Think You Know The Best of The Cultural Mile? | Discovering the Intersection of Modern and Historic
18 January 2018
South Loop and Historic Printer’s Row
The South Loop earned the 2017 Curbed Cup, awarded annually to Chicago’s best neighborhood by popular vote. The victory is well-deserved. Teeming with cultural, educational, sports, restaurant and retail options — not to mention privileged adjacency to Grant Park and Lake Michigan — 1000M’s neighborhood has a lot to offer, including a rich history.
The South Loop is home to historic Printer’s Row, a timeless enclave between Congress Parkway and Polk Street that was the heart of the Midwest printing and publishing industry from the late 19th to the first half of the 20th century. This perfectly preserved microneighborhood, boasting the iconic industrial design that secured Chicago place on the country’s architectural map, has been meticulously preserved to convey the aura of the past without kitsch or nostalgia.
One of the unintended consequences of the Great Fire of 1871 was to concentrate Chicago’s burgeoning printing industry into a single neighborhood in the Fire’s aftermath. The Near South Side of Chicago, now known as the South Loop, was ideal because of its proximity to energy and transportation — the Chicago River provided the water needed to produce steam power to run the presses and both the River and the nearby Dearborn Station provided transportation for shipping goods.
Printing companies poured in; the likes of Rand McNally, M. A. Donohue & Co, R.R. Donnelly & Sons and the Franklin Printing Company thrived. In 1886, Ottmar Merganthaler, the inventor of the Linotype machine, a revolutionary hot metal typesetting system used in printing, moved in at the intersection of Polk and Dearborn. The printing and publishing industry vitalized a district of the city that previously had a reputation for vice, and set the stage for vast amounts of textbooks, magazines, catalogues and maps to be printed throughout the late 19th and the early 20th century.
The printing industry drove not only the neighborhood’s economy, but also its architectural identity. Tall and narrow buildings rose, designed to support the printing machinery of the day and maximize natural light. The First Chicago School of Architecture, the city’s defining architectural style in the later 19th century, influenced the buildings, as well. This influence is well showcased in structures like the Pontiac Building a steel frame skyscraper with a brick façade and three tiers of bay windows completed in 1891.
The printing houses aren’t the only eye-catching structures. The Dearborn Station, a powerful presence in the neighborhood that was completed in 1885 and served as the premier passenger station in Chicago until the late 1940s, has an historic grandeur all its own. The Romanesque architecture rendered in red brick is topped with a 12-story clock tower. Tens and thousands of people, from immigrants to celebrities, set foot in Chicago in Dearborn Station, during the years when the Santa Fe Railway passed through on its way from New York to California and the Southwest.
Printer’s Row began to unwind in the 1960s; as printing technology evolved, companies moved to the suburbs where greater space could accommodate sprawling automated press machines. When Amtrak consolidated in 1971, Dearborn Station closed and fell into disrepair; the neighborhood stagnated without the printing industry to give it purpose. A renaissance began in the mid-1980s when the Station was adapted to retail space and many of the neighborhood’s printing buildings were converted to residential and commercial spaces. In 1996, Printer’s Row was designated a Chicago landmark to memorialize this rich era of Chicago history.
Today, Printer’s Row is no longer defined by the industry of its namesake. The only major print house in operation is Palmer Printing, which opened in 1937. However, the architecture and, with it, the feeling of a distinct era, remain.
The residents, as well, celebrate the area’s origins. Since 1984, the Printer’s Row Lit Fest has brought together Chicago’s community of book lovers throughout the city. Connecting booksellers, serious collectors, casual readers and everyone in between, the Lit Fest is a venue for purchasing rare books, retro magazines, and antique maps, enjoying literary programming, and most importantly, engaging with fellow bibliophiles.
A short stroll from 1000M, Printer’s Row is an exploration of where the historic and modern meet.
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Historic Printer’s Row // Between Congress Parkway & Polk Street