History of the South Loop
The South Loop is a neighborhood located just south of downtown Chicago. It is part of a larger community area known as the Near South Side and was one of the first residential districts in Chicago. Defining the borders of a neighborhood in Chicago has always been a little imprecise and the South Loop isn’t any different. They’re widely viewed as Congress Ave to the north, Cermak to the South, Canal to the West and Lake Shore Drive to the East.
Working class immigrants were the first ones to settle in the area, mainly from Ireland. They came to the area because of the work that was available on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The Canal spanned 96 miles and crossed the Chicago Portage. It connected the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, which helped establish Chicago as a major transportation hub prior to the start of the railroad era.
Statehood and the Illinois Canal
Before railroads, cars and airplanes, it was canals that facilitated the movement of goods. The first Europeans in the area were Father Marquette and Louis Joliet and they figured a canal would help the French expand west into new territories. The project was ambitious and would require a lot of money, more than was available privately. Years later the area was owned by America, but nothing had been done. Nathaniel Pope and Ninian Edwards saw an opportunity to change that and quickly moved on the idea.
Pope was the son of Lieutenant Colonel William Pope who was from Virginia. After serving in the Revolutionary War he later went on to found Louisville. Nathaniel graduated from Translyvania University in Lexington in 1804 and was admitted to the bar shortly afterwards. He then began practicing law in the Louisiana Territory after the Louisiana Purchase. His older brother John was a United States Senator from Kentucky in 1807 and because of his familial connections Nathaniel was appointed Secretary of the Illinois Territory in 1809. Shortly thereafter Pope’s cousin Ninian Edwards, was named the governor of the new territory.
During the War of 1812 Pope served on Governor Edwards staff. Through decisions made to help fight the hostile native tribes and laws he published that governed the new territory Pope made himself well known and invaluable. He was elected Territorial Delegate to the United States in 1816.
Leading up to December of 1818 Pope and Edwards noticed that several slave “states” had recently been granted Statehood. They saw this as an opportunity to make Illinois a state, despite the fact that it didn’t meet the residency requirement (60,000 people). On December 3, 1818 the state resolution was passed and Illinois became the 21st state of the union. Pope also saw that the northern boundary expanded past the southern tip of Lake Michigan. He wanted to make sure that the Canal would only be in one state making administration of it much less cumbersome.
Construction of the canal began in 1836 and continued for many years. There were some interruptions to the work due to financial concerns related to the Panic of 1837. In 1848 the canal was finally complete with a cost just over $6,000,000. It was replaced by the Illinois Waterway in 1933. It was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1966.
Railroads and Printing
The work provided by the canal is what originally brought people to the South Loop, but it’s not what kept them there. The country was in a period of rapid change and growth; technology, medicine and transportation were just a few of the industries making rapid improvements. The major railroad companies of the time knew that the South Loop offered a great location and they began working on turning it into a major shipping and transportation hub.
Central Station opened its doors on April 17th 1893 near Roosevelt and Michigan Avenue. It was built to handle the demand created by the World Fair: Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World Fair. The theme of the fair was to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of America. Chicago had beaten out New York and Washington D.C for the right to hold the event and they knew the amount of people that would attend was going to be prolific. Owned by the Illinois Central Railroad they commissioned Bradford L. Gilbert to design the structure. Built in a Romanesque Revival architectural style the nine-story building featured a 13-story clock tower and housed the general offices of the railroad. It was home to the largest train shed in the world at the time, which measured 140 by 610 feet.
It wasn’t just properties as well known as Central Station that made the area so railroad centric, there was also Dearborn Station. The Station, as it was once called, was originally completed in 1885. Like the Central Station that was opened before it, Dearborn Station has a 12 story Romanesque clock tower set off the southern view and can be seen from many blocks away. The walls are distinct; constructed from hand-made bricks of red and pink granite. As a structure it exudes strength and character. The railroads were reshaping the American culture and landscape and like the men of the time they wanted the building and the railroad to have a lasting impact. It was the oldest of the six intercity train stations in Chicago and once served as the primary departure/arrival point for the Sante Fe Railway’s San Francisco Chief trains heading to Southern California and the Southwest. This led to celebrities, business tycoons and stars of the silver screen making frequent appearances in the area. Dearborn station was being considered for demolition at one time, but that idea was scrapped (pun intended) and instead it was converted to an office and retail space.
Printing also became a central industry in Chicago. After the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed much of the Near South Side the printing industry used it as an opportunity to consolidate into the area. Many of them moved there so quickly that the area became known as Printer’s Row. New construction was needed because of the fire and that lined up nicely with advances in printing technology. It was the first time we began to see the creation of large-scale printing plants with skilled workforces. They also designed the buildings to fit their craft; tall and narrow loft-style buildings that could house rows of presses in rooms with good natural light.
Regionalization and continued advancements in printing technology eventually saw the majority of printing work in Chicago move to the suburbs or even leave Illinois altogether. The new large offset presses needed to be on single floors led the industry giants to figure the city wasn’t in their future. Rand McNally built plants in Skokie starting in 1952 and also expanded to Kentucky. Miehle-Gross-Dexter moved to Rockford and Donnelley to downstate Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee. Inflation and increased costs continued to chip away at the printing industry in the South Loop, with the biggest changes occurring from the late 1970’s on. From 1977 to 1984, for example, the total number of firms in pre-press and press work (excluding newspapers) in the city dropped from 1,380 to 1,116, while jobs declined from 24,047 to 19,342. The trend is still alive today as the internet continues to eat away at the remains of the printing industry.
Reinventing the South Loop
Throughout much of the 20th century the South Loop was mainly an area consisting of industry, but the 1960’s brought change to the neighborhood. Middle class housing began to slowly be developed and the residential population began to trickle in. Then in 1977 George Halas, owner of the Chicago Bears, sold 51 acres of railyards so that it could be developed into the Dearborn Park apartments, townhouses and beautiful walking areas we still admire to this day.
Development in the area has sky rocketed since 2012. Many new mixed-use buildings are being put up such as the Roosevelt Collection, Dearborn Park II, 777 and the other high-rise buildings along Roosevelt Avenue. This neighborhood, along with many others located near downtown, have seen a revitalization since the city placed an emphasis on rezoning and developing. For years the city saw many of its most wealthy and prominent citizens move into the surrounding areas to avoid high taxes, crime, transportation issues etc. City officials hope the gentrification movement can expand and broaden the tax base.