She ruined everything by asking where they got the horsehair.
After the magazine where I was working cut staff, I returned to my fallback job — tour guide. After years away, I’m back on the Chicago River with my fellow boat carnies, as my friend Nels calls the river rats.
Tours several times a day, to your left Sears Tower, coming up on the right the Civic Opera Building and did you know Mrs. O’Leary’s cow didn’t start the fire?
I was taking a short break after the Fulton House story, a gem of a tale about an old refrigerated warehouse where the workers turning the building into condos were shocked to discover the walls had been insulated with 500 semi-trailers of frozen horsehair.
Then the woman with the slight Spanish accent asked me the question that ruined everything.
“Where did they get the horsehair?”
I had no idea. And the story I had told thousands of tourists over the years started not to make sense.
I never wanted to be one of those tour guides, the ones who spew cutesy Chicagoana and repeat every urban legend as fact via CYA phrases like “the local story goes,” “supposedly” or the dreaded “some say”/”it is said.”
I do fact-check my stories. I’ve researched and confirmed every story I tell, using a variety of sources. I’m quite proud of that.
But stories get simplified when you tell them over and over. Numbers get rounded to easily memorized figures. Dates start to slip from “Nov. 4, 1929” to “1929” to “the late ‘20s” as you also have to remember how to pronounce Joachim Giæver, not to stumble when trying to say Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and when to tell that lady in the back her damn kid is standing on the seat again.
Also, there are bigger issues. Original sources can be wrong, either maliciously (Michael Ahern, who first reported Mrs. O’Leary’s cow started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, admitted in 1893 he fabricated the story), by mistake (Sears Tower’s height was listed as 1,454 feet until the 1990s, when they corrected the typo that added three feet to the building) or by disagreement (if you say Sears Tower is 110 stories tall, you’re counting the elevator box and roof. Should you?)
Historians contradict each other, as well. I could be perfectly quoting the wrong person.
I cracked a joke about legions of bald horses in 1908 and made a mental note to Google this stuff when I got home.
So I had to fact-check me now.
My version of the Fulton House story had the following elements:
- The building was built in 1898, designed by Frank Abbott, converted to a cold-storage warehouse in 1908 and then converted to condos by Harry Weese in 1979.
- Workers adding windows to the windowless building discovered the walls had been insulated with horsehair.
- They had to let the building thaw for a year before they could remove the frozen hair.
So deep down a Google hole I went. When I found myself reading about an entirely subterranean downtown street and the text of a 1907 Appellate Court decision regarding a train car of apples, I realized I might have lost the plot a little.
But here’s what I do know:
It opened in 1898
A list of real estate transactions from Sept. 11, 1898, says the warehouse had just been completed. It also says it opened as a 16-story building, calling into question Wikipedia’s claim that the 16th story was added in 1908.
It was built to be completely fireproof, impressive enough for it to be profiled in the newspaper. Frank Abbott patented some of his fireproofing innovations, which other architects and engineers studied.
I have no idea what 1908 is all about
To be honest, I have no idea why “The Chicago River Architecture Tour” by Phyllis J. Kozlowski, Ph.D., the Art Institute, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Trib and several other places say the building was completed in 1908 when it was clearly up a decade earlier.
My best guess is 1908 is when they finished the overhaul and expansion promised when North American Cold Storage bought the Druecker warehouse at a foreclosure sale in 1903. Or that’s when they finished an annex pledged in 1903.
It was always a cold-storage warehouse
Whatever happened in 1908 wasn’t the conversion of a warehouse to a refrigerated warehouse like Wikipedia and the Fulton House Condominium Association claim.
Every record, from the court case about apples to a brief about the sale of the original ice machine, shows it was refrigerated from the get-go.
It had windows, then it didn’t, then it did
A photo from around 1910 shows it with windows, a photo from around 1977 shows it without windows and I honestly can’t tell in a picture from 1954 if the windows had been removed yet or were just really sooty.
So they did have to add windows, or as the Tribune put it in 1979, “Contractors currently are racing against the calendar to finish cutting 500 window openings in the masonry shell.”
They had to thaw the building, but it was before the project started
According to that 1979 Tribune article, a six-month thaw was the first step, not a surprise mid-project due to sudden bursts of horsehair. A 1981 article said the thaw was about four months, a figure repeated in a Los Angeles Times wire article.
But apparently the Chicago Architecture Foundation has been telling people it was an 18-month thaw, so it’s good to know other people are further off than I was.
There was horsehair
Finally, vindication — sort of.
The building was originally lined with matted horsehair to insulate it, which then had cork added to it and finally Styrofoam added on top of that. They scraped the foot-thick walls free of this ersatz insulation by machine where they could, by hand where they couldn’t.
But it wasn’t a surprise. And while my 500 semi-trailers figure was correct, horsehair was only a fraction of the bulk.
There was not a legion of shaved horses in 1908.
This experience was a good lesson for me, but one I would prefer not to have to repeat. Because if it turns out that cow did start the fire, I’m going to jump in the river myself.