All About the Cornerstones

Since returning to Chicago after 14 years of living in Miami, I became mildly obsessed with finding history and old buildings from yesteryear. I think it's because Miami is relatively a 'young' city in respect to buildings and/or structures. It has great examples of Art Deco architecture, but nothing is really THAT old. I mean, although the Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach is centuries old, it wasn't reconstructed until 1952, after being brought to the states, brick by brick by William Randolph Hearst. Miami's nickname is 'The Magic City' and the city is exactly that ... MAGIC. It is sleek, modern, shiny, loud and trendy. In my opinion, Miami is SASSY and borderline BITCHY and it doesn't have time to document or record its own history ... it just cares about THE NOW. It's about the body beautiful and the fastest 'whip'. Yesterday was so Al Capone!

As I started to reconnect with my beloved Chicago neighborhood of Lake View, I began to discover many cornerstones on buildings in my area. I would absolutely 'geek out' in delight upon seeing these old commemorative chiseled stone blocks; it represented the history that I was desperately seeking. These physical markings usually are found on churches and schools, but many old government, residential and private business buildings also have cornerstones. Cornerstones denote the start and/or finish of the construction of a structure; sometimes the architect name is also featured and maybe some random facts.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out all but 14 buildings in Chicago, so I think Chicagoans at the time of reconstruction, were eager to establish dates of new building and it sort of seems like they said, 'This one is gonna last!' And course, brick was the material of choice right after the Great Fire and most churches around that time were made of stone ... and so the cornerstone became an important feature. In essence, Chicago is just a hair ahead of Miami in regards to historical structural markings ... the Great Fire really put a dent in our architectural past. To compare the two cities is like comparing onions to oranges (the name, 'Chicago' is derived from the Algonquin Native American language word for onion). However, without a doubt, Chicago has a richer architectural past, thanks to European immigrants (the Germans, Irish and Dutch), Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and Mies van der Rohe. Sorry, not sorry, Miami.

Below are my photographs of cornerstones that I have found mostly in the Chicagoland area. Part of the fun is just stumbling upon them and then later on researching the building history online. I appreciate the craftsmanship and the typography in the limited layout space of the stone. Things like, is the type chiseled out or recessed back below the surface? Gothic, Blackletter, Serif or Sans Serif typeface use? I wonder what went into those decisions and why. There's a gorgeous '1890' church cornerstone (pictured below) in what seems, an organic, Celtic design. I wonder if the Irish were predominant in the Ravenswood area at one time? There are some cornerstones that aren't really on the corner, sometimes they are located in a ornamental disk and placed at the top of the building cornice or upper gable. Perhaps that was a stylistic decision from the traditional ... even if it was 1898. Anyway, I just love to see how these great old buildings have endured the test of time ... and in some cases, the test of Chicago winters or wrecking balls. I say we continue this Chicago tradition of keeping year-markers for future generation historians, architects, history-buffs or geeks, like me.