St. Louis, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Beyond
- American Sign Museum: Cincinnati-based museum dedicated to the history of the sign industry.
- Built St. Louis: Documentation of destruction of St.Louis’ historic architecture.
- Cincinnati Transit: Transportation infrastructure in the Queen City.
- Daytonology: Architectural history vignettes in Dayton, Ohio.
- Dead Malls: Retail history, generally.
- Decopix: Notable Art Deco buildings and extensive resources on the style.
- Detroit Blog: Stories about life in Detroit.
- Discount Stores of the 60’s: A shopping trip back in time.
- Ecology of Absence: Chronicle of the built environment of St. Louis and the greater Midwest.
- Forgotten Detroit: Detailed studies of Detroit’s crumbling landmarks.
- Forgotten New York: Unusual and overlooked neighborhoods, architecture and infrastructure in NYC.
- Forgotten Pittsburgh: The abandoned, fenced and forgotten, subterranean, and decayed areas of Pittsburgh.
- Groceteria: History of the American supermarket.
- Infiltration: The quintessential urban exploration publication.
- Invincible Cities: Interactive map of photographs from Harlem, NY, Camden, NJ, and Richmond, CA.
- James Jeffrey Higgins: Large format color photographs of the Rust Belt.
- James Lileks: Postcards, Minneapolis, diners, matchbooks, and much, much more.
- LA Time Machines: Restaurants, hotels, bars, and other interiors where you feel like you’ve returned to the past.
- Lost Films: Images from film found in old cameras.
- Not Fooling Anybody: Humorous conversions of logo buildings.
- Nothing In Common: Nonsense on stilts.
- Roadside Architecture: American vernacular auto-related architecture from the first half of the 20th century.
- Skyscraper Solidarity:
- Urban Exploration Resource:
- zipdecode: Interactive visualization of zip codes.
If you are looking to research a Chicago-related topic, the two following websites offer comprehensive starting points. Before embarking on a project, it is imperative that you become familiar with the resources listed on these sites, most especially those which are available online.
Some of the following links are included in the above two guides, although some are not. This list is a compilation of the online resources that we use for this website. Now you can create your own Forgotten Chicago content in the comfort of your own home. Happy hunting…
- American Terra Cotta Company Photographs: Buildings clad by the American Terra Cotta company, spanning the years 1905-1964.
- Cinema Treasures: Nationwide database and guide of theatre architecture.
- Charles W. Cushman Photograph Collection: Mind-blowing slide collection from a globe-trotting amateur photographer who worked in Kodachrome from 1938-1972.
- Chicago History in Postcards: Categorized archive of Chicago postcards.
- Chicago-L.org: The definitive online source for Chicago’s passenger rail system.
- Chicago Landmarks: List of Chicago’s landmarks, as well as the venerable Chicago Historic Resources Survey.
- Chicago Public Library Research Database: With a library card, access is provided to important resources such as Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Proquest, and JSTOR.
- City of Chicago Zoning Map: In addition to being a zoning map, this is a comprehensive visualization building footprints and addresses.
- City News Chicago: Relatively accurate property and building data.
- Cook County Assessor’s Office Property Search: Property information which often includes a photograph from 2000.
- Encyclopedia of Chicago: Thousands of historical resources; including articles, photos, maps, and newspapers.
- Digital Illinois: Index of the digital collections of many Illinois libraries.
- Digital Past: North Suburban Library System’s digital collection, which includes the Curt Teich postcard archives.
- FSA-OWI Photographs: Documentary photographs of America during the Great Depression..
- Historic Aerials: Layered interface of orthogonal aerial photographs ranging from 1938 to present.
- Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record (HABS/HAER): An ongoing survey of the significant structures of America’s built environment.
- Historic Architectural and Archaeology Resources Geographic Information System (HAARGIS): GIS containing information and images of historic Illinois properties.
- Homicide in Chicago 1870-1930: A resource for the study of homicide, crime, urban development, and the police.
- Illinois Digital Archives: Digital collection of the Illinois State Library.
- Jazz Age Chicago: Urban leisure from 1893 to 1945.
- National Register of Historic Places: List of historic places administered by the National Park Service.
- Photographs From the Chicago Daily News: 1902-1933: Actors, politicians, athletes, and the occasional photograph of a building.
- Recent Past Survey: Architecturally significant non-residential buildings dating from 1935 to 1975 in Northern Cook County.
- Ryerson-Burnham Digital Archives: Digital collections of the Art Institute of Chicago’s library. This includes the Chicago Architects Oral History Project.
- Skyscraper Page: Diagrams of and information about the world’s skyscrapers.
- Tom’s Trolley Bus Pictures – Chicago: Vintage photographs of trolley buses, ranging from the 1930s to 1973. Both the trolley buses and the buildings in the background are of interest.
- UIC Imagebase: Photographs, aerial views, and maps of the built environment.
- University of Chicago Digital Collections: U of C’s digital collections are wide ranging. What may be of greatest interest to our readers are Mildred Mead’s photographs of Urban Renewal.
Basic Online Research
To help you in your research efforts, and perhaps even to save you some time in the process, we’re going to run through the first steps of researching a building using exclusively online resources. We’ll be working under the assumption that you’ve come across the building in passing and already know the location. The steps would be a little bit different if you were working from a historical photograph, or your Aunt Edna’s memories.
But anyway, let’s say you’re hypothetically sitting in the Starbucks on the northeast corner of Erie and Dearborn, sipping your Grande skinny vanilla latte, gazing out the window absent-mindedly, when your attention is caught by a green glint across the street. Because it is so close to the heavy-handed Romanesque former Chicago Historical Society building-cum-Excalibur nightclub, you’ve never quite noticed the building with the green stone facade. You see the scantily clad yuppie women strutting into the basement-level nightclub and suddenly find yourself curious. What is that building?
Assuming you have slightly more than a passing curiosity, you would begin with Fire Insurance maps. These are very detailed maps that were drawn in order to assist insurance companies in assessing fire risk. Because of the level of detail, they are an indispensable resource rich with information.
The Chicago Public Library subscribes to the online version of Illinois Fire Insurance Maps, which can be accessed with your library card. These are also available through most university libraries. The Sanborn company’s digitized collection spans the entire country from about 1890-1950, however, since subscription is very expensive, institutions generally subscribe only to the maps of the state in which they are located.
If your home library doesn’t subscribe to the entire collection, which includes maps of nearly every major city, the best recourse is to contact the Mid Continent Public Library of Kansas City. MCPL subscribes to the entire collection, and will allow you access if you sign up and pay a small fee.
Comparing Fire Insurance maps from the two available dates, 1906 at left, and 1950 at right, provides us with a good amount of data. Reading the information on the map, we find the original address of our building was 146-150 N. Dearborn. This changed to 648-650 in 1909 when the modern address system was instituted. If, for some reason, we could only find one of these addresses, we could have found the other by using the Address Conversion Guide.
The maps tell us that the name of this hotel was changed from Mentone to Raleigh at some time in between 1906 and 1950. It is an eight story building with retail stores in the basement level (S in B). When built, there were two staircases, one near the center of the building, and one at the center-rear. The center staircase was converted into an elevator shaft at some point after 1906.
To get an idea of what happened to the area surrounding the Raleigh between 1906 and 1950, we can look at the changes between surrounding buildings. We are looking here at a very limited sample, four structures in total. Fortunately, to make things interesting, the three surrounding buildings all changed in various ways. The four story building at 55 W. Erie, to the left of the Raleigh, changed from residential units, or flats (F), to a hotel. The small building just south of 55 W. Erie changed from a cigar factory, presumably a cottage industry type operation, to a storage facility. The building just south of the Raleigh at 642 N. Dearborn changed in use from a dwelling (D) to offices (OFF).
Based on these changes, especially that of 55 W. Erie from a residential, that is, long-term residential building into a hotel, we can begin to form a hypothesis. This shift suggests that this area tended toward an economic decline with a increased transient population between 1906 and 1950. We’ll try to confirm or disconfirm this later, but we still don’t know when the Raleigh was built, or who designed it.
Because the Raleigh is unique compared to a bungalow, frame house, or taxpayer block, and appears to be quite old, it is almost certain to appear in the Chicago Historic Resources Survey (CHRS), which is an inventory of architecturally and historically significant structures conducted by the City of Chicago between 1983 and 1995. Unfortunately, your favorite new Rem Koolhas post-re-de-reconstructionalist building won’t be included, but there is indeed an entry on the Raleigh. The entry tells us that it was built in the 1880s, is neither on the National Register of Historic Places or a Chicago Landmark, and is classified under Queen Anne, Gothic, and Romanesque architectural styles. But no architect yet…
Charles Cushman, Indiana University Archives
Raleigh Hotel, 1949.
In addition to CHRS, there is another, similar survey of Chicago’s historic architecture available online. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA) administer a research tool called the Historic Architecture and Archaeological Geographic Information System (HAARGIS). The data presented in HAARGIS is compiled from three different surveys conducted in the 1970s, which you can read more about here. It is more difficult to navigate than CHRS, but on the plus side, it includes all of Illinois, and it does tend to have photographs from the 1970s and 1980s accompanying most entries. However, the only information in the HAARGIS entry on the Raleigh is a reference back to CHRS. How frustrating!
Because the Raleigh was a hotel in the central area, it is likely that newsworthy stuff happened there, so the next thing to check are newspaper archives. Proquest, which is something of a clearing house for research sources, has available the entire archives of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender. Like the Sanborn Maps, this is a subscription service available through the Chicago Public Library.
Unsurprisingly, the Tribune has made plenty mention of the Raleigh over the years. One article written in 1986 is particularly informative. The Raleigh was built in 1882, and the architect was Lawrence Gustav Hallberg. Originally a luxury apartment building, it was cut up into a 125 unit rooming hotel in the 1950s. In 1966, Richard Speck rented a room in the Raleigh the day after he murdered eight nurses. There was a large fire in 1983 which killed four people and damaged the upper floors of the building. It was slated for demolition following the fire, but was purchased and renovated into offices.
This is just a start. There are many more online resources, depending on what you’re investigating. After exhausting them, you’ll have a better idea of the information that needs to be retrieved from the Chicago Historical Society or Municipal Reference Collection. We hope you find this helpful.