Santiago Calatrava’s “Chicago Spire” is in the news this week as local unions have suggested their willingness to help back the stalled project. The design, for a site next to Lake Shore Drive and just north of the River, would be some version of the world’s tallest residential tower.
Recently I came across this image, from June, 1928, of an unbuilt “tallest” that was planned for a nearby site. Variously called the Crane Tower or the Apparel Mart, this design by Walter Ahlschlager was the subject of one of the first air rights deals for a commercial structure. It would have risen above the Illinois Central’s passenger rail lines, providing a new terminal, parking for 1200 cars, a 1000-room hotel, and exhibition and office space for the City’s fashion industry. Three professional club quarters and a rooftop swimming pool were also mentioned as amenities for tenants and guests. The tower was to have been 75 stories, which would have been fifteen stories higher than the Woolworth in New York, which held the record at the time.
The project’s timing, of course, could not have been worse. While it was announced in 1928, changes in both the program and the site extended the design process through 1929. Various schemes show the tower on what is now East Wacker Drive (where the Hyatt Regency is now), or on Randolph, on the site of the Standard Oil building (later Amoco, and now Aon). While the clients dithered, the financial crisis of 1929 hit, drying up funding and tenants. The project died quietly.
Ahlschlager seems never to have recovered the standing that made him a logical choice for such a large project. While he had executed a number of small towers in the Loop and the more complex Medinah Club (now the Intercontinental Hotel) on North Michigan Avenue, he did not design another large building in Chicago after this project. The site took decades to develop, though the air rights lease that the Apparel Mart syndicate had arranged ended up playing a role in the development of this entire area, including Illinois Center.