Thomas Leslie’s Chicago Skyscrapers, 1934-1986 is an impressive and important book that will take its place with those works providing the deepest insights into what makes Chicago, Chicago.

Books such as Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon, Boss by Mike Royko, Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr. and Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade.

It is one of those rare books about significant architectural structures that looks beyond design controversies, elegant descriptions and engineering details and examines the forces behind their creation.

As Leslie details throughout his book, those forces used tall buildings — skyscrapers — during the five decades of the mid-20th century to reinvigorate the Loop and Chicago’s tax base and to segregate in the cheapest way possible the city’s low-income African American people.  That’s where the book’s subtitle comes in: How Technology, Politics, Finance, and Race Reshaped the City.

During this era, skyscrapers were a tool of greed and racism.

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Richard J. Daley

Two major figures dominated these years.  One was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the monumental figure of modernist architecture, who arrived in Chicago in 1938 to head the architecture school of the Armour Institute of Technology, soon renamed the Illinois Institute of Technology. For the next 30 years until his death, Mies put his stamp on Chicago’s architecture as a designer and as a teacher, someone to mirror or to challenge.

The other figure, more influential by far, was Mayor Richard J. Daley who was interested in the way a big building looked only to the extent that it brought luster to Chicago’s reputation and tax money to its coffers.  A prime example of his policies was the Central Area Plan of the 1950s, overseen by his planning commissioner, Ira Bach.

Under the guise of an objective, data-driven planning process, Bach marshalled business, finance, and development interests together to create a literal blueprint for rebuilding the Loop as a tax base, a political rampart, and a symbol of a new city — technocratic but with civic aspirations and building on the city’s reputation for commercial construction: a modern, efficient, and attractive City Beautiful.

Daley, by a clever political sleight of hand, had gathered to himself in mid-century Chicago more power than any previous mayor had ever held or any future one would hold.  Indeed, it could be argued that he was the strongest mayor the United States has ever seen.

The first step in that power grab came in 1953 when Daley won election as the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, overseeing and controlling the slating of candidates and the dispersal of party funds.  The next step two years later was an ambush.  He slated himself for Mayor, winning easily and gaining control of the city’s vast hiring power. Then, Leslie writes, he “stunned the party by refusing to give up the party chair position.”

The skyscraper put to political use

Chicago has a weak mayor-strong council form of government, and, during the first half of the 20thcentury, the city’s aldermen ran the show.  Now, things would be much different:

The resulting combination of slating and hiring power gave [Daley} historically unprecedented influence that would extend to the very shape of the city, its infrastructure, and its buildings during his twenty-one-year regime.

Before Daley, developers and anyone else wanting to work with the city had to cozy up to individual aldermen, and, if successful, they “could essentially build whatever they wanted.”  The new mayor, however, centralized this process, writes Leslie.

Daley’s ability to control patronage, to seat commissions, and to slate aldermanic candidates who would be loyal to him and the machine eliminated any remaining political friction to development and construction, replacing it with a forceful push.

Indeed, from the first weeks of his administration, Daley began using high-rise construction as a political device to create patronage jobs on new public projects and new tax revenues “while reshaping the city and, especially, the Loop from a moribund city of brick and stone into a vibrant, technologically planned metropolis of steel and concrete.”

The new mayor was a game-changer. Leslie notes that he had little to say about mayors in his earlier book Chicago Skyscrapers, 1871-1934 (University of Illinois Press, 2013) because they had little impact on the erection of the more than 80 tall buildings constructed during those years. 

By contrast, “Daley and the power he exercised appear consistently” in Chicago Skyscrapers, 1934-1986.  In fact, unlike the first book, this new one was given its strong subtitle to underline the way tall towers were employed in reshaping the city physically and demographically.

“An engine of corporate and financial wealth”

As he did in his first book, Leslie gives the reader detailed accounts — mini-biographies, in a way — of dozens of skyscrapers constructed in mid-century, profusely illustrated and covering many pages.

For instance, Leslie devotes 12 pages to the Prudential Building, the tallest structure in the city at the time of its completion in late 1955, chronicling its design progression and its technical solutions to construction needs.  At the formal opening ceremony, Daley, who had been in office just eight months, called the structure “41 stories of faith in the future of Chicago.”

The mayor was so captivated by the image of the skyscraper as “an agent of urban development and civic change,” writes Leslie, that he promised the crowd “that future skyscrapers would soon follow.”

And so it was.  “Skyscrapers remade the Loop as an engine of corporate and financial wealth,” Leslie writes.  

But “Chicago’s heroic skyscraper mythology” that the skyscrapers were “a vote of confidence in Chicago by courageous industrialists and financiers” was simply that: a myth.  There was “no such thing” as laissez-faire commerce in Daley’s Chicago.

Without tax breaks, land deals, sweetheart zoning arrangements, and massive land clearance assistance, Chicago’s most visible high-rises could not have been the financial successes they were — indeed, they might not have been built at all….[Daley’s] thumbs were firmly planted on the free market scales of profit and loss.

From “bootstrapping” to “warehousing”

The dozens of city-backed skyscrapers erected in and around the Loop and along the lakefront during the mayor’s tenure brought a consistent stream of temporary construction jobs that pleased Daley’s union supporters, as did the dozens of residential towers erected by the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA).

But those public housing high-rises also provided a vast number of permanent patronage positions that Daley controlled and used to deepen his power. 

Leslie notes that, in 1958, the Chicago Tribune reported “that political hiring and ‘featherbedding’ — phantom or make-work jobs for machine loyalists — had driven maintenance costs 80 percent above market rates.”  That same month, he adds, a Wall Street Journal story about the Abbott Homes “found the three-year-old towers in disrepair, ignored by a maintenance staff that was at best inept, at worst absent.”

This lack of adequate maintenance and disregard for the quality of life of the residents would turn CHA high-rises into vertical slums. 

What was much worse, however, was the way Daley and his allies employed the public housing skyscraper to hyper-segregate low-income Blacks in isolated reservations and, thus, insulate white neighborhoods from having to face even the most minimal forms of integration.  Leslie writes:

The CHA’s original mission, to provide low-rise, “bootstrap” housing as families found accommodations of their own, evolved into skyscrapers “warehousing” the city’s most challenged residents….With lax enforcement and overwhelming numbers of teenagers and children, mischief and minor vandalism metastasized into an ongoing youth revolt.  The projects gained a reputation as housing of last resort.

“The defensive wall”

And, beyond their use by CHA, skyscrapers played another role in hardening the racial lines around Chicago, such as in the construction of the Carl Sandburg Village development on the Near North Side in the early 1960s. 

Built on a strip of land to the west of the Gold Coast and to the east of the Cabrini-Green public housing development, Sandburg Village opened to great fanfare, but it was clear from the start that its owners had little interest in integration.

Of the first 1,900 lessees, only 26 were Black.  Indeed, the rents were far beyond what most of the area’s displaced residents were able to pay.  In 1974, the Chicago Defender reported that Sandburg Village was an example of a growing tendency to push people of color out of near-Loop neighborhoods to make room for more affluent Whites: “For us, Urban Renewal has been Urban Removal.”

Leslie writes that Sandburg Village was more than just a development for middle-class and affluent Whites:

The Gold Coast, buffered by the defensive wall of Sandburg Village, thrived in the coming decades, spawning high-rise construction that paralleled the string of high-rises between LaSalle and Clark that effectively evicted lower-income residents to points farther west.

“Unholy alliance”

Just as the CHA high-rises created a wall of public housing towers that ran for miles along the east side of the Dan Ryan Expressway, Sandburg Village was an example of tall towers created to serve as “defensive walls” to protect the lakefront from the poor communities just a few blocks away.

Leslie describes Sandburg Village as a prime example of “the increasingly unholy alliance between Daley’s political goals and the development community’s profit motive.”

Meanwhile, the wall of “shoddily built, under-provisioned tower blacks” along the Ryan, he writes, were “monuments to the virulent resistance of city wards whose aldermen vetoed efforts at diffusing CHA projects throughout the city and to the savage cost-cutting in Washington and city hall that reduced the city’s efforts from outreach to warehousing.”

They were “an ever-present reminder of the city’s social and racial fault lines.”

Chicago was different

Despite Daley’s great power, he never used it to challenge the racial animosities of Chicago’s White communities.  He employed his immense talents and unprecedented influence, instead, to reinvigorate the Loop with sparkling skyscrapers that served as magnets for middle-class and affluent Whites.

It’s not just that he invested the wealth of the city in creating more wealth while ignoring the lives and needs of the poor.

It was also the Daley, acting on behalf of Chicago Whites, etched ever more deeply “the city’s social and racial fault lines” on the living map of the city.

When Daley died in December, 1976, after 21 years in office, Chicago was different.

The Loop was better.  Racial divisions were worse.  He was the biggest reason.

Patrick T. Reardon


This review originally appeared at Third Coast Review on 7.14.23.

Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is

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