Buildings Shape Cities, Cities Shape our Future

Article by Jarod Pletcher, Allen + Pepa Architects

38-54 W. Downer Pl. Aurora, IL
Free-standing limestone wall

On a warm summer afternoon, I descended a dark set of stairs into the cool, stone basement of a building along West Downer street in Aurora, IL. Accompanied by Lane Allen, AIA, the building owners, and two members of the Aurora Historical society, we wound in the dark, guided by flashlights to a feature of the building Lane had discovered during his first visit, a wall. This wasn’t just any old wall though. This one seemingly stood alone, without another wall or column above it, and within the wall were openings spanned by immense stone lintels. The entire wall was constructed of fine limestone with a level of quality to the masonry that we frankly don’t see very often anymore. The fact that this segment of two-foot-thick wall stood alone at river level clued us into the fact that this was something special, but as we continued with field measurement of the building and explored a little further it became clear that many of the walls in this building were constructed of the same limestone, with the same caliber of detailing, the same beaded mortar joints, and the same massive lintels. Intermixed with these palatial walls, however, were a variety of other walls types: terracotta blocks, brick, CMU, and stick framed, each demonstrating the many life cycles of this building and site. Fueled by a desire to know the building better and how it came to have such a conglomerate of construction systems, I began to research the building’s history. What I found offered some unique insight into not just this building’ history, but into the history of Aurora and so many of our American cities and how these historic buildings might inform our future.

Sanborn Map of Frazier Block, 1888
Sanborn Map of Frazier Block, 1957

I recently graduated from Judson University with a bachelor’s degree in Architecture. Judson’s architecture program places a unique emphasis on history. A required "Architecture of Cities" course teaches the history of urban environments around the world and how their stories have shaped American urbanism. This education prompted us to view architecture not just as a means of shaping materials to form buildings, but then how those buildings shape our cities. Buildings are to cities as bricks are to buildings. My education informed me of resources for studying the history of our cities such as the Sanborn maps, a series of maps created by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. from the mid 1800’s through the mid 1900’s. For nearly a century, the company documented American cities and towns with incredible accuracy, creating maps to assess a city's fire-preparedness and to determine individual buildings’ fire risk. Since they created a new map for a city every 5-7 years, today we can use these maps to see how our cities have evolved and taken shape.[1]

A photo of Frazier block, ca. 1888

This building along West Downer Place was once the site of the W.S. Frazier and Co. Cart Works, a manufacturer of wooden street carts to be pulled by horses. From its founding in the 1850s through the mid-twentieth century, Aurora was a major production hub of the Midwest. With water for power and transportation and the Burlington Northern railroad line linking it to Chicago, Aurora was the prime location for factories like Frazier.[2] The Frazier Cart company building grew as the business grew. Starting in the northeast corner of the block, they gradually expanded to occupy nearly the whole block. A limestone building, likely built of Batavia limestone quarried in the 1840s or 1850s, was added onto with a brick building. A series of shops noted “fragile” on the 1886 Sanborn Map, likely constructed of wood, once lined the Downer Place façade.

A drawing of Frazier block, ca. 1907

Over the years, more walls were added to enclose more of the block and more buildings were built to support the factory. Soon, however, manufacturing of metal products began to threaten the business of manufacturing companies that relied on wood, like Frazier. Additionally, the automobile began to enter the U.S. market, and the need for agile road carts, like those Frazier primarily produced, began to decline. By 1911, Frazier was out of the building and it began to take the shape that we find it in today. The factory had been built for a specific use, one that was no longer needed, but its bones were strong. Rather than raze the entire structure and start from scratch, the new owner demolished large sections of the building and left key walls such as foundation walls and certain bearing walls. The limestone behemoth we encountered on that warm summer day is one of those remaining walls. The building was turned in to a series of retail stores, a use it held throughout much of the twentieth century.

There’s a lot we can learn by studying the history of a building and site like this one. First and foremost was can observe the way they reused the structure of the former building. Some might wonder why they would bother to do something like this. The fact of the matter was that the structure was solid. Two-foot-thick masonry walls tend not to move and are hard to demolish. Frankly, I’m surprised there isn’t more of the old building left. We can learn a lot from this kind of adaptive reuse and, believe it or not, it may be one of the many keys to tackling climate change.

The greenest building is the one that’s already built. Each year, building materials and construction account for 11% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Concrete, iron, and steel production alone account for 9%.[3] This means that every building contains an immense amount of embodied carbon, or “the sum of all the greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon dioxide) resulting from the mining, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation and installation of building materials.”[4] Simply put, it takes a lot of resources to build a building and still more to demolish it. A certain number of building materials are recyclable, but the vast majority of demo materials are hauled off and end up in a landfill, and even more embodied carbon will be used to construct a new building. It is far more responsible to modify and reuse the great stock of existing buildings that fill our great cities.

This building serves as an excellent example of reuse of an existing structure for a new purpose and we hope that the modifications that we make to the building will serve the building and its users just as well.

[1] “About This Collection : Sanborn Maps : Digital Collections : Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps/about-this-collection/. [2] “Introduction to Aurora Industrial Companies of 20th Century.” Untitled Document, www.rodhandeland.com/Catalyst.htm. [3] Architecture 2030. “NEW BUILDINGS: EMBODIED CARBON.” Architecture 2030, architecture2030.org/new-buildings-embodied/. [4] Siegel, Henry, and Larry Strain. “Embodied Carbon: What You Can Do Right Now.” The Voice of the Architectural Profession in California, AIA California, 5 Mar. 2020, aiacalifornia.org/embodied-carbon-definitions-and-facts/.

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