Strange Angles: Haunted Chicago Architecture
“The skyscraper… has a soul.”
—Carl Sandburg, Chicago Poems
Chicago’s progressiveness has always been coupled with an awe of the spiritual, likely born of the fact that the city has always been caught between two great natural forces: Lake Michigan to the east and the seemingly endless Midwestern prairie to the west. These awesome presences have certainly inspired Chicagoans to make a mark here, to create a city as natural and as grand as the water and the grass. Chicago architects have been the most influential of the modern age, but their sensible designs have some strange stories to tell. In fact, some of the city’s most haunted places are the striking structures concocted by its most controversial designers, from those who built early on, in stone, to the contemporary members of Chicago’s most prestigious firms.
From Garbage to “Ghostbusters”: Streeterville & the Hancock Center
In urban areas around the world, architecture’s brilliant progress has been checked by many faults. For every successful design, there are ten that fail—aesthetically, financially, or environmentally. Most troublesome have been the so-called “sick buildings” that have caused everything from nausea and headaches to brain tumors and cancer, due to difficulties with exhaust and ventilation systems, mold growth, and other quirks. In Chicago, one of the most controversial buildings in this birthplace of skyscrapers is believed by Chicago paranormal experts to have a much more malicious quality. Since its completion in 1968, the John Hancock Center has been the site of multiple murders, suicides, and deadly “accidents.” Why? Windy City occultists are convinced that it is the very design of the place that causes its residents and workers to often take a turn for the worst.
The John Hancock Center was designed as a trapezoidal structure by its chief architect, Bruce Graham, under the counsel of Fazlur Khan, a structural engineer at the esteemed Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Khan proposed the shape as an economical way to combine larger office spaces on the lower floors with smaller apartment units on the upper levels. It wasn’t long before some Chicagoans began to question the “innocent” trapezoidal design as a poor one. Was the building’s form, in fact, the shape of things to come?
A little over three years after the Hancock’s completion, a twenty-nine-year-old Chicago woman named Lorraine Kowalski fell to her death from her boyfriend’s ninetieth-floor Hancock Center apartment. To this day, detectives are dumbfounded by the event; the building’s windows are capable of withstanding more than two hundred pounds of pressure per square foot and winds of more than 150 miles per hour, yet Kowalski actually broke through the glass. Four years later, a transmitter technician for a local radio station plunged to his death from the ninety-seventh-floor offices of his television station. Just three months later, a twenty-seven-year old tenant “fell” from his ninety-first-floor apartment while studying for an exam at breakfast. In 1978, a thirty-one-year-old woman shot a man to death in his home on the Hancock’s sixty-fifth floor, and in 1998, beloved comedian Chris Farley was found dead in the entrance hall of his sixtieth-floor apartment. Most recently, in March of 2002, a twenty-five-foot aluminum scaffold fell from the building’s forty-third floor, crushing three cars, killing three women, and injuring eight others. All of these incidents were called by detectives and journalists “baffling,” “inexplicable,” and “seemingly unmotivated.”
Many years before construction on the Hancock began, the area it would occupy was part of the most luxurious residential district in the city, the Gold Coast. This neighborhood, still known as Streeterville, was already thought to be a cursed tract of land. Cap Streeter was a ragtag former sea captain who made a living ferrying passengers between Chicago and Milwaukee on a beat up old schooner he owned with his wife. After the vessel literally washed up on the Chicago shore during a storm, Cap decided to settle down in the city for good. He staked claim to the very parcel of land on which he had run ashore: prime lakefront property much in demand by Chicago‘s first families. Cap found the land so lovely that he decided to share the beauty. He set up shop in the old Tremont Hotel, selling tracts of “his” land to willing buyers. Soon a legion of squatters peppered the lakefront, angering Chicago‘s elite and the city council that served them. When the city repeatedly tried to run off the trespassers, Cap and company responded with shotguns, batons and all manner of homemade weapons.
The battle over “Cap’s” land—which he called Streeterville—raged until the man’s dying hour… and beyond. On his deathbed, Cap cursed “his” land and swore that no one would ever be happy on it again. Then is the “Curse of Cap Streeter” the source of the Hancock’s problem?
Not likely. But it can’t help.
In 1930, a baby boy was born in his family’s posh home in the 800 block of Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue, the same block the Hancock would someday occupy. Musically gifted, Anton Szandor LaVey grew to enjoy a colorful career with many facets, playing in nightclubs and even taming lions for a time. On a spring night in the 1960s, LaVey brought some like-minded friends together, ceremoniously shaved his head, and founded what he called the “Church of Satan,” an institution that was part religion, part philosophy, and all based on his own extensive ideas about love, hate, pleasure, and will.When occultists like LaVey saw the plans for the Hancock revealed, they were devastated. The problem? Not necessarily one for the city itself, but for the residents and workers of the Hancock structure.
LaVey wrote many essays during his time as the satanic church’s leader, including fascinating analyses of the problems of modern architecture. LaVey knew—as most occultists do—that the trapezoidal shape holds significant power for arcane forces: traditionally, the shape is believed to serve as a doorway or “portal” for occult—or even diabolical—forces. As a young man, LaVey was fascinated with the thought of H.P. Lovecraft, whose horror novels often feature characters grappling with the dangers of “strange angles,” and it was Lovecraft’s work which led LaVey to first pursue his study of modern architecture’s sometimes deadly capabilities.
The Hancock Center offers both apartments and offices, and all of the apartments are on the outer edge of the structure, wrapping around the outside as in any other such building. Unfortunately, in the Hancock, every one of these apartments has, due to the trapezoidal structure of the building, an outer wall that is “off-kilter” because it does not rise at 90 degrees. Many—LaVey among them—have believed that these “strange angles” have caused residents of the Hancock to behave in strange and deadly ways, and that the superhuman strength of those who have forced themselves or others through the building’s seemingly impenetrable windows were calling on a ready supply of supernatural energy in the Hancock itself: energy coming through the “portal” of its trapezoidal structure.
Students of popular culture will want to note three intriguing legends about the Hancock. First, the structure’s legend reportedly inspired Harold Ramis’ Hollywood dream of a diabolical building: the centerpiece of his film Ghostbusters. Second, the late Heather O’Rourke, myth-shrouded star of the Poltergeist films, reportedly took a turn for the worst after a final publicity plug… held in one of the Hancock’s studios. Third, a number of controversial or distressed personalities have called the Hancock home, among them, talk show host Jerry Springer, Catholic priest and controversial novelist Andrew Greeley, and—as mentioned—comedian Chris Farley, whose time in the building was riddled with drug and alcohol abuse, the eventual cause of his death.
Bruce Graham was not the first Chicago engineer to see death enter into one of his designs. Generations before, the enduringly popular Frank Lloyd Wright completed Taliesin, his country bungalow home in Spring Green, Wisconsin—a couple of hundred miles northwest of Chicago on the Wisconsin River.
In the summer of 1914, while Wright was away on business in Chicago, Wright’s cook sat the family down to lunch, locked all the doors and windows, set fire to the house, and, with a hatchet, murdered six people in the dining room and the screened porch, including Wright’s mistress, Mamah Cheney, and her two small children. The photo below is believed to show Wright, the man on the left, surveying the damage from the fire after the murders.
Today, Taliesin is a main feature of Spring Green’s tourism industry, but the kindly and passionate guides of Wright’s masterpiece won’t talk about the ghosts that remain after the horrifying events of 1914. Visitors, though, have often smelled the scent of gasoline or smoke in the dining room and sunporch, and occasionally a ghost hunter will illicitly snap a photo which reveals strange patterns of light or misty formations. Children visiting the gorgeous bungalow, too, will sometimes tell of seeing other children in all areas of the house and outside in the garden always described as “wearing funny clothes.”
The Stone Tape
In the nineteenth century, when Chicago was burgeoning, no stone was more appealing than our local limestone. Hailing from the region just southwest of the city, Lemont (or Joliet) limestone became one of the most desirable building materials in the nation; its buttery yellow hue and softness of appearance joined with a stability that made the stone irresistible to many builders in Chicago, including architects who designed some of Chicago’s most recognizable—and haunted—structures.
On the north side of the city, the Ravenswood Avenue gate of Rosehill Cemetery, designed in limestone by architect W.W. Boyington, is said to be haunted by Boyington’s granddaughter, Philomena, who loved to play at the construction site during her short life, cut down by childhood illness. On the south side, the sturdy, limestone Church of St. James-Sag Bridge marks the southernmost point of Chicago’s Archer Avenue, one of the most haunted roadways in the world… and the burial site of many Irish immigrant workers who, during the mid-nineteenth century, died along the building route of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. Downtown, Holy Name Cathedral, seat of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, is a limestone beauty—marred only by several bullet holes in the cornerstone that remain from the 1926 shooting of North Side Mob leader, Hymie Weiss. Despite repeated efforts of cathedral staff to plug the holes with fresh mortar, the plugs refuse to stick, and mysterious photographs of ghostly orbs at the cornerstone seem to support a paranormal dimension of the site‘s notoriety.
Doubtless, the most iconic of Chicago’s Lemont limestone structures is the Chicago Water Tower, enduring emblem of the city and, indeed, one of the only structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The fire swept Chicago on the night of October 8, hastened by high winds and fueled by kindling from the bone-dry prairie that hadn‘t seen rain for weeks. More than eighteen thousand buildings were destroyed by the inferno, leveling the city and making way for Chicago’s progressive city planners to lay out the 1909 Plan of Chicago: the grid system that made Chicago one of the most sensible cities ever constructed, along with the miles of open public lakefront that made it one of the most beautiful.
And beautiful it is. Today, the Water Tower holds its own along the Magnificent Mile, the glamorous stretch of Michigan Avenue which each year draws millions of shoppers and sightseers from all over the world. In the midst of the glitz, the Tower is a reminder of all that was lost in the fall of 1871… and all that survives. Since the rebuilding of the Near North Side, passersby have frequently glimpsed the apparition of a man hanging in one of the windows of the Chicago Water Tower. Paranormal researchers in Chicago are uncertain about the origin of the apparition, but it’s likely that the phenomenon stems from the days after the fire itself, when Chicagoans lived under martial law. In the wake of the fire, looting and further burning became the order of the day, inspiring a curfew and a decree that anyone who did not answer to police should be shot—or hanged—immediately.
Since 1871, historians, journalists, and others invested in Chicago’s history have been confounded by the lack of historical documentation before the year of the fire. In fact, almost all of the city’s historical records—public and private—were destroyed that October. Some of the first historical records we have are letters written to family and friends in other parts of the country—or overseas—by distraught Chicagoans sending word of survival and death to their loved ones. Though the “official” history of the city denies it, we know from these letters, today nestled safely with the Chicago Historical Society, that many Chicagoans were shot and hanged in accordance with the temporary orders in place immediately after the fire. It seems likely that any ghosts at the event’s signature structure must certainly be tied to the chaos of those days, and it may be that the building’s handsome limestone itself helps to harbor the memories—or something else.
According to Southwest Side legend, early immigrants without families to care for their remains—including a number of the Irish Illinois and Michigan Canal workers—were cremated rather than buried. Where were the ashes disposed of in the Lemont quarries.
Despite the staying power of Holy Name Cathedral, the gate of Rosehill Cemetery, and the Chicago Water Tower, the city’s architectural—and supernatural—renown reaches far beyond these early stone structures. The Chicago School of architecture was a movement which introduced to architecture steel-frame construction and the use of glass walls. This revolutionary method allowed the creation of much taller—yet more beautiful—buildings. Chicago’s Home Insurance Building (1885) was the first to utilize this design, and it wasn’t long before Chicago architect Louis Sullivan ran with the concept, realizing the economy of space—and real estate—that the skyscraper would mean. The Chicago School won over many early architects, and Chicago’s Loop still shines with their beautiful structures, which remain some of the most inhabitable and defining of the city. The Monadnock, the Marquette, the Board of Trade—these pioneer skyscrapers paved the way for the Amoco Building, the diamond-topped headquarters of Stone Container Corporation, and of course, the Sears (now Willis) Tower, all key players in Chicago’s peerless skyline. But, while at times stunningly beautiful, some of these more modern structures have proved more literally breathtaking.
Ghosts of Marina City
While hosting a ghost tour for the Chicago History Museum, I was once again approached by a young woman who works near Marina City, the twin “corncobs” on Chicago’s riverfront which have been an unmistakable part of the city since their completion in 1962. Like many who live or work in or near the complex, which includes hundreds of apartments, a rather unnerving parking garage, and the House of Blues music hall, the passenger on my tour wanted to know, “What’s up with Marina City?” By her question, she was referring to the endless stream of reports of apparitions, shadow people, malfunctioning electronics, icy drafts, and feelings of depression or oppression which have plagued residents for decades–but only in the East Tower. Why the prevalence of phenomena . . . and why only in one of the buildings?
A visit to the Chicago Tribune Archives offers some chilling possibilities.
During construction of the towers, in 1961, three workers were killed when a scaffold plummeted a full 43 stories. That same year, six men were badly injured when a workers’ elevator plummeted; a seventh was injured trying to help them. The next year, in 1962, worker William Jones was stricken by a dizzy spell while working on a scaffold at the 40th floor. He plunged to his death on the State Street Bridge below.
Accidents at the construction site were joined by a long string of dark deaths between 1966 and 1976. In August of 1966, Roy Holland, a real estate developer, was found to have been dead for three weeks when his body–and three suicide notes–were discovered in his 48th floor apartment. In May of 1967, 39-year-old June Fleck lept from her fiance’s 50th floor apartment shortly before they planned to marry. In January of 1969, a retired government worker shot his 88-year old mother and then turned the gun on himself in their 46th floor aparartment. In June of 1973, 42- year old Sandra Easton, a computer programmer, lept to her death from her 52nd floor apartment, crashing through the canvas roof of the complex’s ice rink (today the site of Smith & Wollensky restaurant). Just two years earlier, Easton had been saved from an earlier attempt to jump. In 1972, 25-year-old Gloria Kirpatrick, 39th floor resident and manager of the Marina City Theater (now the House of Blues) was stabbed to death outside the building. In January of 1976, 25-year-old Kenneth Parvin fell to his death from a 57th floor apartment, landing between the two towers on Marina City Drive. Whether the death was accidental or intentional, or the result of foul play, was not known. Two more suicides occurred, these in the west tower, in 2009 and 2012.
Paranormal theorists might be tempted to blame the architecture of the towers as a possible reason behind the dark actions of numerous residents here. Marina City apartments contain almost no interior right angles. The residential floors consist of a circular hallway wrapped around the elevator core, with 16 wedge-shaped apartments arranged around the hallway. Each wedge is trimmed with a semi-circular balcony outside a glass wall. Architect Bertrand Goldberg explained during construction that the design of each tower was meant to provide a widening vista to residents as they entered their apartments. From the small entrance, at the narrowest part of the wedge, the apartments would open up to the wide glass wall and even wider balcony, offering the city and the lake outside–like living in a “treehouse” was how the architect described it. Could it be that this well-meant design has actually inspired some residents to take the widening vistas one step further? Could the contrast between the tiny apartment and the wide open space outside have caused an impulse for escape in more than one tenant?
Why, too, did the earlier incidents occur in only the East tower? Could it be because of the open vista to the Lake before later years? Was there something about that openness that inspired rash decisions? Though the jury may always be out on the answer, the established truth remains that the residue of these events–and their unfortunate victims–continue to make their home in their mysterious digs at 300 North State Street.
The Architects’ Rest
While death has not visited the structures of all of Chicago’s great architects, many of these artists have passed over to meet it. An extraordinary gathering of them can be found in Graceland Cemetery, one of the city’s loveliest. Here lies
William LeBaron Jenney, inventor of the steel skeleton frame and, hence, the first skyscraper. With him, Daniel Burnham, pictured here, designer of the Columbian Exposition’s “White City” and the Plan of Chicago. Burnham is buried on a little island of Lake Willowmere at Graceland, reachable by a footbridge.
Louis Sullivan is here, too, his gravestone decorated with lacy metalwork reminiscent of Sullivan’s own gorgeous work; nearby rests Richard Nickel, the famed architect “groupie” and photographer who was killed while trying to rescue pieces of Sullivan’s work during the demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange building. The list goes on and on to include some of the most prominent contemporary architects: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and the Hancock‘s structural engineer, Fazlur Khan.
While few traditional ghost stories survive at Graceland, Chicago ghost hunters are convinced that something does: this ossuary is one of the most frequented by area investigators. One of their points of pilgrimage is a foreboding monument over the grave of hotel owner Dexter Graves. The bronze statue—named “Eternal Silence” by Lorado Taft, its sculptor—was long ago nicknamed “The Statue of Death” by Chicagoans. According to legend, a look into the eyes of the hooded, shadowy face will reward the viewer with a glimpse of his own demise.
Though ghost hunters don’t usually come here for a premonition of death, they do take many photos of “Death” because of the orbs and other phenomena that favor the monument, and of the underground tomb of Ludwig Wolff, said to be guarded by Wolff’s green-eyed phantom hound.
Feeling depressed by architecture? Don’t be. In the South Loop slumbers the striking but peaceful home of the John Glessner family, one of Chicago’s most prominent, Victorian-era clans. The house was designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson, one of the city’s most beloved designers, and this would be his final commission.
After Richardson’s passing, the Glessner family believed—as many still do—that the architect loved this last structure so much that he returned here after death… and remains. From time to time, visitors to Glessner House, pictured here (now a popular museum in the storied Prairie Avenue District), will encounter a kindly man in its hallways who speaks with great authority and love of the noble home: its careful planning, its architect’s struggles to perfect it, its completion at last. When these same visitors comment to the site manager on the friendliness and knowledge of the guide in the hall, the museum staff simply smiles.