1920s Towers of Downtown Chicago and the Oddities of Zoning Laws

How can you tell when a tower was built? A few key features can help you winnow it down, as we prove with these 1920s towers in Chicago.

We research stories from Chicago history, architecture and culture like this while developing our live virtual tours, in-person private tours, and custom content for corporate events. You can join us to experience Chicago’s stories in-person or online. We can also create custom tours and original content about this Chicago topic and countless others.

Reading Architecture like a Book

Chicago architecture downtown loop

We’ve got a little secret of reading Chicago architecture to share with you. A pretty tower on the top of a skyscraper means it’s likely a 1920s tower. Social and political ethos were much more socialist in the early 1900s, and people had strong feelings about maintaining equal building height. In the 1920s, however, buildings shot skyward with a booming economy, advancements in structural engineering, and changes in city zoning.

The first major change allowed structures to extend the height of buildings above the rest of the skyline, which at the time consisted of primarily buildings below twelve stories. While overall building height was increased to 260 feet, or about 26 stories, architects could further stretch it to 400 feet with unoccupied, ornamental towers.

Chicago-architecture-tower 1920s towers

The “Bee-Hive” Building

One you may recognize as the “bee-hive.” I dug into the history of this building when invited by the law firm of Michael Best & Friedrich to do a public-speaking presentation about the view from their lobby overlooking Millennium and Grant parks. This glowing blue orb tops a stone pyramid on the top of the Metropolitan Tower on Michigan Avenue. Right under the “hive” you can almost make out the 1,500+ pound carillon bells. They play “Handel’s “Cambridge Quarters” on the quarter hour. They were restored in 1979 for Pope John Paul II’s visit to the Windy City.

It was originally built by a financial investment company, though it’s converted to being a residential building now. They wanted the blue glass,  hive-shaped tower to express “busy like a bee,” and the pyramid top to symbolize stability. Alas they went bankrupt during the Depression.

Chicago Temple Building One of Many 1920s Towers

1920s towers postcard chicago architecture temple building

Another tower that took advantage of the “unoccupied structure” is the Chicago Temple Building. Its hollow steeple is brilliantly illuminated in the vintage postcard above. We delve into that tower’s surprising history on tour Downtown Bucket List private tours.

In 1923, the city altered zoning laws to allow towers with occupants. This eventually led into the “setback” zoning of 1926, which warrants a post of its own in the future.

So now that you know, what are some of your favorite 1920s towers in Chicago?

— Amanda Scotese, Executive Director


Chicago Detours is a boutique tour company passionate about connecting people to places and each other through the power of storytelling. We bring curious people to explore, learn and interact with Chicago’s history, architecture and culture through in-person private group tourscontent production, and virtual tours.


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
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Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
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Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
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