Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Cedars of Astor

At first glance, the stop architectural historian Sally Kalmbach was making on her tour of the mansions of Astor Street seemed a bit mundane - a slightly ramshackle cobblestone alley, just behind the Cardinal's Mansion on North Avenue.
A closer look, however, revealed what Kalmbach described as one of the very last instances of a street or alley paved with cedar block.
Over a century ago, cedar enjoyed a short-lived boom in improving urban thoroughfares. In 1871, it was the step up from dirt and gravel, Detroit resident Mark Flanigan patented a method for paving streets with cedar. At the time, wood was plentiful. In the 1880's, as the vast forests of Wisconsin and Michigan were being harvested to the point of decimation, over 2 billion board feet of lumber was making its way through Chicago every year. By 1900, 749 of Chicago's 2790 miles of streets had been paved with cedar blocks, accounting for over 60% of the city's improved streets.

Much of that wood, however, was old and rotting. Cedar block's dirty little secret was that, while inexpensive, it wasn't very durable, especially under the weight of the new steel-wheeled vehicles. As early as 1881, Mayor Carter H. Harrison was proclaiming:
"I believe the wooden period for street paving should pass away from Chicago. Our central and heavily trafficked streets need something more durable than sappy pine, or cedar blocks cut from burnt-over swamps. Granite and Medina sandstone can be had without stint."
Brick paving was introduced in the early 1890's, with asphalt gaining predominance in the 1920's, with the coming of the automobile.

So we are left with this physical footnote, good workingman's cedar finding its last refuge in an alley steps from the palaces of the wealthy. It probably won't endure much longer. Check it out while you can.


Anonymous said...

I read an article a few months ago that said there's one other remnant wood-paved street in the city. If I recall correctly, it was an alley off of Hudson Ave. in Lincoln Park.

Anonymous said...

San Antonio, Texas flirted with wood block paving in our durable, rot resistant, very hard, local mesquite. Disadvantage: add water, wood floats. Also, according to my grandfather, when wet, horses hooves would slide on them, as well.

Jennifer said...
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