Chicago’s ‘sunken’ homes are remnants of a bold effort to raise the city out of the mud

Data pix.

Sometimes in Chicago, a home's first floor is actually below street level. So Shayle from Evanston asks: why are the streets so high in some Chicago neighborhoods?

Some homes sit below street level in Chicago because nearby roads were actually raised in the late 1850s, according to Kathleen Carpenter of the Chicago Architecture Center.

In the early days after its founding, much of Chicago was basically at the same level as Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. So when it rained, water had nowhere to go and would flow down the city's muddy streets.

Stagnant water was a hotbed for disease, and the issue was made worse by wastewater flowing out into Lake Michigan — and back towards into city. After many died from cholera and typhoid outbreaks, the City made a bold decision in 1855: raise the roads four to 14 feet to make room for sewers.

So sewer pipes and drains were laid across the city, allowing for wastewater to flow away instead of flooding the streets. And after the pipes were covered with dirt, new roads were built on top of them. The process took 20 years to complete.

There was a catch, however: the streets would be higher than the buildings next to them. So the City left it up to building owners to either move them (yes, really), leave them below street level or physically lift them up and add a new foundation.

A building being raised in Chicago. Image: Chicago History Museum

So how do you lift up an entire building?

"A group of hundreds of men would surround the base of a building, each one with their own jack screw in hand. After sticking it under the building, an engineer in charge would give the signal, and they would all start raising their jacks inch by inch," Carpenter said.

According to Carpenter, the process was so gradual that some inside didn't even realize they were being raised. There are many stories of people holding tea parties or going about their business, only to find they had to go down more stairs to leave than they climbed to get in.

Instead of paying for the costly process, many homeowners (especially in working-class neighborhoods) opted to build a bridge or stairs from their second story leading to the new road.

A house is raised in the late 1850s

The first building was raised in January of 1858, and as many as 50  were lifted up downtown. But much of the progress was undone by another major event: the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

So if you want to see the remnants of the raising of the roads, you need to go to the neighborhoods that survived the fire. Like Bridgeport, which neighbors joke is named as such because you often have to cross a bridge to get into a house. Those bridges are remnants of the streets being raised, and the second floor becoming the ground floor.

There are many other examples in the Pilsen neighborhood. Resident Braulia McWilliams has been in the neighborhood since the 70s, and said her building on 19th Street was built in the 1800s to service the nearby railroad. A drawbridge-like slab of concrete leads to her front door.

"I tell you, I've fallen twice; I've broken a thumb because of the height of the the steps," McWilliams said.

Braulia McWilliams and Mike Lowe stand outside her Pilsen building

The base of McWilliams' building sits over 10 feet below street level, and used to have empty spaces alongside it that sat below the nearby sidewalks as well. These gaps were created by "vaulted" sidewalks that date back to the same period as the raising of the streets. Instead of adding dirt below, the city essentially capped them off.

Property owners found creative uses for the empty spaces beneath the vaulted sidewalks, from outhouses to storage for businesses. In McWilliams' building, they used it to store coal.

But over time, the steel beams supporting the tops of the vaulted sidewalks began to crumble and the concrete began to crack. Holes in vaulted sidewalks would have nothing but empty space for many feet below. So the costly process of filling them in began, and today McWilliams said most of them have been taken care of in her neighborhood.

While many of the vaulted sidewalks are now filled in, the low houses remain as a legacy of one of the city's most important engineering feats.

"Chicago was really lucky to have some visionary people, and people who did really hard work in order to make the city really work well in the earliest days," Carpenter said.

For additional reading

Chicago Magazine put together an excellent cartoon about the raising of Chicago

A 2013 story by Geoffrey Baer and a 2015 Chicago Tribune piece by Ron Grossman and dig deeper into the history

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