How Chicago’s Mayor Used The Power Of Architecture To Influence Politics

Richard J Daley at a lakefront festival

Richard J Daley at a lakefront festival

Richard J. Daley didn’t much care for modernist architecture. But his personal preference for classical design didn’t deter him from championing the development of sleek, steel-and-glass buildings like the Chicago Civic Center, the Sears Tower, the Inland Steel Building, and the Federal Plaza complex.


Inland Steel Building - 30 West Monroe Street

30 West Monroe, formerly the Inland Steel Building

In fact, during his tenure as the city’s boss, the Loop and downtown Chicago underwent a transformational building boom. Along the way, Daley used the power of architecture to exercise unprecedented control over his empire.

The fascinating convergence of architecture and politics was the subject of a presentation on June 19 at the Häfele Chicago showroom (154 West Hubbard Street). Paul B. Jaskot, a professor of art history at DePaul University, described the relationship between modern architecture and politics in Chicago. Jaskot specializes in this area, and in particular the on the architecture of Nazi Germany and its postwar impact.

“Mayor Daley was the largest architectural patron of all Chicago mayors,” Jaskot explained. “He used architecture as part and parcel of his promotion of Chicago.”

What was it about architecture that interested him? Jaskot said that Daley found he could use architecture to influence politics. Architecture was not a passive component but rather an active component of the political machine under Daley.

It’s also noteworthy, Jaskot said, that there was a drought of new construction for 20 years leading up to Daley’s first inauguration.


Richard J. Daley Center, formerly the Chicago Civic Center

Richard J. Daley Center, formerly the Chicago Civic Center

“Between 1934 and 1954, there was no building going on in the Loop,” he said. One of the first new large construction projects was the Inland Steel Building, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, and completed in 1957.

It’s important to remember Daley was a “surprise” mayor. In 1955 he beat incumbent Martin Kennelly in the Democratic primary thanks in part to Daley’s alliances with ward bosses and aldermen. Anton Cermak may have been the first beneficiary of the political machine, but Daley perfected it. He controlled jobs and the budget for the city and county. Hence, he served continuously until his death in 1976.

Daley helped promote Chicago as a modern city, and although he hated modern architecture, he was happy to see the building boom in the city, with such high profile projects as O’Hare Airport and the UIC expansion.

“Daley didn’t want UIC out in the suburbs,” Jaskot said. “He wanted it downtown. He didn’t like steel and glass, but he did like the location, because he wanted to showcase Chicago as a modern city. For Daley, it was about thinking big and manipulating large chunks of property.”

The mayor was a master chess player when it came to politics, and he used architecture and design to his advantage. One need look no further than the Federal Plaza complex at 230 South Dearborn in the Loop which was completed in 1974.


Dirksen Federal Building with reflection of the Kluczynski Federal Building

Dirksen Federal Building with reflection of the Kluczynski Federal Building

At 45 stories, the Mies Van Der Rohe-designed Kluczynski Building is the tallest of the three structures in the complex (along with the Dirksen Courthouse and the Loop Post Office). Although that was not the federal government’s original plan for the project.

“Daley went to Washington, DC, and argued against what the federal government wanted to do,” Jaskot said. They wanted a 60-story skyscraper for a new federal building. Daley said, “Gosh, it’ll be the tallest building in the city.” He pointed out the very tall, imposing government buildings being constructed in communist cities. Daley used Cold War rhetoric to convince the federal government to build three buildings instead of one. The design of the Federal Center Complex even used I-beam construction (instead of common German X-beams) in another not-so-subtle design move to prove it was distinctly American.

Daley also benefitted from the design; since it became three buildings instead of one, the federal government needed more real estate. Daley explained that he had just the property in mind. Not coincidentally, it belonged to a major Daley contributor.

Federal Plaza

Federal Plaza

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at

Share This Post On