Frank Lloyd Wright's mile-high building

August 25, 2011

There are plans to build a 3280-foot skyscraper in Saudi Arabia. It will be the tallest structure in the world, 500 feet higher than anything else.

But on this date in 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright announced plans for an even grander Chicago structure. His building would top off at 5280 feet--a mile high.

Wright was 89 years old, the dean of American architects. He'd never liked skyscrapers or what they represented. Now he'd changed his mind. "If we're going to have centralization, why not quit fooling around and have it," he said.

Wright insisted the mile-high building was no joke; it was "thoroughly scientific." He said that several prominent Chicagoans were already interested in the project. He had even picked out a lakefront site near the Adler Planetarium.

Most of the tower's 500-plus floors would be office space for city, county, and state government. Wright said that 100,000 people might be accommodated. The top nine floors would be TV studios, topped off by a 330-foot antenna used for coast-to-coast broadcasts.

Of course, the building would cost a bundle. But the total floor area was over 18 million square feet. On that basis, the price tag would be cheap. "I believe the cost would be the lowest per square foot of any modern building in the world," Wright said.

Six weeks later, the architect was in Chicago to push the project. By now the mile-high building was kinown as The Illinois. Chicago's movers-and-shakers were excited that the city might become home to "the eighth Wonder of the World." Mayor Richard J. Daley officially proclaimed October 17 as Frank Lloyd Wright Day.

Now Wright displayed a 22-foot-tall sketch of his skyscraper and outlined some details. The structure was to be steel and glass, with 528 floors extending out from a central core--"like branches on a tree trunk." Utility pipes and wiring were in the core. The foundation was wedge-shaped, sunk 150 feet into the ground.

Wright stayed in Chicago three days. There was a Wright exhibit at the Hotel Sherman, and a testimonial dinner, and a public lecture at Orchestra Hall. Some critics scoffed at the grandiose plan, while others were ready to haul out the shovels and start digging that foundation.

Then Wright left town, and took his charisma with him. Two years later he was dead. The Illinois never advanced beyond the talking stage.

And yet . . .

Back in 1938, Wright had designed a convention center for Madison, Wis. The proposal was rejected and languished for decades. But go to Madison today and you'll see the architect's Monona Terrace, finally opened in 1997.

Is it time to resurrect The Illinois?