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I Think Icon, I Think Icon,

I Think Icon.

Building iconography explained, sort of.

Crain's Chicago Business

April 5, 1993 

Heaven protect freelancers from headline-writing editors.  The symbolism I describe here was mostly supplied by the architects of Chicago’s great business buildings—it was beyond the people who paid for them—and one shouldn’t read too much into such doodads, but they added interest that today’s buildings lack.

The piece was edited, newspaper-style, to the AP convention calling for one- and two-sentence paragraphs. I here restored my original paragraphing.

It makes a difference. Really. 


If the great cathedrals were storybooks in stone, then Chicago's commercial buildings are billboards. They are crammed with images and messages about the buildings or the companies that occupy them or the people who built them.


Like all forms of public relations, the stories that buildings tell should be regarded with polite skepticism. For instance, if the hooded gentleman cradling a sheaf of wheat next to the clock on the Board of Trade building is indeed a Babylonian farmer, and if, as the guidebooks say, the Babylonians were ace traders, then why was this cunning capitalist caught actually holding wheat?


Ornament on commercial buildings sometimes serves the same symbolic or ritual function that it serves on a church or a city hall. The row of eight pedestal-mounted busts of America's "geniuses of distribution" at the Merchandise Mart is an example, although they look uncomfortably like the heads that generals used to mount on spikes as warnings to would-be invaders.


Usually, however, architectural tributes to business are expressed metaphorically. Especially in the last century, the icons of the ancient world—the gods and goddesses, the sacred plants, the mythical beasts—were appropriated by commercial developers eager to show themselves to be men of culture.


The problem is that allusions to ancient myths are wasted in an era when "the classics" means Led Zeppelin. To us, the Greek column does not say "temple," it says "bank," just as the gargoyle does not say "evil" but "vacation in France." Thus, we must take the Board of Trade at its word when it says that the Art Deco statue atop its building is in fact Ceres, the Greek goddess of grain, and not, say, the Hittite goddess of stock option futures.


Similarly, the two winged figures that adorn the entrance mural at the recently opened 120 N. La Salle look like a couple of very good friends out on a hang-gliding lark. They are supposed to be Daedalus and his son, Icarus. Usually, the impetuous Icarus is depicted crashing to earth after flying so close to the sun that it melted the waxen wings fashioned for him by his father. But this treatment of the story would have been perhaps too vividly metaphorical for a building that opened after the real estate crash.


Another problem for the would-be interpreter of building art: Much of it is so far from the sidewalk, it is hard to apprehend in detail. Carvings atop the Illinois Athletic Club purportedly depict more than 30 human figures shooting arrows, throwing the discus, etc., but they could be taking urine samples for all a passerby sans binoculars can tell.


Some architects looked for their myths closer to home. The classical gods that the designers of Chicago's postmodern skyscrapers seek to honor are the greats of Chicago's own architectural pantheon. The roof towers at 225 W. Wacker are connected by "bridges" that mimic the structures straddling the river below them. And 303 W. Madison recalls Frank Lloyd Wright in its lobby window of stained glass.


Pere Marquette's missionary work among the Indians appears often as a motif in Chicago's architectural adornments. The Marquette Building is a poem to that explorer, punctuated by tomahawk and panther heads on the doors and elevators (since remodeled) that marked the floor stops with bronze arrows. Perhaps early capitalists saw it as a parable for their relationships with the unions. Whatever their original intent, such scenes are wildly incorrect by today's political and artistic standards.


Architects were more likely to pick the exotic reference over the homely one, no matter how heroic. A tree growing in Brooklyn is no more unlikely than papyrus growing in the South Loop, but nevertheless, the upper stories of the Monadnock Building are decorated with lotus blossoms and papyrus, the symbols of Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively, in ancient times.


Usually, the main message conveyed via architectural iconography is, "Lease me.'' Ornament is chosen merely to differentiate one property from another in a crowded real estate market. Any old doodad will do, as long as it catches the eye: The upper slopes of the Wrigley Building are decorated with sculptures that Robert Bruegmann, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, has likened to “demented funeral pyres,” and the main lobby of the Merchandise Mart is decorated with geometrized Mayan motifs.


Still, many fashionable architects in 1980s couldn’t resist the urge to crack little jokes with their iconography. Consider Stanley Tigerman’s isn’t-that-a-Bentley-front-end? parking garage on East Lake Street.


Such prankishness is hardly surprising. In the 1880s, John Root livened up long days at the drafting table by designing fish-shaped doorknobs and elevators for the Fisher Building. The Heckle and Jeckle-ish birds carved into the ornamental door jamb of the Rookery constitute another architectural pun, spoiled perhaps by the fact that so few Americans recognize the crow-like blackbird common in Europe as a rook.


That's the problem with architects. They're always building jokes that nobody else gets. ●




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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