Perhaps no Chicago structures elicit more “What the heck is that?” questions than these circular offshore structures. Often forgotten but essential components of Chicago’s infrastructure, Chicago’s water cribs are visible miles off the Lake Michigan shoreline and feature lighthouse beacons at night. These unique structures were engineering marvels of their day and were designed to be pleasing architectural gems as well. While two remain in use and are integral to the city’s water supply, others have been out of service for years. The City has plans to demolish two of the older water cribs and is scheduled for the City’s Capital Improvement Program. Preservation Chicago is advocating for their preservation and potential reuse.
Chicago’s first water crib was constructed in 1865 and designed by engineer Ellis F. Chesbrough to help deliver clean water to the city. At that time, Chicago was dumping its sewage directly into the lake. By locating the water intake two miles out into the lake and connecting it via a deep tunnel to a pumping station and water tower on the shore (the famous old Chicago Water Tower and Pumping Station on Michigan Avenue), clean water was carried to the city. In the years between 1865 and 1935, the city constructed eight additional water cribs, all considered major engineering feats of their day. Of these, only six remain standing, and only two are still in active use. For many years, the city had 24-hour staffing of the water cribs by isolated crews who lived and worked on them. The cribs that are still in use now are staffed remotely.
INDIVIDUAL HISTORIES & THREATS:
The Four Mile Crib, designed by architect D.H. Hayes, was constructed beginning in 1887 and completed in 1894. Located 3.3 miles east of Monroe Harbor this water intake crib was connected via tunnel to two pumping stations on shore. Constructed at a cost of $429,000 (in 1894 dollars), the crib and tunnel provided 75 million gallons to the daily water supply of the city. It was equipped with a state-of-the-art steam heating plant to keep the crib’s well room at a constant 70 degrees even in the middle of winter. Constructed of thick stone and brick, the structure has a unique Romanesque appearance and is capped with a lighthouse. While it has been expanded over the years, it maintains most of its historic integrity. After being on standby service for years, the City now plans to demolish this crib as part of its four-year Capital Improvement Program announced in 2015.
The Wilson Avenue Crib was constructed beginning in 1915 and completed in 1918. It is located approximately 2.1 miles east of Montrose Harbor. It originally supplied water to eight miles of tunnels which connected to a pumping station at Wilson Avenue. It is constructed of square-hewn granite blocks atop a 90-foot steel caisson with a 40-foot diameter inner chamber. Circular brick walls are located above the stone structure and topped with a lighthouse. This iconic structure is mostly intact and in reasonably good shape, though the brickwork on one side has recently had some minor structural issues. On standby service for many years, the City also plans to demolish this crib as part of its four-year Capital Improvement Program announced in 2015. Chicago 7: Chicago Water Cribs
Preservation Chicago realizes that the location of these iconic structures pose a unique challenge for reuse. However, these cribs are the definition of a “landmark” – they can’t be missed by anyone on Lake Michigan or the shoreline. Additionally, they are of architectural note and historical importance to Chicago’s water supply and engineering history. They should be designated Chicago Landmarks and adaptive reuse options be sought.
If re-purposed, they would make extraordinarily unique and interesting destinations. Perhaps the cribs could be re-purposed as a restaurant, museum, excursion site, educational facility related to environmental issues, bird sanctuary, or other similar use that can be accessed via boat. If not reused, they should simply be preserved in situ with minimal structural maintenance so that they remain offshore landmarks to be enjoyed by boaters, sailors, and kayakers for years to come.