June 24, 2022
Project #3 in our Centennial Year Countdown of our Top 100 Projects features a Herculean engineering effort that took place 88 years ago, and in many ways helped save our then fledgling firm. On April 18, 1934, it was unbearably hot 92°, when Chicago’s 2nd ‘Great Fire’ struck the enormous Union Stockyards, which were roughly bounded between Pershing Avenue to the north, Halsted Street to the east, 47th Street to the south, and Ashland Avenue to the west. With winds whipping up to 60 miles an hour the fire spread incredibly fast through most of the timber constructed Stockyards. When this massive blaze was finally extinguished (later the following evening) roughly six square blocks of the Stockyards was destroyed, although, amazingly the major packinghouses were saved.
(Here’s a link to some archival film of the blaze - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xJZQF6ikPQ)
For those of you paying attention in your High School History class you’ll also know that this fire took place in the midst of the Great Depression. A time in which unemployment was at record levels and many private enterprises were struggling mightily to stay solvent. Epstein was no different. Prior to ‘The Fire’ our founder, Abraham Epstein, had his entire staff of ¼ time and ran multiple shifts just to keep his engineers and architects employed. This reduction in time was not a feasible long-term solution for our company and Abraham was clearly facing some sobering choices about whether or not to continue as small business firm. This fire changed everything.
As the fire was burning its way through the Stockyards, Abraham received an urgent phone call from Arthur G. Leonard, a past client of ours and the president of the Union Stock Yard and Transit Company, the owners and operators of the Union Stockyards, telling him to get his team ready ASAP as massive and incredibly urgent rebuilding program was to commence immediately. And, more amazingly that the rebuilding needed to be planned, design, engineered and built by the end of the year! Why the hurry? Well every year the Stockyards hosted the International Livestock Exposition at their Horse Auction Barn. A building that was constructed of wood, and as you might have guessed, burned to the ground on April 18th. And this year’s Livestock show was scheduled to run from December 1st through the 8th.
Abraham gathered his team on April 19th, a crew that was not only going to be working full-time, but overtime, on a new steel framed and concrete modern exhibition center. A $1.5M ($33M in 2022) 10,000 seat arena that would be called the International Amphitheatre, located at what is now Halsted and 42nd street, and would include such ground breaking features as air conditioning as well as press and broadcast media spaces. The Amphitheatre’s iconic roof was comprised of 11 solid steel arch trusses, stretching 200 feet across the arena, and at the time of construction, these trusses were the largest in the world.
The Epstein team, working round the clock, developed plans at unheard of speed and working hand and hand with the construction personnel from Poirot Construction completed the International Amphitheatre on December 1, 1934, a little over seven months after the fire! And, just in time to host the 1934 International Livestock Exposition.
Remarkably the Amphitheatre wasn’t the only building that the Epstein team designed and engineered during those frenzied months. Additional structures included repairs to the 9-story Exchange Building, rebuilding the Stockyard Inn, repairs to the Live Stock National Bank, a new Boys’ and Girls’ Club, as well as numerous new office and retail buildings critical for Union Stockyards operations. All of these buildings, including the Amphitheatre, were constructed for $4M ($87M in 2022), and, at the time, it was the largest building program in Chicago since the beginning of the Great Depression.
The acclaim received by Abraham Epstein and his staff received for their dedication and expert craftsmanship in the Union Stockyards rebuilding programed positioned Epstein as one of the preeminent Chicago-based engineering firms and led to numerous commissions that not only help the firm survive the Great Depression, but, more importantly, thrive. Setting the foundation for our operations today which take place not only in Chicago, but throughout the world.
Today, not much is left of this colossal engineering and construction effort. The Live Stock National Bank, which was designed as an ode & defacto replica to Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, still stands, although in grave disrepair, and the International Amphitheatre, which during its lifetime played host to multiple political conventions, concerts by The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, was demolished in 1999. Located on the Amphitheatre’s site is an Aramark Uniform Services laundry plant, a building that was, fittingly, designed by Epstein in 2000.
This is the 5 page thank you letter written on December 13, 1934 by Arthur G. Leonard, the president of the Union Stock Yards and Transit Company, to Abraham, or as Mr. Leonard called him, 'Eppy', Epstein. This letter individually thanks each member of the Epstein staff who dedicated their waking lives for seven months to this incredibly ambitious building program.