For years, the Chicago Skyway’s tollbooth canopies served as gateways to Chicago and northwest Indiana.
They also happened to be eyesores.
Sixty years after the canopies were built, the private company that runs the Skyway on Thursday celebrated the restoration of the canopies to their original streamlined appearance, plus the addition of modern features like easy-to-read digital signage.
“It’s a great combination of preserving our past but ultramodernizing the electronics,” Kirk Dillard, chairman of the Skyway Concession Co., said in a telephone interview. “It was a real challenge to take that structure and put in the new technologies that we have.”
To the likely disappointment of some drivers, however, the project does not include open-road tolling, though Dillard, a former state senator, said the company is exploring how to incorporate that feature in the future.
The 7.8-mile-long Skyway, which links the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, opened in 1958. It is frequently used by Chicago-area residents on their way to and from northwest Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley leased the Skyway in 2005. It is now controlled by three Canadian pension funds and operated by Skway Concession Co.
The Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, best known for its Willis and Trump towers as well as the former John Hancock Center, designed the $7 million, privately financed restoration and modernization project.
Scott Duncan, the Skidmore partner on the project, said the firm wound up working on the tollbooth canopies because a friend of his is on the board of one of the pension funds. “We happened to get talking about it,” Duncan said. “This is not an obvious Skidmore, Owings & Merrill job.”
The work stripped away old cameras, antennas and other attachments that had been added to the canopies.
The canopies are now outfitted with LED lighting and color-coded digital signage that indicates the form of payment accepted in each toll lane.
The original look, evident in neon letters that spell out “Chicago Skyway Toll Bridge” and stainless steel tollbooths, has been retained.
By coincidence, the restoration announcement came up two days before Saturday’s opening of “Modern by Design: Chicago Streamlines America,” an exhibition at the Chicago History Museum.
The exhibition charts how streamlined products, interior designs and graphic designs from Chicago introduced a modern aesthetic to America from the 1930s to the 1950s.
A companion book, “Art Deco Chicago: Designing Modern America,” shows how aerodynamic streamlined forms and the more geometric Art Deco designs of the 1920s influenced everything from skyscrapers to roads and bridges, including overpasses on Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive.
In May, the Skyway Concession Co. said the restoration project would return the toll plaza canopy to its “iconic art-deco design.”
Motorists in two-axle vehicles pay a $5 toll to pass through the Skyway’s gates.
Blair Kamin is a Tribune critic.
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