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Unbuilt Chicago

The perfect dreamed-of city

Inland Architect

May/June 1993

I suppose anyone who spends time in a big city gradually builds a dream version of it in her mind in which everything is handsomer and more efficient and more pleasant. An unbuilt Springfield remains in my head from my youth. For my unbuilt Chicago I borrowed from the ideas of others, like these.


The unbuilt project, like the dreamed-of marriage, is forever perfect. Chicago has a cluttered closetful of plans for things that, while never built, tantalize us with promise of pleasures that might have been. It's a long list, even if one excludes projects that are not built but may yet be. Such cases of arrested development include the redesign of the State Street Mall, Cityfront Center (a Battery Park City that now badly needs a jump-start), the new public parks promised at Cityfront and across the river in Illinois Center along with the proposed marina that the park district has designed for the rivermouth turning basin, and Daley the Younger's plans for casinos and a Lake Calumet airport.


The sensible person will also ignore unbuilt road projects such as the first Mayor Daley's Crosstown Expressway; roads are seldom revealing of municipal character, and in any event, there are few road schemes of even dubious merit that haven't been built. Neither will we comment on projects that never got past the "wouldn't it be nice" stage, such as the culture mall endorsed by the Chicago Central Area Committee and the city's arts organizations. Also off the list are the things that can be considered unbuilt in the metaphysical rather than the physical sense—a conveniently located convention center, for example, or an easily accessible downtown lakefront.


Nor will we dawdle over the dozens of large commercial buildings that never made it off the drawing boards, except for projects that loom so large in scale or looniness that they take on the qualities of monuments (or public works projects). Frank Lloyd Wright's 1956 proposal for a mile-high tower is perhaps the most famous of these. At 528 stories, it would have rendered the languishing 125-story Miglin-Beitler tower not just redundant but insignificant. Either would have required extraordinary engineering expertise, since designers would have had to include in their calculations the substantial wind loads from the towers' promoters.


More missed are the various unbuilt proposals for Terminal Park, the name first given to the Illinois Central's lake-front air rights property on the Chicago River east of Michigan Avenue. In 1923, Eliel Saarinen proposed an office tower on the site that would have sat amidst a quartet of matched office blocks defining a landscaped pedestrian promenade. A subsequent proposal submitted by a team led by Raymond Hood used many of these same elements. John Stamper in his book Chicago's North Michigan Avenue writes that either scheme would have given Chicago the most impressive building project in the city's history. Instead, the property was developed in the 1970s as Illinois Center, which city-lovers regard the way that the Chicago Symphony board regards Al Capone.


Meanwhile, across the river, a competition sponsored by neighborhood businessmen elicited proposals for monumental gateways to the new North Michigan Avenue. Andrew Rebori offered three variations on the theme of twin towers flanking the boulevard where the Wrigley Building now stands. One featured campaniles bridged by a three-bay archway some 11-stories tall and topped by a horse-drawn chariot.


Shopping streets are more important public spaces than plazas in Chicago, and they have attracted more imaginative thinkers. In 1976, the Chicago Chapter of the AIA (CCAIA) published drawings showing what Wabash Avenue might look like if it were covered with a glass arcade from Marshall Field's to Congress Parkway. The new roof would make the street quieter, cleaner, and more comfortable in bad weather. (A similar approach was offered by Alan Armbrust as part of the 1989 "Alternative Visions" exhibition sponsored by the CCAIA; he covered State Street with translucent Teflon and skylights suspended from adjacent buildings; what better place for a revival than a tent?) Rather than bring the street indoors, as was done at Water Tower Place, the scheme would have taken the mall outdoors.


Somewhat the same effect would have been achieved by Stuart Cohen's counter-proposal to the State Street Transit Mall: close Wabash Avenue to traffic and convert the space directly beneath the el into shop space. European-style stalls would have added bustle and rescaled the street toward a bazaar like intimacy—an alternative in every sense to North Michigan Avenue. A similar State Street Bazaar has been proposed by the Chicago firm of Decker and Kemp for land left vacant by stalled development.


Unlike State Street, the "Magnificent Mile" has been lucky enough to not be improved since it opened a half-century ago. Daniel Burnham came up with several versions of the new boulevard beginning in 1892 that variously included elevated roadways, matched monumental plazas, even a subway crossing of the river. Fortunately, Burnham did another version in 1907 and a refinement in 1909 that is close to what was built, save for the unhappy fact that his tree-lined parkway in the middle of the street has been lost to the exigencies of traffic movement.


No part of the city has been built upon more spectacularly—or with more spectacular foolishness—than the lakefront. Indeed, the lakefront itself is a built artifact, or rather a nearly built artifact. In 1894, Burnham envisioned a series of islands, peninsulae, and lagoons up and down the shore from the Loop south to Jackson Park. That vision has bedeviled subsequent generations of city-builders as a kind of lost Atlantis. A restored "soft" beach was proposed between 26th and 48th streets by then Chicago Park District board president Walter Netsch during the high-water days of the late 1980s; it would have recreated the unspoiled lakefront of presettlement days.


Late Mayor Harold Washington's Shoreline Protection Commission in 1988 proposed to rebuild more than three miles of stepped-stone revetments, replenish sand on three and one-half miles of old beach and construct one and one-half miles of new beach, add more than 350 acres of new landfill, and build or enlarge three harbors with mooring for 3,400 craft. Many of these improvements would have graced the neglected southern lakefront.


The Protection Commission Plan would have cost $841 million, however, and from the reaction you'd have thought the commission had proposed requiring college degrees of aldermen. The Chicago Park District came up with a more modest $189-million version. Even this reduced version may be hard to fund, as it would generate public rather than private benefits.


Today, the lakefront parks are the one part of the city where not building is considered progress, but that land was not always considered sacrosanct. In Constructing Chicago, historian Daniel Bluestone recalls how architect Normand Patton called for the construction in what became Grant Park of a "civic ensemble," a complex of galleries, institutes, exhibition halls, museums, and libraries that would be the equivalent of the Court of Honor built for the Columbian Exposition in 1893. As Bluestone puts it, "the center would make permanent the fair's transitory grandeur."


Burnham, a generous man with other people's ideas, incorporated Patton's notion in his 1909 Plan of Chicago. Burnham called for an expanded Crerer Library and Field Museum in the park, arrayed symmetrically along the axis of Congress Parkway. This part of Burnham's lake-front legacy is usually ignored by his many champions. In a 1991 radio interview, Netsch said that Burnham's original plan to site the Field Museum in Grant Park would have been a "booboo."


The late Mayor Daley outdid Burnham in boldness if not common sense when he proposed that a third airport be built off 55th Street on 11,000 acres of lake bottom drained and secured by dikes and connected to the shore by causeways as long as six and one-half miles.


Lake lovers were aghast—so were many airport lovers—but the idea looks better today than it did then. A lakeport would have meant no complaints from suburbanites miffed because they missed the punch lines on Roseanne, no worries about 737s flaming out and landing on a mall, no garish chain hotels marring the roadsides. The probability that plane noise would drown out the music of lake-front festivals could even be seen as a boon, depending on one's tastes.


While the lake is bigger, canals have figured more significantly in Chicago's history. Not significantly enough in the opinion of several visionaries. In Frederick Law Olmsted's and Calvert Vaux's original plans for the South Park System, Jackson Park's lagoons were to be linked to a lagoon at Washington Park via a canal along the Midway Plaisance. But whereas most Chicago public bodies run out of ideas before they run out of money, the South Park Commission ran out of money first.


In 1983, the Chicago Central Area Committee put on the building agenda Dirk Lohan's notion of digging a scenic canal along 18th Street from the river east to Burnham Harbor. It was an idea a bit behind its time; until the city in the 1920s straightened the river between 12th and 18th streets, it came as close to the lake as Clark Street and would have needed to be a few blocks (and a few million dollars) shorter.


The Chicago River is little more than a canal itself. The "Alternative Visions" exhibition attracted no fewer than five proposals for facilities to be built at the river mouth, from maritime museums to a bridge-like marquee identifying the spot as Chicago in case anyone thought they'd turned into Waukegan by mistake.


Public buildings are a more conventional way of announcing civic identity. In the last century, there was a proposal that City Hall and the County Building not be squeezed onto one block but that the former should sit a half-block farther west, abutting Wells Street, and the latter should remain on its present site. That configuration would have created two symmetrical half-block plazas bisected by LaSalle Street, which Bluestone called "a block of order amid the discordant downtown district."


More recent proposals to house the burgeoning public bureaucracy sought to impose order of a less welcome kind. A 1960 outline for a new Chicago Civic Center would have clad the City-County Building in aluminum to match two new office buildings proposed for the block across Clark Street.


In his 1909 Plan of Chicago, Burnham proposed what is perhaps the best known of the unbuilt bureaucracies, a complex of five public buildings arrayed around a pentagonal plaza where Halsted Street intersected Congress Parkway. The centerpiece was a massive domed City Hall; God may have inspired some nice cathedrals, but Chicagoans inspired by City Hall would show the world what a really impressive building looked like.


Ludwig Hilberseimer's proposed redevelopment plan for the South Side from 39th to 47th streets solved the nettlesome problems of finding an expressive vocabulary for public buildings by simply doing away with them. His radical revision of the city had no courthouses because Hilberseimer, with that blithe unreality that typified his thinking as a planner, assumed, like a good Socialist, that the state would wither away.


The not-quite-implemented Plan of Chicago is the ultimate blueprint for unbuilt Chicago. The Chicago Central Area Committee (CCAC) in 1983 proposed to finish it (or its downtown components at least). Responding to the pleas of the tourist postcard lobby, the CCAC's preliminary plan called for the spending of between 15 and 24 billion dollars to build (among less exotic projects) a Viennese opera house, an Eiffel-Tower-in-the-lake, and canals like those in Venice. The result would have transformed Chicago into a sort of EuroDisney that would provide (as cartoonist Roz Chast noted recently in The New Yorker) "all the excitement of Europe . . . with none of the bother!"


The doomed attempt to bring the 1992 World's Fair to Chicago made Burnham-esque plan-making plausible again. Harry Weese, for example, envisioned a fair based in Grant Park, which would be converted into a Tivoli Gardens with tramways. In addition to the fun, Weese would have decked over much of the park, providing parking and boat storage beneath while improving access to the water's edge above; the plan included a lower Wacker Drive extension that would run in an unused rail right-of-way south to 12th Street. The exercise made clear the difference between big plans and big ideas.


The World's Fair did not come to Chicago, but others might. One fair proposal by Stuart Cohen and Anders Nereim proposes a romantic configuration of parks and exhibition centers between Soldier Field and'McCormick Place—quite a useful model for the conversion of Meigs Field to fairgrounds, in case anyone needs one.


Postcard publishers may have reason to lament that so many of Burnham's ideas never were built, but there have been other plans whose implementation, however tardy, might do the city some real good. Perhaps the most promising was Jens Jensen's 1919 plan for the Greater West Side Parks System. More than a pattern book for parks, the plan addressed many of the things that Burnham's plan ignored, adapting to a Chicago setting such principles of the English Garden City movement as clustered housing and public gardens.


Chicago is a city that regards stadiums the way Parisians regard museums, and the city has seen proposals to build lots of them. Weese envisioned an 85,000-seat, cable-suspended, all-enclosed "Central Superdome" at Halsted Street where that street intersects with the Kennedy Expressway and (as part of the World's Fair plan) a floating stadium at the river mouth. Mayor Daley the Elder wanted to build a new football venue on the lakefront until he was bullied into remodeling Soldier Field, instead. In 1985, a task force of the CCAC proposed a multi-use stadium immediately west of the Northwestern Station; the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority wanted to build a domed stadium just west of McCormick Place. (There's a project that never got built: a conveniently located, urbanistically benign convention center.)


In 1987, the Washington administration proposed a complex of stadiums on the Near West Side near the present Chicago Stadium. The complex would house not only new football/soccer and basketball/hockey stadiums but also training and sports medicine facilities associated with nearby hospitals. Construction was made conditional upon real job sharing, resettlement of displaced residents, and neighborhood infrastructure improvements, which apparently was thought to set a dangerous precedent.


Not building promising stadium projects thus is an honored tradition in Chicago. When the Chicago White Sox opted to replace aging Comiskey Park, they did so with a baseball mall rather than Chicago architect Philip Bess's brilliantly imagined alternative. His 40,000-seat Armour Field would have displaced fewer people, cost less, made for a more handsome and intimate ballpark, preserved the most evocative parts of the old park, and done less damage (from parking lots) to the existing neighborhood. Armour Field would have been better in short for the fans, the taxpayers, and the neighborhood. It wasn't built because the owners could not figure out that filling a 55,000-seat stadium a few times a year will earn less money than filling a nicer, 40,000-seat park every day.


The praise lavished last season for Baltimore's new Camden Yards—Armour Field come to life—made clear which city takes both its baseball and its architecture more seriously.


No district of the city has been more unbuilt-upon than the Near South Side. In 1909, the Plan of Chicago suggested straightening a nearby stretch of the Chicago River to allow the southward extension of Loop thoroughfares. That was done (in 1923), but Burnham's hoped-for relocation of rail lines that would have opened up a huge expanse of land for Loop expansion never happened. (The lakeward parcels have, of course, been seized by private developers for mainly upscale residential projects.)


The still-vacant district thus, was an obvious site for the proposed 1992 World's Fair. Architect Carl Rauchenburger put his Transform 92 there, between the Eisenhower Expressway and Cermak Road and State and Canal streets, sheltered by a membrane roof—the ultimate tent city. The South Side Planning Board proposed decking approximately 100 acres between Roosevelt Road and 39th Street as a site for the fair; no one bothered to ask how much that might cost.


Burnham envisioned public parks on south-side land vacated by the railroads. It's probably a good thing they weren't built, since Chicago has more parks than it can maintain now and given the high cost of hiring staffers to keep the field-houses closed on weekends.


Fortunately, the changing city is freeing up hundreds of acres of land no longer used by industry along a river that no longer is a sewer. Architect Gregory DeStefano imagined the largely derelict space between Clybourn Avenue and the Kennedy Expressway, through which the North Branch of the Chicago River wends, converted into a massive park from Belmont Avenue south to the Loop, which he called "Cabrini Green." Audacious and sensible at the same time, this new green space would have created several amenities at once—recreational space for nearby residential areas, an ennobled vista for people coming into the city on the Kennedy Expressway, and the transformation of a grim thoroughfare like Clybourn Avenue into a pleasure driveway.


Chicago already has a system of park-like boulevards in place; unfortunately, it doesn't have many actual park-like boulevards. Over the years, it has missed the chance to neglect even more of them. Jensen proposed a "prairie drive"—a sort of inland Lake Shore Drive —as part of his 1919 plan for a Greater West Side Park System. Meanwhile, Olmsted envisioned a parkway that would run from the city to his new planned suburb of Riverside, Illinois—four lanes wide, with separate lanes for pleasure vehicles, tree-lined walkways, and ornamental plantings. The developer's lack of money prevented it from being built, which spared subsequent generations from having to lament its poor upkeep.


Surveying this extensive roster of the unrealized, one must question why so many admirable ideas have languished. Even in the heyday of Chicago building, what was built was almost always less than what was proposed, not to mention what was possible. Why?


Certainly the city has endured a real economic decline since the 1920s and with it, a social decline, as well. Today's footloose corporate execs are less committed to the city, but so are ordinary people who are unwilling to tax themselves for the sake of a city from which they plan to escape as soon as possible. What Chicago lacks in the 1990s is not a Burnham but the wealth, the political consensus, and the civic confidence that Burnham had at his disposal.


It is usually the most daring and original ideas that never get built because they scare the power brokers of every era to death. They are subject to the scrutiny of both a more skeptical press and a public made cynical by too many big projects that, in order to garner our support, were over-promised; disappointment was the inevitable outcome. What has been called a culture of organized dissent is one of the fruits of the machine era: having built too much that was bad, postwar city halls inadvertently made it much harder to build anything good.


Perversely, building booms begin by building quickly and cheaply to meet backed-up demand; only later are developers obliged to add quality to their buildings to attract tenants who need more than mere space. The best ideas thus emerge just as the economics favorable to them disappear.


A speculative building culture does not necessarily lead to cheap buildings but it does yield buildings designed just to meet financial ends. In an era of excess such as the 1880s, Chicago's speculative builders gave the city a spare new aesthetic. In the decades since, those same values have tended to produce maximum flash for the least cash, expensive materials but shoddy ideas, etc. As a result, Chicago suffers from a surfeit of the spectacular and a shortage of the well-proportioned, well-thought-out project.


The public realm has been the haven for those whose ambitions could not be measured (at least not immediately) on the bottom line. But Chicago's parks and lakefront were themselves speculative ventures. The tradition of the entrepreneurial city hall is, if anything, stronger today than a century ago.


Large public projects in Chicago become political projects; that means that no project will be approved that might benefit one part of the city unless projects of equal value are approved for every part—which in straitened fiscal times means nothing will be built at all. ●




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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