02 January, 2009

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1899, 1920, 1946

Even though I no longer live in Chicago, my library card is still good. This allows me online access to some of the databases at the Chicago Public Library, including the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for Illinois. These maps were originally created to assess fire insurance liability in urbanized areas. The oldest maps date to just after the Civil War, and roughly 12,000 towns and cities across the U.S. were covered between 1867 to 1970. The Sanborn Maps are an excellent resource for researching urban geography, as the company's cartographers mapped out everything. Individual volumes might include an "index of streets and addresses, a ‘specials’ index with the names of churches, schools, businesses etc., and a master index indicating the entirety of the mapped area and the sheet numbers for each large-scale map (usually depicting four to six blocks) and general information such as population, economy and prevailing wind direction. The maps include outlines of each building and outbuilding, the location of windows and doors, street names, street and sidewalk widths, property boundaries, fire walls, natural features (rivers, canals, etc), railroad corridors, building use (sometimes even particular room uses), house and block number, as well as the composition of building materials including the framing, flooring, and roofing materials, the strength of the local fire department, indications of sprinkler systems, locations of fire hydrants, location of water and gas mains and even the names of most public buildings, churches and companies."


Across the Street from The Box House, 1899

I was able to check our neighborhood in three different volumes. The 1899 map showed that some of the streets in my neighborhood existed back then, but ours did not. There are a few farmhouse-style buildings marked out, including the Twin Yellow Houses we considered making an offer on, which were once owned by the town's first black doctor (according to the current owner). There were a few parcels of land marked out into lots for future development, but most of it looks like farmland or open land with a few greenhouses, including the Weiland-Risch Floral Company just to the south (of our present location) and the Nicholas Welter Florist and Pete Schumer Florist just to the west. If The Box House existed then, we'd be able to look out from our living room windows at the greenhouses across the street.

Our exact neck of the woods is not mapped, although everything around it is, which leads me to think it was completely undeveloped land.

Portion of Evanston, 1920

The 1920 map of the neighborhood, a portion of which is shown above, shows that most of the land has now been divided into individual parcels, although nothing has been developed on them yet. The land is marked as Kinsella's Addition and Welter's Ridge Addition; I'll have to see if those are the names of the actual developments or just a way to designated who sold the land for development. Based on this, it seems our parcel may have been owned by the same family who owned the Welter greenhouses. At any rate, with the exception of one lone house on the far end of the block, there were no other houses on my street prior to 1920. The street is marked, and the alleys are now marked, but there are no houses yet. The Nicholas Welter Greenhouse still existed, along with a Mat Welter Greenhouse just beside it. The Pete Schumer Florist Greenhouse has become the Schumer Florist Company Greenhouse, and there are a fair number of other greenhouses in the immediate vicinity that didn't appear on the 1899 map. In addition to all these glass buildings, The Box House (if it had existed in 1920) would have looked out onto a few wagon sheds.

Portion of Evanston, 1946

The Sanborn Map from 1946 is vastly different. Nearly every lot on my street is developed, and The Box House and its garage are clearly marked as part of the Welter's Ridge Addition. The land to the west is still mostly undeveloped, as far as housing. So up until World War II, at least, the residents of The Box House would have been looking out their living room window at the one greenhouse left, which looks like it was called Jack Clusen Greenhouse. Here's a closeup of our house on the Sanborn Map:

The Box House, 1946


It doesn't tell us much that we don't already know. The "D" stands for "dwelling" and "2B" means two-story brick (or two-story plus basement). The "A" on the garage indicates it is a private garage. The slashed lines on the house show that there were window openings on the first and second floors. I think it's saying that the house is 45 feet tall? I'll have to measure it sometime, that doesn't sound right. The porches are frame, and by 1946 were enclosed. I can't discern what the other symbols mean, and I don't know what the slashed lines on the garage indicate. I thought the black dots might be doors, but they're not positioned correctly.

Nowadays, the greenhouses are gone and it's solid dwelling units--single family homes, town homes, apartment buildings--for blocks all around us. But it is interesting to see how the immediate area changed in a little over a hundred years.

2 comments:

Andy said...

I believe the numbers 8 and 12 on the outer, longer walls are the widths of the brick walls...but I don't know why yours would be 8 AND 12 inches thick. Mine just says 8, if I'm remembering right.

Somewhere on the library's page (or the landing page for the Sanborn maps) there's a link that will show you what a lot of the symbols mean (though not necessarily all of them, I don't think).

Green Fairy said...

Is that what that says? Thanks! I couldn't read it.

Our exterior walls are thicker on the bottom level than they are on the top floor. We figured that out when we noticed that the window sills on the lower level windows are much deeper--wide enough for a cat to lounge comfortably. The upper floor has very short window sills, you can't even fit a houseplant on them. After measuring the rooms, we realized that everything was wider on the top floor by about 5-6 inches, although the layout is exactly the same!

I think the walls on the lower level are thicker to allow the radiator pipes to reach the upper unit. We haven't been able to test this theory by tracing everything out, but it makes sense.