Thomas Leslie’s latest, deeply researched, visually handsome book on the history of Chicago skyscrapers took root in a long-ago moment of wonder and revelation beneath the Hancock building. His family was visiting the city. “I remember when I was twelve or thirteen and saw the John Hancock Tower for the first time and realized ‘Oh, that’s about the wind.’ You know, the building’s [X-bracing], it’s for the wind.” Leslie, a professor of architectural history at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a resident of Chicago, says that one common feature in Chicago high-rise architecture is that its creators have always been fluent in the newest technology and they have wanted their buildings to “have a certain legibility to them” that makes that technology evident to those that behold their creations. “That clarity, that even a twelve- or thirteen-year-old kid could see, is something I’ve been chasing in my research,” Leslie says. “I am fascinated by how science can become a language and how we can read that just as we would read a painting or sculpture.”
Leslie’s “Chicago Skyscrapers 1934-1986: How Technology, Politics, Finance, and Race Reshaped a City” picks up where the architectural historian left off with his first book in the series, a similarly named volume that reevaluates the confluence of forces at work during the first decades of the city’s tall buildings, from 1871 to 1934. He says he did not intend the earlier volume to launch a series, yet as with the architects who pioneered tall buildings, Leslie’s project is building on his prior work and reaching higher. His first book on skyscrapers traced a period of astoundingly rapid innovation that, he says, changed the shape of buildings and the style of construction every year or two. Before The Great Depression, the city’s tall buildings were reshaped by the successive arrival of pressed brick, steel framing, plate glass and electric lighting, to name a few of many innovations. Peer at the Monadnock Building, the Fisher Building or the Fine Arts Building through Leslie’s eyes and the technologies are as legible as those in the Hancock.
Over their first five decades, nearly all tall buildings in the city catered to businesses. Developers and landlords of the period were hemmed in by the unofficial borders of Chicago’s downtown, beyond which the city’s mushrooming white-collar businesses were reluctant to locate. Many were financial firms connected to the city’s role as center of the ever-expanding agricultural economy of the Upper Midwest. The need for office space that fit the downtown cluster—and the wish of landlords to make their valuable downtown parcels pay—pushed buildings upward.
Leslie’s work complements—and at times seems modeled on—that of environmental historian William Cronon, especially his foundational 1991 volume, “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.” Like Cronon, Leslie argues that the reshaping of the Midwestern landscape is linked to the unbridled growth of Chicago. Leslie’s main concern, however, is how the pressures and opportunities of a growing Chicago pushed the city into the sky. His study makes it impossible to look at one of the city’s pre-1986 structures without seeing a host of technological, economic and sociological developments that are more important than any one building’s particular design. For the non-specialist, Leslie’s books may require some patience wading through the minutiae of evolving architectural and engineering detail, but the payoff is a new view of the history of the city as a whole, told through the forces that drive Chicago’s skyline higher, propel the most famous sector in the city’s creative economy, shape the city’s broader economy and which have driven the neighborhood, race and class divisions in the city.
In the current volume, Leslie describes in depth how the expansion of high-rise architecture into the residential market has had profound effects on the social fabric of the city. Construction of high-rises all but stopped during the Depression and didn’t commence again until after World War II. High-rise residential buildings could address two seemingly contradictory trends. On one hand, some of the postwar high-rises, including early developments such as the CHA’s Dearborn Homes at 26th and State, were conceived to address the perceived problem of neighborhoods that were too densely populated. While Dearborn Homes was widely regarded as a success, political pressures in the city, driven by the politics of race, led to aggressive slum clearance policies that made room for high-rise housing for both low-income and middle-income families, that included—perhaps especially—Black families. Early CHA high-rise housing was also matched in scale with private development on cleared sites on the South Side.
One telling comparison is Leslie’s linking, and contrasting, of Mies van der Rohe’s now iconic 1949-1952 towers at 860-880 North Lake Shore Drive, the pre-construction ads for which announced it as “the world’s first Multiple Glass House.” Leslie describes how the project was both driven and enabled by changes in the city’s building code, by the steel industry’s push to displace concrete as the material of choice for residential high-rises and by the relative low cost of building Mies’ new type of tower, which was at least ten-percent cheaper than comparable concrete construction. Leslie makes the effects of the multiple changes abundantly clear by contrasting Mies’ first ever high-rise apartment building, the 1946 concrete-framed Promontory Apartments on South Shore Drive in Hyde Park. Interestingly enough, the 860-880 buildings, which are coveted addresses today, were not built to be premium housing, but rather modest one- and two-bedroom units that could compete in the market at prices lower than that of the city’s average apartment.
Meant to be more affordable, and designed with an integrated community of residents in mind, the Lake Meadows Apartments were developed on the near South Side by Draper & Kramer and designed in the emerging Chicago version of the International Style by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Lake Meadows took form on land cleared following the passage of the Illinois Neighborhood Redevelopment Act which was aimed in part at pushing private developers into low-and medium-income housing, and “to square Chicago’s housing problem, promising much-needed modern accommodation without requiring the city to construct it.” The Lake Meadows complex remains an elegantly handsome row of white towers and is still a vital community. It also inspired a similarly beautiful nearby stretch of towers, Prairie Shores, built between 1957 and 1960 and designed by Loebl, Schlossman & Bennett. Leslie leaves little mystery about the technical aspects of the construction but also gives a thorough account of how, under Mayor Richard J. Daley, who pushed for Chicago to be an increasingly high-rise city, the local anti-poverty and economic development agendas came together in an ever taller built environment. In some places. And repressed development in others.
One of the accomplishments of Leslie’s book is to expand the canon of beloved Chicago skyscrapers to the realms south of downtown. Architecture critic and photographer Lee Bey brought under-noticed South Side buildings to light in the wonderful photographic tour he created in his 2019 book “Southern Exposure.” Through Leslie, we learn how the impact of the forces that created the South Side’s skyscrapers also led to the circumstances that separated the many low-rise buildings Bey celebrates from the city, and the city’s architectural consciousness, as a whole. One hopes all this new attention will change that.
I ask Leslie why—in my opinion—the South Side has such a large stretch of beautiful high-rises along the lake in Bronzeville while the high-rises on Chicago’s North Side, especially along North Sheridan Road, are along a stretch of mismatched and mostly unremarkable, often ugly, lakefront high-rises? “It’s a very complicated legacy,” he says. “A lot of the big scale projects are so-called slum clearance projects. The number of units that were built back [on the South Side] often didn’t equal the number of units that were torn down. And typically they moved poor people further away from the city. Housing like Lake Meadows and Prairie Shores is for middle-class residents; it’s not public housing. One lesson of those projects, however, was that if you build decent market-driven housing for the Black middle class, you’re going to do fine and make plenty of money.” Leslie attributes the row of unexceptional skyscrapers on the city’s North Side to code changes that again let developers move in new directions, and to economize in ways that were not especially encouraging of better design.
Of course, Leslie’s history of skyscrapers could never have focused only on residential high-rises. His history of the city’s impressive collection of commercial giants up to 1986 describes a city that successfully reasserted itself as the epicenter of high-rises. There’s the Hancock and the formerly named Sears Tower, the First National Bank, now Chase, tower, Civic, now Daley, Center, the Dirksen and the Kluczynski federal buildings, and, naturally, the mixed-use Marina City, all designed locally and all profoundly influential worldwide and consequential to Chicagoans. Chicago is still a center for top firms designing the world’s tallest buildings, and firms here are at the forefront of incorporating new technology, including that which addresses the challenges of sustainability and climate change. Then again, high-rise architecture, past and present, is being rethought in light of changing work patterns that may permanently alter the function of the tall building built for business and change the kind of housing residential customers who need work spaces at home, demand. Leslie didn’t say whether a next book will cover the years that lead to the present, but the series so far is a magisterial account of our city’s high-rise foundations.
“Chicago Skyscrapers 1934-1986: How Technology, Politics, Finance & Race Reshaped a City”
By Thomas Leslie
University of Illinois Press, 426 pages
Ted C. Fishman is a Chicago-based writer and the international best-selling author of “China, Inc.” and “Shock of Gray.” His books appear in twenty-seven languages. In addition to Newcity, the many publications he’s written for include The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, GQ, National Geographic, Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Chicago Magazine and Chicago Reader.