“civic center north”

Rendering by H.D. Newman, from Dept. of City Planning, City of Chicago. Development Plan for the Central Area of Chicago : A Definitive Text
for Use with Graphic Presentation.  (Chicago : The Dept of City Planning, 1958).

Reading up on the 1958 Development Plan for the Central Area of Chicago, a foundational text that encoded the Daley administration’s efforts to keep the city’s financial and institutional activity in the Loop and to prevent it from fleeing to the suburbs. While, not coincidentally, also keeping their political power concentrated downtown.

It’s a fascinating document for many reasons, and it may have been the single most influential fifty pages in the city’s history, since it laid out the infrastructural program for the Loop over the next five decades. Making the central area accessible to automobile traffic while improving public transit, establishing anchor developments using federal, state, and city/county government office construction, and incorporating residential construction alongside commercial and institutional were all key factors in keeping the city alive and vital during the postwar years–while also keeping voters and allies from moving to Oak Brook and other newly-minted centers of development on the periphery.

One of the goals of the new project is to show how the technical transformations that occurred in the city’s high-rise designs were embedded in these sorts of careful political engineering on the part of the Daley machine–that big developments like Marina City or the John Hancock Tower only could happen because they represented important beachheads in Daley’s efforts to keep an economic and political power base in the downtown wards. Developers benefitted from zoning and building regulations that were either progressive or loose, depending on which side you were on (or where you owned real estate), the machine could rely on a concentration of activity in its voting breadbasket while keeping outlying wards full of people who worked downtown, and the city frankly benefitted from some of the most important urban projects to shape its downtown space–ever.

Among those was the Civic Center, a response to the lack of space in the 1915 City/County Building as Chicago grew. New offices and courtrooms were desperately needed by the mid-1950s, and an expansion was one of the major institutional projects proposed by the 1958 plan that would have kept thousands of government employees in the Loop. After the previous administration’s proposal to relocate these services in the Fort Dearborn development (which would have cleared twenty-some blocks in River North), the Central Area Plan, spearheaded by Daley ally Ira J. Bach as Commissioner of City Planning, focused instead on the block directly east of the City/County Building. That site would eventually become the Daley Center, with its iconic plaza focused on (ahem) the world’s largest Picasso.

But the city’s initial assumptions for this block were, as you can see, radically different. To phase the project in, Bach’s commission originally planned for a large block of courtrooms and offices on the south side of the site, with an open plaza on the north and a ‘tall office building’ constructed above the Greyhound Bus Station on Randolph Street. The plaza, seen in the rendering above, would connect these buildings to the City County Building–which would be remodeled to “conform to the remainder of the Civic Center.”

Given that the great drama of Daley Plaza is the dialogue between the new tower’s Cor-Ten steel and the Holabird and Root building’s massive neo-classical facade, this last bit is especially suprising. But so is the fact that the plaza would have faced the old bus station–today the plaza opens up to SOM’s 1965 Brunswick Building and the 1922 Chicago Temple. The evolution of the Civic Center into a single tower that creates one of the city’s great stage sets involved structural engineering, local politics, and progressive thinking about the role of the courts in the city’s life.

Of particular note in the rendering is the real base of Chicago’s political clout in the post-war years. To the northeast of the sunken plaza you can just see the corner of the Sherman Hotel, designed by Holabird and Roche and built in phases from 1911-1913, which was Daley’s unofficial headquarters throughout his tenure as Mayor. All of his campaigns were run from the Sherman, and many of the backroom dealings that couldn’t take place under the governmental auspices of City Hall itself were decamped to the smoky lounges across the street. The Sherman was demolished piecemeal from 1973 on, and was replaced in 1985 by the State of Illinois Center by Murphy/Jahn–the last piece of the grand 1958 plan to re-house state, federal, and city employees in buildings that would keep them downtown. The State of Illinois is now, of course, for sale and the subject of a growing preservation battle–lost in the discussion is that like most Chicago buildings it was, itself, built on the site of a building that because of its history (if not its quality) probably deserved more consideration than it had when its future was decided…

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