Day 476: The Most Glorious Buildings That Aren’t

originally published April 20, 2013

There’s something deeply magical about a skyscraper. It has the ability to transform the personality of a city, to allow its residents to survey their domain from within, and gives restaurants a reason to slowly revolve. When I was young, Edmonton used to have a 360-degree observation floor on the 33rd floor of the AGT Building, our tallest structure. Of course, that attraction has since been removed, and our city skyline has grown considerably (we now have a 35-floor building!), but my wonder at humankind’s vertical aspirations has never abated.

The Burj Khalifa is one of our species’ most exciting achievements. Taipei 101 is beauty in bulk. And my first trip up the sacred elevators of the Empire State Building in 2008 fulfilled a childhood dream on par with meeting Howard Hesseman or taking a ride in the General Lee.

But for each new monumental strike against our inherent vertigo, there are hundreds of grand schemes that never come to fruition. Today I’m looking at some of America’s skyline almosts.

If The Illinois had ever been built, it would have made the Burj Khalifa look like it had stunted its growth by smoking as a child. Proposed by the master of the organic and the horizontal line Frank Lloyd Wright in 1957, The Illinois would have towered a full mile above the Chicago soil beneath it. Wright believed that such a structure, with 76 elevators serving 528 floors, could be constructed using modern (now over 50-year-old) technology. Experts have combed through the possibilities and come to the conclusion that maybe – using today’s technology, mind you – this building could work. But probably not.

Steel starts to sway. Concrete, or specifically the newer concrete that came into use long after Wright’s death, is a possibility. Though the most intriguing part of Wright’s design might be the atomic-powered elevators, capable of moving a mile per minute. You’d better have a lid snugly over your coffee before you take that ride.

Can’t have an article about skyscrapers without Donald Trump’s name popping up at some point. In 1985, Trump had his sights set on a 152-story monster along the Hudson River just north of Midtown Manhattan. He wanted to call it Television City, and to lure NBC out of its musty old home in 30 Rockefeller Place to set down roots inside. Trump wanted a park. He wanted this massive structure to be surrounded by a handful of 70-story residential towers. The site was, when he bought it, a deserted rail yard, just aching for someone to build something spectacular on it.

But of course it wasn’t meant to be. Residents of the Upper West Side were not eager to bask in the shadow of a 1600-foot structure. They fought the development, Mayor Ed Koch fought the development as well, and Trump had to settle for his more modest Trump Place structure instead. Now that land is devoid of any significant attraction, unless you count the cat hospital around the corner.

Tucked between the perpetually unfinished Fontainebleau resort and the deceased Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas could have been the mighty Crown Las Vegas. Its peak would have eclipsed the already-built Stratosphere at the northern perch of the Strip. At 1888 feet, even the new World Trade Center in New York would have been the Crown’s tinier sibling. The Federal Aviation Administration stepped in and pooped all over the Crown party, stating that a structure that monstrous could not be built on land that was only 2.5 miles away from the runways at McCarran International Airport. A lesser version was proposed, topping out at just over 1000 feet, which would mean the Stratosphere would still be taller, but that’s just a tower – this would have been a fully operational 142-floor hotel.

The Crown fell victim to the same pesky downfall that has dragged its neighbor, the Fontainebleau, into abandonment: the damn financial crisis. The Crown was cancelled in 2008, and though there has been the occasional utterance that the project might come back to life, it doesn’t look like it ever will. In fact, the developer announced that they were walking away from the Crown specifically to focus on the Fontainebleau, a resort that has been frozen in midair for years now.

Over in the Vegas of the east, Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione had big plans to throw the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino into the populace of the Atlantic City skyline. Bob figured he could finance the thing from the profits from Caligula, his massive porn flick starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole and Helen Mirren. When the ticket returns weren’t all that great, Bob stayed optimistic, turning to investors. Then they ran into other problems.

First there was Vera Coking. She had lived in the same house for 25 years and didn’t want to sell, even for the million dollars Bob had offered. His gaming license was slowed down by the fact that Bob’s London casino was presently being checked out by Scotland Yard for allowing criminals to infest the joint. In a sting operation, an FBI informant tried to get Bob to bribe a gaming official for his license. Then Marjorie Lee Thoreson, the 1975 Penthouse Pet of the Year sued Bob and the company, claiming she had been whored out to woo potential investors. After a decade of lawsuits, the hotel was scrapped.

Once upon a time, a 2000-foot glass twist-tie was planned for the city of Chicago, a hotel/condo combination titan that would have dwarfed the rest of the skyline. Unlike Trump’s Manhattan tower, locals were all in favor of the Chicago Spire coming to life. In recent years, Chicago has pushed for taller, skinnier buildings so that views aren’t blocked and the city can continue to grow without necessarily resorting to an outward sprawl.

The loudest opponent to the Spire was, ironically, Trump himself. He felt the massive size would make the Spire a target for terrorism. Okay, maybe he’d changed his mind since the 9/11 attacks… except that he was also trying to get a superstructure built just a few blocks west of where the Spire was supposed to go. He was just trying to eliminate the competition.

After approval in March, 2007, ground was broken. This is what the Chicago Spire looks like today:

It was that damn recession again, killing off yet another grand project. By late 2008, the foundation had been laid for the giant building, but work was stopped. The architect hadn’t been paid, and there was no money left. The project was formally cancelled in 2010.

Initially, the building was supposed to be plopped down beside the proposed DuSable Park, a 3.24-acre patch of green in the city’s core. Even the park is just a barren thatch of ugly now, since they discovered the soil was contaminated with radioactive thorium from a nearby light bulb company.

I suppose it’s necessary for some grand plans to fail in order for others to achieve. But I’m looking eagerly forward to the end of this economic slump and a return to the spirit of building up to the clouds. Also, I heard Edmonton might be getting a 38-story tower soon. Progress is unstoppable!

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