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A Walking Tour of Chicago Architecture, Part Three: The Loop in Transition

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Welcome to the final installment of Curbed's three part walking tour through the history of downtown Chicago architecture, celebrating the city on the eve of the first-ever Chicago Architecture Biennial. Curbed Chicago contributor Shawn Ursini started exploring the city's historic skyscrapers on Dearborn Street, built by the pioneers of the Chicago School, then continued over towards Jackson Boulevard to study some of the Loop's iconic modernist and contemporary high-rises. The journey ends in the north section of the Loop, which is currently witnessing a flood of new construction.

For the final portion of the tour, we will continue on Dearborn Street through the North Loop, a part of downtown which has seen many changes over second half of the twentieth century. As suburbanization hit its peak during the postwar period, downtown began a steady decline, as residents and businesses began moving further and further away. Retail on State Street was hit particularly hard, as it didn't just compete with suburban malls, but also with emergence of North Michigan Avenue as the city's premiere shopping district. The once thriving theater and entertainment strip along Randolph Street descended into a state of seediness. The plan to combat this decline at the time was redevelopment of entire blocks of the North Loop and in the process, new structures would rise, but in some cases not for many years. While most of the remaining stretch of Dearborn Street is postwar construction, a handful of older buildings, at least in part, were sparred the wrecking ball.

0-99 Block of North Dearborn Street: Madison Street to Washington Street

1 North Dearborn Street/2 North State Street
Chicago School (Holabrid & Roche: 1905)

This large 17-story building runs the length of the block between State and Dearborn streets and once housed the Boston Store, one of numerous vertical department stores which once existed along State Street. The facade is composed almost entirely of Chicago windows set into a well-defined grid of vertical piers and horizontal spandrels. The facade has larger windows on the first two floors and smaller sash windows set into a colonnade of classical detailing, which has deteriorated over the years. Its textbook tripartite facade was then topped with a cornice, which is now missing.

The building has been almost entirely office use for years, although Sears did try to make a comeback with a flagship department store on State Street, which ultimately did not succeed. Some of the space Sears did occupy for a few years has since been converted back to office space and recently became the headquarters for Chicago Public Schools.

33 North Dearborn Street
International Style (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: 1966)

This 25-story International Style tower features windows set into masonry-clad piers and spandrels, which was not at all typical for office buildings of this time period. The windows are larger at the second floor and each of the windows bays has a middle pane of glass larger then outer panes. While this can be seen as a reference to Chicago School designs of the past, it was a common modernist feature that provided a minimalist facade with a sense of rhythm. In typical Miesian fashion, the ground floor originally had a arcade running along the street edges of the tower, but these have since been filled in to expand retail space and take advantage of premium retail rental rates.

3 First National Plaza
70 West Madison Street
Modern (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: 1981)

During the 1980s, there was a period of transition from modern to postmodern architecture, and many building of the time have characteristics of both styles. This two-tower project, part of the First National Bank complex, has a ten story building on the Dearborn Street side of the block and a 57-story tower at Clark Street. The two purple granite-clad towers are linked with a nine story atrium space facing towards Madison Street. Stone cladding, definitely not a common material during the international style era, was becoming increasingly common during this late modern transitional period. The inclusion and use of oriels and window bays with chamfered corners referenced historical architecture, providing for many corner offices which often commanded higher rents.

10 N Dearborn Street
Neo-Renaissance (Walter W. Ahlschlager: 1923 -- Eckenhoff Saunders Architects: 1987 renovation)

This smaller 11-story office building sandwiched in the middle of the block was originally another private club. Known as the Covenant Club, it served as a social center for Jewish men and included a swimming pool, indoor running track, bowling alley, ballrooms and dining rooms. It was converted to office space with ground floor retail in 1987 and has since remained as such. Earlier this year, the building was purchased for $10.5 million by the law firm of Howard Akin, a familiar face on local daytime TV, and will serve as personal injury firm's new headquarters.

George Dunne Cook County Administration Building
69 West Washington Street
Modern (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: 1964)

During the middle of the twentieth century, SOM used Chicago as an open laboratory for new structural engineering and design concepts on many of the commissions which came their way. One of these was the reinforced concrete tube-in-tube design. In a continuing desire to arrange office building around an open, column free floor plate, SOM experimented with designing a few buildings like a bird cage—empty in the center with an exterior enclosure of structure. In the tube concept, the facade is the structure—a modern take on the Monadnock Building's load bearing external walls. The columns forming the exterior walls were placed closely together to take on a heavy structural load.

A concrete core for the elevators and stairways sits in the center of the building, with the floors strung like bridges between the tube in the center (elevator core) and the tube on the exterior (perimeter column wall), thus providing column-free office space. In order to open up the ground floor for an arcade and building entrances, a load transfer was needed to shift the structural weight of the exterior column wall onto large columns, which then take the exterior's loads into the ground. The transfer floor is easily visible as a large, windowless concrete ring right above ground level, a honest display of form follows function.

The structural concept was pioneered by legendary engineer Fazlur Kahn and architects Bruce Graham and Myron Goldsmith. Kahn and Graham would then later lead the designs of the John Hancock Center and the Sears (Willis) Tower, both of which also used new innovative structural framing methods.

The design included a small, mid-block plaza to the west where a sculpture by artist Joan Miro was later placed in 1980. Before the building became used for county offices it was known as the Brunswick Building and held offices for the company by the same name who serves as a distributor of bowling equipment.

In October of 2003, a fire in the building took the lives of six people trapped in the stairwells. An overhaul of fire codes and fire fighting tactics for high-rise buildings in Chicago took place as a result.

100-149 Block of North Dearborn Street: Washington Street to Randolph Street

Block 37
108 North State Street/22 West Washington Street
Monder (Perkins+Will: 2008)
25 West Randolph Street
Modern (Solomon, Cordwell, Buenz and Associates: 2016)

The redevelopment of this block began with the wholesale purchase and demolition of the block by the city in the 1980s. As the central Loop and the theater district along Randolph Street faded into a state of blight, grand redevelopment plans were drawn up for multiple blocks to the north and east of City Hall. This included the entire block bounded by Dearborn, Washington, State and Randolph Streets, known officially on the early maps of Chicago as Block 37, a name that has since been revived with this new development.

After the block was cleared of all buildings except an electrical substation built in 1989, the real estate market crashed and the Helmut Jahn-designed two-tower development flanking a shopping mall was never completed. The block then remained vacant for the next decade and a half. The current mixed-use complex on the site now also had its fair share of fits and starts, passing through multiple designs and the hands of different developers, resulting in an abandoned subterranean train station for a mothballed airport express service plan and a presently half vacant shopping mall, although many new stores and attractions are expected to arrive soon. On the south side of the block is a 17-story modern office tower for the local CBS affiliate, with a curtain wall facade and street level television studio.

At one point, three high-rise buildings were planned, including one each for office space, residential and a hotel. The office tower was indeed finished with the podium mall in 2008, but plans for the other towers were put on hold during the recession. The last phases have since been combined into a single tower running almost the whole length of the block's Randolph Street frontage.

The Block 37 apartment tower, now approaching the finishing stages of construction, will add 690 rental units to the Loop when complete. The north facade of the new rental tower is the most visually interesting, a staggered set of floor cantilevered floor slabs creating a weaving effect.

Commonwealth-Edison Substation
115 North Dearborn Street
Art Deco (Holabird & Root: 1931)

The building is the lone survivor of the the Block 37 demolition spree conducted in 1989. It wasn't spared because of its design, as other significant buildings met their demise, but rather because of the complexity of relocating this piece of infrastructure.

Don't miss the first two parts of the walking tour:
A Walking Tour of Chicago's Historic Architecture, Part One: Decades on Dearborn
A Walking Tour of Chicago Architecture, Part Two: A Skyscraper Canyon Near Jackson

Richard J. Daley Center
55 West Randolph Street
International Style/Structural Expressionist (CF Murphy Associates;
Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: 1965)

Set into a plaza which stretches across the entire block, this structure is really more of a bridge with occupied space. The structural grid of columns was spaced at intervals of 87 feet by 47 feet and 8 inches — spans that have never before been constructed within a tall building. The cruciform-shaped columns which take the exterior loads of the building into the ground are absolutely enormous pieces of steel, showing off the structure in all its glory.

While other international style buildings such as the Federal Center often used steel on the exterior of the building, the steel had to be covered in a protective coating to prevent deterioration. By contrast, the design team here experimented with a new idea, allowing the steel exterior to be presented as a raw material through the use of Cor-Ten, a branded steel alloy which weathers on the outside to form its own protective coating, strengthening the structure, no painting required. While the concept of weathering steel had been around since the 1930s, this was the first time it was applied to tall building design.

The building stands in at 648 feet tall, very high for just 31 floors of interior space, and is actually the tallest flat-roofed building in the world with fewer than 40 floors. The floors were constructed of open trusses, which not only allowed for the easy placement of ductwork and utilities, but also made future interior alterations very easy. The building was constructed with office space, a law library, and 120 court and hearing rooms. The floors were stacked at standard intervals, with courtrooms taking two floors. This was done for future adaptability as more office space could be created by inserting a floor through a courtroom space, or another courtroom could be added by knocking out a section of the floor and the modular truss system.

Originally named the Chicago Civic Center, the building was renamed to honor the former mayor, who advocated for construction of new modern buildings in the Loop to revitalize the central business district during the era of suburban flight. Richard J. Daley died in office on December 20, 1976, after serving 21 years.

Two years after opening, the plaza was graced with Chicago's most famous sculpture, an untitled work by Pablo Picasso created out of Cor-Ten. The City of Chicago and the senior partners of SOM had personally approached Picasso to commission an art piece for the new Civic Center. Picasso graciously accepted and declared that he would design it for free as a gift to the city. Structural engineers at SOM then created the construction drawings for the piece, which was the created in the US Steel Gary Works in northwestern Indiana before final assembly and unveiling to the public.

150-199 Block of North Dearborn Street: Randolph Street to Lake Street

Delaware Building
151 North Dearborn Street
(Wheelock & Thomas: 1874
Julius H. Huber: 1889 two-story addition
Wilbert R. Hasbrouch: 1982 renovation)

The Delaware Building is the oldest surviving building on this tour of Dearborn Street, and serves as a glimpse into what the central business district had looked like in the years immediately after the Great Chicago Fire. Many similar buildings in scale and style went up in a very short period of time in the post-fire rebuilding of the downtown. Only a handful from this era remain, almost all of which are protected as official city landmarks.

The heavily ornamented facade is composed of different materials, cast iron and large expanses of glass for the first two floors, cast stone on the next four and pressed metal for the top two on the later addition. This would have been a very early use of cast stone (also known as manufactured stone, essentially precast concrete) and could have been a experimental approach to the city's new strict building code requiring the use of non-combustable materials on building exteriors in the wake of the fire.

Oliver Building
159 North Dearborn Street
Chicago School (Holabird & Roche: 1907 and 1922 vertical addition)

This building's red brick and green painted cast iron facade is another fantastic example of Chicago School style, boasting large Chicago windows set between vertical brick piers and cast iron spandrels. A vertical two-story addition by the same architects topped the building with a heavy cornice, completing the tripartite arrangement. The Oliver Company's key product, the typewriter, is advertised in the heavily ornamented ground floor facade, clearly visible to any passing pedestrians.

The facade is the only historic artifact of the building. The entire structure was threatened with demolition during the expansion of the neighboring Oriental Theater, but a compromise was eventually reached to retain the original facade, behind which a new structure was built.

Theater District Self Park
181 North Dearborn Street
(Hammond, Beeby & Babka: 1987)

This 12-story reinforced concrete garage, built with precast panels, showcases a few postmodern details, including subtle pilasters and am open-air window arrangement. The articulation of the corner stairway towers offers a sense of symmetry, and the entrance canopy mimics the marquees of the nearby theaters. The structure maintains an engaging street-level presence through the use of ground floor retail.

Goodman Theatre
170 North Dearborn Street
Postmodern (Kuwabara Payne McKenna: 2000)
Preserved Historic Facades of Harris & Selwyn Theaters
Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance (C. Howard Crane & Kenneth Franzheim: 1922)

The Harris and Selwyn Theaters are the lone remnants of Dearborn Street's original contribution to the Theater District, which still includes many performing arts venues along Randolph. The Cadillac Palace (originally New Palace), Oriental Theater and the legendary Chicago Theater still remain. Gone are the Garrick, Woods and United Artists Theaters, all lost in the wave of demolition and North Loop redevelopment. Another theater, the State-Lake, was converted into office space; part of it became the ABC-7 street-level news studio facing onto the sidewalk of State Street.

During North Loop redevelopment, the Goodman Theatre, which had been located at the Art Institute since 1922, was relocated to the Dearborn Street location of the Harris and Selwyn Theaters as part of the city initiative to rebrand the area as the Loop's Theater District. Fundraising for the move began in the 1990s and the new location opened in December of 2000.

In addition to the preserved historic facades of the old theaters, the Goodman presents a modern face to Randolph Street, with a backlit glass facade that changes colors, a modern take on the glitzy lights, signs and marquees of the old theater district's heyday.

200-300 Block of North Dearborn Street: Lake Street to Wacker Drive

Leo Burnett
Postmodern (Kevin Roche-John Dinkeloo & Associates: 1989)

In a direct contrast to glass and steel modernism, many Postmodern towers had masonry-clad exteriors. This 46-story building features two different shades of gray granite across its entire expanse. The darker color of the stone is then brightened up with stainless mullions bisecting the windows. Similar to older skyscrapers, the facade here was heavily articulated and was given a great amount of visual depth between the recessed windows and the boxed bays, which bump out at the building's four corners. The exterior has a well-defined tripartite facade with a colonnade and pilasters at the base, as well as another row of pilasters at the top. One-third of the way up, the third column line and cornice matches the roof line of neighboring 55 West Wacker.

The building serves as the global headquarters of Leo Burnett, an advertising company which created campaigns for commercial icons such as Tony The Tiger and Snap, Crackle and Pop.

200 North Dearborn Street
Postmodern (Lisec & Biederman: 1989)

This 47-story reinforced concrete tower was originally a rental building until a condominium conversion occurred in the 2000s. Like many residential high-rises in downtown Chicago, it was constructed on a parking podium, although the bulk of the parking is offset to the rear of the tower. Gables placed at the roofline in a false-front format cap the tower and provide a small element of cartoonish decoration to an otherwise featureless exterior.

A skybridge links the second floor to the Leo Burnett building, giving pedestrians a covered route through the second floor towards a food court at the west end of the block. The food court was built with the residential tower, but exists as a separate two-story structure and has been looked at in the past as a possible redevelopment opportunity.

55 W Wacker
Brutalist (CF Murphy: 1968)

While modernism was an approach to creating minimalist and honest architecture where form purely follows function, Brutalism was an offshoot movement exploring and showing off the structural properties of building materials. In this case, the concrete frame of 55 West Wacker is exposed on the outside and the material is left in the raw with two different finishes. The large vertical columns have a rough hammered texture while the horizontal spandrels are smooth. The spandrels between the windows are not an applied material, but rather are an end cap of the floors slabs. The floors are cantilevered at the corners to demonstrate this point and the underside of the second floor presents a waffle slab, again showing off the properties and possibilities of the material in use. Visually, this allows the entire building exterior to read as one complete structure, the only applied facade are the windows themselves, enclosing the gaps in the concrete frame.

The exposed waffle slab is a structural expressionist take on the coffered ceiling concept, providing decoration through functional design. The building was the former home of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, an insurance company which outgrew the space and learned a lesson in the process. Their current headquarters at 300 East Randolph Street was designed with vertical expansion in mind from the outset.

Marina City
301-333 North Dearborn Street
300-332 North State Street
Modern (Bertrand Goldberg & Associates: 1963)

We end the tour with a view across the Chicago River at the Marina City complex, a much-beloved icon that breaks all the typical rules of high-rise architecture. The project began as a new headquarters office building for the Chicago Janitor's Union, but architect Bertrand Goldberg convinced his client to also plan for on-site affordable rental housing where members could live in. Goldberg was a big believer in the intrinsic value of high-density urban cities at a time when suburbanization was at its height. Goldberg thought sprawling, low-density landscapes were a wasteful way to plan and spread taxpayer dollars too thin paying for the expansive amount of infrastructure necessary to sustain such a way of life.

Balconies on high-rise residential towers can easily make or break a design, while exposed parking levels are often viewed as oppressive and a blight to the streetscape. Here, the two prominent towers along the Chicago River's main branch have exteriors created out of nothing but balconies and exposed parking. Vehicles and pedestrians share space in the plaza on which the tower sits, in contrast to the demarcated boundaries for vehicles found in typical driveway settings. Nonetheless, the plaza is still heavily used by foot traffic either lingering on the river edge to take in the views or seeking a shortcut through the block.

Marina City was a experimental method in attracting the middle class to the city core. At the time, downtown living was not attractive, especially on the traditional industrial north bank of the Chicago River. While locals may think of River North as high-value real estate these days, in the 1960s it was an outright slum. In order to attract people to live here, there needed to be on-site amenities to foster a somewhat self sustaining neighborhood, in turn, the density needed to be high enough to functionally make the mixed-use plan work.

The complex consists of four buildings, all constructed in the early to mid 1960s with the first major use of slip-form construction, crafting the smooth shapes and edges of the concrete structures. When the two 61-story residential towers topped out, they were the tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world.

The office building to the north of the corncob shaped towers was uplifted on arched columns, below which was space retail uses including a bowling alley. The office building was designed as a rectilinear box running through the block and structurally supported in part by closely spaced concrete mullions. Below the plaza was an indoor arcade lined with shops as well as residential access to the elevator lobbies of the two towers.

The design also focused on climate control and comfort. In the office building, heat produced by interior lighting was recycled. The apartments would have individual controls on air conditioning and because there was less of a need for a centralized mechanical plant, the rooftops of the twin towers today remain as large terraces in the sky for the residents to enjoy.

The rental apartments have since been converted into condominiums, the on-site theater is now known as the House of Blues and the office building has become a hotel. Where an ice skating rink once stood is now the Smith & Wollensky steak house.

Marina City is currently in the process of becoming an official city landmark; a public hearing will be held on October 16th at City Hall.

— Shawn Ursini

·A Walking Tour of Chicago's Historic Architecture, Part One: Decades on Dearborn [Curbed Chicago]
·A Walking Tour of Chicago Architecture, Part Two: A Skyscraper Canyon Near Jackson [Curbed Chicago]
·All previous Chicago Architecture Biennial coverage [Curbed Chicago]
·All previous Chicago Architecture Biennial coverage [Curbed National]

Marina City

300 North State Street, , IL 60654