The 20th century witnessed Chicago’s remarkable transformation into a bustling metropolis, propelled by industrial expansion, cultural movements, and significant historical events. This period marked a new chapter in the city’s history, shaping its identity and leaving behind a legacy of iconic landmarks.
In this article, we will delve into the captivating history of Chicago in the 20th century and explore the prominent landmarks that emerged during this era. From the cultural renaissance of the Chicago Black Renaissance and the influence of Prohibition and gangsters like Al Capone, to the city’s resilience during the Great Depression, World War II, and the civil rights movement, Chicago’s history in the 20th century is filled with stories of triumphs, challenges, and architectural marvels.
Join us as we embark on a journey through time, uncovering the pivotal moments, social changes, and architectural wonders that defined Chicago in the 20th century. From the towering skyscrapers that dot its skyline to the cultural institutions that have shaped its arts and music scene, we will explore the landmarks that continue to shape the city’s vibrant character.
History of Chicago in the 20th century
During the early 20th century, Chicago witnessed a significant industrial expansion, attracting African Americans from the South in what became known as the Great Migration.
The city’s African American population soared from 44,103 to 233,903 between 1910 and 1930. This influx had a profound cultural impact, known as the Chicago Black Renaissance, which influenced art, literature, and music. Racial tensions persisted, leading to events like the Chicago Race Riot of 1919.
Prohibition, established by the 18th Amendment in 1919, gave rise to the Gangster Era. Notorious gangsters like Al Capone and Bugs Moran engaged in violent clashes and illicit activities during this time, culminating in the infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.
Chicago made history as the first American city to have a homosexual-rights organization in 1924, but it faced opposition from law enforcement and political pressure, causing the organization to disband.
The Great Depression hit Chicago hard, causing widespread suffering due to the city’s heavy reliance on heavy industry. Unemployment rates among blacks and Mexicans exceeded 40%, and the economic crisis destroyed the Republican political machine in the city. Federal relief funding and labor activism, such as the Workers Alliance of America, played significant roles in alleviating the crisis and demanding relief for the poor.
In 1933, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was fatally wounded during an assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt. The city celebrated its centennial with the Century of Progress International Exposition World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934, highlighting technological innovation.
During World War II, Chicago played a crucial role in steel production, surpassing both the United Kingdom and Nazi Germany. The city experienced another wave of the Great Migration, as blacks from the South arrived to work in industries like steel, railroads, and shipping.
In 1955, Richard J. Daley became mayor, marking the era of machine politics. The city faced challenges with white flight and changing racial composition in neighborhoods due to discriminatory practices like redlining and blockbusting.
The 1960s saw significant civil rights activism, including the Chicago Freedom Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. and Albert Raby. The city also hosted the controversial 1968 Democratic National Convention, marred by protests and clashes with police.
Richard M. Daley succeeded his father as mayor in 1989, focusing on park improvements, sustainable development, and controversial actions like closing Meigs Field. His tenure became the longest-serving mayoral term in Chicago’s history.
In recent years, Chicago has seen diverse leadership, with Rahm Emanuel becoming mayor in 2011, followed by Lori Lightfoot in 2019, who became the city’s first African American woman and openly LGBTQ mayor. Most recently, Brandon Johnson assumed office as the 57th Mayor of Chicago on May 15, 2023.
Chicago has a complex and dynamic history that has shaped its identity as a vibrant and diverse city. During the entire 20th century, Chicago has faced challenges and achieved remarkable growth, leaving an indelible mark on American history.
The Buckingham Fountain
Buckingham Fountain, located in the heart of Grant Park, is a renowned Chicago Landmark. Donated by philanthropist Kate S. Buckingham and dedicated in 1927, it stands as one of the world’s largest fountains. Officially known as the Clarence Buckingham Memorial Fountain, it was constructed with a donation of $750,000 from Kate in memory of her brother.
Inspired by the Latona Fountain at the Palace of Versailles, it features a rococo wedding cake design symbolizing Lake Michigan. The fountain operates from May to mid-October, offering regular water shows and evening colored-light displays, while being adorned with festival lights in the winter.
Situated at the intersection of Columbus Drive and Ida B. Wells Drive, the fountain holds significant importance as the entrance to Chicago’s Grant Park. Its architectural design by Edward H. Bennett and sculptures by Marcel F. Loyau pay tribute to the states bordering Lake Michigan. Drawing numerous visitors each year, the fountain operates from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., showcasing water shows every hour and choreographing evening displays with lights and music.
Constructed with Georgia pink marble, the fountain holds 1.5 million U.S. gallons of water and pushes over 14,000 gallons per minute through its 193 jets during shows. Its diameter ranges from 280 ft to 24 ft, with the upper basin elevated 25 ft above the lower basin. The fountain’s intricate operations, including its pumps controlled by a Honeywell computer, ensure a captivating experience for visitors. The security system is monitored from a Chicago suburb.
In summary, Buckingham Fountain, donated by Kate S. Buckingham and dedicated in 1927, is a magnificent Chicago Landmark. Its grandeur, design, and captivating displays make it a must-visit attraction for tourists and locals alike.
The Cortland Street Drawbridge
The Cortland Street Drawbridge, originally known as the Clybourn Place drawbridge, is a historic Chicago-style fixed-trunnion bascule bridge over the Chicago River. Designed by John Ericson and Edward Wilmann, it was the first of its kind in the United States when it opened in 1902.
This innovative bridge design became the prototype for over 50 additional bridges in Chicago alone. The Cortland Street Bridge is recognized as an ASCE Civil Engineering Landmark and a Chicago Landmark.
The trunnion bascule bridge type, known for its visible gear rack above the roadway, features two bridge leaves raised by large counterweights on pivots. It replaced a previous swing bridge, eliminating the need for a mid-river pier and allowing more space in the shipping channel. While the machinery remains intact, the bridge is no longer operational, and the leaves are permanently clamped together.
Initially used by streetcars and later by buses, the bridge served as an important transportation link. Today, it accommodates two-way vehicle traffic, pedestrians, and bicycles. The truss superstructure of the bridge remains in good condition, with some replaced rivets and original railings replaced by pole railings on the bridge itself. However, ornate lattice railings with a gothic arch-like design are still present on the approaches.
The Cortland Street Bridge underwent rehabilitation in 1983 and restoration in 1997, with repainting carried out between 2006 and 2009. Its maintenance and preservation ensure the continued appreciation of this historically significant structure. As a vital part of Chicago’s engineering heritage, the Cortland Street Bridge stands as a testament to the city’s innovative spirit and engineering prowess.
The Copernicus Center
The Copernicus Center, formerly known as the Gateway Theatre, is a 1,890-seat movie palace turned multipurpose venue in Chicago’s Jefferson Park community area. Designed by architect Mason Rapp of Rapp and Rapp, renowned for their deluxe theaters, it is their only surviving atmospheric theatre in the city.
Situated at 5216 W. Lawrence Avenue, the center is conveniently accessible via the Blue Line’s Jefferson Park station and the Metra Union Pacific/Northwest commuter rail line.
On June 27, 1930, the Gateway Theater opened its doors with much fanfare, featuring a parade sponsored by local businesses and garnering attention for its acoustics, hailed as the most perfect in the world. The theater’s grand hall and foyer were adorned with hand-painted Greek and Roman scenes by artist Louis Grell. It served as the flagship theater for the Balaban and Katz movie theater chain for over 50 years.
In 1979, the Polish Cultural Center broke ground at the site of the Gateway Theater, preserving the theater itself while expanding the space to accommodate office, meeting, and classroom areas. Since then, the theater has hosted a diverse range of programs, serving not only the Polish community but also various ethnic groups and the wider American community.
Its usage has increased, with an average of 48 weeks per year, featuring concerts, plays, competitions, recitals, and more. The Copernicus Center stands as a vibrant cultural hub, attracting a growing number of visitors and offering a wide array of sophisticated programs to a diverse audience.
The Statue of The Republic
The Statue of The Republic, a 24-foot-high gilded bronze sculpture by Daniel Chester French, stands in Jackson Park, Chicago. Originally part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the colossal statue was destroyed by fire.
In 1918, a smaller-scale replica was erected to commemorate the Exposition’s 25th anniversary and Illinois‘ statehood centennial. The statue is located on the south end of the park where the Administration and Electricity Buildings once stood. It is known as the “Golden Lady” and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2003.
The replica, gilded and modified, holds a globe with an eagle perched on it in one hand, while the other holds a staff with a “liberty” plaque. The original statue, one of the nation’s tallest sculptures at the time, stood in front of the Court of Honor at the Exposition. The current statue stands at the intersection of Richards Drive and Hayes Drive.
Another replica can be found in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California. Created by Daniel Chester French, renowned for his classical sculptures, and with a base designed by Henry Bacon, collaborator on the Lincoln Memorial, this smaller version pays homage to the grandeur of the World’s Columbian Exposition.
The Willis Tower (The Sears Tower)
The Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, is a 110-story skyscraper located in the Loop community area of Chicago. Designed by architect Bruce Graham and engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), it opened in 1973 as the tallest building in the world and held that title for nearly 25 years.
Today, it is the third-tallest building in the Western Hemisphere and the 23rd-tallest in the world. The tower attracts over 1.7 million visitors each year to its Skydeck observation deck, which is the highest in the United States and a popular tourist destination in Chicago.
The building is situated on a site bordered by Franklin Street, Jackson Boulevard, Wacker Drive, and Adams Street. Graham and Khan designed the structure as a cluster of nine square “tubes” arranged in a 3×3 matrix, with seven of the tubes set back at upper floors.
Although the tower has 108 stories according to standard counting methods, the owners consider the main roof as the 109th floor and the mechanical penthouse roof as the 110th floor. The facade features anodized aluminum and black glass, while the base of the building contains a retail complex called the Catalog. The lower floors were originally occupied by Sears, the retail company, while the upper floors were leased to various tenants.
In 2009, the building’s name changed from Sears Tower to Willis Tower as part of a lease agreement with the Willis Group. However, locals still refer to it by its original name. The largest tenant in the building is United Airlines, occupying around 20 floors, followed by Willis Towers Watson, Schiff Hardin, Seyfarth Shaw, and Morgan Stanley.
The building’s interior spans 74,000 short tons of steel, 4 million pounds of aluminum, and 101 acres of concrete flooring. It features 16,000 rectangular windows, each measuring 5 by 8 feet and tinted with bronze. The tower’s exterior is made of anodized aluminum and black glass, with louvers and belted trusses for ventilation and aesthetic purposes.
The building’s foundation required extensive excavation, with 201 caissons reaching the underlying limestone layer. The basement levels contain mechanical equipment, including 103 elevators, 16 escalators, and a three-level parking garage.
The Willis Tower’s iconic Skydeck observation deck opened in 1974 on the 103rd floor, offering breathtaking views of Chicago and its surroundings. The Skydeck was renovated in 2009, introducing retractable glass balconies known as “The Ledge,” which allow visitors to experience the sensation of being suspended in the air.
Despite no longer holding the title of the world’s tallest building, the Willis Tower remains an iconic symbol of Chicago’s skyline and attracts millions of visitors each year. Its innovative design, efficient use of space, and stunning views continue to make it a popular tourist destination and an architectural marvel in the United States.
Elks National Veterans Memorial
The Elks National Veterans Memorial, located at 2750 North Lakeview Avenue in Chicago, Illinois, is a stunning Beaux Arts-style domed building. Constructed between 1924 and 1926, it was designed by architect Egerton Swartwout after winning a design competition organized by the American Institute of Architects. The Elks, a fraternal order, commissioned the memorial to honor their members who served in World War I.
The building’s construction utilized fine marble imported from various countries, including Greece, Austria, France, Belgium, Italy, as well as different regions within the United States. Indiana limestone was also used. Renowned sculptors such as Adolph A. Weinman, Laura Gardin Fraser, and James Earle Fraser contributed sculptures, while murals by Eugene Savage and Edwin Blashfield adorned the interior.
Inside the memorial’s rotunda, murals and statues depict the Elks’ cardinal virtues: charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity. Friezes on one side depict the Triumphs of War, while the other side portrays the Triumphs of Peace. The entrance is adorned with two large bronze elk sculptures.
Over the years, the Elks rededicated the memorial to honor veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and subsequent conflicts. In 2003, the City of Chicago designated the memorial as a landmark. The building also serves as the national headquarters of the Elks.
Situated across from Lincoln Park, the Elks National Veterans Memorial is in close proximity to the Goethe Monument and the statue of Alexander Hamilton. With its grandeur and significance as a tribute to veterans, the memorial stands as an architectural gem and a symbol of the Elks’ commitment to honoring those who served.
35 East Wacker (Jewelers’ Building)
35 East Wacker, also known as the Jewelers’ Building, is a historic 40-story building in Chicago’s Loop community area. Constructed from 1925 to 1927, it was co-designed by Joachim Giæver and Frederick P. Dinkelberg. At its completion, it held the title of the tallest building outside of New York City.
It was formerly known as the Pure Oil Building and North American Life Insurance Building. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a Chicago Landmark.
During its early years, the building had a car lift serving the first 23 floors, later converted to office space. Access between offices and the parking garage was only available at the Lower Wacker Drive level. The French-American Chamber of Commerce is currently a tenant in the building, and architect Helmut Jahn’s showroom was located inside the dome.
The building has appeared in various films and TV shows, including Batman Begins and The Good Wife. The building has also made appearances in video games such as Mafia and Emergency Call Ambulance. It is currently undergoing renovation by Goettsch Partners, preserving the façade while transforming the interiors into a more modern configuration. The renovation project has received recognition and awards from the Chicago chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the City of Chicago.
The Victory Monument
Erected in 1927, the Victory Monument stands as a tribute to the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, an African-American unit that distinguished itself in World War I.
Located in Chicago’s Black Metropolis-Bronzeville District, this bronze and granite sculptural monument was designed by John A. Nyden and sculpted by Leonard Crunelle. It has garnered recognition for its historical significance, earning a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and being designated a Chicago Landmark in 1998.
The memorial features a white granite shaft crowned with a bronze doughboy sculpture, along with three relief panels depicting symbolic figures and scenes. The monument commemorates the sacrifice of 137 members of the Eighth Infantry who lost their lives during the war.
Over the years, the Victory Monument has played an integral role in the community. It has served as the backdrop for the annual Memorial Day ceremony, honoring the memory of those who served.
Notably, the monument stands where the Fountain of the Great Lakes was originally planned to be located. While the Art Institute of Chicago considered this site, the Victory Monument took its place. The Bud Billiken Parade, a longstanding tradition, has often passed by the monument, adding to its cultural significance.
Recognizing its historical importance, the monument recently received a grant for restoration as part of the World War I centennial activities. Today, visitors can marvel at the four bronze panels and the soldier sculpture atop the shaft. Additionally, the court to the north of the monument displays plaques honoring notable individuals, while a flagpole proudly flies the United States flag, the Flag of Chicago, and the POW/MIA flag to the south.
The Victory Monument stands as a powerful reminder of the bravery and sacrifice of the Eighth Regiment, leaving an indelible mark on Chicago’s history and heritage.
The London Guarantee Building
The London Guarantee Building, constructed in 1923, is a historic commercial skyscraper in Chicago. It currently houses the LondonHouse Chicago Hotel and is located near the Loop. The building is a designated Chicago Landmark and part of the Michigan-Wacker Historic District, occupying the former site of Fort Dearborn.
Designed by architect Alfred S. Alschuler, the London Guarantee Building was initially occupied by the London Guarantee & Accident Company, an insurance firm. Its architectural design takes inspiration from the Stockholm Stadshus and features a rooftop resembling the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.
Previously known as the Stone Container Building, the property was later acquired by Crain Communications Inc. and renamed the Crain Communications Building. Over the years, the building has housed various tenants and establishments. The Haywood Publishing Company, a prominent publishing firm, operated there during the mid-20th century.
Chicago’s WLS (AM) radio studios were also located on the fifth floor, where Paul Harvey hosted his syndicated radio show. The building’s first floor was home to The London House, a renowned jazz nightclub and steakhouse that hosted numerous acclaimed jazz musicians.
In 2013, the building was acquired by Oxford Capital Group, which transformed it into a 452-room hotel. A modern glass addition was constructed on an adjacent plot, designed by Goettsch Partners.
The renovated building reopened as the LondonHouse hotel in 2016 after an extensive renovation. Oxford Capital Group sold the hotel in 2016 but retained ownership of the first and second floor retail spaces, entering into a 25-year contract to lease back and manage the hotel.
The London Guarantee Building, with its rich history and architectural significance, continues to contribute to Chicago’s vibrant urban landscape as the LondonHouse hotel.
KAM Isaiah Israel
KAM Isaiah Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Chicago, was founded in 1847 as Kehilath Anshe Ma’arav. Its current home, built in 1923, showcases Byzantine-inspired architecture with a unique chimney resembling a Turkish minaret. The synagogue’s architecture was designed by Alfred S. Alschuler, with extensions by John Alschuler and Ron Dirsmith. Inside, the main sanctuary features a breathtaking domed ceiling and an octagonal shape supported by eight columns.
The congregation has a rich history, starting above a dry-goods store and moving to various locations, including a temple designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. In 1924, KAM settled in Hyde Park, where it stands today.
Located in the Kenwood neighborhood, KAM Isaiah Israel shares the area with notable residents like Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali. The building, designated a Chicago Landmark in 1977, is an embodiment of historical and architectural significance, preserving the legacy of the congregation for generations to come.
The Palmer House Hilton Hotel
The Palmer House – A Hilton Hotel, located in Chicago’s Loop area, is a historic hotel known for its significant contributions to hospitality. It was the city’s first hotel with elevators, electric light bulbs, and telephones in guest rooms. Although the hotel temporarily closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it reopened on June 17, 2021.
The original Palmer House, a gift from Potter Palmer to his wife Bertha Honoré, opened in 1870 but tragically burned down during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. A second Palmer House, designed by architect John M. Van Osdel, was completed in 1875 and boasted luxurious accommodations and impressive features like a tiled barber shop floor embedded with silver dollars.
In the 1920s, a larger facility was needed, leading to the construction of a new 25-story hotel on the same site. This third Palmer House, designed by Holabird & Roche with architect Richard Neutra on the team, was completed between 1923 and 1925.
Conrad Hilton purchased the hotel in 1945, and it became known as The Palmer House Hilton. In 2005, Hilton sold the property while retaining management through the Hilton chain. Extensive renovations and restoration took place from 2007 to 2009, with a total cost exceeding $170 million.
The hotel currently offers 1,639 guest rooms, making it the second-largest in Chicago. It is also renowned for its Empire Room, which has hosted iconic entertainers like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and many more.
In 2020, due to financial difficulties amid the pandemic, the hotel faced a lawsuit and temporarily closed its doors. However, it reopened after undergoing upgrades, including a renovated indoor pool, on June 17, 2021.
The Chicago City Hall
Chicago City Hall, serves as the official seat of government for the city. Designed by Holabird & Roche in the classical revival style, the 10-story building houses various city departments, including the offices of the mayor, city clerk, and city treasurer.
The west side of the building is dedicated to the Chicago City Council chambers and aldermen from different wards. The east side, known as the County Building, accommodates Cook County offices and the Cook County Board of Commissioners.
Originally established in 1837 in leased chambers, Chicago City Hall has undergone several relocations and reconstructions. The current building, dedicated in 1911, replaced an earlier city hall destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. Notably, Abraham Lincoln’s funeral services were held at the old courthouse city hall in 1865.
The present City Hall showcases four granite relief panels sculpted by John Flanagan, symbolizing playgrounds, schools, parks, and water supply—the primary concerns of city government. The interior features impressive marble stairways and bronze tablets commemorating previous city halls. Renovations in 1967 relocated major city departments into the building.
The fifth floor of City Hall symbolizes the office and power of the mayor. The building has also made appearances in movies like “The Blues Brothers” and “The Fugitive,” adding to its cultural significance.
Chicago City Hall stands as a prominent governmental landmark, representing the city’s administrative functions and historical legacy.
The Chicago Theatre
The Chicago Theatre, originally called the Balaban and Katz Chicago Theatre, is a renowned landmark theater situated in the Loop area of Chicago. Constructed in 1921, it served as the flagship theater for the Balaban and Katz group. During its heyday from 1925 to 1945, it was a prominent movie theater enterprise. Today, the Chicago Theatre is owned and operated by Madison Square Garden, Inc., hosting various performing arts events like stage plays, magic shows, comedy acts, speeches, sporting events, and music concerts.
Designated as a National Register of Historic Places site in 1979 and a Chicago Landmark in 1983, the theater’s distinct marquee is widely recognized as an unofficial symbol of the city. The building occupies nearly half a city block, with a magnificent seven-story structure featuring a triumphal arch motif on the State Street façade.
The interior showcases French Baroque influences, including a grand lobby reminiscent of the Royal Chapel at Versailles and a stunning staircase modeled after the Paris Opera House.
The Chicago Theatre boasts a spacious stage, measuring over 60 feet in width and 30 feet in depth, with an orchestra pit below stage level. The venue also houses a remarkable Wurlitzer pipe organ, known as “The Mighty Wurlitzer,” which can mimic the sounds of a full orchestra. It is one of the oldest surviving Mighty Wurlitzers.
Over the years, the theater’s marquee has undergone several replacements, but its iconic appearance has been maintained. The original marquee, featuring flashing lights and garlands, was replaced in 1949. The current marquee, installed in 1994, retains the style of its predecessor and has become a recognizable feature in movies and TV shows set in Chicago.
The Chicago Theatre stands as a testament to architectural beauty and cultural significance, attracting visitors and providing a venue for captivating performances and entertainment.