

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