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Old 02-02-2009, 10:55 PM
Morrand Morrand is offline
Join Date: Mar 2000
Location: Chicago, IL, USA
Posts: 6
Wow, something I know a little about first hand. Not sunken houses, unfortunately, but professionally I do know a little about what's underground in the Loop.

The story that I had heard about the South Side sinking houses from my old history professor is that the streets and the neighborhoods were originally built up well before the sewers were laid. That meant that in many neighborhoods the residents relied upon outhouses, or "privy closets," as the Chicago Municipal Code calls them. In fact, section 7-28-530 and its following paragraphs paint a peculiarly pungent portrait of old Chicago as you never got to experience it. Some choice passages:

"The general privy accommodations of any place of human habitation shall not be permitted within any such place of habitation or under any sidewalk adjacent thereto."

"It shall constitute, and is hereby declared, a nuisance for any person to erect or maintain any privy as near as 40 feet to any public way, dwelling, [etc.] . . . unless the privy be furnished with a substantial vault six feet deep . . . and sufficiently secured and enclosed."

"All privies or catchbasins, any part of the contents of which are above the surface, or within two feet of the surface of the earth, and all other privies or catchbasins that are foul, or emit smells and odors prejudicial to the public health, are hereby declared nuisances . . . ."

"No person shall draw off, or allow to run off into any ground, public way or place of the city, the contents, or any part thereof, of any vault, privy, cistern, cesspool, or catchbasin . . . ."

Takes you back, doesn't it? Anyway, what we find from this is that a legal privy closet either had to be set back from both the street and the house by 40 feet, or had to be fitted with a vault at least 6 feet deep, and in any case had to be outside but not under the sidewalk. Since they had to be pumped out from time to time, putting it next to the sidewalk made a lot of sense so that the contents could be trucked off.

My history professor went on to explain that, when the sewers finally came, the simplest way to connect them to the existing privies was just to lay the sewer at or near grade, connect up to the outhouse vault, and then backfill enough to provide good drainage and prevent the sewers from freezing, which is what was done. The residents being obviously reluctant to jack up their houses to match the street, the result was what you now see: a sunken yard and first floor, relative to the street, but really just reflecting what was once the level of the neighborhood.

Now, for the Loop. What you have downtown is a mishmosh of things, as you would expect. Many of the older buildings do have vaulted sidewalks, where the basement actually extends under the sidewalk and is used for storage or other purposes. This is particularly useful when you build a trapdoor into the sidewalk, since it's possible to move goods between the street and the storeroom without having to go through the store. The Berghoff used to have a setup like this, and I remember seeing them hoisting kegs of beer out of the basement and directly onto the sidewalk using a little elevator that came up through a hatch. In any event, these were designed into the construction of the building, and aren't a leftover from what was once street grade. Many of these vaults are now in bad shape and the City has been trying to fill them in whenever they do a major rehab project on the street.

The pedestrian tunnels downtown that laurengr12 remembers are probably a part of the Pedway. They're pretty cool, but not really a secret: they connect to several of the subway stations, and the City posts a map of them on its Web site.

On to more secret stuff. It's fair to say that the city hasn't sunken over the past few years. In fact, even the construction of Lower Wacker doesn't reflect a manufactured "sinking" effect: here is a photo of Market Street (now the west leg of Lower Wacker) showing the Civic Opera House, and you can see that the street level at the corner hasn't changed very much (but it has changed some; more on this later).

We all know about the former Chicago Tunnel Company freight subway mentioned above. To recap, it's a series of small tunnels dug out quietly at the end of the 19th century, about 40 feet down, to provide freight service to downtown buildings. These were abandoned in 1957 and mostly forgotten until they flooded. There are some abandoned streetcar tunnels under the river as well, though they don't continue much further than that. There are also some water tunnels, many feet down, crossing straight through without regard for lot lines. None of these sound like Butcher's Undertown: they are all too utilitarian.

There is at least one spot downtown that's more like what Butcher describes, though, and one that I've had the privilege of visiting. Not far from the river there is an ordinary manhole cover in the street that, when opened, leads down to a street from another era. There is an old granite cobblestone surface with a couple of manholes in it (the reason for having the cover on the current street surface). It's pretty clear from looking at the surrounding area that it was formed when the street was elevated to reach a bridge over the river. Apparently the City's engineers didn't want to pay to rebuild the manholes, so they just left them in place, provided an open space over them and provided access down from the new street so the utility workers could still get in.

Is this the source for Butcher's Undertown? Maybe even an access point for a mythical Chicago of abandoned storefronts and secret roadways? Hardly; this spot is only about 20' x 30' and walled in with concrete on all four sides; there isn't even access to the neighboring buildings from this little room. I suppose that someone might have heard of this or something like it and expanded it into a realm of forgotten streets, and Butcher picked it up from there and ran with it, but it's such a small piece of the city that I doubt it.