Workers have demolished the water tank behind the landmark Bush Temple of Music (100 West Chicago Avenue), moving quickly after the city granted an emergency demolition permit on May 22.
American Demolition finished the job in three working days, staging two cranes and several trucks in the gravel lot north of the building. The tank’s 18-foot-long redwood staves had deteriorated and were sent to a landfill, a spokesperson for American Demolition said. The steel legs will be recycled at a scrap yard. All of this was an inglorious end to one of Chicago’s lesser-known landmarks.
The Bush Temple of Music is known for its steeply pitched roof and French Renaissance design, constructed as a piano factory and showroom in 1902. The 30,000-gallon water tank sat on its own tower, 150 feet tall but barely visible from Chicago Avenue. When the original building was remodeled in 1922, the rear auditorium was razed and a water tank constructed, which lasted about 35 years, a typical lifespan.
The current tank was installed on the existing tower in 1957, said Ronald Carlson, fourth-generation owner of Johnson & Carlson Tank Sales & Service. His filing cabinets hold the entire history of Chicago’s water tanks, an industry that sprang up in the aftermath of the Chicago Fire.
Carlson estimates that Chicago has about 120 remaining water tanks, with 80 to 90 still in use. Most of these were constructed in the 1950’s. “We’ve been putting PVC liners in the tanks to prolong their life and save thousands of dollars,” Carlson said. “The only alternative is to put in an electrical pump system, costing maybe $150,000. Not many owners are willing to take on that expense.”
As a distinctive part of old Chicago continues to deteriorate, one tank at a time, several factors are contributing to what might become a string of summer demolitions.
In July, 2014 the city passed an ordinance to tighten the inspection requirements for water tank structures. Several incidents provoked the city action, including the 2013 collapse of the Brewster Building tank, injuring three pedestrians.
“There was a period of time where we lost several tanks, something that hadn’t happened in a while. Made people raise their eyebrows,” Carlson said.
Various news reports exposed the inadequate inspection system, leading to the new ordinance and a thorough investigation. “When the structural engineers made their inspections and filed their reports, my phone was ringing off the hook,” Carlson said.
If a building owner can demonstrate that their water tank will not pass an inspection, he now has no difficulty pulling an emergency demolition permit. In the case of the Bush Temple tank, the main water pipe was broken and loose in several places, an imminent threat of falling to the pavement below.
Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s aggressive approach reverses the policy of former mayor Richard M. Dailey, who once called the tanks “part of our historical and architectural heritage” and asked the city to “ensure that they remain part of the city’s future.”
But by November, 2014 the future was looking grim. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks changed its rules to allow for routine demolition of water tanks, even those associated with landmark buildings. Prior to its decision, the Commission had a tricky dance, sometimes asked to defend skyline icons that sat on top of insignificant buildings, or insignificant tanks that imperiled a more important landmark structure.
Carlson thinks the new regulations were necessary, and hopes they contribute to long-term preservation of the remaining tanks.
“It’s not all bad. It’s good to get the tanks taken care of and serviced properly.”