The Rise and Fall of Michigan Avenue
Too much of a good thing on the Miracle Mile
September 27, 1991
The “miracle miles” in downtown Chicago is a classic illustration of the one of the iron rules of development in the U.S. A street became wealthy—that is, the land that flanked became valuable—because it was desirable becomes desirable because it was valuable. As more people and business crowded onto it, the qualities that had made it desirable were crowded out.
Reviewed: Chicago's North Michigan Avenue: Planning and Development, 1900–1930 by John W. Stamper. University of Chicago Press, 1991
For residents of a certain vintage, State Street will always be Chicago's great street. But these days, to tourists and suburbanites as well as some locals, Chicago means North Michigan Avenue. They've embraced it as a big-city theme park, the closest thing to a Rouse-ian festival market that the city offers. A 1989 survey of downtown pedestrian patterns found that on a typical summer Saturday the two sides of Michigan Avenue near Water Tower carried more than 53,000 and 46,000 people during a nine-hour sample period, tops among all downtown Chicago blocks surveyed.
North Michigan Avenue was no serendipitous result of market forces, but the outcome of conscious, deliberate planning. Its highly marketable ambiance—its upscale retail mix, its vaguely Europeanized atmosphere, its scale—was premeditated. The story of who did the premeditating, and how, is told in John Stamper's useful new book, Chicago's North Michigan Avenue: Planning and Development, 1900-1930, the third volume in the University of Chicago Press series, "Chicago Architecture and Urbanism." Stamper is an associate professor in Notre Dame's School of Architecture. He provides a building-by-building summary of the physical development of the street, including capsule biographies of the architects, business people, and planners whose decisions shaped it.
Developers and merchants have always been the de facto planners of our major streets. The larger outlines of the new Michigan Avenue were drawn by private property interests on the Near North Side, beginning late in the last century. What they sought to build was an alternative to a Loop that by then had become hideously congested and dirty, a sunnier, more spacious resort at which those with money might shop, live, and congregate.
"North Michigan Avenue" thus was an idea before it became a place. A mapmaker will tell you that it begins at Madison Street. An architect will tell you that it begins at Randolph, where Grant Park ends and Michigan becomes a proper avenue, with buildings on both sides. The shopping public will tell you that the avenue begins at the river bridge.
In fact, much of North Michigan Avenue wasn't even North Michigan Avenue until recently. Before World War I the main north-south street north of the river was Pine Street, a venue that was unpromising raw material for a cosmopolitan boulevard. The neighborhood it bisected was an unprepossessing site physically, offering no parks or hilltop vistas. The district did offer views of the lake—remember that until well into the 1880s the lakeshore ran in a more or less straight line between today's North Pier Terminal and One Magnificent Mile—but even that advantage diminished as the shoreline was gradually pushed farther lakeward. The chief advantage of the place, then and now, was that it was close to other places, specifically the Loop on one side and Lincoln Park on the other.
Pine Street and environs became popular, paradoxically, because it was both accessible to the Loop and not accessible to the Loop. Its nearness was an attraction to the wealthy businessmen whose factories and offices lay across the river. (The area around Rush and Erie became known as "McCormickville," for example, because the mansion of the reaper magnate was built there.) At the same time, the lack of convenient bridge access had discouraged factory and warehouse development. Indeed, those things that made the Loop a great place to make money in, such as steamboat, rail, and mass-transit access, created smoke and noise and congestion that made it a lousy place to do anything else in; land north of the river must have seemed positively Edenic in comparison.
As the Loop expanded, the development potential of the Near North Side expanded too. That potential would never be realized as long as the river thwarted the movement of people and goods to the north. Congestion made the existing bridges (especially the old swing bridge at Rush Street) dangerous as well as inconvenient. Construction of a double-decker bridge at Pine Street was proposed by Pine Street property owners as early as 1888; other early plans called for building a subway tunnel beneath the river and for routing traffic to the existing Rush Street bridge.
The idea of a new Michigan Avenue bridge excited powerful allies, including the Tribune and the Chicago Real Estate Board. Such a scheme was approved in 1905 by the City Council, and it surfaced again in 1906 in Daniel Burnham's Chicago Plan. It was Burnham who combined a variety of ideas into the North Michigan Avenue that we recognize today—a widened street carried on ramps culminating at the river in a new two-level drawbridge flanked by small plazas.
An ordinance calling for construction of Burnham's proposal was passed in 1913, actual construction commenced in 1918, and the thing was finally opened in 1920. It was a mammoth project. To make room for the widening, the city acquired a strip of land along Pine Street to the north of the river and Michigan to the south that was nearly a mile long and averaged roughly 70 feet in width; clearing that space required the total or partial demolition of 67 buildings. The total cost of land acquisition and construction was nearly $15 million—a staggering sum in 1920.
The opening of the Michigan Avenue Bridge in 1920 made North Michigan physically accessible. But the establishments that opened along the new avenue maintained their social exclusivity. The avenue became the home to the city's private clubs and expensive hotels—not the tourist warrens being built near the train stations to the south but select residential hotels where the rich might sojourn while in the city away from their suburban estates. Posh apartments (some with as many as a dozen rooms) followed. And like every neighborhood, the avenue needed and got convenience shopping. From the start it was decreed that each building would have shops on its lower floors—generally boutique-scale retailers who catered to more select tastes than could be satisfied by the mass merchandisers on State Street.
The engineering that went into the construction of the new avenue, in short, was social as well as physical. For example, the avenue was the first great Chicago boulevard designed for the free passage of the private automobile. Trucks and other delivery vehicles were banished, and there would be no streetcar track or el. As Stamper reminds us, the only people able to afford cars in the 1910s were doctors, businessmen, lawyers, and such.
The great downtown shopping streets of U.S. cities have always been as much about becoming as buying. Whatever his class, the Chicagoan between 1890 and 1930 was almost certainly a person out of place. He'd either moved up dramatically in class or abandoned the village or the small town for the city; shorn of the comforting certainties of clan and place, he had to reinvent himself.
The venues for these transformations were Chicago's great public ways—its boulevards and department stores, its parks and fairs. State Street in its heyday was a running seminar on the dress, the manners, the ethics of the American middle class. Shopping was an education for the socially ambitious, and an affirmation for the newly arrived. Thus, shopping has offered opportunities for display by both merchants and customers; as a result, North Michigan Avenue has acquired an unexpected popularity as a cruise strip.
Upscale shoppers are worth more to a street than the dollars they spend. This is not snobbism exactly, merely savvy merchandising. Buying up is the best part about moving up in a nation that tends to measure most things by material standards. When now-departed president Philip Miller ordered Field's to add Caviar Kaspia from Paris to its line in 1988 he did more than stem the loss in sales of expensive inedibles that began when Neiman Marcus and Bloomie's first offered Petrossian caviar. The secretary browsing in Field's during her lunch hour may not like caviar, may never intend to buy any; but she loves to shop in a store where she may feel, if only subliminally, like a caviar buyer.
Ordinarily, profitable uses on a street tend to concentrate to the point where they drive out other uses; as the street's economy grows less diverse, eventually it, like any too-specialized organism, becomes prey to unexpected changes in its environment. That's what happened to State Street when the car came. In lesser ways it happened to North Michigan, too. The avenue for a time had a certain genteel bohemian character. Parts of the district (the area known generally as River North today) were home to warehouses and town houses and converted stables of the type that have always attracted artists, book dealers, and others. Stamper tells us that the late Michigan-Superior Building at 737 North and the surviving Michigan-Chestnut Building at 842 North were designed to include artists' studios. (The former was built by the family that owned the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan.) But real artists couldn't afford the rents even in the late 1920s, and those spaces were converted to rentable offices.
Nevertheless, the diversity of use on Michigan Avenue has not changed much at all since 1900, even though the density of use has grown enormously. For example, the avenue's reputation as a posh shopping strip is not so much misleading as incomplete. The avenue has stores, yes, but also apartments and condos, clubs and restaurants, hotels, and office space. (A 1990 survey revealed that North Michigan boasts nearly as much office space as north and south Wacker Drive.)
In important ways, North Michigan functions like a neighborhood shopping strip, albeit one where the customers rather than the shopkeepers live over the stores. Sara Bode, executive director of the Greater State Street Council, explained to a 1989 members' breakfast that one of the reasons the avenue has thrived in spite of the middle-class flight and traffic jams is that "there's a heck of a lot of residential, high-income people within walking distance" of North Michigan Avenue.
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Much of the appeal of Michigan Avenue as an architectural (rather than an exclusively social) setting lies in its departure from the city's downtown street grid. Pine Street's north-south axis lay some 80 feet to the east of Michigan Avenue south of the river. Connecting the two streets via a new bridge created a jog in the new boulevard that proved to be a perfect venue for showoff buildings, which are exposed at that point to views from all directions. (The jog that LaSalle makes at Jackson provides a similarly dramatic setting for the Board of Trade.)
Developers were quick to see the possibilities. The intersection is home to one of the nation's more famous urban ensembles. Its standout buildings are the Tribune Tower (finished in 1925) and the Wrigley buildings (1922). The former was never as bad a building as some of its critics contended, if not as good as what could have been built; the Wrigley buildings are a rare instance of buildings that are admired by both the untutored public and the cognoscenti. The other members of that quartet are not as well known, less because they are inferior architecturally than because they were not so exploited by corporate image-mongerers. The neoclassical London Guarantee and Accident Building opened in 1924 on the southwest corner of the bridge; four years later, Holabird and Roche's forward-looking 333 North Michigan rose opposite it.
Although it has some fine buildings on it, Michigan Avenue is not known only—or mainly—for its architecture. Certainly it offers nothing that could be called unity of style or scale. The avenue is the place to see various versions of French styles, favored for pre-Depression store architecture as the epitome of posh. (The Farwell Building at 664 N. Michigan is one of the better examples.) But the street also was home to corporate headquarters, residential hotels, private social clubs, mammoth travelers' hostels (the Drake when it opened boasted 800 rooms), and apartment buildings which ranged in height from 3 to 37 stories.
Michigan Avenue has always been popular as a place to go to get away from Chicago without leaving Chicago. From the start, its buildings indulged in the fanciful and the exotic, based mainly on continental models. By 1930 the avenue constituted an architectural gazetteer of structures meant to evoke Spain, Gothic Europe, Italy, classical Greece, France—it even had an art deco version of the Orient in the form of the Medinah Athletic Club (now the Hotel Inter-Continental).
In this sense, North Michigan Avenue has been a failure from the start. A variety of plans had envisioned a boulevard lined with vaguely neoclassical structures of uniform height. Burnham, for example, offered a version of the Champs-Elysees, bracketed from Randolph to Oak by buildings each eight stories tall, each with essentially the same neoclassical facade, mansard roofs, and dormers. His drawings must have looked elegant in their day, although today Burnham's vision seems foreboding in its sterile sameness.
The North Central Business District Association, made up mainly of property owners on the avenue, commissioned studies in 1918 for the avenue's post-improvement development. They shared Burnham's insistence on uniform height (ten stories) as the way to achieve an aesthetic unity on the street. (The businessmen allowed an exception, however, at the river gateway to the avenue, apparently believing that Burnham's staid prescriptions were insufficiently grand for that dramatic setting.)
Attempts to restrict building height along the new avenue were doomed to frustration. The city adopted a new zoning law in 1923 that allowed very much taller buildings than those recommended by either Burnham or the property owners' association. With no mechanism to enforce their aesthetic injunctions, the association watched as renegade owners adorned the upper avenue with buildings of 16, 17, 25, 37, and 41 stories that stood incongruously next to buildings a quarter their size.
Clearly, developers expected the North Michigan boom of the 1920s to last forever. Major buildings like the London Guarantee, and the McGraw-Hill Building at 520 N. Michigan, had side and/or rear facades constructed of cheaper brick rather than expensive stone on the assumption that a similarly tall building would soon go up next door and conceal them. The Depression frustrated such hopes, with the result that North Michigan always looked unfinished.
Stamper regrets the results of this conflict between the greed for return on investment and what he calls the "civic conscience" of the propertied class. He is being generous; the early prescriptions for a human-scaled avenue owed more to the owners' desire to create a marketable un-Loop-like ambiance than to any sense of the public good. Return on investment has always been the standard of design; Stamper notes that the North Michigan Avenue Business Association, the current version of the old North Central group, supported the demolition of the London Guarantee and Accident Building when that abomination was proposed in 1987.
In Stamper's view, the early success of the avenue threatens its demise. The way that land economics is reshaping the physical environment of the street is perfectly illustrated at 900 N. Michigan. The original occupant of that lot was a ten-story apartment building with ground-floor shops, built in the '20s. Stamper calls it "a perfect complement" to the Drake Hotel and the Fourth Presbyterian Church nearby. The owners had designed the structure so it could be expanded to 20 stories. But the Depression short-circuited the expansion, and the construction of newer apartments to the east that blocked lake views reduced the appeal of its rental apartments. The building was torn down in 1984.
The old apartments were replaced by a building 60 stories tall. This project's designers, Kohn Pedersen Fox, moved the tower back from the avenue and designed the street-facing podium to be the same height as the original 900 North Michigan. The architects and developers should be applauded for this gesture, I suppose, but when such brutes elbow their way onto the avenue, it hardly matters if some of them say, "Excuse me."
Even more to be mourned than the fine buildings that have been destroyed on the avenue are some of the even finer ones that never got built. Two such are losing entries in the Tribune Tower design contest submitted by Walter Gropius and Eliel Saarinen. Others were skyscrapers proposed for the northeast corner of Michigan at Randolph. Two designs for a 50-story tower were drawn up, one by Andrew Rebori and another by the Burnham Brothers—a firm established by D. H. Burnham's sons. Both were handsome towers, although Stamper is probably correct when he says that this was not the place to put either one.
A potentially more significant loss was the failure of developer Albert Johnson to build what would have been the city's largest office block just north of the Water Tower. Johnson had rejected a design by Graham, Anderson, Probst and White (designers of the Wrigley Building) as insufficiently distinctive for a project of that scale. In 1923 Johnson commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to have a go.
The result would have been refreshing even to today's jaded eyes. Wright arrayed four office bays against a central spine. By cantilevering the floors of the former he was able to move the supporting vertical piers back from the facade, hiding them behind glass curtains decorated in copper using Mayan motifs. Wright's plan, says Stamper, "challeng[ed] preconceptions about the appropriate form of high-rise structures" in ways that would have made it "unlike anything else on the avenue, or the rest of Chicago for that matter."
Just as lamentable was the failure to realize some of the early visions for Terminal Park, the early name for the Illinois Central air rights property that became Illinois Center. In 1923, Eliel Saarinen proposed filling the parcel with an office tower flanked by a quartet of matched office blocks; the massive landscaped plaza thus formed segregated vehicle traffic (on a lower-level roadway) from an upper-level pedestrian promenade. Elements of this scheme appeared again several years later when four architectural firms from New York and Chicago combined to produce two development plans for the site. One plan extended the city's street grid through the property and filled it with buildings whose many setbacks and wings formed a complex geometry of volumes; the other recalled Saarinen's, with a mall (running east-west rather than north-south) terminating in a quartet of slender towers. This plan was drawn up by a design team led by Raymond Hood, architect of the Tribune Tower, who later helped design Manhattan's Rockefeller Center.
Stamper allows that their construction would have resulted in "the most impressive building project in the city's history" and not just in terms of its scale. Had Saarinen and Wright been allowed to build on the avenue, it might today deserve to be called "the Magnificent Mile." Alas, the crash aborted projects such as Terminal Park, whose site lay dormant until the construction of Illinois Center confirmed how much could be forgotten about urban design in a mere 40 years.
Stamper ends his account in 1930, when bankruptcies rather than building were the news on Michigan Avenue. The economic forces that shaped the avenue architecturally 90 years ago are still at work, of course; what's changed is the standards of taste. Most of the buildings that went up before 1930 were at least decent examples of their style, however derivative or dull the style may have been. Many of the newer commercial buildings can hardly be said to have a style at all. (Among them, only the new Crate & Barrel store, though radically different in style from its low-rise predecessors, can be called a good Michigan Avenue building.) Hoteliers and retailers used to make an impression by making a good building; now they make an impression by making an impression. Piles like Chicago Place are just as ersatz as their predecessors but they lack the latters' modesty. New York has the Trumps as a symbol of money's victory over style; Chicago has North Michigan Avenue.
Stamper's epilogue deplores the trends in building on the avenue since 1930. The building boom of the '70s and '80s added a lot of square footage to the avenue, although it added little architecture; indeed the loss of such gems from the '20s as the Music Corporation of America Building and the Michigan Square Building left a deficit that their gaudy successors have yet to replace. The best thing that can be said about most of the structures of the new North Michigan Avenue is that they could have been worse—the Marriott and Water Tower Place being the obvious exceptions.
What the Wrigley Building was to the avenue in the 1920s, the John Hancock Center was in the 1970s. That monument to monumentality was designed by Skidmore's Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan. While acknowledging that it is a fine, perhaps even great building of its kind, Stamper also explains why putting Big John on the avenue was like adding a Fender Telecaster to a string quartet. Its scale means that it is impossible to comprehend from the avenue itself. Indeed, it has no specific reference to Michigan Avenue at all. "Its spatial realm was that of the city," Stamper notes, "not of the avenue." This grosser scale, Stamper says, risks turning North Michigan Avenue into "an urban wasteland of unprecedented dimension."
That judgment seems far-fetched, even a little hysterical, unless one interprets "urban wasteland" in cultural terms. There seems little doubt, however, that even if a Manhattanized North Michigan Avenue does not turn into an urban wasteland, it will soon cease to be North Michigan Avenue. ●