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1920s Towers of Downtown Chicago and the Oddities of Zoning Laws

By Amanda on December 7, 2012


We’ve got a little secret of reading Chicago architecture to share with you. A pretty tower on the top of a skyscraper means it’s likely a 1920s tower.Chicago architecture downtown loopSocial and political ethos were much more socialist in the early 1900s, and people had strong feelings about maintaining equal building height. In the 1920s, however, buildings shot skyward with a booming economy, advancements in structural engineering, and changes in city zoning.

The first major change allowed structures to extend the height of buildings above the rest of the skyline, which at the time consisted of primarily buildings below twelve stories. While overall building height was increased to 260 feet, or about 26 stories, architects could further stretch it to 400 feet with unoccupied, ornamental towers.

Chicago-architecture-tower 1920s towers

The “Bee-Hive” Building

One you may recognize as the “bee-hive.” I dug into the history of this building when invited by the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich to do a public-speaking presentation about the view from their lobby overlooking Millennium and Grant parks. This glowing blue orb tops a stone pyramid on the top of the Metropolitan Tower on Michigan Avenue. Right under the “hive” you can almost make out the 1,500+ pound carillon bells. They play “Handel’s “Cambridge Quarters” on the quarter hour. They were restored in 1979 for Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Windy City.

While it’s now a residential building, it was originally built by a financial investment company. They wanted the blue glass,  hive-shaped tower to express “busy like a bee,” and the pyramid top to symbolize stability. Alas they went bankrupt during the Depression.

Chicago Temple Building One of Many 1920s Towers

1920s towers postcard chicago architecture temple buildingAnother tower that took advantage of the “unoccupied structure” is the Chicago Temple Building, with its hollow steeple so brilliantly illuminated in this vintage postcard. We delve into that tower’s surprising history on the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour.

In 1923, the city altered zoning laws to allow towers with occupants. This eventually led into the “setback” zoning of 1926, which warrants a post of its own in the future. (If you’ve come on our Historic Bar Tour then you already know a bit about this).

So now that you know, what i some of your favorite Chicago architecture with towers?

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director


Chicago Detours offers guided walking and bus tours of architecture, history and culture to public and private groups. We are a passionate team of educators, historians, artists and storytellers, and are proud to be one of very few tour companies in Chicago that is rated five stars on both Google and TripAdvisor.


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