marina city tower sketch

Featuring Chicago: Marina City


Last week one of my favorite downtown buildings, Marina City, was approved for preliminary landmark status.  We’re tickled to use that occasion to provide our own salute to the project.

Here are some eye candy snaps and historical snippets to celebrate this great building of Chicago.

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Just the Facts, Ma’am

Here are the basics: Marina City is a mixed used development just outside the loop designed by Bertrand Goldberg, most prominenty a pair of 60 story towers.  It sits on the north side of the Chicago River atop its own tiny (eponymous) marina and fills the block between Dearborn and State.  Completed in 1967 it included high rise living space, on site parking, a gym, theater, pool, ice rink, bowling alley, retail, restaurants and grocery and access to the 350 view from the roof of each tower. Via the CAF website:

“When the development opened, eight percent of residents worked within the development and 80 percent could walk to work.”

It was built at a time when many people were leaving the city behind but proved a successful model for the kind of mixed use residential tower that is now very common both downtown and in lake side neighborhoods.

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More you Might Not Know about Marina City

Blair Kamin’s recent column makes it clear that the project was historically significant for more than just its building design.  Check out Kamin’s loving profile of the building and the landmark process to learn more.

It had unique financial support – from the Building Service Employees International Union who were concerned that too many people were leaving the city for suburban development and wanted to encourage downtown living for middle class families.

The developers changed national policy to get federal mortgage insurance extended to single people and couples without children (yay, civil rights) as part of its route to financing.

And it was a construction miracle – the towers went up at a rate of a floor per day.  Seriously!

This history snap from the Art Institute digital library shows it going up, swarming with workers.  It also shows a near north side dotted with mid rise commercial/industrial buildings and liberally sprinkled with wooden water towers.

marina city history

Bertrand Goldberg: About the Architect

Goldberg was a Chicago native who studied design at Harvard and at the Bauhaus – notable German design school and cradle of International Modernism –  and worked in the German offices of Chicago’s modern godfather, Mies van der Rhoe, before returning to start his own design firm.

He was strongly influenced by the philosophy of his modernist education – believing that new materials should influence form – but not, by any means, a follower of its forms (steel columns and glass surrounding rigidly gridded rectangular buildings). Chicago Architecture and Design profiles him as one of “The Heretics” of modernsim, stating:

“No avowed modernist could have developed more differently from Mies.”

To my mind, Marina City represents the best exuberance of the Jetsons era idealism in building form; I enjoy it so much more than the rectilinear, and hermetically sealed, buildings of Goldberg’s international modernist contemporaries and teachers.

Goldberg’s Other Projects

Goldberg didn’t limit himself to designing buildings. Responding to the desire to quickly produce homes to make up for the post war baby boom and housing shortages, he created the Stanfab bathroom – a single (theoretically) easy to install unit that held a bathtub, sink toilet, linen closet and TP holder all in a 7.5′ by 2.5′ footprint.   He also designed a light weight molded plywood refrigerated box car for trains – intended to reduce the need for steel – again responding to war shortages.

His Raymond M. Hilliard Homes public housing project (completed in 1966) already has national landmark status (and a 2003 renovation to keep it running smoothly) and still stands an example of Chicago’s best.  Unfortunately, one of his most notable other down town buildings, the Prentice Women’s Hospital (1975) recently lost its preservation battle and was demolished to make way for a new research center on the site.

The Inside Scoop

If you wonder what its like to be inside looking out of the Corncob towers, look no further:

marina city balconiesCheck out this House Tour on Apartment Therapy from a few years ago.  It shows off the pie slice layout, the candy pink original kitchen and some personal thoughts on furnishing a space that isn’t rectangular.

This Curbed condo profile is a little less charming – remodeling needs to be done with taste, people – but still offers an interesting inside view, this time of a two bedroom unit.

Almost as unusual as a view out, is a view down instead of up.  I can’t find a modern image which confirms if the balconies are still painted – but this 60’s vintage magazine photo suggests that at one time there was a very colorful view to be had from the top of either tower.

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Marina City on the River Walk

This view from the Brown or Purple Line windows, remains one of my favorite moments in the Chicago experience.  Lets hope the Marina City complex will be a part of it for a long time to come!

Like this post? Check out our other Featuring Chicago profile, the Auditorium Theater, and our Chicago Building Types series including studies of Chicago BungalowsCourtyard Apartment Buildings, Greystone Flats,Four-Plus-One Apartments and, naturally, Skyscrapers.