Some measure of the Depression’s hold on Chicago can be seen in what was not built in the years following the greatest building boom the city had ever seen. 1929 saw one of the city’s ugliest zoning controversies, over plans by financier John F. Cuneo to develop the corner of Michigan and Randolph, just north of Grant Park. Cuneo caused a stir in architectural circles by contracting first with Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, and then sometime between March and June, 1929 pulling the project and awarding it to Burnham Brothers, at that point heated rivals of their former partners. On June 24, Cuneo published plans for a 40-story tower rising straight from the lot lines. Reporters and other developers were shocked to find that Cuneo, through a friendly alderman, had benefited from a provision snuck through the City Council that May that lifted the height of the street wall from 264 feet to 440 feet for lots that faced a public park.[i] With Michigan Avenue almost entirely built up, this clause applied to Cuneo’s lot and almost no others. Some sleuthing revealed that Cuneo had paid a member of the Zoning Board of Appeals to quietly usher the amendment through—it passed unanimously with no debate, leading some to speculate that it had been intentionally hidden within other, routine business.[ii] Alfred Granger, president of the Illinois Society of Architects, led a protest that claimed all the usual ill effects of such tall buildings—but that may well have been an effort on behalf of their clients to prevent the construction of a tower that would have raised valuations significantly on lots that contained only smaller buildings.[iii] The Council demanded a chance to revisit the issue, which ended up in Circuit Court by November of that year where it was struck down.[iv] An attempt in 1930 to extend the block height limit saw little momentum, as by that point any attempt to raise such limits was dwarfed by the lack of economic motivation to construct at all. Cuneo’s plan was shelved quietly even as the case went to trial.
[i] Oscar Hewitt, “Start Inquiry into New High Building Law.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jul. 14, 1929. 1. The ordinance read: “ ‘The street line height limit in a fifth volume district shall be increased 66-2/3 per cent of such height limit on all frontages of premises three sides of which adjoin streets, one of which sides abuts a street greater in width than 100 feet, and one of which sides is across the street from a public park, public playground, public waterway, or cemetery, it being the intention of the provisions of this paragraph to increase the ultimate height limit of said described premises.’ Al Chase, “Architects Make Protest on New Skyscraper Law.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Jul. 12, 1929. 14.
[ii] “Cuneo Revealed Beneficiary of Skyscraper Law.” Chicago Daily Tribune. July 13, 1929. 3.
[iii] Al Chase, “Architects Make Protest on New Skyscraper Law.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Jul. 12, 1929. 14. See, too, “Cuneo Building Plans Revealed as a Rush Job.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Jul. 15, 1929. 3.
[iv] Judge Thomas Taylor was not convinced by Cuneo’s arguments that the revision was broad enough to allow others to likewise take advantage of the new loophole. “‘Man’s selfishness is ingenious,” noted Taylor in deciding against Cuneo. “Judge Gives His Ideas in Debate on Cuneo Permit.” Chicago Daily Tribune. Nov. 7, 1929. 6.