ARCHIVES / Chicago 2007


“Crossroads of the Nation,” anonymous, c.1946.

Chicago:  It’s Your Kind of Town!

The Windy City, Chi-town, Second City, That Toddlin’ Town – whatever you call it, most SAA members know a few things about Chicago. You’re aware of the high points of what Chicago offers today—including our great music, architecture, and food. You also know about certain notorious aspects of our history, such as the Fire, Haymarket, Al Capone, and the 1968 Democratic Convention. To fill in the gaps as we welcome you to Chicago in August 2007, here’s an eclectic assemblage of information about events and people that have made this city our Sweet Home Chicago.


While the first Europeans explored the area that would become Chicago in 1673, things really didn’t get started until the arrival of Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, an African-American born in Haiti. He built the first permanent settlement on the north bank of the Chicago River in 1779, and his home saw three Chicago firsts: the first wedding ceremony, the first election, and the first court trial.

Although we know that the name “Chicago” derives from a local Native-American word, the definition is unclear. Could be that the name comes from the word for wild onion or skunk; could be that it means “strong” or “great.” Whatever the name’s origin, the swampy settlement attracted a flood of new residents, and in 1837 Chicago was incorporated as a city with a population of 4,170.

Buildings and Architecture

Chicago has its share of great architecture, thanks to Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and other visionaries. The building boom after the 1871 Great Chicago Fire included the world’s first skyscraper in 1885… all 9 stories of it. Although miniscule by today’s standards, the structure developed by architect William Le Baron Jenney – with the steel frame supporting the weight of the walls – made possible the construction of ever-taller buildings as the decades passed. 

The Marshall Field building on State Street, which opened in 1907, was then the largest department store in the world. The historic structure still stands, but its role as a symbol of Chicago has diminished; it’s now called Macy’s. When the Sears Towers was finished in 1973, it was the tallest building in the world—at 1,450 feet and 110 stories—a title it held until 1996 (it’s currently in third place worldwide). More Chicago architectural trivia:  The sparkling-white Wrigley Building became the nation’s first air-conditioned office building in 1946; the exterior walls of the Tribune Tower across the street are embedded with fragments from the Taj Mahal, Westminster Abbey, and the Arc de Triomphe.


Two important transportation projects were vital to Chicago’s growth: the railway and the canal. In 1836, the first railway was chartered – the Galena & Chicago Union – but the first locomotive didn’t arrive until 1848. After the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, also finished in 1848 at a cost of more than $6 million, the city’s population tripled.

Chicago’s elevated train line, affectionately known as the “el,” first opened in 1892; the “Loop” section, circling the downtown area, was finished in 1897. Ongoing expansions include the new Pink Line in 2006. With the el, the bus system, and the Metra rail line, you can now get just about anywhere in the city and suburbs via public transportation.


Chicago is famously a city of politics, from labor strikes to mayoral legacies. In 1860, Chicago hosted its first national political convention. On the third day of the Republican National Convention, held in a new building at Lake and Market Streets called the “Wigwam,” the nomination went to Illinois’ Abraham Lincoln. Chicago’s history of machine politics is reflected in the half-jesting advice to “vote early and often.” Although Chicago elected its first female mayor, Jane Byrne, in 1979, and its first African-American mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983, much of recent mayoral history is tied to the Daley family. Richard J. Daley served from 1955 to 1976; the current mayor, his son Richard M. Daley, was elected in 1989. Among Chicago’s many campaigners for social and labor reform was Jane Addams, whose Hull House settlement is now a national historic landmark owned by the University of Illinois at Chicago.


Chicago has long been a desirable tourist destination. Architect Daniel Burnham transformed Jackson Park into the White City for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which attracted more than 27 million visitors in six months. (For more, read Erik Larson’s best-selling Devil in the White City.) Traces of the Columbian Exposition still remain. Even more visitors came to Chicago in 1933-34 for the Century of Progress, an international fair highlighting the advance of civilization. In 1959, during the Chicago International Trade Fair which celebrated the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visited the city on their yacht. Today’s visitors come for the revitalized 3,000-foot Navy Pier, the green spaces and sculpture of Millennium Park, as well as for museums, theater, and music.


Although Chicago boasts many sports teams—Bears, Bulls, and other animals—baseball has a special place in our history, with a traditional and “friendly” rivalry between Cubs and White Sox fans. The teams have met only once in the World Series:  The Sox beat the Cubs in six games back in 1906. Comiskey Park, home to the White Sox for 80 years, opened in 1910 and hosted the first All Star Game in 1933.  A new stadium was built in 1991 and renamed US Cellular Field in 2003. Weeghman Park, built in 1914, was renamed Wrigley Field in 1926; its famous ivy outfield wall was planted in 1937. And there’s that legendary goat-related curse. . .


Chicago has a wealth of museums, from the city’s oldest cultural institution, the Chicago History Museum (formerly known as the Chicago Historical Society), to the new Tribune McCormick Freedom Museum. The city demonstrated its commitment to culture when it moved Lake Shore Drive to create a Museum Campus uniting three attractions--the Field Museum of Natural History, the Adler Planetarium (the first in the western hemisphere), and the Shedd Aquarium. Chicago’s diverse culture is reflected in the Mexican Fine Arts Center, the DuSable Museum of African-American History, and the Spertus Museum, among many others.


Long before Ferris Bueller took his day off here, Chicago has provided entertainment of all kinds. The word “jazz” was coined here in 1914, and by the 1920s Chicago was a center for jazz and blues (putting the “sweet home” in Chicago). Gospel is also strongly identified with Chicago. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra began in 1890. Chicago has long been a theater town as well. The Chicago Theatre, built in 1921 as one of the city’s many ornate movie palaces, was saved from the wrecking ball in the 1980s when it was declared a historic landmark and renovated. Its marquee is a duplicate; the original was given to the Smithsonian. Other downtown theaters are experiencing a revival, and small neighborhood theaters often send plays and actors to Broadway. The Second City improv troupe began in 1959 and counts among its alumni comedians such as Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, and Stephen Colbert.


The rich diversity of Chicago’s population is reflected in neighborhoods that retain vestiges of original immigration patterns. These heritages are manifested in street names, restaurants, and corner stores, and are documented in local historical societies. Traces of early German, Polish, Scandinavian, and Irish settlement survive in many neighborhoods across the city. Italian influences are felt on the near south and west sides; Greektown and Chinatown are long-established neighborhoods just outside the Loop. More recently, immigrants from Vietnam and Korea have settled farther north. The Pilsen neighborhood, originally settled by Czechs, is now home to the Mexican Fine Arts Center, reflecting its new population. On the far north side, Devon Avenue, formerly a predominantly Jewish area, is now lined with stores and restaurants run by and for residents from the Indian sub-continent. African-Americans from the South began migrating to Chicago in large numbers between the World Wars, settling in the South Side area that became known as Bronzeville.

Welcome Home!

We’ve barely skimmed the surface of information about Chicago (for example, we didn’t mention our rich literary history, from Richard Wright to Saul Bellow to Scott Turow, or discuss Chicago’s suburbs, each with its own vibrant history), but you get the idea—with this long (by Midwestern standards) and colorful history behind us, Chicago has something for everyone. So come and join us this August and indulge your taste for food, culture, sports, fun, and history. To mix musical metaphors, we hope you’ll find that our Sweet Home Chicago is your kind of town, too!

-- ARCHIVES / CHICAGO 2007 Host Committee

SAA Thanks the ARCHIVES / CHICAGO 2007 Host Committee Members for Their Hard Work and Enthusiasm!

Janet Olson (Chair)
Northwestern University

Maija Anderson
University of Chicago

Doug Bicknese
NARA-Great Lakes                                     

Martha Briggs
Newberry Library

Michael Bullington
McDonald’s Corporation

Tammy Hampton
Vivian Harsh Collection, Chicago Public Library

Valerie Harris
University of Illinois at Chicago

Don Jackanicz
NARA-Great Lakes

Kathy Koch
American Association of Nurse Anesthetists

Heidi Marshall
Columbia College

Leigh Moran
Chicago History Museum

Peggy O’Toole
Archdiocese of Chicago Archives & Records Center

Bart Ryckbosch
Art Institute of Chicago

Heather Stecklein
Rush University Medical Center