Chicago-pedia: Buildings

An encyclopedia of the terms that define our city. In this edition, we cover some of Chicago’s most iconic buildings.

Willis Tower, Chicago, IL

Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower.


Some call it “Chicago-ese,” or “Chicago-speak.” Whatever you call it, we’re capturing it here, in Chicago-pedia — highlighting our local terminology and linguistic quirks (sometimes with humor and obvious exaggeration).

WILLIS TOWER: What nobody — except overseas tourists — calls the building formerly known as the Sears Tower, once the tallest building in the world.

THE HANCOCK: What everybody still calls the iconic high-rise formerly known as the John Hancock Center, the 100-story behemoth that anchors the north end of the Magnificent Mile and now technically goes by its address, 875 North Michigan Avenue. Some also know it by an old nickname, “Big John.”

Chicago Stadium.

Chicago Stadium.

Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

MADHOUSE ON MADISON: Nickname for the old Chicago Stadium at 1800 W. Madison St. Built by promoter Paddy Harmon in 1929, the Old Barn was the loud longtime home of the Blackhawks and, later, the Bulls. It hosted Democratic and GOP conventions, title fights, rodeos, an indoor pro football title game and Mayor Anton Cermak’s funeral. Graced by Bobby Hull, MJ, Sinatra, the Stones, Led Zeppelin and a legendary Barton organ. Featured sprawling fire escapes, low balcony ceilings and, legend has it, ghosts in the lower levels. Torn down in 1995. Replaced by the United Center, which has embraced the Madhouse nickname.

NORTH WESTERN STATION: Former name, still used by many, for the downtown railroad hub and station located in the lower part of Helmut Jahn’s glass-and-steel high-rise at Madison and Canal. The station was renamed in 1997 in honor of a former governor and railroad supporter. But trying to quickly tell a cabbie, “Please take me to the Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center,” could make you miss your train — though there is a bar there if you do.


North Western Station.

Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

THE POST OFFICE: Massive limestone building best known for swallowing up inbound traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway as it reaches downtown. Built in 1921 — with additions in 1932 — the old Main Post Office was once the world’s largest mail facility. It was built with a two-story hole at the bottom for a planned expressway, which was finally built decades later. Abandoned for a younger, sleeker building in 1996, it’s been talked about ever since for new tenants and development, which is finally being realized.

THE PROJECTS: Sprawling, sometimes-towering public-housing developments that once helped sadly define Chicago’s landscape, many torn down under Mayor Richard M. Daley, with the poor offered Section 8 rent vouchers instead.



Susan Smith/For the Sun-Times

TWO-FLAT: A residential two-story building with a common front entrance and separate residences on each floor. One floor is often reserved, reluctantly, for the mother-in-law. Common source of extra income/aggravation for Chicagoans. Similar to three-flat.

STROGER HOSPITAL: The Near West Side hospital that treats scores of gunshot victims every year, sometimes serving as a training facility for military field medics who need hands-on experience with traumatic injuries.

26TH AND CAL: Shorthand for Cook County’s imposing criminal courthouse at the corner of 26th Street and California Avenue on the Southwest Side.

CHICAGO BUNGALOW: A hearty place to live and raise a family. Brick with stone trim, rectangular and narrow to fit a city lot, it’s one story with wide overhangs, a low-pitched roof, full basement, centered attic windows, a front room (pronounced “frunch room”) and usually an off-center porch with concrete steps. Eighty thousand to 100,000 Chicago bungalows were built between 1910 and 1940. Bungalow derives from the Bengal region of Asia, where a “bangla” referred to a structure with a common family space and smaller sleeping rooms.

GANGWAYS: 1. Often-narrow walkways between two-flats and other apartment buildings.

2. Places where muggers hide and cops are loath to go while chasing suspects.

3. Wrigleyville public bathrooms.

GIVINS CASTLE: Built in the 1880s, the only honest-to-goodness castle within city limits sits in Irish-heavy Beverly on the Far Southwest Side at 103rd and Seeley.

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