Essential Architecture-  Chicago Loop South

Marina City, Chicago


Bertram Goldberg


Chicago, IL.


1959-64, 1965-67 (W:61-63)






  Marina City from across the river. -view, photo, J. Cohen. and angle view from below, photo 1966, R. Longstreth.
Marina City is a mixed-use residential/commercial building complex occupying an entire city block on State Street in Chicago, Illinois. It lies on the north bank of the Chicago River, directly across from Chicago's Loop district. The complex consists of two corncob-shaped 61-story, 587 foot (179 m) tall residential towers, a saddle-shaped auditorium building, and a mid-rise hotel building all contained on a raised platform cantilevered over defunct railroad tracks adjacent to the river. Beneath the raised platform at river level is a small marina for pleasure craft.


Marina City under construction

The Marina City complex was designed in 1959 by architect Bertrand Goldberg and completed in 1964 at a cost of $36 million financed to a large extent by the union of building janitors and elevator operators, who sought to reverse the pattern of "white flight" from the city's downtown area. When finished, the two towers were both the tallest residential buildings and the tallest reinforced concrete structures in the world. The complex was billed as a "city within a city", featuring numerous on-site facilities including a theatre, gym, swimming pool, ice rink, bowling alley, several stores and restaurants, and of course, a marina.

Marina City was the first urban post-war high-rise residential complex in the United States and is widely credited with beginning the residential renaissance of American inner cities. Its model of mixed residential and office uses and high-rise towers with a base of parking has become a primary model for urban development in the United States, and has been widely copied throughout downtown Chicago.

The two towers contain identical floor plans. The bottom 19 floors form an exposed spiral parking ramp operated by valet with 896 parking spaces per building. The 20th floor of each contains a laundry room with panoramic views of the Loop, while floors 21 through 60 contain apartments (450 per tower). A 360-degree open-air roof deck lies on the 61st and top story. The buildings are accessed from separate lobbies that share a common below-grade mezzanine level as well as ground-level plaza entrances beside the House of Blues. Originally rental apartments, the complex converted to condominiums in 1977.

The towers lie on the north bank of the Chicago River.

Marina City apartments are unique in containing almost no interior right angles. On each residential floor, a circular hallway surrounds the elevator core, which is 32 feet (10 m) in diameter, with 16 pie-shaped wedges arrayed around the hallway. Apartments are composed of these triangular wedges. Bathrooms and kitchens are located nearer to the "point" of each wedge, towards the inside of the building. Living areas occupy the outermost areas of each wedge. Each wedge terminates in a 175-square-foot (16.3 square meter) semi-circular balcony, separated from living areas by a floor-to-ceiling window wall. Because of this arrangement, every single living room and bedroom in Marina City has a balcony.

The apartments are also unusual in that they function solely on electricity; neither natural gas nor propane serves any function. The apartments are not provided with hot water, air conditioning, or heat from a central source, as was the common practice at the time the towers were built. Instead, each unit contains individual water heaters, heating and cooling units, and electric stoves; residents pay individually for the electricity needed to run these appliances. This may have been a financial decision on the part of the building owners; at the time these towers were constructed, local electric utility Commonwealth Edison provided expensive building transformers at little or no charge provided the buildings were made all-electric.

In addition, the residential towers are noted for the high speed of their elevators. It takes approximately 35 seconds to travel from the lower-level lobby to the 61st-floor roofdecks[citation needed].

The towers were awarded a prize by the New York Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1965 for their innovation.

In 2007, the condominium board controversially claimed to own common law copyright and trademark rights to the name and image of the buildings, although they do not even own the parts of them beneath the 20th floor. They claim that any commercial use (such as in movies or Web sites) of pictures of the buildings or of the name "Marina City" without permission is a violation of their intellectual property rights.[1]

Current use
Today the complex houses the House of Blues concert hall and Sax Hotel, as well as an upscale bowling alley, a health club, a bank, and restaurants Bin 36 and Smith and Wollensky. The House of Blues concert hall was built in the shell of the complex's long-disused movie theater; similarly, the hotel was built in what was once the Marina City office building. In order to accommodate Smith and Wollensky, the former skating rink was demolished and pedestrian and vehicular access to the residential towers and the raised common plaza were redesigned. In 2006, decorative lighting, visible for miles, was installed around the circular roofs of the mechanical sheds that top each tower; the towers had not contained any such lighting since the 1960s.

To the south, the towers overlook the main branch of the Chicago River with a commanding view of the Chicago Loop beyond it. To the west, the towers offer views of the division of the Chicago River between its north and south branches, the Merchandise Mart, the Sears Tower, and the vast westward expanse of the city. To the north, the towers face Chicago's River North, Old Town, and Gold Coast neighborhoods and the northern neighborhoods of Chicago as they extend toward Evanston. To the east the Towers afford a view of the eastern terminus of the Chicago River, Lake Michigan, Navy Pier, and Grant Park.

From the condominium floors, on a clear day it is possible to see office buildings abutting Interstate 294, located more than 20 miles to the west. On spring and summer nights the towers also offer a view of illuminated Wrigley Field during evening baseball games, 4.5 miles to the north.

Many of these views will be lost due to new construction in the immediate future. After more than 40 years of unimpeded north and northwest views, in spring 2006 construction began on vacant lots immediately northwest of the towers at the intersection of North Dearborn and West Kinzie Streets for separate projects, including a mid-rise hotel and a high-rise office building, which will eliminate most views from Marina City in these directions. Also in 2006, site preparation began on a high-rise office building west of Marina City at North LaSalle Street and the Chicago River which, when completed, will eliminate the unimpeded view of the western horizon from Marina City's uppermost floors and roofdecks.

Cultural references

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album artwork

As viewed from boat in Chicago River

The opening sequence of the Bob Newhart Show included a shot of Marina City, and many people assume that Bob's character lived there. He did not—the building used for the exterior shots of Bob's apartment building sits seven miles to the north, on Sheridan Road in the Edgewater neighborhood.
The towers are featured on the cover of the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
In the movie The Hunter, "Papa" Thorson (Steve McQueen) pursues a suspect in a car chase through the Marina City parking garage. His quarry eventually loses control of his car and drives it off of a high floor of the garage into the Chicago River. This scene was later recreated for an Allstate commercial in 2006/2007. Allstate Commercial
A small scene in The Blues Brothers feature film had the Marina City towers where the Chicago P.D.'s police boats are seen right before the Bluesmobile crashes through a roadblock.
Marina City is featured in the montage shots of Chicago in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Marina City is shown in the opening shot of the movie Captain Ron with Kurt Russell and Martin Short.
The towers are also shown in the film The Break-Up. The film showcased many prominent landmarks of Chicago.
Marina City can clearly be seen in the background scene of the front of the USR Building in the movie "I, Robot".
Marina City is shown in the Prison Break television series.
The parking ramp was used as a location in the 1986 Tom Hanks film Nothing In Common.

Jay Pridmore; George A. Larson (2005). Chicago Architecture and Design : Revised and expanded. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.. ISBN 0-8109-5892-9.
Antonino Terranova (2003). Skyscrapers. White Star Publishers. ISBN 8880952307.

Society of Architectural Historians

Special thanks to the Society of Architectural Historians
for some of the images on this page (copyright SAH).