Outlining Chicago's politics in the
early 1900s is like trying to unsnarl a hair ball.
Wearying number of factions, fiefdoms and humans behaving badly.
No surprise that Chicago's
municipal departments were a mess.
In the Building Department (BD), specifications from
blueprints and drawings submitted by contractors
were culled by department inspectors, entered in a
book and expunged after six months. No process
for even spot checks verifying that inspector's
reports jived with the finished structure.
The absence of accountability could have been a
consequence of all involved knowing that the city's
ordinances were toothless (as
demonstrated in the final Iroquois Theater trial in
Or because of apathy,
laziness, graft or political allegiances.
Endless possibilities. The temptation is to
blame things on
Carter Harrison Jr., who had been
mayor for the prior six years, but it was a Harrison
man who just two months before the Iroquois Theater
fire spearheaded an investigation into the BD's
problems, an investigation most certainly done
with the mayor's blessings.
Ernest F. Herrmann
of the 21st ward (described in 1900 by the Inter
Ocean newspaper as not republican, democrat or
independent and the "mayor's pet") and his
committeemen began investigating complaints of graft
in Chicago departments in mid October, 1903.
They reviewed overall procedures and invited public
testimony about malfeasance.
John Barrymore debuted in a theater so unsafe
that the builder wouldn't permit his wife and
children to frequent the facility
A chief witness to go before the graft-investigation
Milton Bently Bushnell (1850-1916), a Minnesota
native, who was a partner in the D. H. Hayes
construction company, based in Adrian, Michigan.
According to Bushnell, his company put in the low
bid ($25,500 versus $28,000) for a contract to
convert a theater-turned armory back into a theater.
Cleveland Theater at Wabash and Hubbard* was a
project of lessee William S. "Billy" Cleveland (a
legendary circus and theater man known as the "minstrel
king" who had bankrupted in 1901 and was
rebuilding his fortunes). Cleveland and his
architectural firm, Oscar Cobb and Son, designed
plans for a theater with a capacity of fewer than
1,000 seats, allowing them to use wood construction
rather than slow-burning construction that would
have required more costly steel joists and lath.
One contracting firm, that in which alderman Mavor
was president, declined to bid on Cleveland's
project, ostensibly because it did not meet code –
accepted the contract though it still did not meet
Bushnell's contracting firm, by contrast, was happy to
build whatever was approved by the BD.
Bushnell was unapologetic about his firm's
willingness to build anything for which a permit had
His position was that he had to make a living and it
wasn't his responsibility to determine if Chicago's
BD did its job properly – though he added that he
would not permit his wife or children to attend
either the new Cleveland or another he'd built in
1902, the La Salle Theater at 137 East Madison
(previously named Orpheon and in 1910 relocated to the other end of
It should be noted that Bushnell's youngest child
was thirty years old, however, so past the age of requiring
paternal consent to frequent his choice of theaters.
Bushnell said that in remodeling the La Salle Theater
his company had been contractually protected from
consequences of Chicago's graft by La Salle owners Sol
L. Lowenthal, Abe and Harry J. Franks who put it in
writing that they would deal with Chicago's building
department. Upon accepting the contract for
the Cleveland Theater, Bushnell had mistakenly
expected Billy Cleveland to do the same.
Other Bushnell theater projects: McVickers, Hooleys,
the Grand and the Howard Theater at Lincoln and
Belmont (closed in 1953).
today, gone tomorrow
Enter sixty-five year
old Timothy John O'Shea (1837 Ireland - 1906), a
ten-year deputy BD commissioner. Seems like
everybody in Chicago had a side business that was in
conflict with their official job. O'Shea's
side business was selling a process of construction
for theater prosceniums that was said to make them
fireproof for up to 5,000 degrees. He had
recently patented the process after an investment of
five years and $17,000. O'Shea declared that
Cleveland's blueprints did not meet code. Not
a problem. Cleveland and his architect
resubmitted the blueprints (later examined and found
to be identical to the original submission) but this
time awarding the project to a different
construction company – that was the
side business of Chicago alderman William Mavor –
and incorporating Timothy O'Shea's fireproofing
The second set of blueprints
were approved. Such a coincidence. Upon learning the contract had
been yanked, and hearing from Cleveland's architect
that the reason for the reassignment was to reward
two Chicago officials, Bushnell tried to recoup some
of the money he had spent on the project before the
contract was pulled. Not recognizing that
Billy Cleveland was a man who would go to the matt
over two cents, Bushnell sought $200 from
Cleveland for services performed before he lost the
contract. Cleveland said it was attempted
Devil made me do
Bushnell may have been
relieved at the opportunity to reveal the shoddy
practices being allowed in Chicago's buildings.
For all his swagger about being willing to build any
structure with a building permit tacked on the front
door, the details he presented in his testimony
before Herrmann's investigative committee revealed a
man who would have preferred being forced by law to
build something better. Dreiser could have
written the script. Bushnell said
Chicago's building ordinance prohibited construction
of a theater with a seating capacity exceeding 500
if those seats were above the ground floor. The La
Salle had 891 seats, the lowest of them fifteen feet
above street level. The ten supporting wood timbers
in the basement were 6.25" in diameter at the top
and 7.25" at the bottom, with only four covered with
the required fireproofing material and only two
strengthened with channel irons.
At the Cleveland
Theater, a wood basement floor was approved by
O'Shea instead of the cement floor required by
ordinance, along with a thinner-than-code proscenium
wall that did not go all the way to the ceiling.
Bushnell said BD
official O'Shea visited the La Salle five times
during its construction and the late BD commissioner
Billy Barry at least fifty times. Construction
at the La Salle proceeded, despite a complaint from
its bowling alley basement tenant, former baseball
celebrity Adrian Anson. Building Commissioner
George Williams, O'Shea and Mavor piled on (Williams
unaware that in two months he would be the one at
the bottom of the pile) but Bushnell's detail- and
example-filled testimony was persuasive enough to
win support from the graft-investigation committee
and three Chicago newspapers.
When the shouting was
over, O'Shea denied any wrong doing, insisting there
was no conflict in his selling fireproofing products
to builders on whose building permits he passed
judgment. After much muttering he resigned,
making the favorite claim of officials since forever
when caught with their hands in the cookie jar, that
he was a victim of knowing too much. He also
asserted that Bushnell's son had infringed on his
patent and denied any role in the resignation of the
former Building Commissioner, Peter Kiolbassa.**
O'Shea went on to form the O'Shea Fireproofing
Construction Company at the back of 2430 Lowe
Avenue. He died in 1906 while traveling by a
Union Pacific train from California back to Chicago.
Mavor denied having
interceded or been asked to intercede with the BD
but admitted to having "technically" violated
building ordinances, and remained in office.
He cited his refusal to bid on the first Cleveland
specifications as proof of his good intentions.
He said he'd then gone on a Colorado vacation and
upon his return learned new specifications had
earned BD approval and his firm had gotten the
Another witness before
Herrmann's committee, a plasterer, testified that building inspectors
would approve anything for $5 to $10 but the only
instances he presented as proof had happened three
years earlier, under a different Building
Commissioner. Based on exclamations by
some newspapers of Chicago graft, there should have
been lines reaching to Indianapolis and Detroit of
people ready to testify. Either they didn't
materialize or the committee declined to hear give
them a hearing because only four hours of testimony
was heard and three hours of that was devoted to
reported that everybody in the BD thought it was
some other department's job to make sure buildings
were constructed according to code, and that the
BD's record keeping was a joke. Herrmann
reported to the mayor "that a wooden firetrap" built
with the capacity to hold 500 people could be
licensed, then thousands of seats added, because the
BD never followed up to verify how many seats were
actually installed versus what was claimed on plans
used to acquire a building permit. The building
commissioner passed the responsibility on to the
License Department, who issued licenses on the bases
of the theater's ticket prices, and denied any
knowledge of responsibility to verify that the
theater was built in accordance with ordinances on
which the building permit was issued. The license
department then passed the responsibility to the
city clerk's office.
When it came to light that blueprints were sometimes
railroaded through the system by aldermen,***
Herrmann, the alderman charged with ferreting out
graft, concluded that the Building Department needed
to apprise aldermen when the building did not meet
Chicago ordinances. Heads up, a stinker's
headed your way. Governance by whisper.
Mayor Harrison got
involved in the investigation, vowing to send out
his own men, not involved in the Building
Department, to inspect the Cleveland and LaSalle
theaters to see if they merited the class of
slow-burning structures they'd been granted.
Both theaters were still in operation years later.
Building department stats and officials
The Building Department
operated from City Hall. At the beginning of
1903 the Chicago Building Department had thirteen
inspectors; by year end there were nine.
The budget: $125,000 plus $70,000 in revenue from
fees and fines. In 1902 the department issued
5,000 building permits, which was 71% more than in
1900 and would reach 7,151 in 1904. That
averages out to 350 buildings per year per man, and
a 1903 Civil Service report said they averaged 7.5
inspections per day. By ordinance, buildings
under construction were to be inspected weekly and
all buildings other than single family dwellings
were to be inspected annually.
Appeals of denied
building permits had never been taken as of 1903.
Non compliance was handled by the prosecutor at a
rate of 12 per week. Violating architects and
building contractors earned daily penalties of from
$25 - $200.
Dating back to at least
1902, the department did not retain plans for
Building Commissioner -
D. Williams. Appointed May 17, 1903 by
mayor Harrison, his direct supervisor, assuming
position vacated by the resignation under duress of
Peter Kiolbassa.** Annual salary: $5,000.
Portion of 40-person
Civil Service staff in Chicago's 1903 Building
Deputy Commissioner - Timothy
O'Shea. Resigned amidst controversy two months
before Iroquois fire. Replaced by
Stanhope. Annual salary: $3,600.
- William J. McAllister. Annual
salary: $1,800. McAllister resigned in
December, 1905 when it was revealed that for the
past ten months he'd been spending half his time
at his second job. As secretary of the
American Turf Association his annual salary was
nearly twice that of his Building Department
salary. Given the rampant moonlighting
amongst Chicago officials, I'm not sure why
McAllister's Turf job drew fire.
Record clerk - J. P. McCann. Annual
salary: $1,000 - $1,350.
Chief inspector -
Assumed position vacated upon early death by
pneumonia in February, 1903 of Wisconsin native,
William "Billy" H. Barry [1863 -1903].
Barry was well liked in the department. A
stickler for overcrowded theaters and
insufficient fire escapes. Annual salary:
Watched Iroquois construction progress throughout
summer of 1903. Annual salary: $1,200 to
Walked through the Iroquois ten minutes before
the fire and declared it a fine theater.
Annual salary: $1,200 to $1,380.
Inspector - Julius
Annual salary: $1,200 to $1,380
(Disappeared in a Michigan vacation boating
incident Aug., 1905, presumed drowned.)
Visited Iroquois shortly after completion in
unofficial capacity and later described it to
coworkers as looking to be a safe facility.
Testified at coroner's jury trial.
Inspector - J. Agnew. Annual
salary: $1,200 to $1,380.
Inspector - T. J. Moran. Annual
salary: $1,200 to $1,380.
Inspector - Martin Neimas. Annual
salary: $1,200 to $1,380.
Inspector - R. Knight. Annual
salary: $1,200 to $1,380.
Inspector - J. T. Gleason. Annual
salary: $1,200 to $1,380.
** Building Commissioner
Peter Kiolbassa (1837-1905), was democratic mayor
Carter Harrison's appointee thus passionately hated
by republicans. Reading about it 112 years
later, some of their beefs seem legit and some
A Polish immigrant and one-time
alderman, Kiolbassa resigned from the position in December of 1902
and Mr. I've-got-some-products-your
filled in until Harrison appointed a replacement:
George Williams. There was enough anti-Kiolbassa
political pressure to have forced his resignation or
he may have begged the mayor to let him go.
The backlash after four building fires in
Chicago, including the St. Luke's Sanitarium and
Lincoln Hotel, resulted in a near uprising in the
council from alderman who wanted Kiolbassa out, and
also elicited Kiolbassa's
candid expression that he loathed the job. The
ratio of responsibility to authority was untenable.
resignation, mayor Harrison still believed in him
and appointed him to the board of public works.
Alderman Butterworth, republican member of the
Council's health committee, led a failed stampede to oppose the appointment, citing Kiolbassa's
inadequate academic qualifications (because he was
not an architect, builder or engineer), graft within
the department and slovenly record keeping. Kiolbassa wasn't
on the job long enough to do much so it's hard to
say whether he was competent. He inherited a
staff he had limited capacity to change. He
didn't have the power to correct problems caused by
the Building Department's inter dependency on other
ineffectual municipal departments. He couldn't
do anything about powerful alderman who thought
themselves entitled to override the Building
Department and he was certainly innocent of laziness
or slow wit. The fellow spoke four languages, had been
a civil war captain, secretary to the chief of
police, a school teacher, church organist, Illinois
state legislator, treasurer of Chicago, president of
the Polish Roman Catholic Union, an alderman, a
customs department official for sixteen years and
helped organize the St. Stanislaus Kosta Parish.
After leaving office, in October, 1903, Kiolbassa
Otzenberger of Lemont, Illinois.
Harrison promised that
Kiolbassa's replacement would have all the power he
needed to do the job.
*** In the December,
1902 fire at the Lincoln Hotel, a flop house with
five men per room, the building department had
stopped the hotel's remodeling project in August
until blueprints were submitted and a permit was
obtained. The blueprints showed nine interior rooms
without the windows required by ordinance. The
BD inspector claimed not to have known the structure
was being converted to a hotel.
Midway through the
remodeling project, when an elevator inspector and
BD inspector told property owner Fred Smith that for
a hotel he needed windows in all the rooms, more
fire escapes, a rear stairwell and to fireproof the
elevator, he complained to John Coughlin, one of
Chicago's most notorious and powerful alderman (the
darling of every crook in the city). Twenty-four
hours later, Coughlin told Smith to put in a back
stairwell, fireproof the elevator and forget about
windows or additional fire escapes.
If you have additional
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hear from you. Chaos and communication limitations of 1903
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