J Philip G

In Chicago, a city known as much for destroying great architecture as making it, a landmark isn’t always a landmark. But, Bertrand Goldberg’s extraordinary Marina City complex—long a defacto architectural landmark—passed its last legislative hurdle under the city’s landmark’s ordinance on Feb. 10 in a 48-0 vote by the City Council. Following Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s signature, the designation will be published—and actual law—on March 16.

The four-building Marina City complex, built between 1960 and 1967, was the first planned development project in Chicago, and provided a unique combination of downtown living with residential, commercial, and entertainment uses that ultimately proved decades ahead of its time. The new designation protects each of the buildings, which include the well-known twin 65-story apartment towers, a ten-story office building (now operated as a hotel) with a two-story commercial base, and a sculptural, saddle-backed steel building designed as a theater that is now occupied by the House of Blues.

Hedrich Blessing

The building’s initial appeal as a landmark was due to its relative uniqueness within Chicago’s mid-century architectural production. The towers' apartment units are expressed as if petals of a flower, culminating in stacks of semi-circular balconies that have been long admired, but seldom imitated. Under the aesthetic lead of Mies van der Rohe, the dominant Chicago work of the time was expressed steel frame, from which Goldberg’s explorations in the plastic manipulation of concrete were a rare reprieve.

Marina City was developed by the Building Service Employees International Union (colloquially referred to as the Janitors’ Union). Life magazine described the union’s self interest in downtown development at the time: “[Long-time union president William McFetridge] had been brooding for years because Chicago, like many cities, was decaying at the center while people fled from their apartments to houses in the suburbs where, naturally, they no longer needed a janitor.”

A number of factors had stood in the way of designation, not least being the disinterest of several mayors throughout past decades. “A general love of the complex and understanding of its significance by the public provided a groundswell of support,” says Bonnie McDonald, the president of the nonprofit Landmarks Illinois.

But it was only after Goldberg’s lauded Prentice Women’s Hospital, a much smaller yet formally similar structure, was passed over for landmark designation in 2012 following a protracted battle that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the local Alderman, Brendan Reilly, seemed to give an implicit nod favoring protection for Marina City. (Prentice was demolished.) Marina City’s current condominium ownership had been a hindrance—“they can be complicated and fraught,” McDonald says—but they dropped their opposition once political leadership had quietly demonstrated support of the designation.

View from 45th floor in 1964
View from 45th floor in 1964
Photograph featured in the "Inside Marina City" exhibition by Iker Gil and Andreas E.G. Larsonn, held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011 and 2012.
Andreas E.G. Larsson Photograph featured in the "Inside Marina City" exhibition by Iker Gil and Andreas E.G. Larsonn, held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011 and 2012.
Sean Davis

The denouement happened in a manner reflective of Chicago’s unique methods of democracy, involving deals that insiders will only discuss in the most tangential manner. The final series of official actions occurred with a remarkable rapidity, given the decades of ownership opposition and official city inaction. The Commission on Chicago Landmarks unanimously recommended designation in November, following a public hearing that lasted just 41 minutes—characterized by a staffer at the time as “a record.” It went before the City Council in January, when it was referred to the Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, who approved the recommendation and forwarded it back to the City Council on Feb. 9. The Council officially passed the designation just a day later.

“Landmarks Illinois had been advocating for the landmark protection of Marina City since 1990,” says Lisa DiChiera, the organization’s director of advocacy. “We are thrilled that our current administration and City Council agreed that Chicago Landmark designation for this iconic building was long overdue.”

Geoff Goldberg, a Chicago architect who is son of the late Bertrand Goldberg, recalls that he and his father first discussed the possibility of landmarking the complex with city officials more than a quarter century ago. “We are delighted that Marina City is now protected,” he says. “It says something about Chicago that it has been landmarked, but it also says something that it took so long.”

Matthew Bisanz