Earlier this year, as thousands of people poured out of Grant Park after the first night of Lollapalooza, I gave my teenage sister and her friend a simple set of directions back to their Metra station: Take State Street to Madison and turn left to head west.
“There’s a Target at that intersection,” I added, “in case you need a landmark.”
My sister’s friend nodded sagely. “Oh, you mean Goth Target,” she said.
Goth Target. I’d never heard the name before, but I acted like I knew what she was talking about—because in a way, I sort of did. If you’ve ever spent time around the Target in question, maybe you know what I mean. Located just west of Millennium Park on the corner of State and Madison, the historic building—once the headquarters of department store Carson Pirie Scott, and a registered Chicago Landmark since 1975—features a dark, ornate metal facade; Target’s red bullseye logo beams, Sauron-like, from a curved window on the second floor. The juxtaposition is a little jarring, and a little goth.
It’s unclear who originally coined the phrase, but—like most recent internet trends—Goth Target found virality on TikTok, where the hashtag has picked up around eight million views since this summer (fairly modest numbers by TikTok standards, but not a drop in the bucket, either). Scroll through videos bearing the hashtag and you’ll find dozens of clips cataloging TikTokers’ pilgrimages to Goth Target: @doctorbitchcraft2 framing the exterior in a glittery filter, @goldshadowsociety debating whether the building is “evil” or “beautiful,” @swagman3hunna visiting in search of “da goth shorties.” Someone even made a Goth Target jingle to the tune of 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This.”
Not every TikToker is so easily charmed. A handful of videos from self-described Chicagoans express chagrin that people have fixated on an otherwise normal Target location, or object to the use of “goth” as a descriptor for the building (“It’s art nouveau,” one person explained, somewhat snootily).
Actually, Goth Target is neither art nouveau nor gothic, Chicago Architecture Center director of interpretation Adam Rubin tells me—its style is unique to architect Louis Sullivan, who was commissioned for the design in 1899 by the retail firm Schlesinger & Mayer. The building that houses Goth Target, now dubbed the Sullivan Center, features later additions from other architects, but remains most commonly associated with its namesake.
“This is seen as sort of the pinnacle of [Sullivan’s] architecture career in Chicago,” Rubin says. “It’s his last big commission, and shows a lot of his strengths as a practitioner.”
Unlike his peers at the time, Sullivan turned away from European architecture conventions and toward a distinctly American style of design, inspired by naturalistic elements like the Midwestern prairie (much like his protégé, Frank Lloyd Wright). Sullivan also famously coined the principle “form follows function,” dictating that a structure’s design should directly stem from its intended purpose. Goth Target’s huge display windows, its floral ornamentation and its welcoming rotunda entranceway are all hallmarks of Sullivan’s design sensibilities.
So the naysayers are correct: Goth Target is not gothic, architecturally speaking. But sub-culturally speaking—like, goth as in sad teens wearing black, listening to Bauhaus and making melancholic visits to graveyards—Rubin believes TikTokers might be on to something.
“Sullivan was somebody who was effectively, during his time, kind of a goth person,” he says, describing the architect’s late-in-life issues with social isolation, substance abuse and a flagging career. “He doesn’t ever have anything as big as the Carson Pirie Scott building ever again, and he spends a of time writing and publishing essays, talking about his philosophy and how genius it was [and] making these very intricate and beautiful drawings that baffle the mind. But you get the sense that he wasn’t working as much as he wanted, and was put in a position where he had to write and lecture.”
And though Rubin won’t claim Sullivan was trying to excise his personal demons via design, he encourages passersby to take a closer look at Goth Target’s details to get a sense of building’s (and in some ways, Sullivan’s) emotional core.
“You’re seeing vegetation, and flora, and things kind of overgrowing from the ornamentation—it looks like it could be found in an enchanted forest,” Rubin says. “It doesn’t look like all other buildings that have classical columns or stylized geometric shapes, and it kind of plays to your heart. … [This building] isn’t just a product of its time, it’s a product of a deeply personal designer.”
With those qualities in mind, I paid a visit to Goth Target earlier this month and asked a few employees whether they’d heard of the location’s moniker. None of them had, though one told me she’d been wondering why there were so many teenagers hanging out there recently. Another said she’d have to ask her teen daughter. For his part, Rubin says he hopes the nickname sticks around—if only to encourage a new generation of urbanites to interact with local architecture.
“People in the architecture education world are always looking to expand their audiences and find how people want to engage with their cities and the built environment,” Rubin says. “So I admire the TikTok community for taking on the task. I think it’s meaningful. ...And I think everybody should take their conversations about architecture with a little bit of levity.”
If you're interested in learning a bit more about Goth Target’s history, visit the second floor rotunda to check out a series of informational placards that Target’s installed near the windows. Who knows, maybe they’ll add a section about the building’s newfound TikTok fame somewhere down the road.