The Chicago River and Civic Identity

I would argue that the approximate one mile from the Lake Shore Drive Bridge to Wolf Point, where the Chicago River splits into its North and South branches, is easily one of the most famous vistas in the world. Along it you will see the Wrigley Building, the Tribune Tower and many others you’d recognize by sight but might not know their names. You can see The Jewelers Building, which I photographed way back in June of 2008. Strauss Bascule bridges, invented in Chicago, are the revolutionary style of crossings that don’t open as much as they used to, but do on occasion to let the random sailboat through. The photos above and below demoralize me; despite the Chicago metro region being only three times larger than St. Louis, there are more tall skyscrapers in the images than in St. Louis’s downtown in total. How depressing. What happened? Somewhere in the early Twentieth Century, long before suburbanization, St. Louis just began to stumble. Just like Chicago’s railroads beat St. Louis across the Mississippi by decades, the Windy City’s businessmen just seemed to have more talent than the Gateway City.

Vachon, John, photographer. Coal barge in Chicago River, Chicago, Illinois. United States Illinois Chicago, 1941. July. Photograph.

Below is the Mather Building from 1928, designed by Herbert Hugh Riddle, and it sits on a relatively tiny footprint, but its octagonal spire makes it stand out, nonetheless. The Mather Company built railroad cars. The name might ring a bell; the builder was a descendant of Cotton Mather, involved in the Salem Witch Trials; this will not be the last time a member of that famous family will be a titan of industry in one of the cities we visit.

Sitting right at the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker is the London Guarantee Building, famous for its concave façade facing the intersection and the Michigan Avenue bridge. Constructed in 1923 by Alfred S. Alschuler for its namesake insurance company which was its major tenant.

But what am I alluding to in the title of this post: civic identity? This is the site of Fort Dearborn, and you wouldn’t even know it if it weren’t for some bronze plaques in the concrete pavement under your feet. For me, this is so Chicago, a city dedicated, perhaps obsessed, with business. While in St. Louis, we annihilated our historic Levee district for a moribund national park whose attendance numbers continue to decline every year since its opening, in Chicago, the thought of taking such valuable real estate out of commission for a commemorative park is sacrilege!

In fact, the tourists around me didn’t even notice the outline of the block house of the old fort until they looked down to see why the heck I was photographing the ground!

So yes, lay down a couple dozen unobtrusive plaques to let historians know they’re walking over the site of Fort Dearborn (which would have been over twenty feet below where we’re walking since much of the center of Chicago is raised up above the original ground level, and move on with making money.

Likewise, across the Michigan Avenue bridge, there is a nice plaza, which finally received a poignant bust of Chicago’s founder, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. Like far more portraits than you realize throughout history, it is an idealized depiction of a real historical figure. The plaza is where Du Sable built his original trading post around 1778.

Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. Chicago River elevators, Chicago, Ill. United States Chicago River Illinois Chicago, 1900. [Sept. 1] Photograph.

It’s come a long way since it was a slow moving river through a marsh, and even since 1900, when it was still a largely industrial channel with Great Lakes freighters docked along its length.

While much of what we see in this view north in 1968 has not changed, it hides a dramatic metamorphosis of Michigan Avenue into one of the largest shopping districts in the United States.

Historic American Engineering Record, Creator, Chicago Department Of Transportation, Alexander Von Babo, Charles Scott, Frances Alexander, John Nicolay, and Carolyn Brucken, Lowe, Jet, photographer. Chicago River Bascule Bridge, Michigan Avenue, Spanning Chicago River at North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Cook County, IL. Cook County Illinois Chicago, 1968. Documentation Compiled After. Photograph.

The bascule bridges themselves are civic works of art, and not just functional. I’ve been stuck once waiting for them to close while a boat passed by.

I’ve looked at these sculptures before back in June of 2008 and gone inside the control room during the same visit.

Each bridge is different, reflecting different periods of construction, and a couple are double decker, and one or two also carry L trains across their spans.

The one below, I believe, is from the 1940s.

We’ll be looking at Marina City and the Tribune Tower tomorrow.

The four high relief sculptures on the four towers represent the arrival of Marquette and Joliet, the arrival of Du Sable and John Kinzie, the Battle of Fort Dearborn, and the rebuilding after the Great Fire.

Let us now turn to the Tribune Tower, which perhaps one of the most famous headquarters in the newspaper business. Conveying a sense of permanence, its design was the result of an international competition. You can read more about it here.

It’s also famous for the newspaper being painted as a villain and choosing a more “conservative” and “reactionary” design, rejecting the more modern designs of several European architects. Thank God they did; the last thing Chicago (or any city needs) is another bland Modernist skyscraper. Look at some of the crap designs they submitted. I’m sure some Modern fans would love to have a Walter Gropius design in downtown Chicago, but I don’t.

Along with the Wrigley Building and the Intercontinental Hotel, it creates an ensemble of early Twentieth Century skyscrapers that really can’t be beaten anywhere else in the world.

Designed by Raymond M. Hood & John Mead Howells in 1921, it is in a style often described as Neo-Gothic.

Heading west down the Chicago River, more massive buildings lay out before us.

Chicago’s Merchandise Mart makes St. Louis’s version look downright sad. Its massive inventory is famous around the world. Constructed in 1930 according to designs of the firm of Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, it even has its own L stop.

I don’t even remember this skyscraper below from the last time I was in Chicago–that’s how many are being built. I would estimate that Chicago has fifty times more skyscrapers than St. Louis, again, despite being only three times the size. Sad!

I do like how there’s one last warehouse left along the river from the more industrial past of the Chicago River.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Mark Preston says:

    Chris: Great essay, wonderful photos.
    St Louis, stared downhill by being part slave state up to 1865. Plus the railroads didn’t have to cross that big river. Well, this might not be wholly true, but I know it has some weight.

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