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How tall is too tall for Evanston?

Plans for a 49-story condo tower on the Fountain Square block downtown have brought out a chorus of critics who say the tower would be too tall for Evanston.

City hall, circa 1896

Evanston’s twin-towered city hall, pictured about 1896. The building was on the northwest corner of Sherman Avenue and Davis Street, where the Sherman Plaza condo tower is today.

That, of course is an opinion, not really subject to proof.

But it got me wondering about how the height of buildings in Evanston has compared over time to the height of buildings elsewhere.

And what better point of comparison than Chicago, our giant neighbor to the south — which often has set a standard for building height in America.

After doing some digging around on the construction database web site Emporis.com, I’ve concluded that when Evanston buildings have risen to a new height, it tends to be about one-fourth the height of the tallest buildings constructed in Chicago around the same time.

Look at the 1890s. Evanston’s City Hall, with its two four-story towers, seems to have been the tallest building here. And Chicago was breaking records with Sullivan and Adler’s 17-story Auditorium Building.

Carlson Building 

The Carlson Building, an Evanston Landmark today.

The 1920s saw much taller buildings in Evanston — including the 10-story Orrington Hotel, the nine-story Carlson Building, the nine-story Georgian Hotel and the eight-story Library Plaza.

The 10 tallest buildings in Chicago built during the 1920s boom included landmarks like the Palmolive Building and the Civic Opera Building. The 10 ranged from 23 to 45 stories and from 474 to 568 feet tall. They averaged about 37 stories — about four times the height of Evanston’s tallest buildings from the same era. 

Evanston set a new suburban height record in 1969 with completion of the 22-story, 277-foot-tall Chase Bank Building. That same year the John Hancock Tower became Chicago’s tallest at 1,127 feet — four times as tall as the one in Evanston.

So, with work on the 2,000-foot tall Chicago Spire designed by Santiago Calatrava underway 12 miles south of Fountain Square, the 523-foot tall, 49-story condo tower proposed for the Fountain Square block sticks pretty close to the historic relationship of building heights in Evanston to what’s going up in our neighbor to the south.

Of course, we don’t have to slavishly follow what’s happening in Chicago. But history can provide a guide to our town’s traditional relationship to building trends elsewhere.

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