Chicago Neverbuilt: Episode 1 — All My Spires

Chicago Spire

Part of being creative is knowing that not every idea is a slam dunk.  The world’s most famous painters—Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and others— painted over their mistakes.  Similarly, architecture offices around Chicagoland are populated with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of models of buildings that just never got off the ground.  Putting together a skyscraper is a complicated thing, and unless the banks, the developers, the politicians, and the stars align just right, you’re left with nothing more than a vacant lot.

It’s for that reason that we now present a new series of articles titled “Chicago Neverbuilt.”  It’s a celebration of great ideas by great architects, engineers, and planners that for one reason or another ended up in the dustbin of history.

Tonight’s episode starts with Chicago’s most famous neverbuilt building: The Chicago Spire.

ChicagoSpire-005Born as the Fordham Spire, it was one of a half-dozen 100+ story buildings proposed for Chicago just before and after the turn of the 21st century.  In spite of a flurry of optimism, after construction began the economy went all pear-shaped, and we’re left with what we have today: A giant hole in the ground and a bunch of lawsuits.

But, did you know that the Spire as we know it today wasn’t the first massive building intended for that location?

The earliest reference we could find to a skyscraper at this location was proposed in 1985.  It was very very vague, and mostly just described the building envelope.

1987 brought an actual drawing, thought not a drawing of a real building.  It’s what the city thought should be built in the area where the Spire was neverbuilt.  It shows a 780-foot-tall tower (about 78 residential stories), accompanied by a 610-foot-tall tower, a 450-foot-tall skyscraper, a 350-foot-tall skyscraper, a 250-foot-tall skyscraper, and a 150-foot-tall building.  This was at the time when the esplanade was being built along Ogden Slip, and the smallest building got its height because it had to protect the view of the Tribune Tower from the waterway.  This was the core of what we now know as Cityfront Center, the skyscraper corridor between Michigan Avenue and Lake Shore Drive along the Chicago River.

On January 23, 1989, the approved a plan to build a 61-story apartment tower a block north of the Spire location.  The building was a joint project of the Chicago Dock and Canal Trust and the Equitable insurance company.  It would have had a 15-story parking podium, with a health club and spa on the second floor, common areas on the 16th floor, and apartments on floors 17 through 61.  505 residences were planned with 630 parking spaces in the garage, and 4,200 square feet of retail space in the basement, opening up to the Ogden Slip promenade.  Obviously, this never happened.

By 1998, the plans for the Spire site had changed, and new diagrams filed with the city showed two skyscrapers: one 540 feet tall, and one 350 feet tall.  Again, nothing happened.

Then, finally, on March 29, 2006 it was time for the big show.  The Fordham Spire was proposed.  You may remember that the design originally presented to the public was pointier than the final design.

All My Spires

In the second diagram from the left, you’ll notice ends rather abruptly at 1,570 feet.  On top of that is a 30-foot-tall water tank.  And both are surmounted by a giant 400-foot mast for broadcast antennae.  Total building height: 2,000 feet.  It’s important to note that this antenna array is labeled “architectural spire with integrated broadcast antennas.”  That means, unlike at the John Hancock Center (875 North Michigan Avenue) or Willis Tower (230 South Wacker Drive), the mast counts toward the full building height in the eyes of the Council on Buildings and Urban Habitat.

The third diagram is the one we’re more familiar with.  It was filed with the city on May 9, 2007.  The formerly pokey broadcast mast is gone, and the skyscraper ends in a more rounded shape.

And then the final diagram is essentially the same as the third diagram.  That’s because the world changed, developer Fordham was out, and the new developer, Shelbourne, changed the name to The Chicago Spire.

Site of the Chicago Spire

Have you ever wondered how Shelbourne North Water managed to get a massive 25 F.A.R. out of the city of Chicago?  It’s all about the bonuses:

  • Base FAR: 10.0 —  The property started out with a 10.
  • AH Bonus: 3.0 — Shelbourne was going to get this bonus for donating $5,700,300 to the city’s Affordable Housing fund.  Cash.  No checks.  No money orders.  No credit cards.  Seriously.  Someone has to walk into city hall with a big canvas sack over their shoulder with a dollar sign on it like Uncle Pennybags from the Monopoly board game.  Though considering it’s Chicago’s city hall, this is probably not an uncommon sight.
  • OC Bonus: 2.6 — Shelbourne was going to get this bonus for giving the Chicago Park District $4,104,216 to fix up DuSable Park
  • PP Bonus: 5.44 — A huge bonus for having 51,730 square feet of  public plazas, although the building, itself, would not have an observation deck
  • CR Bonus: 0.40 — A small bonus for adding 3,800 square feet to the Chicago Riverwalk
  • WF Bonus: 1.0 — For 48,669 square feet of fountains and water features
  • PL Bonus: 3.0 — For putting the 436 parking spaces and seven loading docks underground

Total F.A.R.: 25.44.

For those of you not familiar with the quantum mechanics of Chicago zoning, basically the bigger your F.A.R. (Floor Area Ratio), the higher you can build.  Though it’s not always as simple as that, which is why every Chicago real estate developer has a nuclear physicist with a ouija board on staff. No, not really.

Site of the Chicago SpireOne of the most common questions we get is, “What’s the current status of the Chicago Spire?”  At this point we know what you know from reading the newspapers.  The Irish Times has been the lead on this issue, with the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal close seconds.  If anything new happens, it will be there first.

At the root of the confusion is the fact that another developer (friends of the blog, Related Midwest) has come into town and taken an interest in the Spire.  The property is still very valuable, but there’s also a lot of debt, so that complicates things.  Some companies have agreements with other companies.  Some companies are suing other companies.  It’s like six blind dogs can smell a bone, and even though none of them can see it, they’re fighting over it anyway.

The bottom line is that while some of the parties involved are interested in resuming the Spire project, others see a different future for the property.  No matter what gets built, someone will be happy and someone won’t be happy.

Meanwhile, enjoy these diagrams of the building that may or may not ever be built.  And check the end of this article for Spire site trivia that will make you the life of any party.

Chicago Spire 2006 Diagrams

Chicago Spire 2008 Diagrams

Chicago Spire 2009 Diagrams

A couple of other interesting tidbits of Chicago history turned up while researching this article.  For those who like trivia:

  • DuSable Park was formerly called Point Park
  • DuSable Park was originally supposed to open to the public in November of 1996
  • Ogden Plaza was formerly Columbus Park
  • The city’s original redevelopment plans for Ogden Slip included a pedestrian bridge across the east side connecting to the Chicago Spire site
  • In 1998, developers told the city that while it would be technically possible to connect the Spire site with Lake Shore Drive, it was a bad idea.  This was one of the few parts of the Spire project that actually got built.
  • In 1998, developers told the city that the proposed pedestrian bridge across Ogden Slip was a bad idea because of complications from the Americans with Disabilities Act



Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at

Share This Post On