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Street Lighting State Street, Chicago

Historically-styled lighting helps
make State Street stately again

Bustling crowds and twinkling lights once characterized Chicago’s State Street, considered the city’s shopping mecca during the 1920s and ‘30s. In recent decades, however, the area’s physical decline had sent customers scurrying to the more posh shops of North Michigan Avenue and the variety offered by the burgeoning suburban shopping malls.

After several intermittent makeovers, a nine-block area of State Street has undergone a visual transformation that has turned the street into an inviting public square reminiscent of its former days of glory.

The renovation involved the installation of handsomely crafted kiosks and subway entrances and bronze plaques inserted into the alternating reddish and gray sidewalks as part of a self-guided tour of area architectural landmarks. Eight-foot planters containing colorful shrubs, honey locust, ash and pear trees now dot the side of the street. And even the tree grates and air vents have been designed to harmonize with their historic surroundings.

Probably the most visual aspect of the $25 million renovation is the historically-styled lampposts and double-headed lighting fixtures that line the sidewalks in the mile-long stretch between Wacker Drive and Congress Parkway. The tavern green lampposts are steel and iron replicas of the ones designed specifically for the street by Chicago architects Graham, Anderson, Probst and White in 1926. They are 30 feet high and adorned with ornamental acanthus leaves and the distinctive “Y” symbol that became the hallmark of Chicago’s infrastructure early in the 20th century, representing the confluence of the north and south branches of the Chicago River.

Lighting fixtures installed atop the poles are Washington® PostLite units from Holophane Corporation. The fixtures are styled to resemble the acorn luminaires that graced many of America’s city streets during the first half of the century. Lamps used are 250 watt, high color rendering, high-pressure sodium.

“An advantage of the Washington Series fixtures is the prismatic glass optical system, which places the light where it is needed—not as glare, but as usable illumination. The fixtures create a warm, uniformly luminated environment,” said Bruce Worthington, City of Chicago, Department of Transportation, Bureau of Highways.

Besides the Washington fixtures, frosted plastic globes with 50-watt HPS lamps were installed near the pole base to illuminate walkways. The globes, provided by Holophane, are supported by tiny blue globes that duplicate the fixtures used in the ‘20s and add a touch of subtle color to the street.

According to Worthington, this is not the first time State Street has undergone a major renovation. In 1958, when American shoppers began their migration to suburbia, the area was “modernized” with space age-type fixtures that replaced the elegant Beaux-Arts lampposts of the ‘20s. Twenty years later, the street was closed entirely to automotive traffic and the sidewalks were widened to 40 feet in some spots. The absence of cars tended to create the impression that the street was deserted—even when the sidewalks were packed with pedestrians.

Store owners who were already distressed by the seeming lack of shoppers were further irritated when a series of boxy Chicago Transit Authority stair and elevator enclosures and bubble-top bus shelters were installed on the sidewalks, obstructing consumers’ view of their establishments. The result was many of the big name retailers eventually moved to other areas.

As part of the most recent renovation, State Street has once again been opened to automobile traffic. Sidewalks have been whittled back to 22 feet, which has had the effect of pushing pedestrians back closer to the storefronts. These changes combined have worked together to create a feeling of the bustle and busyness that was common to State Street decades earlier. Chicago’s city fathers are hoping the crowds will have a snowball effect.

“Crowds tend to attract larger crowds—it’s part of the city’s culture,” Worthington said. “We are hopeful that more shops will attract more customers, which in turn will bring even more shops to the area. While the architecture in the area is certainly interesting, we realize that people ultimately come to a shopping area to shop.”

Worthington admits, however, that State Street still has a ways to go before it can compete with the North Michigan Avenue establishments and suburban mega-malls that continue to draw consumers. But the renovation of this once grand area has begun, and business-owners and entrepreneurs are starting to follow suit by upgrading storefronts and converting other historic buildings.

“The renovation has replicated what was here in the ‘20s and actually improved upon it,” concluded Worthington. “From all indications, this change in visual character has helped put State Street on the road to economic recovery.”

The State Street renovation project was sponsored by the Chicago Department of Transportation in cooperation with the Greater State Street Council. Chief designers were Skidmore, Owings and Merrill of Chicago.


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