deconstruction of 19th century two-story frame structure offers rare glimpse at its building methods and materials

while en route to a demolition in the wicker park neighborhood of chicago, i came across an unusual renovation or demolition, some kind of chaotic project that left the structural components of a 19th century two-story framed cottage fully exposed for both the eye and camera to ponder. after speaking with the "wreckers," it was made clear that the remaining frame would be taken apart - by hand - and all of the wood carted off to the dump. tabling concern for the latter, i received permission to document what remained of the structure, including several integrated "systems" that were still intact.

i felt as if i were walking around a life-sized model, one which bore multiple patterns that i document in cottages time and again. as i continue to compile data on these hugely important architectural characteristics, i realize the information will become the backbone of my upcoming publication, "deconstructing chicago: demystifying the evolution of the balloon frame." i hope to offer a photo-intensive survey, showing the materials and methods which were used in construction of these homes during the late 19th century in chicago.


the first spark of interest for me, in the technologies of balloon frame construction, began as an obsession with understanding how multiple systems comprised largely of wood, could create a frame that would become a livable residence, and a building that could survive for more than a hundred years. i was absolutely fascinated as well by the alterations that these structures have undergone in the past century. changes to a given building add mystery, complexity, and for me, an irresistible puzzle. i often find myself wondering why each alteration was made, trying to envision what underlying historical reasons caused the building to morph.

my interest has further deepened on discovering the shocking disparities between existing models of the balloon frame configuration and actual field data gathered at each wreck site. this inconsistency of scholarship is what convinced me the work was important, and has led to my archiving physical materials, to better compile information and tease out patterns between materials and methods used in chicago cottages between 1840-1890. i hope these actual building samples will contribute to a more empirical approach in writing this history.

unfortunately, during demolition it is virtually impossible to see the "whole picture" since there are so many other materials cluttering the landscape. for this reason, stumbling across a fully exposed structure without a wrecker's machine was a rare experience in which i had time to document a static but exposed structure. without the "noise" or visual distraction, i took in each and every detail to strengthen my working model of the balloon frame as a hybrid, which i argue has a greater degree of complexity than any "textbook" illustration provides. the understanding of balloon frame cottages built by way of cheap and/or unskilled labor, dimensional lumber, and an abundance of nails is undoubtedly at odds with the artistry and advanced skill required to build the structures i'm finding all across the city of 19th century chicago.

as luck would have it, the partially intact structure which i stumbled across this week contained several of the important characteristics that i happen to observe in 19th century wood-framed cottages. having a visual representation of the "real deal" versus computer-assisted modeling will, i hope, make my case more compelling. the "systems" i document within structures like this, that are original and largely unaltered since the 1880's, will be of great importance to writing a more accurate history.



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