Chicago Imagebase

The University of Illinois at Chicago has a collection of historical maps, drawings,  and photographs of the city of Chicago pertaining to architecture, urban planning, and the Chicago Fire.

The Chicago Imagebase Project, a core element of the Metropolitan Chicago Infobase Project, was started in 1995 at the Art History Department at UIC. The department began the project in response to a particularly pressing need of most art history departments: the necessity of making available to students for study the images shown as slides in the classroom but not readily available in the textbooks used for the course. In the past this function has been accomplished at most universities by duplicating slides and placing them in locked, illuminated cases accessible to students. Not only was this time consuming and expensive, but it was also inconvenient for many students and the prolonged exposure to light was bad for the slides. Putting slides up on the Web was a very attractive alternative, one that has been pursued by slide libraries around the country.

… Because the Art History Department at UIC is a national leader in the study of the built environment, a subject that brings together the study of architecture, design, landscape, urban photography, etc., they decided to concentrate on images more specifically related to the Chicago area. They also realized that the images could be used for much more than just teaching. An aggressive program of identifying, digitizing and putting on the web visual images of Chicago that were hard to locate or difficult of access- fire insurance and other maps and aerial views, for example, two of the richest sources of information about most cities- could be a powerful tool for scholars and a useful service for the general public.

Fire insurance records have provided historians with much information about Chicago.  The old fire insurance maps have a charm about them you don’t find with modern street maps or heaven forbid, google maps. Imagine handling this map, reminiscent of the maps in Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago:

Also worth looking at are the images of Chicago’s downtown Loop from the late ’70s to the early ’90’s photographed by Bob Thall.


It’s unfortunate that the website isn’t linkable–everything is in a format that is accessed from the table of contents, so you can’t bookmark or link to a particular page, but the table of contents makes it fairly easy to navigate the site.

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