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All About Michigan Avenue in Chicago

All About Michigan Avenue in Chicago

Michigan Avenue is a major north-south street in Chicago which runs at 100 east on the Chicago grid. The northern end of the street is at Lake Shore Drive on the shore of Lake Michigan in the Gold Coast Historic District. The street’s southern terminus is at Sibley Boulevard in the southern suburb of Harvey, though like many Chicago streets it exists in several disjointed segments.

As the home of the Chicago Water Tower, the Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park, and the high-end shopping on the Magnificent Mile, it is a street well known to Chicago natives as well as tourists to the city. Michigan Avenue also is the main commercial street of Streeterville. It includes all of the Historic Michigan Boulevard District and most of the Michigan–Wacker Historic District, including the scenic urban space anchored by the Michigan Avenue Bridge.

History of the Michigan Avenue

The oldest section of Michigan Avenue is the portion that currently borders Grant Park in the Chicago Loop section of the city. The name came from Lake Michigan, which until 1871 was immediately east of Michigan Avenue. The street at that time ran north to the Chicago river and south to the city limits. Originally, Michigan Avenue was primarily residential, and by the 1860s, large homes and expensive row houses dominated Michigan Avenue.

At no point is Michigan Avenue currently called Michigan Boulevard, but prior to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the street was officially known as Michigan Boulevard and often referred to as “Boul Mich”. But in the 1900-1907 Ads for the Chicago Musical College, the address was referred to as “202 Michigan Boul.” As recently as the 1920s, North Michigan Avenue (especially the Magnificent Mile) was referred to as “Upper Boul Mich”. Paris’s Boulevard Saint-Michel is the original Boul Mich.

In the Great Fire of 1871, all buildings on Michigan Avenue from Congress Street north to the river were destroyed. Immediately after the fire, the character of Michigan remained residential, but the street no longer was directly on the lake shore, as after the Fire, wreckage from the burnt district was used to fill in the inner harbor of Chicago, beginning the landfills that by the 1920s had moved the lake shore more than a quarter-mile east of its original shoreline, creating space for an expanded Grant Park. Beginning in the 1880s, the expansion of the central business district replaced houses on Michigan Avenue so that today, Michigan’s character is primarily commercial north of 35th Street.

The first city showcase on Michigan Avenue was the Exposition Building, which was built on the current site of the Art Institute, the east side of Michigan at Adams, in 1874. By the 1890s, an imposing wall of buildings was constructed on the west side of Michigan Avenue downtown, including the Auditorium Building and the main branch of the Chicago Public Library (now the Chicago Cultural Center). As the east side of Michigan Avenue downtown was developed as a park, the wall of buildings lining the west side of Michigan Avenue across from the park became the nucleus of the city’s skyline.

In 1924, the first traffic lights in Chicago were installed on Michigan Avenue after John D. Hertz fronted the city $34,000 for the purchase, installation, and maintenance.