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Homage to the Barons Who

Built Chicago

Great buildings need great developers

Chicago Enterprise

November 1992

In which I make the point that—Daniel Burnham's reputation notwithstanding—the most important land-use planners, architects, and social engineers in Chicago for 150 years have been property developers.


Reviewed: They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City's Architecture by Miles L. Berger, Bonus Books, 1992


All the hallmarks of the physical city of Chicago—the high-rise lakefront, the tall commercial buildings, even its park and mass transit systems—were planned not by government agencies but by individual property developers. The developer has been Chicago's land-use planner, architect, and social engineer for 150 years. The progenitor of the breed is probably Peter Brooks, the Bostonian who seldom even visited Chicago but who, through his Rookery, Monadnock, Marquette, and Pontiac buildings, helped define the Chicago School of architecture.


No aspect of this story is more remarkable than the fact that no one has ever bothered to tell it. In They Built Chicago: Entrepreneurs Who Shaped a Great City's Architecture, Miles L. Berger seeks to set the record straight. In 44 profiles, Berger demolishes the stereotype of the developer as money-hungry swine. We meet authors, art collectors, intellectuals, do-gooders, diplomats, rascals. Many were and are artistically inclined; most are romantics, risk-takers, loners.


No doubt it was inadvertent, but Berger's collective portrait reveals that developers are motivated by greed of a non-pecuniary kind. As the author puts it, each was willing to risk all for a monument, a legacy, or a "uniquely individual vision." The payback, in short, is well-fed vanity.


The deals have gotten bigger and more complex, but otherwise development is the same game it was in the 1850s. Palmer, Field and Pullman differ from Weissbourd, Klutznick, and Rubloff only in fame. Most of these men are all but unknown outside business circles; the older ones—Ferd Peck (Auditorium, Stock Exchange), Waller (Rookery, Home Insurance) and Hale (Reliance), to name just a few—already are forgotten within them.


A younger generation is moving to the fore. The Bucks and Steins and Shaws are educated well above the average for Chicago; of the 20 men profiled who were busy after 1945, 17 have college educations from places like the University of Chicago, Cornell, Harvard, and the Wharton School. Nonetheless, there is no school that teaches the game; today's developers have learned by doing, just like their predecessors.


Developers survive by staying one-half step ahead of everyone else—competitors, creditors, the market, the next recession. All claim to be servants of the market, but they also shaped demand by anticipating it. Owen Aldis and Charles Heisen did that when they invested in the wilds of the South Loop, just as Al Robin did with Sandburg Village 50 years later. The big boys created their own development trends; when Potter Palmer bought outlying land cheap and built heavily, his projects provided the gravitational mass that attracted other, less adventuresome imitators to State Street and the Gold Coast.


Berger—an investor, consultant and developer for more than 40 years in Chicago—also served on the Chicago Plan Commission. They Built Chicago is about history but it is not a history. While engaging and well-written, Berger's view of the process is too sanguine, his verdicts about the men too guarded and sometimes lacking essential candor. The result is yet another booster's version in which Chicago was "born to greatness" and shaped by "men of vision."


The author is an unrepentant champion of the free market and minimal government regulation. He argues that the city is powerless against market trends, that it lacks the legal power to dictate the scale of streets and neighborhoods, that government exists to help developers and not vice versa.


In a series of "author's commentaries" that close the later chapters, Berger pleads his own case and that of the city in his version of a dozen controversies that he was involved with. These apologies probably will leave building preservationists, environmentalists, and egalitarians of all types chewing the cover in rage. Berger's accounts glide happily over some of the city's bumpier development deals, from the demolition of the Stock Exchange Building to Illinois Center and Presidential Towers.


Nothing is here about how the razing of SRO hotels to put up tax-subsidized housing for yuppies contributes to homelessness, or how the quest for height—really a quest for profits—gave Chicago a reputation for tall building at the cost of livability. Berger credits what many Chicagoans see as the Manhattanization of North Michigan Avenue to "an innovative spirit that from the beginning has been conducive to creativity and versatility in high-rise architecture"—especially developers' skill at cramming the maximum rentable space onto the minimum of land.


One of the lessons (perhaps unintended) of They Built Chicago is that there is neither money nor  fame in building for the working class. Of the nearly four dozen men profiled, only one—Samuel Gross, whom Berger calls the most prolific housebuilder in Chicago history—catered to people of modest means. Gross sold 44,000 lots, 7,500 houses and founded 18 suburban villages by 1896. Berger recounts a few modern projects built west of Halsted but they were all housing for the middle class, usually subsidized, safely near  hospitals or universities.


Berger's plea that developers get more credit for Chicago's fame as an architectural center is well-founded. However, he does not acknowledge the harm done to the city when development outpaces the market. Chronic overbuilding means that new projects forever suck tenants out of other, usually older buildings that often have more architectural, historical, or urbanistic merit, speeding their decline. Most of the interesting skyscrapers of this generation have been built in cities other than Chicago, which suggests that Chicago's heritage has become self-conscious, leaving its "men of vision" looking backward rather than forward.


Berger does not ask such questions, but he inadvertently suggests some answers. Chicago's recent innovations have been in marketing and engineering rather than design; Chicago buildings are getting bigger, in other words, but with rare exceptions they are not getting better. Cost-efficiency in the 1880s gave us the Monadnock Building; the same impulse in the 1960s gave us the glass box. Quality made a comeback in the 1980s, but at the price of dullness.


For all its faults, They Built Chicago adds a fascinating chapter to Chicago's commercial history. Until someone tells it better, this is an indispensable account, crammed with detail and lively anecdote. You may not like Chicago any more for having read this book but you will understand it better. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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