Marina City at 50

Iconic towers built with eye towards boosting downtown living prove prescient

11/21/2012 10:00 PM

Igor Studenkov
Contributing Reporter

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Marina City.
David Pierini/Staff Photographer

In November 1962, the Marina City mixed-use complex marked an important milestone. The two towers weren't finished, but the east tower was finished enough that folks had begun to move in. It would be another two years before the rest of the complex was completed, but a ceremony was held to honor the towers' progress.

Since then, Marina City has gone through many changes, enduring its share of ups and downs. While many of its original elements are gone, the development continues to attract residents thanks to its unique design and amenities both in and around the buildings. And while some of Marina City’s features never caught on, other aspects had a profound influence on the city — an influence that can still be felt to this day.

Marina City was created in response to the growth of suburbs, as middle-class and upper-income residents left Chicago in increasing numbers. At the time, it was assumed that no one who had the means to move to the suburbs would ever want to live in the city.

Developer Charles Swibel challenged the conventional wisdom, arguing that people would want to live in the city if the buildings were close to their work and had good amenities. He hired Bertrand Goldberg, then a fairly minor architect, to design the development that could accomplish that.

Goldberg’s design set out to do something that was never attempted before. One of the earliest examples of mixed-use developments, it would feature two residential towers, an office building, a theater building and a two-story platform-like foundation with restaurants and other commercial spaces. A marina that fed directly into the river would be located below the platform.

Goldberg’s final design for the towers made the development truly unique. Each residential floor had a flower-like design. The central “stem” contained elevators and stairs, with apartment doors facing a stem and expanding outward until it reached a balcony. Each building had 18 floors worth of garage spaces — an unprecedented feature at the time.

Marina City caught popular imagination almost as soon as it was announced. Tenants started moving into East Tower in October, when most of the building still wasn’t complete. And while the towers’ circular design was rarely replicated, many of the building’s innovative features became standard in city developments.

The in-building parking garages are the most obvious example. Marina City was also the first building in Chicago to use electricity for heating and cooking. And over the last 20 years, buildings with retail and entertainment components have popped up all across the city.

Ward Miller, President of Preservation Chicago, told Skyline that Marina City’s influence went further than that. It changed the way the Chicago riverfront was developed.

“In 50s and 60s, there were high-rise apartment buildings, but they were primarily along the lakefront,” said Miller. “Right after Marina City was completed, other high-rise buildings started popping up along the river. If you look now at the same riverfront, you see lots of high-rises that are both residential and commercial.”

Marina City also changed the surrounding neighborhood. 50 years ago, it was a largely industrial area, with century-old apartment buildings and cheap hotels lining the major streets. Miller said the construction of Marina City helped make River North the neighborhood it is today.

“So Marina City linked [State Street], one of the city’s biggest shopping districts, to the neighborhood across the river,” he said. “It really created a new concept in the area we now call River North. It really helped to transform that whole area”

He also argued that the building’s marina helped to inspire the recently constructed river walks. The marina, he argued, opened Chicagoans’ eyes to the possibility that the river could be used recreationally.

Meanwhile, Marina City itself has changed over the past few decades. The office building became a hotel. The former theater building became home to the House of Blues.

Steven Dahlman is a longtime Marina City resident. He runs and edits Loop North News, an online newspaper that focuses on Marina City and the surrounding neighborhoods. Dahlman said that as the neighborhood grew, Marina City became less of a “city within a city” and more of a part of River North.

“There are now plenty of options for anything you could ever need or want, all within walking distance,” he said. “I believe Marina City has become more of a destination. It can cater to people coming into the complex, with its restaurants, bars, bowling alley, etc.”

Dahlman feels that it still has plenty to offer to new residents.

“We have great views from huge balconies,” he said. “It’s probably a bit more affordable to live here [then in other area buildings]. It is well-maintained — we don’t have any serious issues.”

The location doesn’t hurt, either.

“We’re so close to everything,” he said. “Any place you would ever need to go is a short walk away — and if not, we’re close to public transit. In the non-winter months, my wife and I regularly walk across the street to the Riverwalk, then stroll out to the lakefront. That really is amazing.”

Still, Marina City is not without problems. In 1977, all the building's apartments were converted into condominiums. About 40 percent of them have since been converted back to rental by their owners, creating a mixed population. When the Marina Towers Condominium Association celebrated the development’s 50th anniversary, the renters weren’t invited.

According to Dahlman, this sort of behavior is part of long-running tensions between condo owners and renters.

“I think owners look down their noses a bit at renters,” he said. “They perceive renters as transient, uncaring of the property and not good for resale values. “

Dahlman, who is a renter himself, believes that those perceptions are unfair.

“There are plenty of renters who love this place, and plenty of owners who don’t even live here,” he said.

Dahlman feels that, ultimately, condo owners and renters have many things in common.

“Everyone is worried about the economy, of course,” he said. “I think everyone realizes we’re in a solid part of town that keeps getting better.”

In the end of the day, he is optimistic about the future.

“I think [Marina City] is keeping up with the times.” Said Dahlman. “We’re still relevant to Chicago, and trying to compete in a modern world. The physical structure is always getting better. There are nearly constant improvements — some big, some small. Residents will generally be opposed to changes, but in time they get used to them.”

This article has been corrected from a previous version that appeared online and in print to reflect that there was no formal milestone reached in November 1962, just a ceremony. Tenants would have begun moving in roughly a month earlier. Also, all of the building's units were converted from apartments to condos in 1977, not just 60 precent of them.

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By Steven Dahlman, editor, from River North
Posted: 11/29/2012 2:55 PM

Although in general we like to celebrate, there is no historical connection between Marina City and November 29, 1962. The first tenants moved into Marina City's east tower on October 14, 1962 and into the west tower on January 12, 1963. The only thing that happened in November 1962 was a ceremony to note the two-year anniversary of groundbreaking. The reporter of this otherwise fine article has acknowledged his mistake regarding the date but has not corrected the article.