#567: Geocaching Four Chicago Firsts

December 11th, 2015

Geocaching is an amazingly odd little activity wherein people use GPS coordinates and clues to find treasures hidden around the world.

For those who don’t have a GPS and time to spare, here’s a little list of an article on four of the oddest things created in Chicago.

But if you have both, it’s a chance for you to hunt down four spots where Chicago changed the world.

For the record, I have not been to these coordinates (I’m pulling this together late at night after my planned story fell through), so I can’t say for certain if I’m putting you in the middle of an intersection, pond or choreographed dance battle between 1950s Hollywood musical gangs.

But if you do decide to check out these spots and have your phone ready, tweet any pictures you want to share to #hashtagforthephotothing or #chicagofirsts, whichever you prefer.

Now to four things created in Chicago.

The First Brownie

Coordinates: N 41° 52.814′ W 87° 37.622′

This one’s going to be hard to write about without giving away the surprise, but let’s talk about Bertha and Potter, last name withheld.

Potter was a millionaire real estate magnate in the 1800s, a time when a lot of people thought only companies and governments had dollar values hitting seven digits. Bertha was his 20-years-younger wife, a high-society trendsetter.

They owned a hotel that you might have heard of (it still goes by their last name). During the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition, Bertha asked the chef to whip up something sweet that ladies could eat with their hands. He invented the brownie.

Now here’s where we have to be very careful to not spoil the surprise. The hotel’s website has a dead link to the recipe, but if you want to make the original brownie at home without traipsing through Chicago with GPS, both Epicurious and Food.com have versions on their sites.

The First Movie Theater

Coordinates: N 41° 47.202′ W 87° 36.023′

Under the catchy name Zoöpraxographical Hall, the also catchily named Eadweard Muybridge (born Edward Muggeridge) ran the first building where people paid money to watch moving pictures.

It was part of the World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893, which also gave Chicago such firsts as the Ferris wheel, the zipper, the washing machine and Dr. H.H. Holmes, Chicago’s first serial killer.

But a hall dedicated to lectures on zoöpraxography, the study of how animals move, couldn’t keep up with the dancing girls, world castles and Ferris wheels of the fair. Muybridge spent $6,000 and made $213 showing his short rotating slides of animals running and athletes athleting.

In today’s cash, he spent $158,000 and got $5,600 back.

Although the Official Catalogue of Exhibits on the Midway Plaisance lists it as “A building of Greek architecture” and Muybridge’s book about zoöpraxography includes a nice rendering of the world’s first movie theater, there were no hints on its exact location on the Plaisance.

After checking map after map after map after map after map of the fair, I couldn’t find any damn Zoöpraxographical Hall.

One history of film site put it “close” to the World’s Fair Ferris wheel, so the coordinates above are where the world’s first Ferris wheel sat. A two-fer for Chicago firsts!

The First Skyscraper

Coordinates: N 41° 52.782′ W 87° 37.927′

William LeBaron Jenney’s Home Insurance Building from 1885 was the world’s first skyscraper, but the world’s fourth-tallest building at the time. That’s because what defines a skyscraper, what makes a skyscraper a skyscraper, isn’t its height. It’s its structure.

For thousands of years, the taller you wanted to build a building, the thicker you had to make its walls. Big thick walls giving external support — think of old castles. The innovation of the Home Insurance Building was the support wasn’t coming from big thick walls on the outside, but a network of steel girders on the inside with a thin wall wrapped around.

It’s basically how we think about buildings today, but it was so revolutionary at the time, the city stopped construction until they could be convinced it wouldn’t just fall down. It didn’t, just changed architecture forever.

These coordinates won’t send you to the Home Insurance Building. That was torn down in 1931. But you can see the building that’s at 135 S. LaSalle today.

The First Cartoon Character

Coordinates: N 41° 53.027′ W 87° 37.839′

Gertie the Dinosaur wasn’t the first cartoon, or even the first cartoon done by Winsor McKay. But previous efforts by McKay and other early animators amounted to showing off that they could make things move.

The shy, strange, laughing “Dinosaurus” who debuted at the Palace Theater on Feb. 8, 1914, was the first animated character to have a personality, interaction. Although McKay had made his newspaper strip character Little Nemo hop around in 1911 and a mosquito swell a year later, Gertie was the first character to have… animation.

A quick caveat: I’m let’s say 98 percent sure this is the spot. The Palace where Gertie debuted is not the Cadillac Palace Theater, which opened in 1926. If an old version of the Cadillac Palace’s website (kept alive on the designer’s homepage) is to be believed, there were 10 or so theaters called “Palace” in Chicago by the 1920s.

The Palace Music Hall on the east side of Clark Street between Washington and Randolph, which C.E. Kohl opened in 1912, is my guess for the proper Palace. It was the first Palace in Chicago and, in my mind, the most likely place for such a high-profile gig. If I’m wrong, apologies.

Gertie’s birthplace later became the Erlanger Theatre and is currently home to… well, you’ll see when you get there.

Happy hunting.

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