A Brief History of Living in the Loop

Most of us think of downtown as a place for big business and shopping, but a few people actually live downtown. Inspired by the construction of the new Waterview Tower climbing to the skies near the river, I decided to explore a history of residential architecture in the Loop.It’s a topic that comes up fairly often on the Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour.

So what does this have to do with Chicago architecture? Everything.

Looking at the demographics I was not surprised to find that throughout these years there was a migration of the affluent to the new suburbs running up and down the coast of Lake Michigan. The poor couldn’t afford the luxury of living out of the city because they had to work there, either at the Union Stock Yard (which was originally downtown), the factories or shops.  Thus, they lived in tenements around the downtown Chicago while the affluent enjoyed the fresh air of the suburbs.

Consequently, downtown Chicago was for business and pleasure only. No one who could afford otherwise wanted to live in downtown Chicago because it was dreary, dangerous and smelly – all-around unpleasant. Yet, downtown has always been where the money was and so that’s where the big fancy buildings would have to be. In the 1880’s and 1890’s skyscrapers soared to new heights and in the 1920’s fancy retail boulevards were stretched across the Chicago grid.  The result was a purely business-centered downtown.

Now, 150 years later is this still true? A lot has changed in the Loop, but is it still just for work? Noting the new high-rise apartments in and around the Loop, I’d say no, downtown Chicago is definitely a home for some. So what has changed?

Let’s look at the architecture. In the ’60s and ’70s there was an urban renewal plan that started a slow drive towards residential living in and around the Loop. A major event was the 1964 opening of Bertrand Goldberg’s Marina City. It was the first post-war high-rise residential apartment and would stand as a symbol of downtown living for decades.

View of Marina City from south side of Chicago River

Then in the 1970’s Printer’s Row buildings were changed into lofts, demonstrating the ability to save architecture from demolition by renovating buildings and changing their functions.

In the 1980’s office buildings sprouted everywhere and residential buildings to match, particularly in the South Loop. And we are focusing on the architecture of Chicago, but we can’t forget that many homeless once called downtown home. Mayor Daley and the Loop in the ’90s is a whole other story.

Now it seems to be one residential building after another, especially university buildings like the new Roosevelt University vertical campus skyscraper. The newest residential skyscraper in downtown Chicago is 111 West Wacker Drive. This building is to be another luxury rental tower with “504 rooms, 445 parking spaces as well as generous amenities.”

111 West Wacker Drive in progress.

So, looking up at all of these chic living spaces I am awed at the changes in urban living. Aqua Tower, Trump Tower, the Presidential Towers – so many towers! (Many that you can see on our architectural walking tours.) Each slick, shiny and giant building brings sanitation, green spaces, and beauty to downtown, a far cry from the sewage-lined streets of historic Chicago. The rich and powerful claim downtown, and they certainly bring with them an ability to influence good design.  At least, I know I’d rather look at Aqua Tower than at soiled tenements!

– Jenna Staff, Editorial Intern 


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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.

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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.
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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.
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