Historical Lessons from 1920s-1950s High-Rise Multi-Family Construction Projects in Chicago

Daniel Joseph Whittaker
Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago

Two Chicago towers from the 1920s and the 1950s offer the contemporary designer dynamic historical lessons regarding the orchestration of political will for redevelopment of prime lakeshore land for multi-family construction. This presentation addresses how the design, development and construction of adjacent projects, separated by a generation, were conceived and delivered in different manners. Completed in 1927 and promoted as the “world's largest cooperative”, 1400 North Lake Shore Drive, a 21-story tower, replaced an 1885 home by Henry Hobson Richardson, who today is respected as the father of American Romanesque-revival architecture. There was little resistance to the 1922 demolition of this rusticated manor to make way for a sophisticated high-density apartment tower.

By comparison, 1350-60 North Lake Shore Drive, finished in 1951, attempted to ameliorate America's postwar housing shortage. Construction of a twin set of 22-story towers necessitated the demolition of what once was America's most costly private home, completed in 1885 by Henry Cobb and Charles Frost. The historical lessons learned from these two redevelopments provide multiple insights into the establishment and modification of zoning codes, the demolition of low-density residences to make way for high-density multi-family towers, and the methods by which the press was leveraged to convey a cogent narrative encompassing “progress.” Both tower projects were developed in a pre-historic-preservation timeframe, when little emphasis was placed upon conservation of old-guard society family legacy buildings. More attention was focused on finding an egalitarian solution to a social problem: overcrowding. This presentation examines, through archival and primary-source testimony, how the media and architects worked together to convey a logical and sound narrative to the public about constructing a new and improved future Chicago.