Wonder Wall

56-story tower coming to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, across from Grant Park

Architecture Midwest News Skyscrapers
Essex on the Park continues the Michigan Avenue wall with its 18-story base, while adding height to density to the South Loop. (Courtesy Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)
Essex on the Park continues the Michigan Avenue wall with its 18-story base, while adding height to density to the South Loop. (Courtesy Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)

It is rare to be given the chance to build anything along the Michigan Avenue “wall.” The iconic stretch of Chicago’s most famous street looks out to Lake Michigan over Millennium and Grant Parks, and was designated a Chicago Landmark in 2002. Yet 2017 will see the start of more than one new tower along the historic one-mile district.

The most recently announced of these new towers has been dubbed Essex on the Park. The name makes reference to the neighboring building, the Essex Inn, which will also be redeveloped in the process of erecting the new tower. The 56-story Essex on the Park is being designed by Chicago-based Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture. While the 479-unit tower is distinctly contemporary, it also references its historic context.

Designing along Michigan Avenue involves the careful navigation of a long list of regulations related to height, massing, and position relative to historic district as a whole.

At Essex on the Park, this plays out as a large base that addresses the heights of surrounding buildings. Stretching from lot line to lot line, the base continues the wall of mostly late 19th-century buildings. A large four-story winter garden mediates between the base and the more articulated tower.

Courtesy Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)

(Courtesy Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture)

Paul Alessandro, a partner at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture, discussed the challenges of building within the strict zoning along Michigan Avenue. “The building is shaped by all of these forces, you can see this in the base. Those parameters give you an outline, which you can design in, something of a Hugh Ferriss envelope. They take a lot of the decisions away from you, which gives you a chance to focus on the specifics and details of the design.”

The neighboring 14-story Essex Inn is one of the most recognizable structures along South Michigan Avenue. It is known, not so much for its architecture, but for an epic sign that adorns its roof. While these types of signs were once common in Chicago, they have been the center of more than one controversy in recent years: once when Motorola removed the large Santa Fe sign from the top of a building just blocks from the Essex, and again when the 20-foot Trump sign was added to the Trump Tower. A new ordinance passed after the Trump sign’s installation now makes it much more difficult to add such signage to new buildings. The Essex sign and the building itself, built in 1961, are now protected. And though the Essex Inn signage will stay, the building will be rebranded as the Hotel Essex once renovations are complete.

The two buildings will connect via a restaurant in the new tower and the lobby of the older building. Construction will begin on the tower later this year, while the renovation of the hotel will begin in 2018. Both will be completed in 2019.

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