The South Side’s other historic planned industrial community
“In their prophetic minds arose the vision of a modern community of industry, whose thriving residents would contribute important increments of tonnage to the railroad, whose modern buildings would set an example for a new type of industrial development, in Chicago and elsewhere.”
- Central Manufacturing District Magazine, 1937
Traveling west along Pershing Road past Ashland Avenue in McKinley Park, a six-story wall of red brick appears on the south side of the road, extending to the horizon like a modernist architect’s utopian sketch made real.
This is the Pershing Road Development, the monumental crown jewel of the larger Central Manufacturing District (CMD), which was likely the first planned industrial park in the United States and one of Chicago’s most significant and under-appreciated historical landmarks. In addition to paving the way for the development of the industrial parks which now populate huge swathes of our cities and suburbs, the CMD was also a testing ground for many of the hyper-rational planning principles that fundamentally transformed the world’s urban landscapes over the course of the 20th century.
The CMD was meant to fix two problems. The first belonged to Frederick Henry Prince, owner of the Chicago Junction Railway, a short rail line connecting the Union Stockyards to Chicago’s main rail routes. Prince knew that the stockyards alone could not sustain his business, so he would have to somehow entice new freight customers to gather around the track.
But at the same time, larger forces were also exerting pressure on freight railways around the country. Freight rail had historically depended on serving centralized industries in the cores of major cities, but by the late 1800s, that was threatening to change. Industrial businesses were being driven away from downtowns by rising rents, and mechanization (which allowed them to tap into less-skilled workforces wherever they wound up) and trucking (which freed them from the need to locate near rail lines) made the suburbs that much more attractive.
The CMD was Prince’s response to these forces: a modern development located near the center of Chicago that would bring the industries fleeing the Loop to his railroad and provide a dual stream of income from rents and rail fees.
In 1902, Prince began developing the area bounded by 35th Street to the north, 39th Street to the south, Halsted Street to the east, and Ashland Avenue to the west. By 1915, most of the area—eventually referred to as the CMD’s “Original District”—had paved streets, landscaping, and buildings designed to District standards, often by the CMD’s in-house architects.
The District was also designed to provide for non-architectural aspects of its tenants’ lives: the CMD Bank, at 1110 W. 35th St. (still standing, now a Byline Bank) extended loans with favorable terms to District tenants, a doctor tended to both tenants and their workers, and a club provided lunch and meeting rooms for socializing. There was even a Central Manufacturing District Magazine, featuring District news, gossip, and business advice with illustrations by a CMD staff artist.
The provision of such amenities for the comfort of the CMD’s tenants calls to mind another of Chicago’s famous planned industrial developments, Pullman, established in the 1880s as a “model community” to house laborers at George Pullman’s Palace Car Company factory. Both the CMD and Pullman were designed to provide clean, modern facilities for industrial communities.
Pullman, however, was primarily residential, while the CMD had no housing, and Pullman’s amenities were largely architectural and infrastructural, not financial and social. Indeed, the underlying financial models followed by the two developments could not have been more different. George Pullman professed to believe in the importance of happy workers, yet famously charged higher-than-normal rents while simultaneously reducing wages—a conflict of interest which came to a head with the Pullman Strike and Boycott of 1894. Just a few years later, the CMD was established with an opposite and seemingly more sustainable model: lending money and providing business services to tenants as a way to ensure the mutual success of business owners, workers, and the District itself.
By 1916, the Original District was fully occupied, and the CMD trustees looked to expand into what was then an underdeveloped and heavily polluted wasteland south of Pershing Road and west of Ashland Avenue. It was on this extremely unassuming spot that the monumental Pershing Road Development would eventually rise.
The CMD trustees purchased 100 acres of land, turned the toxic creek flowing through it into an underground sewer, and laid out a plan for standardized buildings all designed by CMD staff architect S. Scott Joy and engineer Abraham Epstein—the latter of whom would go on to found A. Epstein & Sons, one of the world’s largest architecture and engineering firms. The grid of buildings would be connected by brick-paved roads, grassy parkways, water and electrical utilities, an underground concrete tunnel system, and of course Chicago Junction Railway lines.
Between March and October 1917, the six-sectioned, six-story Union Freight Station building was erected, and partially occupied after only four months of construction. The entire structure was built faster than any building of its size, and it was at the time the second-largest concrete structure on the planet. Each floor of each section had an area of approximately 30,000 square feet, and the tracks of the Chicago Junction Railway ran directly into the buildings.
Meanwhile, World War I was unfolding across the world. At the beginning of 1918, the U.S. Army purchased land at the east end of the Pershing Road Development to build a 1.8 million square foot Supply Depot. Construction on this project was also breathtakingly fast, with about 630,000 square feet built in a mere six months. The country’s largest cold storage plant went up at the western end of the development, containing 8 million cubic feet of storage capable of holding more than 60 million pounds of meat.
Although the war ended before the Army’s buildings could be put to very much use, their massive square footage easily attracted new tenants. The Army’s presence in the District also likely focused international attention on the master-planning experiment taking place there. In 1925, the CMD magazine bragged about a coalition of several dozen European architects and planners who had traveled to the United States to see the nation’s architectural accomplishments, and included a photograph of the group posed in front of the Pershing Road Development.
Today, the original design of the Pershing Road Development remains strikingly intact. The brick paving can still be seen in some areas and the clock tower at Damen Avenue still holds the 250,000 gallon sprinkler tank. The buildings themselves remain as a testament to the CMD’s highly rational modular campus plan, achieved a full thirty years before Mies van der Rohe designed his own campus grid at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Now nearing its 100th birthday, the Pershing Road Development is beginning to get its due. Partially owned by the City of Chicago, it was listed this year on the National Register of Historic Places, and adaptive re-use is trickling into the smaller buildings of the Original District of the CMD. One can imagine the vast floor plans of the Army Supply Depot or Union Freight buildings again providing a home for 21st century industry, perhaps in the form of vertical gardens or server farms. For now, the massive buildings are woefully under-utilized, slumbering giants reminding us of Chicago’s central role in the history of industry and architecture, and waiting patiently to be put back into productive service again.