Man, I love stuff like this. Back in the day, when Chicago was busting out at the seems, the brash upstart city on the prairie, teeming with immigrants and their offspring, had expanded all the west to Western Avenue! South-siders were doin' the Friday night stroll on 79th Street, the working men quashing their ales all up and down the lane, and the fancy boys were taking their best girls to a show at one of the Katz-Balban movie houses that had sprung up throughout the land in the roaring twenties. Those were the days of the "Long brown coats and the black derbies," as my dear old friend PJ used to say.
PJ was a great electrician, a man I became quite close to in the last few weeks of the 80s and first few years of the 90s as we worked together on the New Comisky Park, which has since been "re-branded" as "US Cellular Field." But in 1989 and 1990 and even into '91, if I remember accurately, we were building the new ballpark. Pauly and I were both very proud to have parents and grandparents, (In my case even great-grandparents) who went back to the 1920s and earlier in the Electrician's Union in Chicago. "The guys with the long brown coats and black derbies" Paul always used to refer to them as. Those were the guys, in my case the O'Brien s, who would have been hand-threading and running that hard, thick cast iron pipe you see in the walls of a Chicago building from the 1910s or 20s, all the up to the 40s, when I dad took up the trade. Guys whose splices were made up by twisting the wires together and then dipping the twisted pair into hot molten lead to coat them and fully bond the two individual conductors, which were then wrapped in gobs and gobs of black friction tape. The days before Plastic insulation, when the cloth-covered wire I rail against now was fresh and new and state-of-the-art. Before wire nuts and EMT, a pipe you could join together without even threading! (Man, they were convinced they would be all on the breadline if that particular innovation took hold.)
The guys who ran that pipe are gone. The guys who pulled that wire and dipped those splices, in my case my dad and uncle Jack and a whole slew of second cousins and my grandfather and his father, they have all met their maker. But the pipes remain in the buildings, and the wires remain in the pipes, (giving me a job, pulling them out...I hope they are all up there looking down on me and having a great laugh.) The electricity that ran through those wires came out of sub-stations like this, and I look at this building, and wish I could see the inside. Then and now. I wonder if the children and grandchildren of the guys who sweated their lives away in this building are still around Chicago, if any of them ended up in the electrical business.
These are the musings that find their way into my mind when I discover a building like this.