The architecture of Chicago's first office park

November 15, 2010

The ramble of aged industrial buildings on Pershing Road west of Ashland avenue probably barely registers with most Chicagoans these days. But Chicago probably wouldn't have been "Chicago" without them. Built in 1905, the 265-acre Central Manufacturing District began life as the nation's first planned office office park.

photo by Lee Bey

Located just north of the mighty Union Stockyards with the South Branch of the Chicago River near by, the CMD was home to 200 manufacturers at its height. There were food processors, piano makers, furniture manufacturers, drug-makers and more. Big names, too, including the William Wrigley Co., which opened a plant at 35th and Ashland in 1912. Spiegel, Westinghouse and other marquee players were there too.

The privately-held, for-profit CMD designed and built all the buildings, had its own police force, fire department, traffic bureau and rail lines. Goods also moved through a network of underground tunnels. Towers like the one above--now free-standing, but was once surrounded by buildings--contained water tanks that fed the district's fire sprinkler systems. The CMD had its own bank, swank executive club and telegraph office. It also extended credit to tenants. And the CMD was--still is--a prime example of excellent industrial architecture.

The CMD had its own in-house architecture bureau that designed buildings and shaped the way others within the campus would look. The style is that of an industrialized Arts & Crafts design, with great attention paid to detail given the size of the buildings.

  photo by Lee Bey

The CMD and a later addition which extended it to Western Avenue, occupied a mile on Pershing Road. It became so successful, it spawned major imitators around the world. By the mid-1960s and onward, its might began to lessen as suburban office parks located near highways, rather than water and rail took dominance. For years once of the best-known buildings in the district was 1819 W. Pershing Road, an old Army warehouse that served as Chicago Public School's headquarters from 1979 to 2000.