The Evolution of Wolf Point’s Buildings

Wolf Point, the Y-shaped spot where the North, South, and Main Branches of the Chicago River meet, is the at the very heart of Chicago. That junction hosted the first permanent settlement of Native Americans, French-Canadian fur trappers, and American settlers that became the city of Chicago. The ubiquitous Y-shaped municipal device that covers Chicago memorializes this location. Despite all that, Wolf Point has long been ignored – an empty patch amidst the exploding architecture and civic development of downtown. With the second phase of new skyscrapers under construction at Wolf Point, I wanted to explore the evolution of this iconic spit of land.

wolf point Chicago 1833 painting
A painting of Wolf Point in Chicago circa 1833. Image credit: Wikimedia

 The (Very) Early Years of Wolf Point

The settlement which became Chicago grew up around Wolf Point in the 1810’s and 20’s. Located about a mile inland from Lake Michigan, it was the natural crossroads and resting point for traders and trappers who used the downstream Chicago Portage.  At that time, Wolf Point referred to all three banks of the river at the branch’s confluence. Today, the name Wolf Point only applies to the triangle-shaped peninsula on the north bank.

Personally, I’ve always loved what a badass name Wolf Point is. It’s disappointing that the city took a name meaning “place of the wild onion/bad smell.” Just imagine how badass a prairie metropolis named Wolf Point (or Point de Loup) would have been!

The Millers brothers, Samuel and John, constructed the earliest buildings on Wolf Point. They built, in succession, a store, a tavern, and tannery on their property. In fact the tannery is the first recorded factory in Chicago history. There’s been no lack of factories since then, of course. The brothers also pitched in and helped create the first trans-river ferry. It took passengers from their tavern to the Wolf Tavern on the west bank. The ferry helped the soused traders and farmers who’d tipped their canoe trying to get across the river.

Wolf Point Is Forgotten

An institution near and dear to Chicago Detours could be found at Wolf Point in those days. The First United Methodist Church of Chicago was founded by the Rev. Jesse Walker at Wolf Point in the 1831.

That congregation moved their church building across the river to Clark and Washington in 1838. The church now calls the Chicago Temple Building its home. Guests on our Loop Interior Architecture Walking Tour learn all about this congregation and the architecture of the Chicago Temple Building.

However, Chicagoans mostly left Wolf Point empty when the city took off after its 1837 incorporation. For a long time, shipping companies used Wolf Point to store construction materials or cargo. Later developments included a warehouse and factory.

Those structures paled in comparison to their surroundings, though. On the west branch, giant grain elevators started to dot the skyline. The south bank saw a succession of buildings, such as The Wigwam, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated for President in 1860.

The Wells Street Station was built (and re-built) just to the north of Wolf Point. It serviced the exploding railroad traffic of the time. At its peak, the station served up to 32,000 passengers per day. Despite all this, Wolf Point itself remained essentially barren.

wolf point chicago 1893 drawing
A drawing of Wolf Point and its surroundings in Chicago circa 1893. Image credit: Wikimedia

Marshall Field, the Kennedys, and New Construction

The biggest change around Wolf Point in the 20th Century was the biggest of buildings, that being the Merchandise Mart, of course. It was built by Marshall Field & Co. in 1931. It sits just northeast of Wolf Point, where the Wells Street Station once stood. The Merchandise Mart was an architectural and engineering marvel of its time, and was the largest building on the planet when it opened.

Despite that, it did not prove to be a long-term boon for Marshall Field’s. The company sold the giant structure to Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, the bootlegging father of President John F. Kennedy, only 14 years after it opened. The Kennedy family retained control of the Mart until the 90’s and still own the property at Wolf Point.

Despite the stewardship of deep-pocketed groups like Field’s and the Kennedys, and the gargantuan building just next door, Wolf Point remained empty. In fact, it was a parking lot for decades. I can’t help but wonder why City Hall never approached Field’s or the Kennedys about turning it into a park. Architect Fred W. Clarke said of it, “There is really nothing like this site in the world, certainly not in Chicago. It’s pivotal. It’s central. It’s waiting for its moment in history.”

At last, new construction at Wolf Point

The Kennedy family finally launched a vast new development project at Wolf Point in 2012. The plans call for  trio of new skyscrapers to soar above a revitalized park and river walk space. The smallest new building, a residential high-rise named Wolf Point West topped out in 2015. The bigger towers had their architectural plans revised and revealed in 2015 as well. I love the slimmer, spire-capped new design for the south tower.

However, I also think it would be appropriate for the new developments to incorporate Wolf Point’s history a bit more. The Chicago Tribune’s architecture critic Blair Kamin made this point in 2012 and it bears repeating. Wolf Point is that pivotal, central location in Chicago and the current development there is long overdue and thrilling. I just hope that it doesn’t inadvertently bury the site’s origins.

– Alex Bean, Content Manager and Tour Guide


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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.
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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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