A pioneering idea for Chicago’s riverfront

This weekend’s newspaper column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

A pioneering idea for Chicago’s riverfront


June 9, 2012

I love skyscrapers.

From the Willis to the Hancock to the Trump, I marvel at them all. Back in 2008, I very much wanted “The Spire,” a 2,000-foot-tall, twisting tower that would have loomed along Lake Michigan, to be built, and was disappointed when it was not. And every time I hear a proposal for a soaring new building in downtown Chicago, I find myself intrigued.

But this time around, I’m not sure that the Windy City – the cradle of American architecture – really needs another skyscraper.

Perhaps it could use a history lesson instead.

Last week, Christopher Kennedy, son of the late Robert F. Kennedy and former president of Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., publicly unveiled a proposal for a new $1 billion real estate development that would be downtown Chicago’s largest since the 2008 financial crisis.

Kennedy and three partners want to construct a trio of towers – office buildings of up to 950 and 750 feet, plus an apartment building that could reach 525 feet – on an under-utilized plot of land called Wolf Point located just southwest of the Merchandise Mart at the confluence of the North, South and Main Branches of the Chicago River.

The massive project’s largest building, at more than 900 feet, would be at least the eighth-tallest structure in Chicago. And the towers combined would contain nearly as much interior space – 3.75 million square feet – as Willis Tower.

Big Shoulders, indeed.

In its news story about the proposal, the Chicago Tribune described Wolf Point as “once home to pioneer taverns, a hotel and trading posts.” That bit of history prompted Chicago media critic Steve Rhodes to write at his website “Can we go back to that instead? Seriously. A little Wild West village that’s operational. We don’t need more office towers and it could employ the river. An old-time Chicago trading post! Seriously.”

And it was Rhodes’ idea that I found to be intriguing.


After all, in the early history of Chicago, few sites are more significant than Wolf Point, which was the location of the city’s first three taverns, its first hotel, its first ferry, its first drug store and its first bridges across the Chicago River.

In 1826, a pair of French Indian traders named Mark and Monique Beaubien moved to Chicago and settled in a small cabin on Wolf Point. Setting their priorities, they first built a tavern on the Point that they named Eagle Exchange Tavern.

Later, in 1831, the Beaubiens added on to the tavern to create Chicago’s first hotel, the Sauganash. At that time, the entire city had only twelve houses, and the hotel, with its Greek Revival façade, immediately became one of Chicago’s most celebrated businesses. Two years later, the Sauganash Hotel hosted the election of the first trustees of the newly formed Town of Chicago and later on also briefly served as the city’s first theater.

The Sauganash was a building dripping with history on a slice of land that still drips with it today. And in his review of the current development plan, Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin lamented that it “does nothing to commemorate Wolf Point’s past as the hub of pioneer-era Chicago in the 1830s … Something in that spirit is needed at Wolf Point – something integral to the buildings or the landscape, not a plaque that’s a mere afterthought.”

But perhaps what’s really needed is Wolf Point reconstructed as it once was, creating an old-time village within a modern metropolis that would provide Chicago with a venue that captures the city’s spirit by bringing its past back to life.

It’s something no skyscraper can accomplish.