For the last week or so architecture nerds, bloggers, journalists, tourists, and people who just love Chicago have had one word on their lips: “TRUM.”
Today it’s spelled “TRUMP,” but for a long while, the “P” was missing on the sign on the Trump International Hotel and Tower (401 North Wabash Avenue) that’s brought Donald Trump more free publicity for his Chicago residential tower than any marketing campaign ever could.
If you believe that public figures like Mr. Trump actually send their own tweets, then he defends the sign as “…magnificent and popular.” Magnificent, maybe. It seems like quality work, and as signs go is quite nice. Popular? Mr. Trump is drowning in his own Kool-aid.
Chicago has had a long history of skyscraper advertising. Browse through the Library of Congress photo archive and you’ll quickly find hundreds of examples of outsized, illuminated, lightbulb-festooned and neon signs atop the city’s buildings. A few are still there from the old days, like the “Tip Top Tap” atop the Allerton Hotel. But others we have been mercifully relieved of recently, like the “Torco” on South Michigan Avenue.
In fact, the whole no-logos aesthetic for Chicago’s tall buildings is actually a recent phenomenon. During the roaring 20’s, almost every major Chicago building was illuminated with arc lights, many of them trained on brand names like Coca-Cola. There was a vast, illuminated “Tribune Square” sign hanging over Michigan and Hubbard and until 1924.
When the depression hit in the 30’s, the lights went out. They stayed out through the 40’s, likely because of World War II. Then, just as Chicago was undergoing an architectural renaissance, it was also hit by the notion of “less is more.” The Meisian notions that were drummed into a generation of architects left many of them believing their creations were more works of art than instruments of commerce. Ever try to mess with an artist’s work? That’s a stabbin’.
And so, in this city that so loves its architects, and so loves its architecture, the “cathedrals of commerce” became sacred places not to be tattooed by mere mortals, like the people who own them.
Certainly, it’s not purely a Chicago phenomenon. The city of Houston, Texas is well known as the most populous place in America with no zoning. There are 40-story skyscrapers in the middle of single-story housing districts. That’s just how the Bayou City rolls. But there is one rule: No skyscraper signs.
Houston went through a similar outcry as Chicago back in the 2000’s when Continental airlines splashed its logo on top of Continental Center One’s semi-conical roof. It dodged the rules by projecting the logo with, instead of actually installing a sign. People hated it so much that a few years later when Hurricane Ike destroyed the projecting equipment, Continental didn’t bother getting it fixed. The negative P.R. was just too much.
Donald Trump doesn’t have to worry about negative P.R. He exists on a different plane. That one we’ve all heard about where there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And it’s true. Having pictures of his luxury building splashed all over national and international television aren’t hurting his bottom line. More importantly, he’s a New Yorker, and we’re in flyover country. It’s not that he doesn’t care what Chicago thinks; it’s that he doesn’t have to care. Let the New York-Chicago butthurt continue.
So, when did everything change? Around 2003. That’s when two big signs were hefted on top of what was then Chicago’s ninth-tallest building: The BankOne Tower. The two BankOne signs went largely unnoticed up there atop the 60th floor of the building until one night they suddenly lit up. We did a story about it. Nobody cared.
A year later we did another story hoping the BankOne signs would disappear forever when the institution was bought by Chase. What actually happened is that in 2005, shiny new Chase signs went up in their place.
Since then, it’s been a downhill slide to where we are today: TRUMP.
The sign is huge. And we join what seems like a majority of Chicagoans with an opinion on the matter in giving it a hearty thumb’s down. But if the citizens of Chicago are going to urge their leaders to do something about this eyesore, let’s also clean up the rest of the commercial signage that has been bolted to Chicago’s award-winning architecture over the last few years.
1 The Chicago Tribune— Some have lamented that “TRUMP” is now a big commercial message welcoming people to the Michigan Avenue shopping district. Actually, let’s start one block and several decades away, at Tribune Tower where a giant “WGN Radio” and a giant “Chicago Tribune” hang, all backlit in the exact same way as the TRUMP sign is. Because they’re on the Trib Tower (435 North Michigan Avenue), people assume they’re old. And if they are, so what? Ugly is ugly, and these signs have been a commercial eyesore in the center of Chicago’s tourist belt for far too long. Mr. Kamin should inspect his own backyard before throwing stones at anyone else.
2 The Chicago Sun-Times— If the Tribune is a sinner, then the Sun-Times is Lot’s wife. A repeat offender, it took Donald Trump’s lovely tower to remove the blight of that grey barge lurking on the banks of the river. It was horrifically emblazoned with a giant yellow “CHICAGO SUN-TIMES,” an offense the newspaper decided to repeat when it moved down the river to River North Point (350 North Orleans Street). Local politicians claim that both Sun-Times signs were actually larger than the current TRUMP sign.
3 Nuveen— This sign went up on 333 West Wacker so subtly that a lot of people still don’t even know it’s there. But if you’ve ever tried to enjoy the sweeping expanse of the Chicago Rivers’ confluence, you’ve probably been distracted by it. It not only draws the eye away from the magnificent building it’s perched on 36-stories up. It takes away from the mighty and majestic Chicago River, without which Galena would be the capital of the Midwest.
4 Kemper— No, Kemper (1 East Wacker Drive) shouldn’t get a pass because it replaced the old ugly Unitrin logo with a new ugly Kemper logo. The Donald’s not getting a pass for replacing “Sun-Times” with “Trump.” You’re new to the market, Kemper. How about trying to make friends with the locals and turn that monstrosity off?
5 The Wyndham Grand Chicago Riverfront (71 East Wacker Drive)— You haven’t been “Hotel71” in years. It’s time to let go of the sign and the colored blocks. Replace them both with absolutely nothing. Call it an environmentally “green” move to save electricity. Maybe you can get a plaque from the EPA or something.
6 United Airlines (77 West Wacker Drive)— Very subtle. Very tasteful. Good for you. Now get rid of it.
7 Boeing (100 North Riverside Plaza)— Three logos, two wordmarks and a light-up clock. The clock is O.K.; it serves a useful purpose and holds a world record. The rest of it should go.
8 Swissôtel— We like the Swissôtel (323 East Wacker Drive); we really do. One of two triangle-shaped skyscrapers in downtown Chicago; both designed to house lots of people in very small rooms. But we went through our archives, and it looks like you didn’t add that light-up sign to your peak until around 2009—twenty years after your were built. So, take that accent circonflexe and put it where the neon don’t shine.
9 UBS (1 North Wacker Drive)— Who doesn’t love Swiss bankers? Well, pretty much everybody. So when you’re done settling yet another federal lawsuit, can you use some of that restitution money to wipe those keys off the face of your building? Thanks!
10 Westin Chicago River North (320 North Dearborn Street)— Hey, woudja turn that sign off, we’re trying to sleep! An ugly neon logo is ironic for a hotel that was so worried about the views from its guest rooms that it paid to have a Japanese garden built on the other side of the river to hide Lower Wacker Drive. What ever happened to that?
11 325 North LaSalle— You used to have a big light-up sign reading “Britannica.” That went away and was replaced by a big light-up sign that reads “Whirlpool.” Well, doesn’t that suck.
And here are some runners up. They’re not runners up because they’re not terrible; they are. But because we’re talking about signs visible from the Chicago River, which these aren’t.
- Borg Warner
- The Drake (since the neon was replaced with LEDs)
- Tip Top Tap
- Congress Hotel
- The Essex Inn
- Chase Tower
- The Best Western Grant Park Hotel
- Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois Tower
- Roosevelt University
And let us give thanks for those signs which used to shine brightly over the Chicago River, but no longer do:
1 401 North Michigan Avenue— There used to be a big “EQUITABLE” sign beaming from the top of 401 North Michigan Avenue. In the photo above, taken a few years ago from the roof of The Shoreham (400 East South Water Street) you can see what remained of the sign. That space was recently renovated, we think into offices, so the sign may be gone for good. The next time you’re in Atlanta, you can still see what it looks like. 401’s twin sister down south still has the sign illuminated.
2 Unnamed Parking Garage— Hines did Chicago a real service when it put up 300 North LaSalle. It’s a wonderful skyscraper. What most people don’t remember is that it replaced a craptastic parking garage. Straight outta the 1950’s, its only remarkable feature was that it had the word “PARKING” spelled out in pink neon letters half a block long. At night they would reflect off the river and make the whole area seem like some kind of automotive red light district.
I’ve heard some people ask why the Trump sign was launched at Chicago like a sneak attack? Why wasn’t it in the original plans submitted to the city?
You can see the drawings for the tower below (click each thumbnail to embiggen), and clearly there is no branding on Mr. Trump’s enormous erection. The answer to the question, though, is another question: “Why would it?” Skyscrapers are approved by one city department, and gigantic eponymous signs are approved by another.
Some people are trying to make hay out of the fact that Mr. Trump donated $50,000 to Rahm Emanuel, and $5,000 to 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly. While interesting, it’s not exactly a smoking gun. Nor is it unusual. It would be unusual to find a real estate developer that didn’t contribute to the politicians in control of wherever he has interests. It’s just another business expense.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg was told by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office that the sign was approved in the mid-2000’s. Mr. Steinberg astutely observes that that excuse is, “code for it being Daley’s fault, just like the pension mess.”
But we found the actual ordinance permitting the sign (right). It was introduced by Mr. Reilly on June 5, 2013. The city’s Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards approved it on July 23, 2013. A day later, the entire city council approved the sign. Every member of the city council except 40th Ward Alderman Patrick O’Connor voted in favor of the behemoth Trump sign. Mr. O’Connor was absent that day.
You can see from the city ordinance, the sign is just under 142 feet long, 21 feet tall, and sits 210 feet off the ground. It is 2,900 square feet in size.
There is some curiosity about the timing. Why is it that only now, five years after the tower was completed, that we’re being treated to these larger-than-life letters? Is it Mr. Trump’s way of saying, “Look over here!” so nobody notices that for as long as those letters haven’t been on his tower, the mall at the base of the skyscraper has been home to nothing more than crickets?
Chicago’s retail scene is strong enough that North Michigan Avenue and Oak Street retail demand is spilling into Walton Street, Rush Street, and other nearby places. Yet there are no hordes of shopping bag-clutching tourists swiping their credit cards along Mr. Trump’s section of the riverwalk. This in spite of the fact that we know of two international retailers that came to Chicago scouting locations on or adjacent to the Boul Mich, but ended up skipping Chicago because no suitable space could be found.\
I’ve never met Mr. Trump, though I have been in his presence. When I was a little baby reporter in New York, I was one in a throng of journos trying to get him to say something important about something stupid one day, sticking my giant microphone in his face along with two dozen other sweaty reporters as he rushed across the sidewalk to his conveyance.
Back then, Mr. Trump was far too fabulous to speak to the likes of someone like me, weighed down by a massive early-days cell phone, a Marantz recorder around my neck and half a pastrami sandwich in my coat pocket. He remains more fabulous than me. He commutes to work by helicopter. I commute to work by walking down the hall in my pajamas. He wins. He always wins.
And I predict he’ll win this sign battle, too.