December 27: The Boss

2016/12/27 § Leave a comment


On this day in 1976 the Chicago Civic Center was renamed the Richard J. Daley Center.

Daley (1902-76) was The Boss in a town that knows from bosses.  His twenty-one year reign as the Windy City’s mayor commenced in those heady post-war years in which faith in increasingly sophisticated technology as a salve to all human ills was steered toward solving the problems of American cities by tearing down and building up at a big, bold scale.  The city held the power to name any neighborhood bearing a certain patina as “blight” which could then be bulldozed and either rebuilt to serve the city’s interests or sold off to private developers. (And when we say “city,” of course we mean “Daley,” and you may feel free–hard as it is to imagine Daley speaking French–to picture him stating “la ville c’est moi”).  The new Civic Center was one such project among many, including the new campus of the University of Illinois, expansion of Michael Reese Hospital, and the development of huge housing projects at both ends of the economic spectrum (Carl Sandburg Village and Robert Taylor Homes began life in weirdly similar ways).  Considering both the new architecture projects and the vast expansion of highways during his terms in office, Daley oversaw more construction than any Chicago mayor since Joseph Medill.  His legacy is better judged against such builders as Napoleon III, Julius II, or maybe Trajan, keeping in mind that none of those guys were mere mayors.

The Civic Center was conceived as one of those many Modernist fantasies that mark the mid-century boom in Chicago’s architecture, and is certainly one of the more accomplished in that vein.  A gridded prism of 648 feet, it eschewed old-fashioned trappings of government symbolism, all bronze glass and Cor-Ten steel (a weathering metal first developed during the Depression to eliminate maintenance on railway cars).  The building stood within a broad open plaza, as if it required more breathing room than traditional buildings, or worried that it might, were it positioned too close to its neighbors, catch their cooties.

Of course, to make room for this architecture of better hygiene, dozens of germy nineteenth and early-twentieth-century structures had to be demolished (take a look-see what was there).  The Civic Center was renamed in honor of Richard J. just a week after his death.  He was buried in the Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery, which is regrettable.  By rights he would have been cremated on a pyre set up in the Circle Forum at UIC and his ashes interred within the building, maybe beneath the Picasso.  Then again, maybe that actually did happen, and we have only to wait for Chicago’s answer to Dan Brown to reveal all.

Image: the Daley Center in a dingy 1970s-’80s shot, or it could be Instagram, who knows (from this source)

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