Wrigley Building - Tower - Blog

When you're walking around downtown Chicago, you may notice some pretty towers on the tops of skyscrapers. A little secret for you to help you understand Chicago architecture: when you see those towers and they have lots of details, you can bet the skyscraper was built in the 1920s.

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Things were a bit more collectivist in the early 1900s, so Chicagoans had strong feelings about maintaining equal building height to reflect equality among people. In the 1920s as buildings shot skyward with a booming economy and improvements in structural engineering, city zoning changed.
Jewelers Building - Blog

The first major change allowed architects to extend the height of buildings above the rest of the skyline, which at the time consisted of primarily buildings with twelve stories or less.  While overall building height was increased to 260 feet, or about 26 stories, architects could further stretch it to 400 feet as long as the towers were not occupied. These towers were to be purely for decoration.

Encyclopedia Britanica Cap
One tower you may discover downtown, close to Grant Park, is known as the "bee-hive." I dug into the history of this building when invited by a law firm to do a public-speaking presentation about the view from their lobby overlooking Millennium and Grant parks. This glowing blue orb tops a stone pyramid on the top of the Metropolitan Tower on Michigan Avenue. Right under the "hive" you can almost make out the 1,500+ pound carillon bells that play "Handel's "Cambridge Quarters" on the quarter hour. I'm not making this up! They were restored in 1979 for Pope John Paul II's visit to the Windy City.

While it's now a residential building (invitations by residents for Detours staff are most welcome), it was originally built by a financial investment company. They wanted the blue glass,  hive-shaped tower to express "busy like a bee," and the pyramid top to symbolize stability. Alas they went bankrupt during the Depression.

Chicago Temple Architecture
Another tower that took advantage of the "unoccupied structure" is the Chicago Temple Building, with its hollow steeple so brilliantly illuminated in this vintage postcard.

In 1923 the zoning further changed to allow towers with occupants, and this eventually led into the "setback" zoning of 1926, which warrants a post of its own in the future.

So now that you know, let us know! What are some of your favorite Chicago towers? Please post your answers in the comments section.