The “DECONSTRUCTING CHICAGO” exhibit held this weekend at the Glessner House Museum (during Chicago’s “open house”) was at the very least, a good start to make people aware of this exciting project. the exhibit revolved around harvested building materials from demolished wood-framed Chicago houses, salvaged in order to gain crucial data and insight to support a more accurate portrayal of nineteenth century building methods. Looking at the few scholarly papers that examine the origins of the balloon frame, there is absolutely no field data to support the conclusions offered by balloon frame architectural historians, instead mining building journals, written personal accounts, and historical sketches.
What has been discovered in the field has provided a far more complex picture of how these frames were constructed and the materials used to build them. The great Chicago fire of 1871 certainly played a role in dramatically altering construction methods, based on the implementation of new building codes (especially pertaining to buildings utilizing wood framing). The mass amount of field data gathered from houses before and after the Chicago fire of 1871 continues to paint a rather complicated picture, in which the theoretical is continually at odds with the material remnants found.
Displaying the extensive amount of material in this exhibit was my attempt to draw attention to several facets of building construction in Chicago during the 19th century, including the great craftsmanship employed in fabricating the various framing components. I also wanted to demonstrate the sheer variety and complexity of the materials. despite the widespread availability of dimensional or sawn lumber, building materials continually evolved between the 1830’s on through the late 1890’s; my hope is to introduce materials like faceted wood pegs as important, greatly overlooked materials that could force a revision of the existing theoretical balloon frame “model”.
Aside from assigning a narrative to the assembly of components, “Deconstructing Chicago” highlights the importance of field work and collecting physical data or “specimens,” (along with photo-documentation). it is my hope the the exhibit will be tweaked or fine-tuned in order to transition into a traveling exhibit. I would love to reach a wider audience of researchers and the general public alike, to create awareness of the evolution of building techniques in Chicago, as well as model the way gathering empirical data can drive historical narratives to be richer and more accurate.