Tribune Tower Redevelopment and the Rise of Vista Tower


Chicago's iconic Tribune Tower was built as a cathedral to journalism and the power of the press.

But the influence of newspapers has long been in decline and as the Tribune's journalists prepare to depart their august home, the tower itself has been sold for redevelopment.

And as one iconic tower is redeveloped, groundbreaking for Jeanne Gang's new Vista Tower–set to be the third tallest building in the city–is underway.

Blair Kamin, Pulitzer prize-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, spoke with "Chicago Tonight" about developments old and new.

Chicago Tonight: As someone with a deep appreciation for architecture, what has it been like to work in such an iconic building?

Blair Kamin: It’s a mixture of the inspiring and the mundane. The newsroom is essentially a very messy insurance office with lots of cubicles that are very ordinary. That space itself is nothing special other than the layers of history …

CT: How do you and your colleagues feel about leaving the tower?

BK: People are sad about it without a doubt. It’s a great place to work. The location is great, right on Michigan Avenue. But the building itself means something more than the bricks and the mortar; it is a symbol of a great newspaper’s mission – its heyday really – and no other home will symbolize the mission of the newspaper with the same artistry and meaning that the tower does. Nothing can match it.

Tribune Tower on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. (Ken Lund / Flickr)Tribune Tower on Chicago's Michigan Avenue. (Ken Lund / Flickr)

CT: When the building was first built was it immediately accepted and liked?

BK: Yes and no. Not entirely. It was criticized. The Tribune had an architectural competition to design the building and it was widely felt that the second-place entry was better than the winner. (That) really became a model for skyscrapers throughout the nation, the Empire State Building, the Rockefeller Center, the Chicago Daily News Building are among the many skyscrapers that had that sort of trim vertical look.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s the tower’s reputation fell – looked down on as too ornamental and sort of retro – but since the 1980s its reputation has continually risen. It was landmarked in 1989 … At this point its reputation is quite high.

CT: Talk about the statement the building made about journalism.

BK: The building clearly has spiritual associations, ecclesiastical associations – clearly it was modelled on precedents from French Gothic cathedrals. The idea was to express that journalism was a higher calling, not just a grubby collection of facts and scoops. Journalism is celebrated.

CT: How much do we know so far about what the developers plans are?

BK: We know what we know through (Ald.) Brendan Reilly, not through the developers who have declined to comment. What we know through Alderman Reilly is that we expect to see a mixed-use development with a hotel, high-end apartments and retail. Beyond that it’s unclear. Certainly they are going to build something on the surface parking lot to the east of the complex made up by the tower and the other three buildings in the complex. We think that their plan calls for the tearing down of some, if not all of the complex, which is not protected by city landmark status. City landmark status is really just the tower itself.

CT: How much of a loss would it be to lose those buildings?

BK: I think it would be a loss to lose in particular the four-story WGN Radio building along Michigan Avenue. It’s not a great individual building … but that building really frames the U-shaped courtyard just to the north of the tower itself and that really creates a sense of human scale and is an antidote to the clamor of North Michigan Avenue. So I would like to see that building preserved in some form.

Video: Kamin and Geoffrey Baer explore the history of the Tribune Tower in this 2005 "About Chicago" episode on WTTW.


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