Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Fifty years ago, the iconic corn-cob-shaped cement towers were a symbol of optimism for the city. Today, they are close to being designated historic landmarks.
The corn-cob cement towers known as Marina City have attracted onlookers along the Chicago riverfront for more than 50 years. Today, the towers are closer than ever to becoming an official city landmark.
Earlier this month, the Commission on Chicago Landmarks recommended Marina City for landmark status to the city council. Such a designation would permit city officials to oversee proposed alterations to the towers’ exterior.
Designed by Bertrand Goldberg, the complex has never been threatened with demolition—unlike another of his concrete masterpieces, Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished in 2014. However, landmarking Marina City would protect the towers from questionable modifications, such as when the restaurant and bar chain Dick’s Last Resort opened there in 2008. Facade alterations at the time led to an initial (and unsuccessful) effort to landmark the complex.
Long before Marina City (or perhaps any concrete tower) could be imagined as a cause for preservation, it was a symbol of great optimism. In This Is Marina City, a Portland Cement Association film from 1965*, viewers get to watch the towers go up as a narrator explains the construction process behind the buildings and the mission behind the complex.
“Marina City is more than a structure,” the narrator declares. “It is a strong influence on the architecture of tomorrow and a realistic approach to urban planning.”
At a time when Chicago was concerned about a middle-class exodus to the suburbs, the mixed-use complex was largely funded by the Building Service Employees International Union. Why a janitors’ labor group? “People living in suburban houses didn't need a janitor,” architecture critic Blair Kamin explained recently in the Chicago Tribune.
To this day, the five-building complex receives the kind of praise and admiration that the average mid-century building can only dream of. Depending on who’s looking, a glimpse may trigger appreciations of curvy modernism, the revitalization of Chicago’s riverfront, or even Wilco’s best album.
But Kamin, who notes that Goldberg “anticipated by decades the city's current push to turn the river into a recreational amenity,” also points out that Marina City mostly failed to meet its original goal of providing affordable housing. Members of the janitors’ union complained that the rents were simply too high for most workers (between $882 and $2,684 when it first opened, in 2015 dollars). And in historically segregated Chicago, the 900-unit complex housed only six African Americans when Ebony featured the project in 1964.
Few Chicagoans question Marina City’s worthiness as an official landmark, but there is one possible hiccup. As of last week, there’s concern that the owners of the complex’s hotel and commercial sections may not want such a designation since it could complicate future attempts to accommodate new commercial tenants. The Tribune reports that the city can landmark a property whether an owner wants them to or not, but that they “prefer to get consent to avoid costly legal battles.”
H/T: Curbed Chicago
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified the film as being made in 1963.