Michigan Avenue Streetwall


  • LISTED ON MOST ENDANGERED: 2008 (also listed in 1995)
  • LOCATION: Michigan Avenue, from Randolph Street to 11th Street, Chicago, Cook County
  • STATUS: Saved
  • BUILT: Late-19th century to early-20th century
  • SITE TYPE: Commercial, Downtown
  • GEOGRAPHY: Chicago
  • THREAT AT TIME OF LISTING: A tower development proposed would have threatened the former Chicago Athletic Association and set a bad precedent of the district.
  • CURRENT USE: Commercial
  • DESIGNATIONS: Local Chicago landmark district (2002)
  • LI PROGRAMS & AWARDS: Recipient of a Landmarks Illinois 2015 Richard H. Driehaus Foundation  Preservation Award for Rehabilitation of the Chicago Athletic Association, a contributing building to the Michigan Boulevard Historic District
  • TAKE ACTION: Visit the restored Chicago Athletics Association

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Historic Significance

Stretching from Randolph Street to 11th Street, this 12-block stretch of historic buildings on Michigan Avenue in Chicago is widely recognized as one of the most outstanding streetscapes in the world. Designed over the course of 50 years by prominent architects including Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham, these buildings reflect an array of styles and building technologies dating from 1880 to 1930. Its high visibility has earned it the nickname of “Chicago’s Front Door” and is truly the face of the city.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Threat at Time of Listing - 2008

Although it had originally been proposed for landmark protection in 1976, opposition from property owners led to years of debate regarding the protection of Chicago’s most storied Avenue. In the early 1990s, the row of historic buildings faced acute threats from both development pressures and underutilization. After years of tireless advocacy by Landmarks Illinois, including the street’s placement on LI’s 1995 Most Endangered list, the Chicago’s City Council finally approved landmark district designation for the street in 2002. Now, any proposed changes to the district must be reviewed by the Commission on Chicago Landmarks.

Despite this protection, the Streetwall faced a new threat in 2008, when the former Chicago Athletic Association (12 S. Michigan Ave.) was slated for a highly visible glass tower addition, despite the limitations of height and scale enforced in landmark districts. Although the addition was designed to be set back from the historic façade, it would have been a clear and prominent disruption of the historic view from all of Grant Park and the lakefront. The proposal also called for considerable demolition of the existing historic building. Designed by famed architect Henry Ives Cobb, the Chicago Athletic Association opened its doors in 1893, serving the architectural showpiece during Chicago’s World’s Fair. This Venetian gothic landmark offered social, business and athletic spaces and served as a private sanctuary for the city’s elite for over 115 years. Perhaps even worse, the proposed addition at the Chicago Athletic Association would have served as a dangerous precedent for similar projects within the landmark district, as a number of other additions were already under discussion. Preservationists and residents alike feared a domino effect of high-rise development on a street where landmark designation was established to prevent just such a situation. To combat this threat, Landmarks Illinois included the Michigan Avenue Streetwall on its Most Endangered list for a second time in 2008. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a Washington-based, nationwide advocacy group, also included the Streetwall on its “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” list, bolstering Landmarks Illinois and other local preservation efforts.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Preservation Efforts

Thanks to the earlier landmark district designation, any additions to this historic row required approval from the Commission on Chicago Landmarks. Due to this protection, public objection to the tower proposal and advocacy by Landmarks Illinois, which included producing a rendering of the streetwall by LI Board Member Joe Antunovich to demonstrate the impact multiple towers and rooftop additions could have upon the district, the dangerous proposal never came to fruition.

In 2012, AJ Capital Partners acquired the Chicago Athletic Association and undertook an exhaustive three-year redevelopment effort, breathing new life into this gem. The Chicago Athletic Association is now a 241-room, boutique hotel with multiple and unrivaled restaurants, bars and event spaces. Painstaking care was taken to ensure the iconic building was restored using only the best craftsmen available while new interior architecture has been seamlessly integrated with some of the finest historic finishes in the Midwest. The project utilized the Federal Historic Tax Credit as well as local preservation incentives offered in Chicago.

The Michigan Avenue Streetwall historic district as a whole exemplifies some of the best practices in preservation planning. It features numerous conversions of former office buildings into residential and institutional use, the successful use of historic tax incentives for the rehabilitation of dozens of buildings and the careful integration of new construction. Design guidelines for the district have been drafted with input from Landmarks Illinois, property owners and design professionals, while the City of Chicago has invested millions of dollars in the district new public infrastructure, including historic streetlamps and signage. Millennium Park, located on the northern end of the historic streetwall, across from its east side, is one of the highest visited tourist attractions in Chicago, ensuring that millions of people are able to see and enjoy the irreplaceable architecture of Chicago’s most famous boulevard.

(Photo credit: Liz Chilsen)

Further Reading

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