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Five Forgotten Bits of Presidential History in Chicago

By Alex Bean on February 15, 2016


I came up with a list of five forgotten historical facts relating to presidential history in Chicago in honor of Presidents’ Day. Our city’s size and importance means we have a surprisingly robust history of Presidential activity. Of course, everyone know about the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots and President Obama’s victory speech in Grant Park. Instead of rehashing those, we’ll focus on the forgotten or hidden aspects of the topic, rather than the obvious ones.

1860 Republican convention wigwam Abraham Lincoln presidential history in Chicago

Presidential History in Chicago #1. Dozens of National Conventions

The history of US Presidents in Chicago goes back to 1860, when the Republican National Convention convened here and nominated Abraham Lincoln to be President. Since then, Chicago has hosted more Presidential nominating conventions than any other city. Fourteen Republican National Conventions and eleven Democratic National Conventions have been held in the city. There were also two more for Teddy Roosevelt’s brief “Bull Moose” Progressive Party.

I found it incredible that the Democrats and Republicans sometimes held their conventions in Chicago in the same year. A few times, they even wound up using the same building a few weeks apart. Despite all those conventions, only two of the structures that held them are still standing. I’ll talk more about those survivors in a bit. The list below shows the lost structures that held national conventions, the party and year of those conventions, and the year the building was demolished.

  • The Wigwam – Hosted 1860 RNC; Razed between 1867-71
  • The Amphitheater – Hosted 1864 DNC; Temporary structure
  • Crosby’s Opera House – Hosted 1868 RNC; Destroyed in 1871 Great Chicago Fire
  • Interstate Exposition Building – Hosted RNC in 1880 and both in 1884; Razed in 1892
  • The Wigwam – Hosted 1892 DNC; Temporary structure, not the building from 1860
  • Chicago Coliseum – RNC from 1904-20. DNC in 1896; Bull Moose in 1912; Razed in 1982
  • Chicago Stadium – Hosted both in 1932 & ’44, DNC again in ’40; Razed in 1994
  • International Amphitheater – Hosted RNC in 1952 & ’60; DNC in ’52, ’56, and ’68; Razed in 1999

President Theodore Roosevelt Chicago speech presidential history in Chicago

Presidential History in Chicago #2. Auditorium Building

The incredible history and architectural detail in the Auditorium Building could fill up an entire blog post. Designed by famed architects Adler and Sullivan, the Auditorium Building is a stop on our new 1893 World’s Fair Tour. It was the largest theater when built, making it a great location for super-large events.

In its first few decades, the Auditorium Building seems to have been catnip for US Presidents in Chicago. Grover Cleveland laid its cornerstone in 1887. The next year, the Republican National Convention met in its unfinished concert hall and nominated Benjamin Harrison for the Presidency. A year later, Harrison had won the Presidency and returned to dedicate the finished building. In 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt gave his famous “Armageddon” speech while accepting the nomination of the nascent “Bull Moose” Progressive Party on the Auditorium’s stage.

John Kennedy Richard Nixon CBS Chicago First Presidential Debate 1960 presidential history in Chicago

Presidential History in Chicago #3. CBS Chicago Hosts the First Presidential Debate

The next major moment for the presidential history in Chicago was when the city hosted the first ever debate between major Presidential candidates. It was held at the old CBS studio in Streeterville. The debate itself is the stuff of American political legend. Radio listeners thought Vice-President Richard Nixon won by a wide margin. TV viewers said that Senator John F, Kennedy had won. On TV,  Kennedy looked tan and handsome next to a sick and sallow Nixon. The divide in perception helped cement the enduring appeal and popularity of TV.

presidential history in chicago madison street bridge starsPresidential History in Chicago #4. Guardrails and Bridges

Chicago hosted the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center. Many of the delegates, visitors and journalists stayed in the Loop and commuted to the convention. The City decided that they needed to make the route from the Loop to the Near West Side look nicer. New candy-apple red guardrails were installed on a bunch of the bridges and ramps around I-90.

I’ve often seen those red rails while driving and I often point them out on the Factories to Calories Fulton Market Food Tour. A closer inspection revealed that the rails incorporate the star insignia from the Chicago flag. You’ll see these decorated guard rails from the I-290 interchange to the Lake Street bridge. The stars also appear in the concrete of bridges.

Presidential History in Chicago #5. Obama Campaign Offices

President Barack Obama is the only Chicagoan to be elected to the White House. We know of course of his victory speech on Election Night in 2008 in Grant Park. We know of his house in Kenwood/Hyde Park. So where were his campaign offices? The 2008 offices were on the 11th floor of Two Illinois Center and the 2012 campaign was took up an entire floor inside One Prudential Plaza. We skirt right past both on the Architecture Walking Tour for Design Lovers.

In fact, the 2012 campaign was the only time that a President’s re-election campaign had its main office outside of Washington. Both locations are just rentable office spaces. So there’s no visible reminder of the work that went on there. Despite that limited visibility, these offices drove Obama’s electoral successes.

President Barack Obama Jim Messina 2012 reelection campaign office Chicago presidential history in Chicago

These five facts about the US Presidents in Chicago underline the importance of our city. Chicago has been a political powerhouse from our boomtown years in the 1800’s to the modern day. The legacy of political power dots our landscape.

– Alex Bean, Chicago Detours Office Manager and Tour Guide


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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