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Quintessential Barrington

Houses on the Move


story by Barbara L. Benson


While the heyday of Barrington’s buildings going up on wheels was in the early to mid-20th century, in Chicago the mid-19th century saw a similar movement that paralleled the number of spectacular building raisings that were the engineering marvel of the age and had become a spectator sport.

The city was becoming increasingly wealthy and construction had advanced beyond the use of lumber to that of stone, bricks, and even iron as a more substantial and fire-resistant investment. But rather than demolish the old frame buildings, proprietors preferred to relocate them. It was a common sight to see entire rows of these old multi-story buildings, intact, still furnished, and on rollers being moved to the outskirts of town or even to the suburbs.

David Macrae, a traveler to the city at the time, wrote incredulously that, “Never a day passed during my stay in the city, that I did not meet one or more houses shifting their quarters. One day I met nine. Going out Great Madison Street in the horse cars we had to stop twice to let houses get across.” He further noted that businesses did not suffer; shop owners would keep their shops open, even as people had to climb in through a moving front door.

Brick buildings were also moved from one place to another, and in 1866 the first of these, a two and a half story structure, made the short move from Madison Street to Monroe Street. It is interesting to speculate how many of these moves saved the buildings from the path of the Great Chicago Fire which ravaged the city in 1871.

The numbers from that event are staggering. Besides the human toll, over 300 people died; from October 8 to October 10, over four-square miles of the city burned. Ninety thousand people were homeless, and 17,450 structures were destroyed. After all the raising and moving marvels of the previous years, the city had expertise and grit to rebuild more solid foundations for a successful future.

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Barbara L. Benson grew up in Kent, England, and later moved to New York. She settled in Barrington and has walked with our history ever since she first arrived here in 1980.