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.

Carlson Building rendering

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.

Carlson Building today

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.

Ordinance introduced
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.”

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

Join the Conversation


  1. Great history lesson, Bill…
    Can you track down a similar timeline for the stumpy Optima project?

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana, poet & philosopher.

  2. Here’s a reason not to build more right now.
    Did you see the oversupply forecast by the Tribune today?

    You should probably check it out before you decide more condos is a good idea.

    If you’re still not convinced, I have some sub-prime Mortgage Securities to sell you.

    – Calin Day

    1. No thanks on the mortgage securities
      Hi Calin,
      I’ll take a pass on your mortgage securities offer.
      Did you notice that the Trib story was talking about the downtown Chicago market, not Evanston?
      The Q1 condo sales numbers for Evanston, which Evanston Now reported here, while pretty grim — down 59 percent — are not as bad as the 83 percent drop the Trib reported for downtown Chicago.
      If I get a chance, I’ll try to dig up numbers for the number of units expected to come on the market soon in Evanston — that’s the other data point needed to do a full comparison of the situation here with that in downtown Chicago.
      — Bill

      1. No more Condos or Securities – I’m full for now, thanks.
        Hi Phillip & Bill,

        Here’s my view on why it’s not a good idea – right now. Mind you, it’s an opinion, and should be construed as such.

        To answer Bill’s question, – Yes, I know that the forecast was for Chicago, not Evanston. But if Chicago can’t sell their high rise condos, could we reasonably expect the same?

        I for one wouldn’t invest heavily in real estate right now. They’ve compared it to the Great Depression on several news sites. That’s pretty bad if you ask me. My friend works for a firm who might go out of business because of the securities problem.

        To Phillip’s question, “Why is it a bad idea to develop empty condos?”

        I ask you this, Phillip, “Do you own a condo?”

        If you don’t own or live in a condo, you should consider my view. I own and live in my 2 bedroom condo here in Evanston.

        Simple supply and demand says that if someone can easily buy a condo because of an oversaturated market, it lowers the value of those around it. If something is in high demand, but hard to get, available products worth more, not less. (See Gasoline, as an extreme example.)

        There is a fine line between keeping the demand, and prices, high enough to keep equity and profit margins for everyone within a reasonable percentage, and over saturating a market to the point where no one turns a profit at all and your place is worth less than you bought it for.

        I’m not greedy, nor looking to sell my condo right now, but I would like to see it increase around 7-10% per year, and an over saturated market doesn’t help that happen.

        I don’t know as much as I should about the development project, but I ask you this: “Is it true the developer wants to use a good amount of city money to fund it, and is it true the city could see more benefit from it than what is proposed?”

        Based on what I’ve read so far, the answer is yes to both of those questions.

        There’s more at stake here than just “building a high rise with condos.”

        I’m not against high rises. I’m a realist. If it doesn’t make reasonable sense, or if it’s a real or perceived detriment to most, why do it? Just because you can build it doesn’t always mean you should.

        Besides, “What’s the rush?” It’s not like the land they want to build a high rise on is going anywhere. Sounds like they want to build and run, if you ask me.

        1. Re: Condos
          Thanks for the response, and I can certianly appreciate your opinion and view.
          To answer your question, I own (and live in) a condo in downtown Evanston. My building is not new, and does not have many of the amenities that the new construction buildings have, yet I have still seen my property value increase by large margins over the last 5 years while hundreds of new units have been built nearby. Some of that increase is attributable to the housing market, but if you look at other areas, they haven’t seen the kinds of property value increases that we have.

          I think there is more to this discussion than a simple “supply and demand” lesson. Additional condo development has, and is continuing to bring additional restaurants, retail, services, etc. These benefits have made Evanston even more popular to the demographics that seek condos.

          I too am interested in maximizing my investment in my condo. I have spent lots of time and money upgrading it over the last few years to try and keep it competitive with newer condos coming on the market. While I worry that when I sell, buyers might find a new building more attractive (and judging by sales prices, they certainly do) I am not willing to suggest that future condo development in Evanston should be stopped so that my unit remains competitive.

          Developers have reams of data and market studies done before proposing residential developments. They carefully weigh the risks and rewards associated with sales times, market saturation, potential future growth and so on. The fact that so many developers look at all this data, combined with a slow housing market, and still want to build condos here gives me some comfort that my condo will hold it’s value just fine.

    2. Why would it not be a good idea again?
      I’ve asked this question several times on this board and never really got an answer. How is it bad for the city and residents again if a developer builds a condo building and then has to sell the units at a loss? Why is the profit margin of a condo project something that I, an Evanston resident, should even care about? Isn’t it the developers money, and the developers problem, if these units can’t be sold at market price and have to be auctioned off for less? It seems to me that all the risk is on the developer, and none of it on the residents or city… yet the poor housing market is constantly used as a reason to deny developers approval on proposed buildings.

      Please, point to empty or even partially unsold condo buildings that have been built in Evanston and how those have hurt the city, if that is going to be part of your answer.

  3. Go ahead, make my day

    I would be happy if a developer proposed and built an attractive 15-story tower in the fountain square block, rather than a 38-story albatross.


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