When we first started publishing the Chicago Architecture Blog almost 14 (!) years ago, Chicago was a dark city at night. Very few of the city’s buildings were illuminated showpieces, and those that were tended to be older.
That era has passed, as more and more Chicago buildings, new and old, are using state-of-the-art illumination technology to give themselves a little sparkle and a bit of “here I am!” showmanship to their real estate values.
To understand the change, it’s important to look at the history of Chicago. For the longest time, Chicago’s flashiest buildings were its oldest buildings — the heritage theaters, restaurants, and entertainment places that put up marquees, neon, and flashing lights to draw people in after hours. Literal beacons in the night, standing out meant staying in business in the competition for people in a time before people would camp on their couches after work and stare at a glowing flat screen on the wall.
When the Second World War came, it was lights out across the country. All major cities kept illumination to a minimum because of the threat of bombing from above, or in Chicago’s case being targeted by German U-boats hiding in the blackness of Lake Michigan. Chicago and its river have a fascinating and strange history with submarines, but that’s a topic for another blog.
While the post-war years were considered a boom time for America, much of the action was in the suburbs. In many downtowns, austerity was the mood, even in Chicago which, largely thanks to the iron fist of Mayor Richard J. Daley, managed to remain alive while others became burned-out husks for their former selves. Witness how, in spite of new money and new technologies, the tallest building in Chicago didn’t change from 1930 (The Chicago Board of Trade) until 1965 (The Daley Center) — 35 years. In the previous 75 years, the leader changed on average every 10 years.
When Chicago did start building again, in the late 60’s and 1970’s, the nation was worried about the energy crisis. I remember waiting in line for almost an entire day to fill up a yellow Vega with gas on an “even” license plate day. And those who had to sweat through it probably remember July of 1979 when President Jimmy Carter ordered that no office building could be air conditioned below 78 degrees. And this was in an era when people puffed cigarettes like chimneys at their desks!
In informal interviews I conducted with architects in the early part of this century, they explained how with so few new buildings going up downtown, and real estate developers in a less-than-festive mood, lighting up buildings evolved from merely impractical to downright gauche. The idea was simply frowned upon.
That all seemed to change right around 2005. That’s when the big illuminated “Chase” logo went up on top of what is now the Chase Tower (10 South Dearborn Street). It wasn’t the cause of all the others that followed, but rather a symptom of the homogenization of Chicago that started around the turn of this century and continues today (White Hen became 7-Eleven, Marshall Field’s became Macy’s, Harris Bank became Bank of Montreal, etc…). When people in far off cities decide to put a big light-up sign on the new building they just acquired, they don’t hear the harumphs of the local zeitgeist.
Today in Chicago, lighting up a building is an accepted practice. It’s even desirable in the eyes of some real estate companies. It hasn’t gotten to ridiculous green neon outline-levels like in Dallas, but new technologies have made it possible to light up a building cheaply and unobtrusively.
In fact, two older Chicago buildings are in the process of asking city permission to glow.
First is the Railway Exchange Building at 224 South Michigan Avenue, where hundreds of our loyal readers toil and play in what’s become a nexus of Chicago’s architecture community. There, Jones Lang LaSalle wants to light up the south and east facades of the building, not only with light — but with lights that can change colors.
The project was designed by friends-of-the-blog Goettsch Partners and KJKWW Lighting Design. Modern high-intensity colored LEDs are what makes this possible at a reasonable price.
The Commission on Chicago Landmarks nixed the original (cheaper) idea of attaching the lights to the building’s columns, and instead is making JLL fork out for embedding the lights into the sidewalk, like over at Union Station.
It also had a few choice words about the use of color on the building:
Friedman Properties got the same tap on the wrist reminder because it, too, wants to light up a building with color-changing LED’s. This time it’s The Reid Murdoch Building, parked on the edge of the Chicago River, which is about to sprout a 500-room hotel tower out of its butt.
The lighting design there was done by Brett Gardner of RGB Lights and architect Warren Strovel, Friedman’s in-house guy who was apparently separated-at-birth from billionaire Mark Cuban. Seriously. This guy could sign autographs at a Mavericks game and nobody would notice until he asked for his hot dog to be dragged through the garden the proper Chicago way.
Less of a major illumination project, but in line with the continued nighttime branding of Chicago, is a request from Google. Big G wants to put its name to light up on the former cold storage warehouse now known as 1K Fulton, which is also the tech giant’s Midwest headquarters.
It’s asking permission for a 90ish-square foot logo on the east parapet of the building, and a larger one (160ish square feet) on the east facade canopy.
We’re seeing more and more of these kinds of lighting requests showing up in the city clerk’s office, and frankly, it’s probably a good thing. Rule number one when you want to build a vibrant city is to get the people on the streets, especially after dark. And rule number one for parting the darkness is “let there be light.”