WBEZ Chicago: What’s That Building? The Streetcar Transformer Buildings

“A handsome brick building featuring rows of arches in Bronzeville has puzzled Kimshasa Baldwin, who lives a few blocks away: Why was it built? Is it connected to near-identical buildings in Back of the Yards and Lincoln Park?

“Baldwin asked ‘What’s That Building?’ to investigate the history behind the three buildings. The structures look similar enough, she told me on our first phone call, that “they must have been related.”

“And Baldwin’s instincts were right. The buildings look the similar because of their shared purpose: to house giant power-generating equipment, which requires abundant windows for cooling the interior. But they are located miles apart at 48th and S. Honore streets in Back of the Yards; on Lill Avenue near Sheffield Avenue in Lincoln Park; and at 4200 S. Wabash Avenue in Bronzeville.

“The Lill Avenue building has a clue in the middle of the facade to the identity of all three: ‘C. RYS. Co, 1909.’ That’s an abbreviation for Chicago Railways Company, one of several that operated Chicago’s extensive network of streetcars.

“From 1859 to 1958, Chicagoans moved around the city by streetcars, first pulled by horses, then using cable-car technology developed in San Francisco. Beginning in 1890, the city utilized electric-powered streetcars. The streetcar system covered more than 500 miles, with 3,700 streetcars ferrying people around the city. The private operators of the system were eventually folded into the public Chicago Transit Authority, which ran the last streetcars in 1958.

“Powering that network required electrical substations, or transformer buildings, where a high-voltage electrical current was transformed into smaller doses of current to power the wires for the streetcars.

“That’s where these three buildings come in: Each one powered a segment of the city’s streetcar network.

“The structures were essentially giant boxes holding generating equipment, and the big windows provided ventilation for the heat that the generators produced. The Lill Avenue building, built in 1909, was a substation for Chicago Railways Co., which operated on the North and West sides. The buildings on Honore and Wabash, built in 1910, were part of Chicago City Railway Co., which operated on the South Side.” (Rodkin, WBEZ 91.5 Chicago, 3/4/21)

Read and hear the full story with many photos at WBEZ 91.5

What’s That Building? The Streetcar Transformer Buildings: Three near-identical buildings in Bronzeville, Back of the Yards and Lincoln Park shared a purpose: power a segment of the city’s streetcar network, Dennis Rodkin, WBEZ 91.5 Chicago, 3/4/21


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