The Loop

From nycsubway.org


CTA 2600 Series 3176 on the Pink Line and 3200 Series 3285 on the Orange Line at Tower 12 (Van Buren & Wabash) on the Loop. Photo by David Pirmann, May 2008.


The world-famous Loop is the nerve center of Chicago's rapid transit network, carrying four distinct lines around the city's central business district. Indeed, the entire downtown area is collectively referred to as the Chicago Loop. This tour will go around the Loop in counterclockwise fashion beginning at Wells / Lake, following the CTA Brown Line route. In addition to the "L" stations themselves, we will also take a brief look at some of the Loop's architectural highlights along the way.

Crossing southbound over the Wells Street Bridge, we are treated to a spectacular view of the Chicago River and Wacker Drive. Behind us to our right is the massive Merchandise Mart, the second-largest building in the world in terms of square footage and home to the CTA headquarters.

Just beyond the Merchandise Mart is the Apparel Mart and Wolf Point. Wolf Point is directly at the fork of the Chicago River, and was the site at which Chicago was first incorporated as a city in 1837. Despite this site's historical significance and prominent location, it is now occupied by a parking lot.

On the far side of the river, we see the various Metra commuter rail tracks that feed into Union Station and Chicago & North Western Station. The surrounding area has seen a dramatic increase in residential loft conversions and condominium construction in recent years.

As we reach the other side of the river, we cross over the double-deck Wacker Drive. The upper level serves local traffic just like any other downtown street, while the lower level serves as an "express" artery connecting Lake Shore Drive to the Congress Expressway, in addition to providing access to the loading docks and parking garages of adjacent high-rises. As of this writing, Wacker Drive is undergoing a massive reconstruction project that involves nearly a total rebuild of the entire roadway.

After crossing over Wacker Drive, we dive into the dense canyon of Loop skyscrapers. Just to our right is the Engineering Building, built in 1928 and designed by D. H. Burnham and Company. Toward the end of the block, we approach Tower 18 and the only grand junction in the CTA system. Just off to our left, with a commanding view of the Tower 18 junction, is the 28-story Trustees Systems Service Building, designed by Thielbar and Fugard and built in 1930.

The Tower 18 junction itself is one of the most popular spots in the city to observe CTA rail activity, as all trains passing through the Loop must cross this junction. A self-park garage on the southeast corner of Lake and Wells provides a good vantage point for photographers. Our tracks carry the [[CTA North Side (Red, Brown, Purple) Line]] into and out of the Loop, and the tracks to the right carry the CTA Green Line to Harlem/Lake.

Moving onward, we go straight through the junction and continue southward above Wells Street. We soon approach the former station at Randolph / Wells. Portions of the platforms still exist on either side, and are now used for electrical equipment and storage. This station, along with another station at Madison / Wells, was closed and consolidated into a larger modern station at Washington / Wells.

At the southern end of the Randolph / Wells platforms, we pass under a large temporary canopy that was built to protect the "L" tracks from terra cotta that was in danger of falling from the nearby Randolph Tower at 188 West Randolph. The Randolph Tower, formerly known as the Steuben Club Building, was built in 1929 and designed by the firm Vitzhum and Burns. The protective canopy over the "L" tracks will presumably be removed when the Randolph Tower's facade has been stabilized.

Emerging from under the canopy, we soon enter the station at Washington/Wells (100N/200W). Wide side platforms are spanned by large canopy with exposed steel trusswork painted white, and elevators and stairs lead to fare control on a mezzanine below. An elevator, escalators, and additional stairs lead from the mezzanine to either side of Wells Street below. The mezzanine allows transfers between either platform while remaining inside fare control. This large station, completed in the mid-1990's, is the second-newest station in the Loop (Library-State-Van Buren now being the newest). The station also has exit-only stairs to Madison Street below, but there is no trace left of the old Madison / Wells station that once stood here.

The large, modern skyscraper to our right with the sawtooth facade is the Madison Plaza building, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and completed in 1983. Just across Madison Street from this building, to the south, was the proposed site of the Miglin-Beitler Tower, a 125-story needle of a building designed by Cesar Pelli that would have been the world's tallest building. However, financial problems doomed the proposed skyscraper, and the site is now occupied by a parking garage designed by Lucien LaGrange Associates.

Just across the "L" tracks from the garage, to our left, is the Paine Webber Tower, a 50-story skyscraper designed by Cesar Pelli and built in 1990. Built by the same developer as the proposed Miglin-Beitler Tower and featuring a similar architectural design, the Paine Webber Tower would have been a nice compliment to the never-constructed building. But today, it stands alone.

Looking down Madison Street to the west, we may be able to catch a glimpse of the glassy blue facade of the Citicorp Center, which sits above the Chicago & North Western commuter rail terminal.

Now travelling southward at a good clip, we soon come upon the station at Quincy/Wells (220S/200W). Quincy, thanks to a careful restoration, is now arguably the most classic "L" stop on the CTA system. Both station houses have been beautifully restored, complete with ornate ceilings, polished woodwork, and vintage light fixtures. Out on the platforms, there are even replicas of the original advertising that once graced 1890's-era "L" platforms. The only modern-day features of the Quincy stop are some updated light fixtures and electronic display signs on the platforms, and new turnstiles and ticket vending machines in the station houses. Fare control is on each platform level, with a crossunder connecting both platforms outside fare control.

Only a block to the west of the station is the 110-story Sears Tower, still the world's tallest building in terms of highest occupied floor space. The Sears Tower was built in 1974 and designed by Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan of the firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The building features a unique structural system comprised of nine independent tubes that rise to varied heights. Only two of these tubes reach the full height of 1,454 feet above street level. The building's elevator system is itself an impressive example of a vertical "rapid transit" system. Double-deck express elevators serve skylobbies on floors 33-34 and 66-67, where passengers transfer to local elevators to their particular floor. The Sears Tower Skydeck on the 103rd floor, accessed via a dedicated entrance on Jackson Boulevard, provides an awesome view of the entire city. The twin antenna masts on top of the building, not officially included in the building's height figure, transmit the signals of dozens of radio and TV stations.

Union Station, serving Amtrak intercity trains and various Metra commuter trains, is only a couple blocks west of the Sears Tower.

Leaving Quincy, we curve sharply toward the east and are now travelling above Van Buren Street. Our first stop on this leg is LaSalle/Van Buren (140W/400S). This station is one of the more decrepit stations in the Loop, and is in need of a healthy rehabilitation.

Just to the South of the station, to our right, is the red granite Chicago Stock Exchange building. The building contains a large trading floor that spans Congress Parkway, and the LaSalle Street Station commuter rail terminal is at the south end of the building. This station serves Metra's Rock Island District trains to Joliet. The LaSalle station on the CTA Blue Line is only a block to the south of here.

Just to our left is the Helmut Jahn-designed addition to the Chicago Board of Trade Building, built in 1980. The original Board of Trade building, a beautiful 45-story art deco tower designed by Holabird and Root, provides a powerful anchor to the southern end of LaSalle Street. The 1980 addition is to the southern side of the building, and another addition was recently completed to the eastern side. The buildings contain the world's largest trading floor, with visitor galleries open to the public. A glassy bridge connects the Board of Trade addition to the Chicago Stock Exchange building high above the "L" tracks.

Moving eastward along Van Buren, we look to our right and see a triangular concrete building set in an open plaza. This is the Chicago Correctional Center, built in 1975, which holds Federal detainees awaiting trial in the nearby federal courthouses. This structure was designed by Chicago-based Harry Weese and Associates, the same architects that designed the Washington Metro subway system. The prison features narrow slot-like windows arranged in an irregular pattern on the building's exterior.

As we enter the next station, we come upon three landmark buildings of the Chicago School, centered around the intersection of Dearborn and Van Buren Streets.

On the northwest corner, to our left, sits the Monadnock Building. Its northern half was designed by Burnham and Root and built in 1891, and is supported entirely by masonry. At 16 stories, the Monadnock is still the tallest load-bearing brick building anywhere. Its walls are over six feet thick at the ground floor. The southern half is slightly more recent, built in 1893 and designed by Holabird and Roche. Only the southernmost half of the addition is supported by a steel structure; the rest is supported by masonry. In addition to its engineering significance, the Monadnock features light-filled interior stairways and corridors, and intricate tilework throughout the public areas of the building. The building has been beautifully restored in recent years, and is must-see highlight of any architectural tour of the Loop.

Directly across Dearborn Street from the Monadnock is the golden, 18-story Fisher Building, designed by Charles Atwood of D. H. Burnham and Company and built in 1896. Like its sister Reliance Building to the north at State and Washington, the Fisher features an incredibly transparent facade that fully expresses its steel construction. This was a revolutionary concept at the time, but is now taken for granted in modern high-rise construction. It makes quite a contrast to the bulky Monadnock across the street. Unfortunately, the Fisher Building has suffered years of neglect and many of its original features have been defaced or removed. However, the building is now undergoing a comprehensive restoration that will hopefully restore it to its former glory.

On the other side of the "L", to our right, are two more important Chicago School buildings. Closest to us, on the southeast corner of Dearborn and Van Buren, is the 17-story Old Colony Building, designed by Holabird and Roche and built in 1894. Its distinctive round bay windows at all four corners. This was a departure from most other buildings designed by Holabird and Roche, and is the only surviving Chicago School building that incorporates this treatment.

Further south on the same block is the Manhattan Building, built in 1891 by William LeBaron Jenny and considered one of the earliest skyscrapers to be supported entirely by a steel frame. Although the now-demolished Home Insurance Building by the same architect is widely acknowledged to be the world's first skyscraper, the Manhattan was the first to fully exploit steel framing and wind bracing and is now one of the oldest skyscrapers remaining. Constructed originally as on office building, the Manhattan now contains upscale condominiums.

Unseen from here, the CTA Blue Line runs in a subway below Dearborn Street.

We are now at Library/State/Van Buren (1W/400S). This is the newest station in the Chicago Loop, featuring wide concrete platforms spanned by a large canopy roof. Elevators and stairs connect the platforms to a mezzanine below and to street level. In contrast to the modern Washington / Wells station, this station has a somewhat more traditional design that attempts to compliment the Harold Washington Library Center next door. The handrails are painted a dark red to match the library's granite walls, and the roof structure is dark green to match the library's giant owl-like gargoyles on its roof. An additional set of exit-only stairs lead from the western ends of the platforms to Dearborn Street below.

Leaving the station, we are treated to an impressive view up State Street. For many years Chicago's premiere shopping street, State Street was supplanted in the 1970's by North Michigan Avenue for upscale shopping. State Street was converted to a pedestrian mall in a failed effort to make it more attractive to shoppers, but instead became a haven for panhandlers and homeless people. In the late 1990's, the city once again made State Street into an actual street, and its fortunes have risen steadily ever since. The revitalized State Street features sidewalks lined with large shade trees, new subway kiosks, and vintage-style light fixtures. The kiosks lead to the [[CTA Red Line]]'s State Street Subway.

Now east of State Street, we pass the Second Leiter Building to our right, another early steel-framed building by William LeBaron Jenny built in 1891.

We soon come to another tower and junction; the tracks to our right carry the CTA Green Line to the South Side and the [[CTA Orange Line]] to Midway Airport.

We curve sharply to the left, and are now travelling northbound above Wabash Avenue. The modern red steel-and-glass towers to our right are the headquarters of the CNA insurance company. Our first stop on this stretch is Adams/Wabash (200S/45E), a fairly typical Loop station with fare control on a mezzanine below. In addition to the mezzanine is a crossover that connects the two platforms. A portion of the platform canopies are made of glass, a departure from the usual choice of corrugated metal.

Visible from the station as we look down the block to the east is the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the largest art museums in the country and featuring a huge collection of works by French Impressionist masters and American realists. Admission to this world-class museum is free on Tuesdays.

Moving onward, we pass the huge Mid-Continental Plaza building on our right, a 50-story tower designed by Alfred Shaw and Associates and built in 1969.

Appearing soon on our left is the rear of Louis Sullivan's masterpiece Carson Pirie Scott and Company store, completed in 1904. This building stands as one of the world's most important works of early modern architecture, the cumulation of Sullivan's quest to find a distinctly American form of architecture for large commercial buildings. The building beautifully expresses its steel structure, and the ornamentation along the State and Madison Street elevations appears in architectural textbooks around the world.

Our next station is Madison/Wabash (1N/1S/46E), essentially a carbon copy of the previous station. Glass wind screens along the platforms provide some measure of protection from winter winds.

Approaching on our right is the Pittsfield Building, a notable 38-story tower that was, upon its completion in 1927, Chicago's tallest building. Designed by the Chicago firm Graham, Anderson, Probst and White, the Pittsfield is more of a New York-style skyscraper, modeled after that city's landmark Woolworth Building and featuring a slender tower rising from a more massive base. An interesting feature of the building is its soaring rotunda, rising five floors inside the base of the building. Although the Pittsfield has changed ownership several times over the years, it remains in good condition and most of its architectural features are still intact.

Across the tracks to our left is the massive Marshall Field and Company store, actually comprised of several buildings dating back to 1892. In contrast to Sullivan's airy Carson Pirie Scott store, Marshall Field's is more classically styled with a heavier look. Designed by Daniel Burnham and his successor firms over the years between 1892 and 1914, it claimed to be the largest store in the world. Marshall Field's revolutionized modern retailing in many ways, and was in the same class of merchants as Macy's of New York and Filene's of Boston. Marshall Field's is still a Chicago retail institution today, although now owned by Minneapolis-based Target. The store's annual Christmas displays attract thousands of visitors each year.

Our next station is Randolph/Wabash (146N/46E). This station, unlike the previous two on Wabash, has fare control on the platform level with no transfer between the inner Loop and outer Loop platforms within fare control. The inner Loop platform has fare control located within an enclosed station house, while the turnstiles on the other platform are located on the platform itself.

Leaving the station behind, we curve sharply toward the west and find ourselves above Lake Street. This curve was the site of a 1977 derailment that sent three "L" cars plunging to the street below, killing eleven people in the CTA's worst rapid transit accident to date. Heavy steel beams have since been placed along the outsides of sharp curves, designed to prevent a derailed train from falling to the street. Other than these beams, little evidence remains of this curve's notorious past.

Our first station on Lake Street is State/Lake (1E/1W/200N). This station is very old and has changed little since it was built. The station has taken a beating over the years, and is due for either replacement or at least some heavy renovation work. Fare control is on each of the platforms, with no free transfer between platforms. However, there is a free paper transfer between this station and the Lake station on the CTA Red Line below. This is the Loop's only free transfer to the Red Line.

Looking just to our south, we see the Chicago Theater on State Street, a grand example of theater's Golden Age that has served as a venue for Frank Sinatra to David Letterman. The Chicago Theater lives on with Broadway musicals and other live acts.

Leaving the station, we soon pass the newly-opened Goodman Theater on Dearborn Street, comprised of the old Selwin and Harris theater buildings.

We soon enter the next station at Clark/Lake (100W/200N). This large station features two large side platforms with a crossover, and serves as a major transfer point between the Loop elevated lines and the CTA Blue Line subway directly below us. Fare control for this station is located at street level, inside the buildings on either side of the station. The glassy building to our left is the Thompson Center, a large state office building designed by Halmut Jahn and completed in 1985. Nearly every Chicagoan has a strong opinion of this building, positive or negative. A huge atrium lobby rises the height of the interior, and the color scheme is blue and salmon with splashes of bright red. Since its inception, the building has been plagued by cost overruns during construction and technical problems with its air conditioning system. However, those problems are now in the past and Chicagoans seem to have at least accepted the building's presence.

Across the street is a much more tame office building at 203 North LaSalle, designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and built in 1985. The lower third of the building is a large parking garage, and the upper floors feature a glassy atrium space.

Leaving Clark / Lake, we are treated to a spectacular view down the financial canyon of LaSalle Street, dominated by the Chicago Board of Trade Building at the far end. Looking northward, we see one of the muscular drawbridges that span the Chicago River. LaSalle Street continues northward through River North, the Gold Coast, and Lincoln Park, and the Chicago Board of Trade Building can be seen from as far away as North Avenue.

We soon find ourselves back at Tower 18, where we will turn north and cross back over the river the way we came.

Information on buildings around the Loop obtained from Pauline A. Saliga, editor, The Sky's the Limit: A Century of Chicago Skyscrapers. (New York: Rizzoli, 1990).

Photo Gallery

Five Random Images

Image 78265

(830k, 1600x1067)
Photo by: Ed Davis, Sr.
Collection of: David Pirmann
Location: Madison/Wells

Image 84745

(238k, 1044x788)
Photo by: David Pirmann
Location: Library/State/Van Buren

Image 143380

(595k, 1200x1200)
Collection of: David Pirmann
Location: Randolph/Wabash

Image 143381

(749k, 1200x1200)
Collection of: David Pirmann
Location: Randolph/Wabash

Image 143582

(359k, 703x1044)
Photo by: David Pirmann
Location: Madison/Wabash

More Images: 1-50 51-100 101-150 151-200 201-250 251-300 301-350 351-400 401-450 451-500 501-539

Photos By Location

Photo locations: Tower 18, Randolph/Wells, Washington/Wells, Madison/Wells, Quincy/Wells, LaSalle/Van Buren, Library/State/Van Buren, Tower 12 (Van Buren & Wabash), Adams/Wabash, Madison/Wabash, Randolph/Wabash, State/Lake, Clark/Lake

Page Credits

By David S. Cole

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