Before Marina City, skyscrapers were rectangular boxes made of steel. Nobody lived downtown and River North was a skid row dominated by huge, decaying warehouse lofts. Architect Bertrand Goldberg changed all that. When the twin “corn cobs” of Marina City opened in 1964, they were the tallest residential structures in the world, climbing 61 stories high. Goldberg made them out of not steel but concrete, with beams that stretched from central cores housing elevators and stairwells to rings of 16 perimeter columns. He envisioned them not just as buildings but as a city within a city: 600 apartments atop 15 floors of parking with an office building, a theater, shops, a skating rink, and of course a marina down below. The gamble paid off. It filled up instantly.
The first time I laid eyes on Marina City, at the age of eight, it was unlike anything I’d ever seen. I told myself, that is where I want to live when I grow up. Twenty-two years ago, I moved in. The apartments went condo in the 1980s and the complex went through rough times in the early 90s, but today it’s as vibrant as ever. The old theater now does brisk business as the House of Blues. Some of the upgrades have come at a cost, like the battleship gray paint that’s desecrated the base of the former office building, now the Hotel Sax Chicago (and formerly the House of Blues Hotel), or the kitschy steakhouse built over the former skating rink.
Amazingly, Marina City has no landmark protection. It remains, however, one of the most recognizable buildings not only in Chicago but in the world. River North is booming and newer buildings—as tall or taller—continue to rise around it, but the splendid “corn cobs” are still what turn passengers on the armada of tour boats passing by into wide-eyed eight year olds. 300 N. State. —Lynn Becker
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