Architectural pioneer right at home now

When the Daley Center opened, it was a trendsetter

Judging History

Michael B. Hyman

Justice Michael B. Hyman sits on the Illinois Appellate Court, 1st District. He is a former president of The Chicago Bar Association and the current president of the Illinois Judges Association.

November 2015

Feb. 23, 1966: Dedication ceremony held for the Chicago Civic Center, later renamed the Richard J. Daley Center.

As the 50th anniversary of its dedication ceremony approaches, the Daley Center continues to shine as Cook County’s physical and symbolic seat of justice and Chicago’s urban stage.

At the time of its construction and completion (1963 to 1965), the 31-story, $87 million skyscraper garnered plenty of accolades for its stark, minimalist design and innovative engineering. For a few years it claimed the title of Chicago’s tallest building at 648 feet, stretching 30 feet above the then-reigning champ, the Prudential Building.

By all accounts, Mayor Richard J. Daley did not appreciate modern architecture. Nevertheless, he put aside his personal preferences in pursuit of his goal of revitalizing and remaking the tired downtown where new construction had been largely absent since 1934. The catalyst for this transformation would be the Chicago Civic Center. (The name change occurred in 1978, a week after Daley died.)

According to a 2001 report submitted to the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, Daley began pushing for a central courthouse and governmental office building shortly into his first term as mayor.

The concept of a civic center went back to 1909, when Chicago’s master planner, Daniel Burnham, recommended a civic center be built on the Near West Side at Halsted Street and Congress Parkway. In the early 1950s, there was talk of putting a civic center either west or north of the Chicago River. Ultimately, however, the decision was Daley’s, and he did not have to scout far to find the perfect location for what he had in mind — he selected the square block directly east of the City-County Building.

The Chicago Public Buildings Commission, headed by Daley, assembled the 2½-acre site, consisting of 14 parcels of mostly shops and restaurants. Among the structures torn down in 1962 to make way were the Erlanger Theater, at 127 N. Clark St., which opened in 1912, and Henrici’s Restaurant, at 71 W. Randolph St., a popular German dining destination once known as “Chicago’s most famous restaurant.”

A team representing three architectural firms contributed to the project under the oversight of Jacques Brownson, who also designed the similar-looking Continental Center, 55 E. Jackson Blvd., completed in 1962. Brownson studied under, and later worked with, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the German-born architect whose work helped define modern architecture.

The building itself is an engineering marvel with a mere 16 steel columns holding the 31 stories aloft. This meant no major interior columns, providing greater flexibility in terms of the layout of the 18-f00t-tall ceilings. “In its logic and execution, the resulting structure resembles a beautifully detailed bridge,” explains the AIA Guide to Chicago.

For the facade, the architects opted for 12-foot-high bronze-tinted windows and 6-foot-high panels of untreated Cor-Ten steel, a radical innovation at the time because Cor-Ten had long been used for railroad freight cars and only once as a building material.

Construction began in March 1963, and by the end of May 1965, county departments had moved into their new offices. In late July 1965, the circuit court began occupying its 120 new courtrooms with 22 branches of the Municipal Division, formerly located in the City-County Building, the first to relocate. The last to move in, the Supreme Court, Appellate Court and the law library, were up and running in November.

Brownson wanted the area around the building to resemble the great public squares of Europe such as St. Mark’s in Venice so it would be “adaptable to all types of activities.”

Just before excavation got underway, the architects decided that a huge sculpture would enhance the plaza and Pablo Picasso agreed to create it. He referred to his sculpture as “my gift to the people of Chicago,” reportedly turning down $100,000. He did, however, receive several gifts including a Sioux war bonnet and a White Sox blazer.

At the unveiling of the 162-ton, 50-foot-high Cor-Ten steel sculpture, on Aug. 15, 1967, Daley said, “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.” The mayor’s director of special events reacted to the sculpture by calling for its immediate removal; a Republican alderman asked the city council to “deport” the sculpture in favor of a statue of Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub.

In 2002, the Daley Center was designated a Chicago landmark.

The Daley Center performs two major functions — as the headquarters of the Cook County court system and as the cornerstone of the Loop. The building has aged well during the ensuing 50 years, retaining its integrity of design, material and setting, even as the circuit court has since outgrown the space allocated to it.

During its half century, the Daley Center has come to signify our colorful city. That a courthouse has taken on this role testifies to the Daley Center’s functionality, durability and adoptability, each an attribute that equally applies to the law itself.