Fortress Illinois

A very long time ago (it looks like June 2000), I wrote a college paper about the history of Illinois Center and Lakeshore East. Since someone asked about it, I’m going to post it. There may be more in “City Building,” the recent monograph of SOM’s urban design projects.

Note: the footnotes and formatting are broken. That happens.

Fortress Illinois
Fort Dearborn, the Illinois Central, the New East Side, and the fall of Modernism

The eighty-three acres encompassing Chicago’s “New East Side,” as the lamppost signs proclaim, have housed among the oldest and the newest of the area’s settlements. From the original Fort Dearborn to the glittering skyscrapers of today, the human settlements on the site have reflected the state of the art in Chicago development, constantly changing to suit the needs of the day. The prevailing needs and tastes of each era of modern Chicago’s history have all found homes on the land bounded by the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, Michigan Avenue, and Randolph Street, a feat even more remarkable when one considers that some parts of the land have seen only three owners in the past two centuries.
Long before Jean Baptiste Pont du Sable built his home on the north bank of the river, the Potawatomi tribe of Native Americans occupied the lands at the mouth of the Chicago River. The fertile alluvial plain offered ready access to woodland hunting, lake fishing, agricultural fields, and both land and water trade routes. One trade route in particular interested both the natives and European explorers: the portage across Mud Lake that linked the Chicago River to the Illinois and ultimately to the Mississippi. When an opportunity arose in 1795 for the United States government to secure title to this land, the young government, realizing the strategic importance of the marsh, acquired the Chicago portage. Eight years after the Potawatomi had ceded the Chicago portage to the United States, construction began on Fort Dearborn. The small outpost offered a modicum of military protection – most spectacularly transgressed in the War of 1812, when British-allied natives massacred the town and its fort during a retreat – to the few hundred residents of the trading community that had risen there.
Permanent settlement at the mouth of the Chicago River only became possible when the federal government removed the native tribes in 18XX. Once the area was secure from hinterland threats, trade and population boomed. The greatest breakthrough in trade occurred in 1848, when the first railroad – the Galena and Chicago Union – arrived in town. The combination of road, rail, and water access to both commodities and markets scattered throughout the East and West proved irresistible, and the city’s population boomed.
At the same time, the city’s need for protection against shoreline erosion dovetailed with the ever-growing demand for rail access to central Chicago. The Illinois Central Railroad, a state-financed project linking small cities around Illinois, fought a political battle with City Hall and the state legislature in 1852 to finally secure a railroad easement along the South Side lakefront to the river’s mouth. The site was less than perfect, since it ran far from the existing industrial corridors west of the city and since its prime lakefront location invited public criticism, but its access to the port and associated industry (notably the grain elevators and McCormick Reaper Works at the river’s mouth) were unparalleled. Construction soon started on a new station, warehouses, rail yards, and further industrial development around the river’s mouth. The railroad soon added more land to its yards both north and south of Grant Park as the city and its trades grew.
Almost a century later, the long success of the Illinois Central abruptly ended. Rail traffic dropped precipitously after World War Two, as governments poured money into airplanes and highways. The federal government launched the Interstate Highway program in 1956 with the National Defense Highway Act, promising cities like Chicago plentiful funds to tear apart neighborhoods in the name of free-flowing traffic. Meanwhile, air travel boomed both locally and nationally, necessitating the city-funded conversion of Orchard Field into O’Hare International Airport. The railroads’ bottom lines were doubly injured: jet airplanes stole high-margin express traffic while trucks, buses, and private automobiles captured commuters and low end inter-city travel. The railroads’ attempts to modernize 1920s fleets, raise rates, and slash unprofitable services were met with rebukes from the Interstate Commerce Commission. By the 1960s, America’s railroad industry was ailing.
City on a Hill: the Modernist fantasy and Illinois Center
The Illinois Central was caught in similarly tight straits. Across the country, railroads in similarly dire straits – most famously New York’s Penn Central, with its infamous demolition of Penn Station for the Madison Square Garden complex – were turning to their land for financial salvation. Rail yards, half-empty railroad stations, and auxiliary facilities like grain elevators and warehouses often occupied choice sites within cities’ central business districts, and the Illinois Central site was hardly an exception. It fronted Lake Michigan, Michigan Avenue, Grant Park, and the Chicago River, affording the site unsurpassed views in almost every direction. Across Michigan Avenue, a building boom was underway. The business-friendly policies of Mayor Richard J. Daley encouraged developers, who proceeded to spend $5 billion on 22 million square feet of new office space during the eighteen-year mayoral reign.
Once the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way in 1967, the railroad sold thirty-eight acres of air rights over its dilapidated Randolph Street yards and station to two major Chicago developers, Metropolitan Structures and Jupiter Development. The plan they concocted amounted to a Modernist fantasia on true urbanism. High-rise towers of offices, apartments, and hotels floated about amidst broad plazas, serviced by a three-level network of broad avenues. A site equivalent to twenty-five blocks of Chicago’s Loop would amass its buildings into just six superblocks. Larger blocks allowed for larger, more efficient floor plans and reduced the number of wasteful intersections.
The towers of Illinois Center would offer its 55,000 tenants, residents, and guests clean, efficient, and modern lives, unburdened by nature and its vagaries. Its new glass-and-steel buildings would be engineered for efficiency, freed from gravity, weather, even space and time by steel frames, elevators, telephones, electric lights, parking garages, and climate control. Instead of dodging an inefficient obstacle course of traffic lights, pedestrians, and delivery trucks at ground level, ramps and interchanges would quickly and efficiently direct cars from the expressways (sited along the lake and river – after all, what use did Illinois Center have for either?) to parking garages below the street level. Those arriving via the Randolph Street commuter rail station, or via a planned CTA subway station on site could walk through climate-controlled shopping arcades directly to the elevators that led to home or office.
At Illinois Center, nature – and human nature – had truly been conquered. The messiness of both Chicago weather and Chicago streets were banished from Illinois Center by its all-powerful planners, backed by potent new technologies and massive sums of capital. The planners’ ideologies taught them to focus on the city as a set of interlocking, predictable mechanical systems, not as a semi-chaotic urban or an ecological network or community.
The city, eager for new development to counteract the hemorrhaging of residents and jobs to suburbia – over 500,000 residents lost between 1960 and 1980 – approved the plan with few conditions. The city required, for instance, that the project have a street-level presence along Michigan Avenue instead of turning a blind face to the Loop (as it did to every other side) and that park and road improvements take place around the start of construction. The plan was approved by the city council with much fanfare in 1968.
Illinois Center: What if you built a city and nobody came?
In many respects, the dogmatically Modernist plan of Illinois Center proved its downfall. Its complete disregard for “that which cannot be engineered” alienated many Chicagoans. Its blank, windswept plazas, separated from one another by wide and efficient roads, are inhospitable almost year round. Winter brings high winds exacerbated by the towers, while the heat of summer broils the tree-less sidewalks. (The elevated road structure was not designed to sustain the weight of street trees.) Those familiar with the complex scurry along in the underground warren of shops and passageways, further robbing the streets of any sign of activity. At almost any time of day or night, the sidewalks and plazas lie empty.
The awe-inspiring infrastructure was both grossly inadequate and obscenely over-engineered. Mass transit and parkland, in particular, suffered; the long-planned subway link never materialized, and the lifeless outdoor plazas proved to be no solace to tenants seeking a green respite from the concrete jungle. Instead, residents crowd the already over-used Grant Park and lakefront path on weekends. Although the high-rise tenants have commanding views of the lake, river, and park, physical access to those sites is problematic. A guest at a luxury hotel in Illinois Center would have to cross high-speed Wacker Drive, unaided by crossing signals, and descend four flights of rusty stairs to reach the river bank. Access to the lake, even for those who live within a few hundred feet of it, involves descending two sets of vehicular ramps and crossing a freeway interchange on foot. The one corner of Grant Park at Illinois Center’s street level is largely cut off from the rest of the park by the Columbus Drive viaduct.
At the same time, the circulation systems proved to be too much, financially and mechanically. The superblock layout required major infrastructure outlays before any returns could be realized from the buildings. When demand for new office and hotel space suddenly went soft in the early 1990s, Metropolitan Structures was left holding nearly thirty acres of fully serviced but undeveloped land – not only leaving substantial holes in the plan but also resulting in heavy losses. Meanwhile, most of the circulation networks – built to handle peak-hour flows from a population almost twice as large as the current population – stand eerily empty for most of the day. The lowest level of roadway gets so little traffic that the city uses much of it as an auto-impoundment lot; the shop-lined pedestrian walkways and office tower lobbies see heavy traffic during the workday but empty out at night. Furthermore, few linger or wander in the antiseptically clean lobbies, walkways, and plazas; the networks so optimal for getting pedestrians and cars from place to place has none of the charm, grace, or variety that make city streets such interesting places. As a result, retail traffic inside the complex (and thus retail rents, which usually far exceeds either office or residential rents) suffered.
The next city on a hill
The ideologies of Modernism, particularly its ignorance or contempt for streets and decorative elements, came under increasing attack in the 1970s and 1980s. Scores of scholars discredited many of the foundations of Modernist thought; new, postmodern sensibilities arose which openly embraced the messiness that Modernism sought to tame. Meanwhile, several modern, efficient, technological systems, designed to save the world from its various ills, began falling apart. Certain seminal events, like the 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, the environmental disasters of Three Mile Island and Love Canal, and the averted Grand Canyon Dam, turned the public eye to the failure of Modern engineering fixes to solve society’s problems.
At Illinois Center, the turning point may have arrived in 1990. Potential office, hotel, and residential tenants and developers were forgoing Illinois Center’s brand-new infrastructure for areas with street life, like the West Loop and Streeterville. The black-box skyscrapers by Modern master Mies van der Rohe, built in the project’s early years, needed extensive renovation. And, most worryingly, the project’s signature tower – the eighty-story Amoco Building, Chicago’s third tallest – was literally falling apart. Its lavish Carrara marble cladding, cut as thin as 1973 technology could allow, was too thin to stand up to the harsh Chicago weather. The owners were forced to re-clad the entire building in thicker sheets of granite to prevent injury to the pedestrians below.
Within a few years, the outlook at Illinois Center was notably different. The city improved the public facilities along Illinois Center’s four borders, particularly in the late 1990s. First, the city planted a tall-grass prairie in the neglected northeast corner of Grant Park (cut off from the rest of the park by Illinois Center’s elevated roadways) in 199X. Such a back-to-nature act would have been unthinkable in an earlier era; after all, settlers had just spent the past century or so converting the fertile prairies to farms and cities. Along other sides of Illinois Center, further attempts were made to weave the project back into the natural and human environment that surrounded its perfect order. The elevated section of Michigan Avenue west of the project was rebuilt in 1997 with wider sidewalks and street trees to provide a streetscape more amenable to walking. A tree-lined bike path was built on the strip of land left between Wacker Drive and the river, connecting the thoughtfully planned riverside walkways to the west with the lakefront path to the east. The new path doesn’t match its wide, promenade-like counterparts either across or down the river – planned in the 1980s and 1920s, respectively, but provides an adequate interface between city and river.
Within the confines of Illinois Center, new development has taken on a distinctly different tone. The latest addition to its skyline, the 28-story Blue Cross/Blue Shield building, features a reflective skin optimized for energy efficiency. Recent plans have surfaced to fill in the development’s remaining holes, including a 24-acre site that currently houses a golf course, with a residential development that would include mid-rise buildings, a park, and a school interspersed among the requisite high-rises. The goal is to provide a sense of community to the isolated high-rises.
Ultimately, Illinois Center stands as an almost singular relic of its time, one of Chicago’s best examples of the misguided Modernism that sought to replace both the natural and human environments with a clean, hermetically sealed version thereof. As its developers soon found out, urban development can deny neither setting; today’s developers in Illinois Center are busy trying to find ways to accommodate both. Shops and services now face the street instead of turning inwards; trees have been planted in planters to make the sidewalks friendlier to pedestrians; plazas have been revamped (most notably at Aon Center, Prudential Plaza, and Michigan Plaza) with more comfortable furnishings and water features; and buildings have been refitted with elements that embrace the outdoors, from energy-efficient windows to rooftop terraces. Perhaps most importantly, developers and planners have learned that humans crave the messiness and unpredictability of life in both the streets and the forests or fields; instead of attempting to suppress that life at every step, humans are trying to find ways to re-create them.
William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis (Norton: 1991), 67.
Collapse of railroads: Jane Holtz Kay, Asphalt Nation (Anchor, 1997), 177, 243. Commuter rail traffic nationwide fell by two-thirds between 1935 and 1960.
J. H. Kay, 252.
Ross Miller, Here’s the Deal (Knopf, 1996), 77.
Later extended to the land itself. New York Times, 17 August 1969, 8:8.
The railroad’s yards around Central Station (12th-14th Street) would be redeveloped in the 1990s.
256 blocks to a square mile (64 in the usual Chicago neighborhood, but Loop blocks are one-half as long), plus fifty-foot street right of ways equals 144,400 square feet – about 3.3 acres.
At the time, the city of Chicago was planning a “distributor subway” to replace the Loop elevated. In addition to the existing subways, another line would run south along the lakefront, from the Gold Coast to McCormick Place; another would run east-west under Monroe Street from the Art Institute to Union Station; a third line would run under Franklin Street.
Battery Park City, a similar “new town” of high-rises in Lower Manhattan, failed to attract investors with a superblock, multi-tiered circulation plan. Construction only began in earnest once the plan was revised in 1979 with smaller, ground-level blocks; the small blocks allowed for smaller, more flexible buildings, and the elimination of multilevel circulation significantly cut costs. David L. A. Gordon, Battery Park City (Amsterdam: OPA/Gordon & Breach, 1997), 73-79.
Quite literally, since these cleared sites are forty feet below “street level.”
The infrastructure was financed and built under the assumption that the project would be completed without any major interruptions. Instead, of course, construction went on hiatus for almost a decade, and the company very nearly defaulted on loans.
Alice Sinkevitch, ed., The AIA Guide to Chicago (Harcourt Brace, 1993), 35.
The first built as part of Cityfront Center (master plan 1985 by Cooper, Eckstut Associates), the latter as part of Wacker Drive (master plan 1909 by Daniel Burnham). Sinkevitch, 118 and 56.)
Similar local examples of the genre include the University of Illinois at Chicago, Sandburg Village, the Hyde Park redevelopment scheme, and vast tracts of suburbia. Luckily, Chicago’s Loop was spared the “redevelopment” then in vogue around the nation.
Formerly the Amoco Building, formerly the Standard Oil Building.
Formerly 205-225 North Michigan Avenue.


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