#539: Tower in a Park

October 7th, 2015

It was falling apart in my hands, the creases and seams where the thick paper had been folded simply coming away from each other in the 50-ish years since the plans had been printed.

They show layouts, floor plans, hand-rendered pre-construction imaginings of what would become Lake Point Tower, the modern architecture castle jutting beautifully from the land just west of Navy Pier.

And there, on the front cover of the package sent to prospective tenants back in the mid-1960s, words that made me burn: “Tower in a Park.”

Not only did they know they were turning our public parks into millionaires’ backyards, they made it part of the ad campaign.

Lake Point Tower is gorgeous. The 1968 high-rise is a revolutionary take on the International or Modern style of architecture by two former students of Ludwig Mies van der Rowe, the style’s chief proponent.

Architects George Schipporeit and John Heinrich took the glass-and-steel Miesian box and gave it a curve, creating this startling three-lobed tower at the foot of Navy Pier. It’s a testament to creativity, elegance, beauty and gaming the system to turn the people’s land into another bauble for the wealthy.

Since 1836, a year before the city incorporated, Chicago’s lakefront has been deemed “Public Ground—A Common to Remain Forever Open, Clear and Free of any Buildings, or Other Obstructions whatever.”

The lakefront changed and grew as we pushed out into it on landfill. Legal battles have been fought. Physical battles have been fought. But through hook, crook and the deep pocketbooks of A. Montgomery Ward, we managed to keep our lakefront open to the people.

We fought for grass and a cloud-dappled sky that any person, rich or poor, can enjoy. I can think of few things nobler.

There was an exception, of course. Gotta be. That exception was the mouth of the Chicago River, which has a long history of industry. The 1948 rules outlined the exact exemption: You could build harbor and terminal facilities for passenger and freight vessels between Grand Avenue north of the river and Randolph Street to the south.

And thems was the rules.

Until the 1964 “Basic Policies for the Comprehensive Plan of Chicago,” copies of which, including an old typewritten one released to the press with commentary by Hizzoner Richard J. Daley, can, like the promotional package from earlier, be found in the Harold Washington Library special collections.

“The proposed policies strongly reaffirm the 1948 Chicago Plan Commission lakefront resolution, which stated that the entire lakefront be used for recreational and cultural purposes, except for the section south of 79th Street and the section between Grand Avenue and Randolph Street.”

The words “harbor and terminal facilities for passenger and freight vessels” had vanished in a puff of Daley-era politics.

It’s like if the highway department suddenly came out with new rules that “strongly reaffirm that there is a speed limit” without saying what it is.

You’re damn right people went 90.

“The door was now open for developer Charles H. Shaw to move forward in the mid-1960s with the construction of Lake Point Tower, a 71-story high-rise near Navy Pier,” wrote Joseph P. Schewiterman and Dana M. Caspall in their 2006 book “The Politics of Place: A History of Zoning in Chicago.”

Journalist Lois Wille was a little more suspicious about how that door came to be open, writing in her 1972 book “Forever Open, Clear and Free: The Historic Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront” that “… luxury high-rise apartment buildings already were scheduled to go up east of Lake Shore Drive at the foot of Randolph Street and at Grand Avenue, so the omission was not exactly an oversight.”

Lake Point Tower was on the Grand Avenue end of things. Outer Drive East was the Randolph Street development. Two huge luxury apartment complexes flanking the very zone someone thought might be nice for freight vessels.

In the early ‘70s, Harbor Point joined Outer Drive East on Randolph Street, stepping between the earlier development and the lake (ODE tenants must have been piiiiissed).

The furor around the high-rising of the lakefront, coupled with the disaster of McCormick Place convention center, which went up, burned down and was rebuilt within an 11-year period of Daley the First’s reign, led to the Lakefront Protection Ordinance of 1973.

It said in part “… in no instance will further private development be permitted east of Lake Shore Drive.”

Harbor Point, Outer Drive East and good old Lake Point Tower must have been ecstatic. No new competitors.

It’s just like LPT must have loved it in 1987, when the drive was rerouted. Outer Drive East and Harbor Point found themselves back west of the road with us proles. Lake Point Tower was now the only chance on the planet to live east of Lake Shore Drive.

They went condo the next year.

Charles H. Shaw’s obituary is typically cloying, his friends and loved ones recalling that the controversy of this middle finger on the lake was “over whether its massiveness was appropriate for its location.”

This simple lie by grieving relatives turned “Don’t sell our public land!” into “By gad, Charles, those beautiful apartments are almost TOO luxurious!”

And here we are, decades later. This tale of rich > poor has left us with a staggeringly beautiful building that no one seems to question.

On the tours I give (I’m a tour guide now), the only questions I’ve ever gotten about the building are how tall it is (71 stories), what the circle thing on top is (a restaurant) and how much it costs to live there (more than you or I will ever see in our lives).

I think of Aaron Montgomery Ward.

When Montgomery Ward died in 1913, the top headline in the Tribune wasn’t about the mail-order business that bore his name (the company wouldn’t move into chain stores until years after its namesake’s death).

The headline read “Death Takes Ward, Lake ‘Watchdog.’”

Ward’s fight against lakefront development wasn’t always popular, and some of his choices seem odd to us now. His prolonged legal battle against plans for the Field Museum cost him an untold sum, went all the way up to the Illinois Supreme Court and pushed the site off of Grant Park, south to what we now know as Museum Campus.

He did that to fight a museum. And we gave it away for rich folks’ views.

I leave you with Montgomery Ward’s words, quoted from Lois Wille’s book.

“Had I known in 1890 how long it would take me to preserve a park for the people against their will, I doubt if I would have undertaken it. I think there is not another man in Chicago who would have spent the money I have spent in this fight with certainty that even gratitude would be denied as interest.

“I fought for the poor people of Chicago, not the millionaires.”

See video of Lake Point Tower’s construction

Read about a corrupt deal I’ll never forgive myself for

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