The Story of The Loop
Bordered by the Chicago River to the north and west, Lake Michigan to the east, and Roosevelt Road to the south, the Loop is Chicago’s downtown and is packed with history, architecture, and culture.
Before it became a city, the area was home to the Potawatomi Native Americans. In the late 1700s, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable set up a trading post just north of the Chicago River, and in 1803, Fort Dearborn was built. When Chicago was officially founded as a town in 1833 with a population of just a few hundred, it had become a small military and trading post. In that same year Chicago, the Potawatomi people were forced off their land and sent west.
Watch: The Loop
By the 1870s, the Chicago population had boomed to 300,000. The city had become a major transportation hub and was a center for manufacturing. But the Great Fire of 1871 destroyed nearly everything in the present-day Loop, as well as parts of the North Side. Nearly a third of the population was left homeless.
But Chicago rebuilt and boomed once more. In 1897, Charles Tyson Yerkes, who already owned much of the city’s streetcar system, built the elevated structure that still circles downtown today, according to CTA expert Graham Garfield. Before Yerkes built the so-called Union Loop the city’s various privately owned L Lines had all terminated just short of the downtown. Though many people think the Loop got its name from the elevated train tracks that circle downtown, some say the name actually comes from an underground system that turned cable cars around.
In its rebuilding, Chicago also claims to be the city that invented the skyscraper. Many architectural historians argue that the 10-story Home Insurance Building at LaSalle and Adams streets built in 1885 was the world’s first skyscraper, because it was the first to be supported entirely by an internal metal frame instead of load-bearing masonry walls. Other historians dispute that claim. Though it was later demolished in 1931, the Home Insurance Building set the stage for Chicago as a center for innovative architecture. South Dearborn Street and the surrounding blocks in the Loop are home to many of the city’s early skyscrapers, such as the Monadnock Building, the Rookery, and the Marquette Building. Chicago has come a long way from its first 10-story skyscraper, with Willis Tower (formerly known as Sears Tower) reaching 110 stories into the sky.
By the 1940s, the Loop had reached new heights as an urban center, with a million people traveling through downtown every day. Though suburbanization and the automobile caused a decline in the bustling activity of the Loop as a central place for entertainment and shopping, it once again boomed as nationwide trends in the 1990s and 2000s saw people moving back into cities
Today, the Loop, which is an official community area, is a lively central business, entertainment and retail district. Every ‘L’ line, with the exception of the Yellow Line, converges in the Loop using Yerkes now-iconic elevated structure and two subways built in the 1940s. The iconic skyscrapers, restaurants, stores, famous hotels, and Broadway-style theaters are too numerous to list entirely. So here are just a few highlights: the Chicago Theatre, Millennium Park, Maggie Daley Park, Grant Park, Harold Washington Library, the Chicago Cultural Center, The Art Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Board of Trade building, Printer’s Row, Symphony Center, and much, much more.
Neighborhood Spotlight: Chicago Riverwalk
At the northern border of the Loop is a 1.25-mile, polished, pedestrian path along the Chicago River from Lake Street to the lakefront. The concept for the Chicago Riverwalk appeared as early as Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, at a time when the river was a shipping channel filled with industrial waste and sewage.
The Riverwalk that people stroll along today began in earnest in 2001 as part of the Wacker Drive reconstruction project. The goal was to make Chicago a city of two waterfronts, though it took several phases over several years to achieve this, with the most recent section completed in 2016.
The Riverwalk is broken up into distinct sections called “rooms.” According to the Chicago Architecture Center, “each room has a different design and purpose, accommodating diverse activities.” For example, The River Theater room between Clark and LaSalle streets has a vast staircase between the river and Upper Wacker Drive. The Riverwalk’s park-like atmosphere also features restaurants, boat rentals, fishing, and public art displays, such as a 170-foot-long ceramic mural by Chicago artist Ellen Lanyon.
Things to Do
There is much to do and see in the Loop, so try to squeeze in as much as possible on a tour from the Chicago Architecture Center. Try some of the best of Chicago’s restaurants at Revival Food Hall.