Castle Car Wash: Part 2

Following up my posting about Castle Car Wash, I have learned a bit more about the stone used in the structure from Dave Clark, who operates a web site and blog devoted to Chicago and its transportation history, particularly along Route 66. Clark reports that much of the stone did indeed come from quarries in Joliet and Lemont, about 15 to 20 miles southwest of Chicago. Known variously as Lemont Limestone, Joliet Limestone, Lemont Marble, Joliet Marble, and Athens Marble, it is a dolomitic limestone deposited around 415 to 420 million years ago. Quarries are in the Sugar Run and Joliet formations.

Workmen excavating the Illinois & Michigan Canal discovered the stone in 1846, but it “was not then considered of superior quality,” according to A. T. Andreas’ History of Chicago. Within a decade, however, the buttery yellow limestone began to appear in buildings in Chicago, giving the city “a light, bright, and almost French appearance.” One of the most famous structures is the Chicago Water Tower built in 1869 and described by Oscar Wilde as a “castellated monstrosity with pepper boxes stuck all over it.” ( I wonder if the water tower inspired John Murphy to build his castle.)

And then that persnickety old cow of Mrs. Leary kicked over the bucket that caused the fire that burned Chicago to the ground and revealed that perhaps the original discoverers of the Joliet stone were right. (I know that this version of the fire is most likely an apocryphal story but I like it.) By the way, if you hadn’t figured it out, the water tower survived the inferno.

The great conflagration had disastrous affects on the Joliet rock, which “seemed as though [it] actually burned like wood,” according to a newspaper account. Builders were so prejudiced against the local stone that in the first 30 days after the fire, most ordered brick, from as far away as Philadelphia. Yet by 1876, when the City of Chicago and Cook County teamed up to build a combined courthouse/city hall, to replace the buildings lost in the fire, the Board of County Commissioners adopted a resolution that builders had to use limestone.

One could look on the Board’s decision as local pride and an interest in helping local businesses but that would be naïve. The Chicago Tribune called the process “utter absurdity.” This was Chicago in the 1870s, where corruption had become an artform. The Board’s initial choice of contractor put in a bid of $895,000, or what would amount to a “at least a quarter of a million steal.” When that bid failed, the Board hoped to make their money by finding an architect who would help plunder the system. Despite repeated editorials in the Tribune against the “Ring,” the Board chose to use Lemont Limestone for building the courthouse.

Two years later, when work began on the City Hall part of the building, the Tribune again railed against the Board’s decision. The Alderman “cannot but bring disgrace upon the city and turn the public building of our enterprising young city into a monument of imbecility and stubbornness.” Eventually, builders turned to the Salem Limestone, which became the dominant stone in Chicago.

Clark wrote that no one knows where or how Murphy acquired his stone for his castle. Nor is it known when exactly he applied the stone façade, which is a two to three-inch thick veneer. It may have been part of the original 1925 building or during an expansion in the 1930s. And finally, Clark notes that there are some blocks of Salem Limestone, along with pieces of granite and marble, making the building even more intriguing in my eyes.

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