The Evolution of the South Water Market

A University Commons Building

In 2008 my husband Steven and I moved into our new loft condominium at University Commons. One of the coolest things about being here is that we are living in one of the former South Water Market buildings. There is a lot to learn about the history of our neighborhood and here is a bit about the evolution of the South Water Market that I have read and taken parts from several publications and articles listed on the internet. You can read the full articles in Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory, South Water Market on, and Wikipedia.

During the years preceding the Chicago Fire, commercial activity was heavily concentrated along the banks of the Chicago River, and most business was conducted in the blocks just south of the river’s main branch. Here were commission merchants, insurance companies and brokers of all kinds.

After the 1871 fire many offices that had once been near the river moved farther south into the expanding commercial downtown, and South Water Street (which is presently located just north of Lake St. between Wacker Dr. & Stetson Dr.) became home to the city’s central produce market.  It was fairly accessible to the rail yards, and most of all was backed up to the docks where many incoming vessels could bring fruits and vegetables from the states located around the Great Lakes.  Michigan was a great supplier during the warm months.  Cherries, celery, apples, plums and other fresh commodities were put on boats from Benton Harbor, St. Joe, Ludington, Traverse City and other Michigan port cities and shipped to the South Water Market.

By the turn of the century, reformers and planners, over the objections of some Chicagoans, urged that the gritty and heavily trafficked area be cleared out as an unsightly intrusion to the downtown that created unnecessary congestion in the heart of Chicago and blocked access to the river.  In addition, the market had become too cramped for a city of Chicago’s size.

As part of the building of bi-level Wacker Drive in the mid 1920’s, and the accompanying of a walkway along the riverfront, the city leveled the buildings in this area and moved the wholesale produce business to the new South Water Market which is bounded by Racine Avenue on the west, Morgan Street on the east, 14th Place on the north and the railroad on the south.

I have found references to 2 different architectural firms who designed the structures, B.K. Goodman & Co. and also Fugard & Knapp, but have not been able to confirm if both were involved. To make room for the new South Water Market, deteriorated existing houses were bulldozed in this high crime neighborhood called The Village. (I wonder if University Village might be named for this.)  In 1925, the cost of the approximate 13 acres of land and buildings was around 17 million dollars.  It took 6 months to complete and there were 166 stores or units.  They designed the streets to be 10 feet wide and the alleys 42 feet.  It was expected that the new market would service Chicago well for the next 25 years at least.  Soon it was discovered that the streets were not wide enough and the market became badly crowded.

I recently spoke to my friend and neighbor Jessie Johnson, who has lived in the Barbara Jean Wright homes since they opened in 1973 and asked what she remembered about the neighborhood.  Her immediate recollection was that there were so many trucks coming down Morgan Street it was hard to maneuver around them and the congestion was terrible.

The time came again in the 2003 for the market to move.  The name changed to the Chicago International Produce Market, conveniently located off of Damen and I-55.  It is a state of the art facility and many of the merchants are the third or fourth generations in the family business.

What to do with those 6 buildings now that the market was gone?  It was auctioned off to a few interested developers taking into account all intentions of the 5 highest bidders.

On July 10, 2003, The Chicago Planning Commission granted their approval on the sale of the 78 year old produce market for a cost of approximately 36 million dollars to Enterprise Companies of Chicago.  They were offered the deal because of their intent not to tear it down.  Other bidders had intentions of demolition rather than saving and restoring the terra-cotta facades reminiscent of the acclaimed Wrigley Building, which dates to the same era. Terra-cotta carvings and floral ornaments were cleaned, repaired or replaced by the firm Papageorge/Haynes Ltd, a leading urban residential architecture firm. In 2004 the buildings were placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.

University Commons is a beautifully award-winning landscaped community with 917 units and the home to approximately 1800 residents.

We have a strong University Commons Neighborhood Association (UCNA) and a very active UC Kids Club.  With the close proximity to downtown, UIC and the Medical District we are a great draw.  We’ve seen the neighborhood change since we moved in and look forward to continued improvements.  As I walked over to our Maxwell Street Community garden this morning I couldn’t help but think about what this area used to be like.  I look forward to sharing more with you again.

For some wonderful  pictures please go to  to the links below.  I had a great time looking through all of them.