Chicago architecture can be divided into two periods: the period of glass and steel we live in now, and the ‘stone age’ preceding it, which lasted from the Great Fire of 1871 (when Chicago swore off New England clapboard) until the 1930s. During the stone age, commercial buildings grew taller (‘scraping the sky’) but were finished off in traditional materials and styles.
From the perspective of south Grant Park, the fruits of these two eras of building can be seen. The old stone skyscrapers lining Michigan Avenue are quaint but massive. Among our most famous buildings, they are loaded with lore and personality. Their fronts are covered with ornamentation–fancy glazes and castings, symbols, and special decoration to emphasize the windows, roof-lines, and doorways. Many have fancy caps, whether turrets or curlicues, special windows, or “beehives.”
Dwarfing and surrounding them are newer buildings, with their reflective surfaces, bold blocks of color, and greater heights. While the older buildings may be more interesting, it’s the specific mix of the two types that gives our skyline its particular charge. Without the soaring glass boxes, we would lose our way. We’d be stuck in a bad period piece, with a city center badly dated and gloomy.
Chicago is problem-plagued, but we do take comfort in our buildings. They are the tangible products of talent and belief, the work of generations, created at considerable risk. Insensate though they are, they continue to charm, inspire, and guide, supplying everyone who hangs out here with a point of pride.
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