Episode posted September 14, 2020
Title: 500 Railcars
This is Cream City~Windy City. I’m Wendy Bright.
Every episode, we explore surprising connections between Milwaukee and Chicago, two cities 90-miles apart on the shores of Lake Michigan.
We will hear stories of fascinating – but perhaps lesser-known – links between the people and events of Milwaukee and Chicago.
In the heart of Chicago’s Loop, the dark, modernist forms of the Federal Center rise. The current Federal Center is the latest in a line of federal buildings dating back to the Civil War era.
The U.S. Post Office & Custom House of 1860, which was also the first US Courthouse in the city, located at the corner of Monroe and Dearborn, was destroyed in the Chicago Fire of 1871.
In order to rebuild, an entire block, bounded by Adams and Jackson Streets and Dearborn and Clark Streets, was obtained and cleared for construction.
The handsome new Chicago Post Office and Custom House, completed in 1880, rose four stories, with row upon row of arched windows, neoclassical pilasters, corner quoins, and a multi-pointed, loosely-Second-Empire style roof. The building was encircled by a broad strip of lawn and a wide sidewalk, setting it back from the street for dramatic effect.
The rectangular structure was centered on the block, its east and west facades stretching longer than the north and south facades. Large entrances opened on all four sides, but the grand approach faced Dearborn Street.
The Chicago Post Office and Custom House was built of fine Buena Vista sandstone, a light-colored rock from Ohio. This durable, attractive stone was especially popular with 19th-century architects.
When you stepped into the Chicago Post Office and Custom House, you found yourself in an enormous lobby with black and white marble under your feet and a spectacular skylight above your head. This was the location of the Post Office. Elaborate iron staircases climbed up the north and south sides of the lobby.
Above you on the second floor were the offices of the Internal Revenue Collector and Collector of Customs. On the third floor were the federal courts. All told, on the floors above the Post Office were 65 rooms housing 20 different federal departments.
The Chicago Post Office and Custom House buzzed with activity from morning until night. Ten mail elevators and one freight elevator were in constant use. Each day 3,500 people worked in the building while many thousands more visited. Wagons and carriages lined up on the Clark Street side, coming and going with the loads of mail.
Unfortunately the Chicago Post Office and Custom House was poorly planned and even more poorly built. By the early 1890s serious problems resulted in a building described as dangerous, “disgraceful” and “unfit for business.”
After only 16 years of use, in 1896 the building was razed.
That same year, a Milwaukee Catholic priest, Father Wilhelm Grutza, had approved the plans for his new church to be built on Milwaukee’s near south side.
St. Josaphat’s, the large parish of Polish immigrants, had lost their first church to fire and now their second church was much too small.
Fr. Grutza called upon German-born architect, Erhard Brielmaier for the design. Brielmaier, who had offices in Milwaukee and Chicago, became well-known for the more than 1,000 churches, hospitals, and schools he would design across the U.S. and Canada, including buildings for the Mayo Clinic and Marquette University.
For St. Josaphat’s, Brielmaier designed a large brick and terra cotta church, capable of seating over 2,000 worshippers.
But Fr. Grutza had an idea. He had heard that the Chicago Post Office and Custom House was coming down. Could that material possibly be salvaged for the new church? Brielmaier heartily approved.
Fr. Grutza made his way to Chicago.
There he finalized the $20,000 purchase of the salvaged materials, which was half the price of the brick for the original planned church. He bought everything from the many tons of sandstone to huge marble columns, to wood doors, bronze railings, light fixtures, and brass doorknobs.
This 200,000-ton haul required a jaw-dropping 500 flatbed railcars to transport to Milwaukee.
Once back to the new church site at 6th and Lincoln, each piece was measured, numbered, and readied for construction. Brielmaier amended his original plans: he drew up a new design modeled on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome …but built with the materials from the Chicago Post Office and Custom House.
The cut limestone became St. Josaphat’s walls. The 30-foot granite columns were erected in the north portico. The doors, railings, and hardware were all put to use in the new church.
The giant structure was finally completed in 1901. At the dedication in July, bells rang out and the huge dome dazzled the 4,000 people assembled.
Sadly, only a few weeks later, an exhausted Fr. Grutza passed away. In the completed St. Josaphat’s, he left an important legacy.
In 1929 St. Josaphat’s was designated a basilica, an honorary title given to Catholic churches of notable historic and/or architectural significance. The Basilica of St. Josaphat is the only Catholic basilica in Wisconsin.
As the tallest church in Milwaukee, it is an unmistakable sight on the city’s skyline, a revered home for the Polish community, and a top draw for visitors to the city.
If you visit the Basilica today, pause to look at the entrance doors. There on the brass hardware you will see the emblems of the long-gone Chicago Post Office & Custom House.
This story was the catalyst.
I’m from Milwaukee. And in the 1990s I was a Milwaukee tour guide. It seemed that every Milwaukee tour guide and history buff knew the weird and wonderful story of St. Josaphat’s being built with the stone of the Chicago Post Office. If you take a tour of Milwaukee today, chances are you’ll hear about it.
About a decade ago, I moved to Chicago and became a tour guide there. No one in Chicago, it seemed, knew this story.
But I loved that connection between my two cities.
As a Chicago tour guide studying the city, the parallels between it and my hometown were eye-opening. I grew fascinated by all of the weird and wonderful connections I was finding between Milwaukee and Chicago. I started a list thinking someday I’d do a special tour of both cities or something.
In 2013 I fortuitously came across the summer issue of Marquette Lawyer magazine. It caught my eye because on its cover was a map of the “megacity” of 12 million people living in the Chicago-Milwaukee region.
I was amazed to learn that city leaders have been discussing the relationship between them for quite a while. I was amazed to learn that a 2012 conference about the region had been held, sponsored by Marquette Law School and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled, “Milwaukee’s Future in the Chicago Megacity.”
I was especially gratified to read the articles inside, especially the feature by Milwaukee historian John Gurda, describing the history and relationship of our two cities.
I have since tuned into this conversation with great interest. All of the connections I’d been exploring between Milwaukee and Chicago suddenly had a larger and weightier context.
This podcast is an effort to lay out some of these links, to connect the human and historic stories of Milwaukee and Chicago. There are a lot of them.
Some of these connections won’t be all that surprising; we are two Midwestern cities on the same body of water that grew up at the same time. But some of the links I’ve discovered are indeed weird, wonderful, and surprising. And I hope the interest and surprise goes both ways – north and south.
There are many reasons to care about the connections between Milwaukee and Chicago. The two cities have a long, complex history: adversarial, competitive, but also cooperative and familial. As these urban leaders have been discussing, there is undeniably an emerging megacity on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan.
While both cities will keep their distinct identities, as time goes by, we will increasingly have more in common. It’s good that we forge a bond and get to know one another.
About the title of this podcast.
As you may already know, the nickname ‘Cream City’ is not about dairy and ‘Windy City’ is not about weather. Both nicknames are of 19th century origin. Milwaukee is the ‘Cream City’ because of its distinctive pale-yellow brick. Chicago is the ‘Windy City’ because of some particularly braggadocious city boosters.
I’ve been a tour guide in both Milwaukee and Chicago. I have a BA in Communication from Alverno College – Milwaukee, and an MA in Art History – from the University of Kentucky. I am currently studying Public History and Historic Preservation at UW-Milwaukee. I am a lifelong lover of both of my cities.
Thanks so much for joining me. I welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.
Every episode of Cream City~Windy City will have an accompanying blog post where you can see images, check out the transcript, and leave comments. Find it at WendyCityChicago.com.
Many thanks to my son, Zack Goehner, for his brilliant graphic design work.
Intro music: “Chicago Blues” by the Kenny Dorham Quintet.
Outro music, “I Lost My Baby In Milwaukee” by KEdKE.
See you next time.