It’s given pride of place as the final example of 32 structures — mills, mines, dams, factories and other industrial sites — that Sande highlights in this heavily illustrated look at the roots of U.S. industry. And it’s given eight pages out of the 115 in the main text, more than any other structure.
Indeed, Sande, who helped found the study of industrial archeology, writes about the Loop with deep affection and admiration:
The Union Loop, a massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks, arches over busy city streets, passing close by the windows of tall buildings on either side, and insistently threads its way through downtown Chicago….
For the industrial archeologist, the Chicago Loop provides an ideal case study of an entire transit system of reasonably manageable size that still serves its original purpose.
Demolish the Loop?
What Sande wrote then is still true today, of course. Except for renovation or replacement of the Loop stations, the elevated structure itself — that “massive web of riveted steel girders and shining tracks” — remains pretty much as it was built more than a century ago, carrying over 100,000 riders into and out of the central business district.
Yet, even as Sande was writing his paean to the Loop, the city administration was moving to bring to fruition more than 20 years of planning — and demolish that el structure.
Those efforts came to a head in 1978 when the city filed an extensive document with state and federal officials arguing that the Loop el didn’t merit being placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The contretemps featured, on one side, bureaucrats, developers and politicians seeking huge amounts of federal dollars for two subways to replace the Loop. On the other were some, but not all, of the growing preservation community in the city.
The Loop el didn’t make it to the National Register then (although it was included years later when the Loop Retail District was put on the list). However, the publicity helped raise awareness about the importance of the Loop in the city’s history, its importance still as an efficient transportation system and its rough, gritty beauty.
Generally, his text focuses on intricate engineering and technological details that leave me, as a certified mechanical dodo, in a fog. But, in photos from the past and present day, many of these structures display the handsomeness and dignity and verve of what might be called found sculpture.
Yet, in 1978, for instance, many people looked at the Loop el and dismissed it as dirty, clunky and noisy. That’s often the reaction to industrial structures, Sande writes in his introduction.
Indeed, until quite recently, the rule has been for most people to regard objects like the ones that appear in this book as utilitarian embarrassments, to be ignored if possible, otherwise despised….
But keep in mind that these structures are the result of human aspiration, inspiration and pain — that side you must also know to make the story whole.
Two train sheds
Consider the photograph of the train shed at Union Station in Montgomery, Alabama (taken by Jack E. Boucher, who is responsible for most of the present day photos in the book).
A century earlier, Claude Monet recognized the beauty of a similar scene at the Gare Saint Lazare in Paris, and turned it into one of the masterpieces of Impressionism.
Wood and brick
As a culture today, we use very little wood in building exteriors and what we do use, we paint. So Boucher’s photo of a wooden oil rig in Volcano, West Virginia, is particularly evocative.
Yet, brick can be equally enchanting, such as the playful façade of the American Brewery’s brew house in Baltimore, Maryland, featuring “an unusually rich mixture, a concoction of the German Romanesque, French Second Empire, and Italianate designs.” Such a hodge-podge shouldn’t work. But it does.
Or the Troy Gas Light Company gasholder house in Troy, New York, built in 1873 to enclose tanks of natural gas. There is a classic rhythm to this design that goes back at least to the Renaissance. And the detail brickwork ornament is similarly delightful.
Or the rough elegance of the Starrucca Viaduct in Lanesboro, Pennsylvania.
Ugly can be beautiful
Finally, the photos in Sande’s book show that even ugly can be beautiful — or, at least, compelling. The Pratt & Whitney Engine Test House in East Hartford, Connecticut, was built to sound-proof tests of jet engines. Sande describes it this way:
Heavy reinforced concrete walls rise in six towers to give the building a monumentality that suggests some long forgotten civilization.
It is like nothing else. And that, in part, is its attraction. It also looks like an altar to a silent, dangerous god. Impossible to ignore.
Patrick T. Reardon