Unbuilt Chicago: The 1949 Civic Center plan

Unbuilt Chicago: The 1949 Civic Center plan

Today’s offering from the unbuilt architecture files: a 1949 plan to construct a massive—and exceedingly modern—complex of government buildings in southwest corner of the Loop.

The complex boarded by Madison, Van Buren, Congress and Canal was proposed by the Chicago Plan Commission, back when the commission did actual planning, rather than grant approval to projects brought before it. At the time, Nat Owings (the “O” of Skidmore Owings & Merrill) chaired the commission and pushed for the plan. Government agencies leased space in or owned 80 different sites around downtown at the time. The $100 million plan—a staggering sum in 1949—was an attempt to consolidate the agencies into a 41-acre Le Corbusian complex of towers in a park-like setting.

In the model above, from left to right: State offices would be put in the far left building; federal offices were slated for the long slab next door; 100 local, state and federal courtrooms were planned for the third building; the fourth building, a tower, would contain city offices linked to a county offices in the fifth building on the far right. The Chicago Board of Education would get its own building—the little tower by the river, above city and county buildings. The tall tower across the river was planned for expansion space.

Here, you can see Wacker Drive would run beneath the complex. Thousands of cars could be parked below the plaza:

That each unit of government would kick-in for its own building was the plan’s genius—and its undoing. The governmental bodies had trouble coughing up the money to get the project started. And the wholesale industry that was located in the area fought against the plan. By 1954, the project had been pushed aside in favor of an even grander plan to make the complex part of a 151-acre redevelopment project between the Main Branch and Ontario Street and from Rush to west of Orleans. Called the Fort Dearborn Project, the plan included a new University of Illinois campus, theater, apartments and a new City Hall (the old—and current---City Hall would have been demolished and turned into a park.)

With private capital and a smattering of government funding, the project seemed a sure thing. It wasn’t. In 1958, Mayor Richard J. Daley took the wraps off a 20-year plan for the city. The plan called for city and federal buildings in the center of the Loop—in the same spots where Chicago Federal Center and the Daley Center stand today.

Still, I wonder how the 1949 plan would have altered the course of Chicago, had it been built. Dream with me a little. The modernity is striking—how do you think it would it have influenced the architecture that followed it? The complex would have occupied the spot where the Willis (nee‚ Sears) Tower would have been built, so would the Willis have been built at all, if the 1949 plan had been executed? Might it have been built where Daley Center is? And after 9/11, would we want a highway running beneath a campus of government buildings? How open would the parks have been after the attacks? What do you think?