Chicago is an urban lasagna, a city of layers: multi-level Wacker Drive; skyscraper apartments stacked one over the other; River Point tower — one million square feet of office space suspended above a public park above active Metra and Amtrak rails above the Blue Line.
Then there are the unseen layers: history itself. A recent Chicago Tribune photo of seven-year-old girls skating with their moms in Hyde Park evoked 1893 for me.
The Skating Rink at Midway Plaisance Park ices over what was the site of the biggest carnival attraction at the World’s Columbian Exposition: the world’s first Ferris wheel. Fair planners in Chicago wanted to one-up Paris’s 1889 Exposition Universelle, with its iconic Eiffel Tower.
Designed and built by Pittsburgh engineer George Washington Gale Ferris Jr, the Chicago Wheel began to take shape the winter before the fair. Workers thawed the ground with jets of steam. A massive grillage of steel and concrete supported the 71-ton wheel, its size impressive even by today’s standards. Each of its 40 cars could carry 60 people, enough to spin as many as 2,160 riders at a time. Compare that to the 2016 Centennial Wheel at Navy Pier, which can twirl a maximum load of only 414 passengers in its intimate gondolas. The top of Navy Pier’s wheel reaches 196 feet, but the original Ferris Wheel soared to 264 feet — about a quarter of the height of the static Eiffel Tower but taller than all but a couple structures in Chicago at the time, offering kinetic, eye-popping views.
The wheel outlasted the fair into the following spring, when it was dismantled and later rebuilt at an amusement park in the 2600 block of North Clark Street, now occupied by a McDonald’s — another layer of history. At that location the wheel made an appearance in a 1896 film shot by the Lumiere Brothers, but by 1903 it was dismantled again and shipped to St. Louis for that city’s 1904 fair, after which it met its end by dynamite.
Seeing the photo of the ice rink on the Midway, I thought of other Chicago stories hidden below ground. Apple Michigan Avenue, the snazzy emporium of all things Apple designed by Foster + Partners and completed in 2017, occupies the spot where after the Revolutionary War Chicago’s first non-indigenous settler, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, established a trading post and married Kitiwaha, a Potowatami local.
The Sauganash Hotel, which sprang up in 1831, has been called Chicago’s first hotel — although Chicago wasn’t incorporated until 1837. That hotel made way in 1860 for the Wigwam convention center, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated for president. The wood-framed Wigwam was a temporary structure that held on for a few years after the convention, when it was demolished to make room for something else. Today the Chicago Landmark plaque that marks the spot is affixed to 191 N. Wacker, an elegant 2002 office tower designed by KPF.
Chicago’s history is layered all around us. I won’t go on about it — OK, just a quick peek under the Stevenson Expressway for vestiges of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, later supplanted by the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
I’m not complaining about these changes. I’m glad that the park district operates a skating rink on the site of the world’s first Ferris wheel, and I understand why Apple would covet the same spot on the Chicago River that made Point du Sable want to put down roots. Sometimes the old must make room for the new.
Accepting transience is the bargain we make for being alive, a feeling heightened during this time of pandemic. What more can we do than look at lives lost and celebrate them? That first Ferris wheel was grand in its day. A community skating rink is grand in its own way.