What is Living Landmarks?

History lines Chicago’s sidewalks.

Stroll down LaSalle or Dearborn or State and you’ll see skyscrapers that have been there for a century or more. It’s easy to scurry by, to dismiss the building itself, but a hunt for placards turns up landmarks every few feet, it seems. Here’s a Chicago landmark; there’s a National Historic landmark. They’re everywhere.

Ironically, these skyscrapers keep the city grounded; they illustrate a past where visionaries took fanciful, impossible ideas and made them reality. Buildings sinking? Raise them. River polluting the lake and its precious drinking water? Reverse it. Overpopulation and urban sprawl making it challenging to get to work? Build up. From the bare to the ornate, from exposed beams to ornamented facades, the city’s architecture is unabashedly various yet provides a cohesive, beautiful skyline that illustrates the creativity of necessity, and the necessity of creativity.

Chicago is the physical manifestation of dreamers, malcontents, philanthropists, and grifters. In 1985, Pat Colander said in the New York Times: “It’s a city of contradictions, of private visions haphazardly overlaid and linked together.” And it is. Some people love it. Some hate it. Sometimes it’s the same people, and sometimes in the same day.

I’m one of the lovers who believes the city is vibrant and willful and beautiful, and while other urban areas have fostered their own breed of characters, Chicago’s seem so very…Chicago. It’s hard to explain. I’m not going to try.

What I am going to do is tell some of her stories. Not all of them – neither one of us has time for that. Instead, I’ve selected fifty landmarks that you can visit in Chicago today: museums, parks, attractions, and other places that are open to all. Several of them are hotels because so many historic buildings have been converted to accommodations, preserving the past for years to come. Plus, it’s super cool to sleep in a building designed by Daniel Burnham or Benjamin Marshall.

What to expect

Each chapter is a vignette, a short story, if you will, that introduces you to the landmark and brings it to life. After digging into the history, each chapter ends with brief information on the landmark as it is today.

I’ve organized Living Landmarks chronologically by the date construction of the landmark’s current location was completed, even though the story may begin many years before they moved in. The exception is the parks, because while their ultimate size and shape changed over the years, their beginning location is the same.

After a sound-byte history of the city’s origins, you’ll meet the oldest house in Chicago – or is it?

Kinda. Sorta. Depends on who you ask. 

That’s Chicago. Nothing’s simple, and nothing can be taken for granted. The reason we have a gorgeous skyline and vibrant culture and a notorious reputation for graft is because of those who built it, envisioned it, manipulated it.

That skyline is also the result of a renewed determination after a devastating loss. One thing you might notice is that few of the landmarks are dated before 1871. That’s because the Great Chicago Fire obliterated what had been downtown. The conflagration began October 8, 1871, and consumed more than three square miles and killed three hundred people. More than 100,000 were suddenly homeless. The destruction was a defining moment, if not the defining moment, in the history of Chicago, and its impact, seared into the city’s consciousness, is referenced several times throughout this site.

Living Landmarks isn’t about buildings, per se. It’s about rich, complex, convoluted passions that shaped a metropolis. It’s a bit of humor, a touch of sass, and a whole lot of passion for this great American city.

Let’s meet Chicago, shall we?