Chicago Ascending

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The photographer and printmaker Samuel Chamberlain, pictured at right, was famed for invoking the gentle spirit of New England’s countryside and its small towns. Nevertheless, here he is, perched on a convenient packing crate at the ragged edge of the Chicago River. It is the summer of 1929 and Chamberlain is sketching the half-completed Daily News Building in preparation for a dry-point etching to be titled Soaring Steel.

Born in the last frenzy of the 1920s building boom, this ten-million-dollar limestone-clad structure at the corners of Canal and Madison marked the first attempt to bring architectural order to the jumbled riverfront. Previous arrivals nearby include the low, doubledomed Chicago and North Western Railway Station at the picture’s left, one of the busiest commuter terminals in the country, and the modestly Italianate brick warehouse topped by a clock tower at the right.

In the color photograph, made in 1987, the Daily News Building, rebaptized Riverside Plaza, still anchors the scene, although the paper went out of business in 1978. The 1920 warehouse, now called River Center and used for offices, guards the Plaza’s flank, clock tower and two flagpoles intact. And the lacy Madison Street Bridge still spans the river, its small watchtower an attractive survivor. But the arches across the bridge are gone, and the train station was demolished in 1984 to make room for Helmut Jahn’s nearly finished soaring, striped Northwestern Atrium Center. Rail passengers are still accommodated within the complex.

Because another building is presently rising just where we needed to make our picture, the photographer was forced to scramble through a thicket of construction to locate as precisely as possible the patch of waterfront that Samuel Chamberlain sought when he recorded the changes being wrought on an urban skyline nearly sixty years ago.