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Skyscraper Central: Why Are So Many of Chicago's Tallest Buildings Located Downtown?

If you fly into Chicago, it’s hard to miss that recognizable cluster of skyscrapers that rise up from downtown, creating the skyline that is often depicted on postcards and other souvenirs.

There are some pretty tall buildings in other Chicago neighborhoods, but buildings that are 60 stories or taller are all in the Loop, or in the neighborhoods adjacent to downtown. This phenomenon led Keonte Brooks to send this question to Curious City:

Why are all the really tall buildings downtown but nowhere else throughout the city?

For the answer, we turned to two experts: Thomas Leslie, a professor of architecture at Iowa State University, and Jen Masengarb, former director of interpretation and research at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and currently the senior project manager at the Danish Architecture Center in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Both weighed in on what makes the Loop the destination for Chicago’s tallest buildings, why the earliest skyscrapers were built there in the first place, and whether we might expect any changes to the city’s skyline anytime soon.

Below are some highlights from this interview, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.

An 1898 map (with north oriented to the right) shows the area bounded by the Chicago River on the north and west, Lake Michigan on the east, and Roosevelt Road on the south start to develop as a central business district. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, ichi-14892)

Why do cities, like Chicago, often have a cluster of skyscrapers in one area?

Masengarb: Cass Gilbert, a late 19th and early 20th century architect, said a skyscraper is “a machine designed to make the land pay.” So if you’ve paid for a plot of land and it’s expensive, you want to do everything you can to get the biggest return back on that investment. So you can put up a building with just one floor of tenants and rent out that space. But what if you put up two floors of tenants and stack them on top of each other? Then you can earn twice as much, or maybe one and three quarters the amount of money.

And so the idea is that each floor of that tall building is hoping to make money for that single plot of land right there. The higher you bui

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