As the debate goes on over how tall the Fountain Square tower should be — or whether it should be built at all — few now recall the debate in 1925 over a plan for a 15-story tower just across the street.
It was a boom time in Evanston like none seen before or since, with the city’s population increasing by 70 percent during the decade.
Developer Victor C. Carlson had just completed the Library Plaza hotel on the east side of Orrington Avenue just south of Church Street and the Hotel Orrington on the next block north.
At the intersection of Davis and Hinman, Carlson was building the John Evans Apartments on the northwest corner and another development team had announced plans for the Georgian Hotel on the southeast corner.
Carlson, relying on a provision in the city’s 1921 zoning code, designed plans for a building on the southeast corner of Orrington and Church with a seven-story base built to the lot line topped by an eight-story central tower that would have made it by far the tallest building in town.
He argued the building should be considered an extension of the Library Plaza, and that calculated that way the tower was allowed under the existing zoning.
He said the tall new building would provide offices for the city’s doctors and dentists that would let them concentrate on their vital work above the noise and dust of the street below.
But in a late-night meeting the City Council rewrote the zoning code to say that towers could be used only for ornamental purposes or for mechanical systems — they couldn’t be rented out. That dashed Carlson’s plan and led to the Carlson Building we know today with its vestigial tower.
It also foreshadowed more recent controversies that have led to new downtown buildings shorter, and squatter, than originally proposed.
Despite the controversy at the time, the Carlson Building in the 1970s was designated an Evanston landmark and is now a stop on the new Evanston Downtown tour of the Chicago Architecture Foundation.
Here’s the story of the crucial June 16, 1925, City Council vote as reported in the next day’s Evanston News-Index:
City council bans Carlson’s tower
Puts damper on proposed skyscraper
In a strenuous midnight session the city council last night killed Victor C. Carlson’s plan for a tenanted tower on the addition he is building to the Library Plaza hotel by the passage of a special amendment to the zoning ordinance.
The introduction of the zoning amendment resulted in a lively skirmish between Alderman Don A. Jones, chairman of the zoning committee, supported by Aldermen William H. Knapp and C.E. Gayton, who favored the bill and Aldermen Edward L. Kappelman and Peter N. Jans who opposed it by attempting to block the introduction of the bill.
The opening gun was fired when Alderman Jones asked for suspension of the rules for the purpose of passing the amendment which would change the definition of the word tower so that it would read “And may have a height of not more than 1 1/2 times the minimum horizontal width of the
base and may not be used for tenant purposes,” in place of the way it now reads “and have a minimum height of 1 1/2 times the width of the base and may be used for tenant purposes.”
The reason he gave for the change was the conflict between the building code and the zoning ordinance.
Alderman Jans asked him if a permit had been asked for which would come under this provision, and was told he did not know.
Alderman Kappelman asked why the ordinance was kept as it was since 1921 and not changed until someone had gone to all the expense of making plans and beginning operations on the assumption that the ordinance was correct.
Only an ordinance
“The original zoning commission,” replied Alderman Knapp, “considered a tower as an ornament. That was the only purpose for allowing a tower. This gentleman (referring to Mr. Carlson) tried the same thing before, when he was forced to limit the tower on the Orrington hotel. If this goes through it will be the first step toward a city of 15 story
The motion for the suspension of the rules was then carried with Alderman Kappelman and Jans voting “no.”
Kappelman rose to a point of order and said the amendment of an ordinance could not be voted on at the same meeting it was presented except by unanimous vote.
Jones claimed it was introduced on May 5. It was looked up and found that it had been presented, and Mayor Bartlett, despite protests, ruled that the ordinance was in order. It was passed 10 to 2, Alderman Jans and Kappelman voting no. Alderman Tripp was absent, and Alderman Hardy had left before the vote was taken.
To Abide by Decision
In commenting upon the action of the council, Mr. Carlson this morning said, “Naturally I will abide by the decision of the council. The building will go up but the tower will only be two stories high, and for ornamental purposes only.”