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Janie Chen’s Blog

New Building, New View, New River: Why the Chicago River Deserves a New Perspective

Janie Chen

Posted February 6, 2013

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Every morning I walk across the Madison Street Bridge to get to the NRDC office at Two North Riverside Plaza.  For the past five years, this building has been our home.  Soon we will be moving directly across the Chicago River to our new office in the Civic Opera Building, which will be designed by Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects.

 Photo credit: Chicago Loop Bridges

Facing each other on opposite banks of the Chicago River, these two art deco giants stand as odes to Chicago’s rich history and identity.  Two North Riverside, completed in 1929, was originally designed for the Chicago Daily NewsThe east side of the building features important scenes from the history of journalism, depicting icons such as Joseph Pulitzer, Joseph Medill, and Horace Greeley.  Also completed in 1929, the Civic Opera Building was built by Samuel Insull, business magnate who also created Commonwealth Edison Co. (ComEd), the largest electric utility in Illinois.  The building, shaped like a giant armchair facing the river, is often referred to as “Insull’s Throne.”

While the two buildings share a similar past, one defining characteristic separates them: their relationship to the waterway. 

1933 Chicago Daily News and Civic Opera Buildings

Chicago’s expansion and subsequent population boom in the 19th century led to increasing amounts of pollution.  Residential and industrial sewage flowed directly into the river, turning it into an open sewer system.  Toxic and smelly, the riverfront and the river itself was no longer considered a valuable resource, but instead a dumping ground.  Buildings erected along the river were designed to face away from the river, so as to keep out the sights and smells of raw sewage.

Two North Riverside Plaza was the first building in Chicago to incorporate a public plaza that welcomed the river instead of shunning it.  In this way, it differs significantly from the Civic Opera Building which utilized high walls built right onto the water’s edge, prohibiting any riverfront activity.  Despite the innovation of Two North Riverside Plaza, it would take several more decades before architects began to see the river as a source of inspiration.

Today the Chicago River is a defining part of the architecture in Chicago’s downtown Loop.  From Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City to Mayor Emanuel’s Riverfront Promenade and boathouses, Chicagoans have begun to embrace the river.  It is becoming a kayaker’s playground, a water taxi’s roadway, and a rejuvenated home for native flora and fauna. 

 Photo Credit: Tread Lightly Outdoors

Seeing the Chicago River in a different perspective is the first step.  However, Chicagoans cannot stop there.  Just because we’ve begun to see the river as a resource does not mean it is free of the problems that plague its waters.  Unbeknownst to many Chicagoans, raw sewage continues to dump into the river.  When a heavy storm occurs, the city’s sewer system is overwhelmed and forced to send any excess, and oftentimes untreated, sewage into the very river that winds itself through the heart of our city.

Nearly 100 years since the city first started dumping its sewage into the river, it is time to usher Chicago’s water infrastructure into the 21st century.  It is time to go beyond seeing the river differently and begin re-envisioning how it can become a valuable ecological and economical resource.

Two North Riverside and the Civic Opera Building serve as beautiful reminders of Chicago’s past but the Chicago River has the potential to become a symbol of the city’s future.  One that can represent how far we’ve come.

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Cathy HartmanFeb 11 2013 05:09 PM

Janie, I commend you once again. Keep writing. I always enjoy reading the articles you write!

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