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The history of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile
North Michigan Avenue, also known as The Magnificent Mile, is one of the great avenues of the world. The heart of downtown Chicago and an international tourism destination, The Magnificent Mile is one of the most vibrant and successful commercial, residential, cultural and tourist areas in the world.
Its infectious big city energy springs from its unique mixture of offerings. The Magnificent Mile district includes a 13-block stretch of North Michigan Avenue that runs from the banks of the Chicago River to the south, to Oak Street to the north, extending a full square mile from North Michigan Avenue. The Magnificent Mile district includes beautiful residences, premier retailers, trendy boutiques, distinctive restaurants, famous museums, luxurious hotels, landmark architecture and prestigious educational and medical facilities.
The economic and cultural capital of the Midwest, the city of Chicago is a global city offering world-class tourist attractions and cultural events. Nestled among the skyscrapers and within blocks of the city’s beautiful lakefront, North Michigan Avenue is where residents, business people, shoppers and visitors come to feel magnificent.
Key events in the history of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile
Chicago’s Historic Water Tower and Pumping Station were built by William Boyington at Michigan Avenue (Pine Street at that time) and Chicago Avenue. Dominic Pacyga, Chicago historian notes, “Because it was one of the only buildings to survive the Great Fire of 1871, the Water Tower has become synonymous with Chicago’s momentous rebirth after the fire. Throughout the years, various groups have tried to tear it down in hopes of introducing a more modern image for the city. Because it has endured, the Water Tower has become known as a symbol of Midwestern strength and resilience, for which Chicago has become synonymous.
The ‘Chicago Plan’ was devised by local planners to transform Michigan Avenue from an Indian trading post into a major commercial boulevard. After widening the street and constructing a bridge, the developers envisioned an Avenue similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris which seemingly stretched to infinity. The Lake Michigan shoreline, originally located just a block away from what is now Michigan Avenue, would undergo a series of landfills amounting to 125 acres to stabilize the shoreline and avoid flooding.
The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association (GNMAA), originally the North Central Business District Association, was founded to plan and promote the development and beautification of Michigan Avenue. Because of its unwavering commitment, The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association has helped transform the boulevard from a simple thoroughfare to a world-class destination.
After much political debate, the idea of the Michigan Avenue Bridge was born with the hopes of connecting the “old” South with the “new” North and creating a gateway to the city’s new commercial district.
The opening of the double-decked Michigan Avenue Bridge, now known as the DuSable Bridge, sparked a building boom within the district. . London has Big Ben, New York has the Empire State Building and Chicago has the Wrigley Building. Emblematic of the spirit of Chicago, the Wrigley Building was built with the purpose of drawing shoppers and businesses over the new bridge to the north side of the Chicago River. The north section of the building is equivalent to 21 stories and the south section, which includes a tower and a two-story clock, totals 30 stories. The architectural shape of the building is patterned after the Seville Cathedral’s Giralda Tower in Spain. Architect Charles Beersman specified six shades of tiles for Wrigley’s exterior, from off-white tiles at the bottom to blue-white at the top, so that the brightness of the building would increase as it rises.
One of Michigan Avenue’s first skyscrapers, the Tribune Tower, was commissioned during this time period with due pomp and circumstance. “An architectural contest was held by the owners of the Tribune to create a monument that would commemorate 75 years of achievement and become an inspiration to further building,” recounts Chicago historian Ellen Skerrett. John Meade Howells and Raymond Hood won the international contest with their Gothic tower construction modeled after the Tour de Beurre in Rouen, France. Embedded in the façade of the building are stones from famous sites around the world including the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal and the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The stones were all gifts to the Tribune’s publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick.
Additional buildings constructed during this time period include The Allerton Hotel Magnificent Mile Chicago at 701 N. Michigan Avenue, InterContinental Chicago Magnificent Mile at 505 N. Michigan Avenue and the famous Drake Hotel located at 140 E. Walton Place. Other well-known buildings include the Woman’s Athletic Club at 626 N. Michigan Avenue and the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church at 190 E. Delaware Place.
The Great Stock Market Crash ended the extraordinary expansion of Michigan Avenue. The Depression hit Chicago hard, bringing hopes and dreams of a great Avenue to a halt.
As a leader of The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association, Chicago real estate developer Arthur Rubloff launched an extensive promotional plan to revitalize the district. Rubloff’s plan involved the renovation of existing buildings complemented by a series of new development. Rubloff coined the phrase “The Magnificent Mile” as the thoroughfare began to transform itself into a world-renowned center of retail, dining and culture.
The John Hancock Center opened on Michigan Avenue and at 100 stories was the tallest building in the world. The John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company invested $100 million to construct this multi-use building, which contains residential units built on top of commercial space.
The construction of Water Tower Place, led by Phillip M. Klutznick, represented a revolutionary shift in architecture along the Avenue. As the country’s first urban vertical mall, Water Tower Place introduced a multi-purpose use of space containing retail, dining, entertainment, hotel and residential units, a trend now highly popular within the district. In an attempt to avoid a canyon-like effect, this monumental structure was built with graduated setbacks that allow light to peek over the building tops and preserve the flowers and trees on the Avenue.
This 13-year span marked the commencement of a second great building boom on Michigan Avenue with the completion of the 900 N. Michigan Avenue building, Chicago Place, Crate & Barrel, 676 N. Michigan Avenue building and the 600 N. Michigan Avenue building. Supporting properties on the Avenue were extensively renovated and upgraded to meet the design demands of modern urban environments.
Vision 2012, a plan providing policies to guide new development and evolution for the future success of Michigan Avenue, was created. Vision 2012 was the culmination of two years of community consensus building on the future of Michigan Avenue and its environs. The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association and corporate citizens worked together to ensure that The Magnificent Mile retained its character as a beautiful, vibrant, architecturally-significant, economically-thriving and diverse community through the year 2012 and beyond. Initiated by The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association’s Planning, Preservation and Urban Design Committee (PPUD), chaired by Jacqueline Hayes, president of Jacqueline C. Hayes and Associates, the project was chaired by Ralph Weber, vice president of planning for Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The construction of The North Bridge District, a nine-block, mixed-use entertainment development, followed on the heels of the second great building boom. . The North Bridge District includes a four-level upscale shopping center featuring Nordstrom and other top retail shops.
2001 – Present
The Greater North Michigan Avenue Association secured incontestable trademark registrations for MAGNIFICENT MILE®. Successful marketing campaigns and event initiatives, such as The BMO Harris Bank Magnificent Mile Lights Festival® and The Magnificent Mile Shopping Festival™ presented by MasterCard® provide exceptional experiences for millions of consumers annually. Transformed over the course of its history into one of the world’s premier shopping districts, Chicago’s Magnificent Mile is internationally recognized as a world-renowned destination.
Explore the history of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile
If you are planning a trip to Chicago and want to know what things to see and places to visit, check out our directory of the attractions and tours of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. If you’d like to explore the colorful history of the Magnificent Mile in more depth, our museum listings are a great place to start. You can also download our detailed Magnificent Mile map, which highlights Chicago visitor attractions, museums, architectural landmarks, sightseeing opportunities and tours.