The Wrigleys: Inventing North Michigan Avenue


            And Creating “Chicago’s Mount Rushmore”


The first face of Chicago’s architectural “Mount Rushmore.” The 30-story South Tower of the Wrigley Building was a stunning but lonely beauty on dreary Pine Street in 1921.





By Megan McKinney


It happened suddenly, as if by magic. But actually the concept of linking the great portions of Chicago, north and south of the river, via a grand boulevard had been developing since the 1909 Burnham Plan, and, by the end of World War I, implementation was underway. Vital and fashionable Michigan Avenue, south of the river, was being widened, partially raised and connected with the drab thoroughfare to the north by an elegant double-decker bridge.

Before 1920, there was no Michigan Avenue Bridge, in fact, there was no Michigan Avenue north of the river at all; in its place was humble Pine Street. And bridges of any sort joining north and south were limited to ancient structures on Rush and Clark Streets.

The north bank surrounding Pine was a rough manufacturing sector, home to breweries, factories and other industry; the roads were unpaved, and nearby were dilapidated docks, derelict housing and landfill. Following construction of the handsome new bridge, which relegated trucks to its lower lever, Pine Street was widened, paved and renamed to mirror the thoroughfare with which it now connected.


 The young Robert R. McCormick, once Alderman of Chicago’s 21st Ward.


The Chicago Tribune’s Robert R. McCormick had remembered the Michigan Avenue concept from his days as a young alderman. Therefore, when he and his cousin and co-editor, Joseph Medill Patterson, returned from World War I, they began to take action. To move incrementally from the Tribune’s 17-story Loop quarters, which were beginning to pinch, they bought a parcel of land on the east side of Pine for the immediate construction of a printing plant, making certain the property was large enough for the later Tribune Tower.


Joe Patterson, left, and Robert McCormick at the cornerstone laying for the Chicago Tribune printing plant.


Meanwhile, that master showman William Wrigley Jr. had the courage to break ground in January 1920, for a stylish 30-story office building in a wasteland where no one rented stylish office space. His peers thought he had gone mad, yet, this was a businessman who had not missed a beat in nearly 30 years.  

Thus, when the South Tower of Mr. Wrigley’s building was completed in April 1921, a scant year after the opening of the new bridge—all 30 floors of his wedding cake confection of shimmering blond terra cotta had been rented. It was not only the tallest building in Chicago, but it was also by far the most glamorous. The architects, Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, inheritors of Daniel Burnham’s firm, were carrying on his brilliant work.

The edifice—ornamented in quasi-French Renaissance detailing and crowned with a fanciful tower inspired by Seville’s Giralda Tower—curved elegantly at the river’s north bank on the west side of Michigan Avenue. The building’s tiles, graduated in six shades of white—from blue-white on the lower portion to creamy-white at the top—were floodlit with thousands of dazzling watts from a warehouse to the east. 



Choosing the triangular Wrigley Building site, which now seems so desirable and inevitable, had been a brave move on Wrigley’s part and unpopular with his directors.  

The vindicated William celebrated by ordering a second building, a 21-story fraternal twin of the first, directly to the north. Soon there were more than 50 floors of sophisticated office space where no one had been sophisticated before. He connected the two trapezoidal sections with an open courtyard at ground level and two enclosed walkways above. It was like nothing else—anywhere.

For decades, the Wrigley Building would be a nighttime destination for suburbanites and tourists who marveled at its magnificence and wondered at the cost of its extravagant illumination. The splendor of the building seemed even greater in contrast to what had preceded it. But this was just the beginning of “Chicago’s Mount Rushmore.”


The London Guarantee Building, where Bobby Short belted out “The Carioca,” followed by Marian McPartland’s piano rendition of “Take the ‘A’ Train” and Sarah Vaughan singing “Tenderly.”


The next face was that of Alfred S. Alschuler’s London Guarantee & Accident Building, completed in 1923, directly across the river from Wrigley’s South Tower. The romance of Chicago jazz continues to surround the building, which during the 1950s and ’60s housed The London House, ranking with Mister Kelly’s and The Blue Note as a jazz attraction, bringing aficionados from throughout the nation to hear Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Herbie Hancock, Ramsey Lewis, Cannonball Adderley, Erroll Garner and others. It recently became LondonHouse Chicago Hotel.


The Tribune Tower to the right of the gleaming Wrigley Building.


Following the London Guarantee Building was erection of the 1925 Tribune Tower by Raymond M. Hood and John Mead Howells, winners of McCormick and Patterson’s international architectural competition. This contest is a story for another day—a tale that begins with a chance meeting of two men in the concourse of New York’s Grand Central Station in the summer of 1922, continuing in Chicago at 333 N. Michigan, across the river from the Tribune, and doesn’t end until after the 1930 completion of Ray Hood’s Daily News Building for Joe Patterson on East 42nd Street in New York City. But, definitely, a story for another day.


A deviation in Michigan Avenue’s path provides a full view of the Art Deco majesty of 333 N. Michigan.


Completing the foursome in 1928 is 333 N. Michigan Avenue, designed by John A. Holabird and John Wellborn Root Jr. The building was created as a tribute to Eliel Saarinen’s second-prize entry in the Tribune Tower contest, which many thought should have won the competition. Saarinen’s also-ran design was so fresh and new that its Art Deco influence swept the world of architecture and design for the next decade, lifting spirits during a depressing period of history.


Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series, The Wrigleys of Wrigley City, will continue next week with The Wrigleys: A New Generation.


Photo Credit:

Selected Photography by Robert Whitfield

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl